Troubleshooting Your Robobrew
These days, whether you’re just getting into homebrewing or you’ve been brewing for years, it’s no secret that one of the best and most cost effective ways to brew is with an all in one electric system. There are quite a few out there, now, and they all work in a very similar way. Whether you’ve got a Grainfather, Robobrew / Brewzilla, Mash & Boil or another brand, we’ve noticed many similarities in how they operate, and figured out some tips and tricks to help you have a smoother brew day and nail the beer that you’re trying to make! This week we’ll talk water volumes, un-sticking the mash and/or sparge, and throw out some other fun tips we’ve learned!
If you’re used to a gas burner, you’re in for a surprise when it comes to boil off in your electric system. You’re not dealing with quite as much heat, so boil off ends up being A LOT less. For us, we go back and forth between our half barrel system, which uses a 25 gallon pot with a 220,000 btu propane under it, and the Robobrew, so calculating water is a must.
On the big system, we’re dealing with a 20% plus boil off rate, which is kind of insane. Our big kettle is short and fat, so lots more surface plus tons of heat makes for big boil off. On these all in one electric systems, though, you’re not dealing with nearly as much heat of surface area, so boil off is a lot closer to 5%. We’ve found that a pre-boil gravity that seems to be perfect for us is 6.5 gallons, or just above the 6.5 gallon mark. This makes us finish with 5.5 gallons to pump to the fermenter, with a little extra left in the kettle.
To nail your water volumes, and therefore your gravity and the beer you want to make, there are two things you can do to prepare. First and foremost, throw a gallon of water in the bottom of your system. Turn the pump on and pump the water back out until it stops. If you’re using a model that doesn’t have a pump, do the same thing, but open the ball valve until no more comes out. Once you’re there, pour the water back out of the unit and into your Bucket Fermenter or whatever you use to measure your water. That amount goes right on top of your sparge water volume calculations as system losses.
The other thing that you can do is completely calculate all of your brew day water. We use Ray Daniels calculations from Designing Great Beers because they are easy, consistent, and honestly brilliant. He thought of everything, and it’s all right there. For an easy to read, plain english breakdown of the water calculations, check out our Pocket Guide to All Grain Brewing. This guide is not only what we use for brewing, it’s the guide we give out at our All Grain BrewWorkshops and give to new brewers with any process questions. The water equation is broken down and explained with lots of step by step examples.
If you’ve had mash re-circulation and sparging issues, you are not alone! Sometimes it seems like every I load the grain basket, it sticks almost immediately. Stuck mashes suck. One of the reasons these electric systems are so efficient, much more so than Brew-In-A-Bag even though they’re basically the same concept, is because you have consistent heat control and a re-circulating mash to make sure there’s plenty of enzyme movement through the grain. So how do we fix it when it sticks?!
First and foremost, we use about half a pound of Rice Hulls in every recipe. They’re cheap insurance, and they help a lot. The best part? You can mix more in at any time during the mash or before you sparge.
Once you get mashed in and you’ve broken up all of the dough balls, but BEFORE you add the top re-circ screen (if your model has one), fire up the pump and close the ball valve on the re-circ arm so that you’re letting through about 25% of the wort. Try to make sure that you’re evenly distributing the wort over the grain bed, especially if you don’t have an inch or two of wort over the actual grains.
You’ll notice pretty fast if your mash is going to stick. As soon as the wort starts coming out clear, the volume will start creeping up until it’s above the center tube, and will barely move down when you turn the pump off to let the excess drain through. If this happens, turn the pump off and grab your mash paddle and start mixing up the mash again. Do your best to keep the grain inside the mash bucket, but mix everything up really well, and pay special attention to the bottom screen, scraping up any grains that might have suctioned down because of the pressure of the pump pulling.
Once the mash is all mixed up again, turn your pump back on at around 25%, and re-circ again! When you see that your wort is clear and it’s moving through the mash, put your top screen on and let it mash! We’ll usually turn the pump up a little bit here, but usually not to 100%. Just as long as all of the liquid is actively moving through the grain bed, we’re happy. It doesn’t have to be full blast, it just needs to be consistent.
This method of resetting the grain bed usually gets it unstuck the first time around, but every once in a while, like with a super high wheat Hef recipe, or our Rye-licious recipe, it can take 2 or even 3 tries before you get the mash moved around enough to where it sits right and the wort can flow. After the first try, I’ll start adding handfuls of rice hulls to help get the grain bed properly set.
Also, don’t worry about moving the grain bed around. Just as long as your mash temp isn’t above 168°, which it should never be, you don’t have to worry about pulling tannins off of the grain husks and messing up your beer. If you think about it, many commercial systems use Mash Rakes when they mash, which consistently stirs the grain throughout solution for the entire mash.
Stuck Sparge? Rinse and Repeat!
The process for un-sticking the sparge is pretty much the same. If you lift the grain basket and all you hear is a trickle, don’t be afraid to put it back in the kettle, pull the top screen, toss in a handful or two of rice hulls, stir things up, and give the bottom screen a good scrape.
Remember, though, it’s important to reset the grain bed using your pump (or the ball valve if it’s a pump-less model) before you lift it out and start your sparge over. This will pull all of the super small particulate matter through and deposit it on top, leaving it behind in the mash basket so that you don’t have a ton of extra stuff floating around during the boil.
From here, now that you know wort is flowing properly through the mash, you can raise the temp on your system so that it starts working it’s way towards a boil while you rinse all that sugar out of the grain.
Get a Sparge Water Heater
Once you get to the boil, it’s pretty smooth sailing, especially now that you never have to be afraid of a stuck mash again! Another piece of equipment that makes your life super easy on brew day is the Grainfather Sparge Water Heater. This makes heating up your water and sparging a whole lot easier, especially if you don’t already have another pot and burner. Instead of trying to heat your biggest stock pot on the stove and trying to pour it over, you can just plug this in, put your sparge water volume in it, and flip it on. When the mash is over, you’ll be ready to rock and roll.
Use the Distillation Clips
Another really helpful and convenient tool is a Stainless Steel Hop Spider. It keeps your hops in the boil and contained at the same time, and at least on the Robobrew Brewzilla and the Grainfather, you can clip it in place with the distillation clips. This keeps it at the perfect height, keeps it snug against the kettle wall, and puts it in just the right place so that you can recirculate right through it! It can hold about 11 oz of pellet hops, so unless you’ve got a pound of hops going in between the boil and whirlpool/flameout additions, it’s just about the right size for most big IPA’s and Pale Ales.
We also use the distillation clips to hold our recirc hose in place. This way, it’s not just going straight into the wort, but pushing at an angle and creating a whirlpool. This makes it so that you can maximize the effectiveness of your Whirlfloc or Irish Moss and put clearer beer into the fermenter.
A whirlpool will also move the wort around the Immersion Chiller, increasing the maximum contact area and cutting down significantly how long it takes to chill your wort. When we cool the wort down to add whirlpool hops, because of the bigger chiller and the whirlpool running, it only takes about 2 minutes to get from a boil to 180° F!
Maximizing Whirlpool Hop Extraction
Speaking of whirlpool hops, we absolutely LOVE this system for whirlpool additions. As I said, it only takes a couple of quick minutes to cool the wort to 180° F, then we cut the cooling water and throw our hops in the Hop Spider with the recirculation arm pointed right at them for max extraction. Instead of turning the heating elements off, we reset the temperature to 170° F to make sure that our temperature stays in the perfect heat extraction zone, and it makes a big difference in our hoppy beers.
Clean In Place Like a Boss
Even though these systems are pretty easy to clean, every few batches it’s good to really get in there and do a longer, deeper CIP (Clean In Place) cleaning. For this, if you can rig up a Spray Ball, you’ll be happy you did! A really easy way to do it is by using a Siphon Spray Wort Aerator. It already fits perfectly into the 3/8 inch silicone tubing that comes with the system, and the re-circ arm is already set up, so all you have to do is add PBW and warm water, and let it run!
This makes getting any burnt proteins off of the bottom super easy, and cleans out your pump and re-circ arm at the same time. We’ll let it run for 20 or so minutes with the grain basket inside, then another 20 with the grain basket pulled out, then wipe everything off and pump clean rinse water through, and it keeps the unit running smoothly and keeps any surprises making it into the next batch!
Thank you for reading! Hopefully these tips and tricks that we’ve learned over the years will help you with your electric all in one system. If you have any tips that you’ve developed, let everyone know in the comments below and let’s share some knowledge so everyone can brew better!Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where we post all about our experiments, recipes and projects! Like and Subscribe on BrewChatter TV on YouTube, and check out all of our fun, informative and helpful homebrew videos and more! Brew On!!