Moving On Up

Last week I wrote about outgrowing the very basic system we started homebrewing on two years ago, and feeling the need to spread my wings. But deciding to scale up is only the first decision. How to go about it can get complicated.

Many homebrewers start adding equipment piece by piece. A wort chiller, used to cool boiling wort, is a desirable early addition. MoreBeer! sells models ranging from $60 to $270.  Then there are the DIYers like my neighbor Danny, who built his copper immersion chiller for about $30, or fellow Redwood Coast Brewers Association member, Jim, who has built all sorts of brewing equipment.

RCBA members Jim and John with Jim's DIY one-vessel system and copper wort chiller. Jim has since scaled up.

RCBA members Jim and John with Jim’s DIY one-vessel system and copper wort chiller. Jim has since scaled up.

Unfortunately, I’m not a DIYer or a 30-year-old weightlifter. I can’t haul heavy pots of steaming wort. A gravity flow system or a pump ($100 and up) was mandatory. And I wanted a serious brewing kettle with a thermometer, welded-in couplers, etc., starting price around $300. I preferred a 3-vessel system (hot liquor tank, mash tun and brewing kettle). And a system on wheels would be nice.

I went to Duane Shimabukuro, owner of our local homebrewing supply store, Bottoms Up. Duane grabbed a pad and pencil and started firing questions. Immersion or counter flow wort chiller? Copper or stainless steel? Ten minutes later, the ballpark figure was topping $900.

The November Brew Your Own magazine arrived with a twelve-page article on electric brewing systems that concluded with a graph comparison of 17 electric systems. I’ve probably never studied any article so closely.

Brew Your Own electric systems comparison

Brew Your Own electric systems comparison

I started leaning toward the fairly automated $890 Grainfather. My husband the commercial brewer was all for it, reminding me that I wasn’t getting any younger and that, down the road, I’d probably want to cut out some of the grunt work. I consulted homebrewers like Matthew Sligar, of Writers Block Brewing, who concurred with Hugo.

Since the Grainfather’s price was the same, no matter who I bought it from, I went back to Duane, who could order it wholesale and pocket a few bucks. Last Wednesday, Duane wheeled the heavy box out to my car while I carried the ingredients for the inaugural brew I’d chosen—a Deschutes Mirror Pond clone recipe in the December Brew Your Own. With tax and ingredients, the total came in at a nice, neat $999.05.

Oh, the excitement!

Oh, the excitement!

The next morning, I could hardly contain my excitement as Hugo and I unpacked and assembled the 43 parts in the box. When we were wrapping up, Hugo said, “You know, commercial breweries do a practice run with water.”

I didn’t want to hear that. It was already Thursday and we didn’t have time for practice runs! We needed at least a week to brew, ferment, dry hop and bottle. Friday and Saturday were full of activities, and we were going out of town for Thanksgiving week. Besides, I wanted to brew on my brand new Grainfather NOW.

But Hugo was right. On the back patio, with a few gallons of water in the boiler body and the instruction manual nearby, we slowly worked our way through a simulation, noting wrinkles in our process, improving on what didn’t work as smoothly as we wanted. This was absolutely the way to go.

A beautiful day for brewing

A beautiful system and a beautiful day for brewing

On Friday, we rearranged our schedules to brew between other activities. We were still slow, still tweaking how to do things, but I have to say, the Grainfather is a fantastic system. The steady temperature during mashing, the smooth lautering, the quiet pump and the wonderful aromas that would draw any passing homebrewers to peek over the gate are all just awesome. For the homebrewers reading this, our post-mash gravity reading indicated a high efficiency. We did find reaching boil was much slower than anticipated (almost one hour), but everything was looking really good by the time we got to chilling the wort. It was dusk and we were tired, but we didn’t have much longer. Adrenaline and optimism would carry us through.

(Note: Due to darkness and grumpy brewers, there are no photos from here on.)

Then the fancy counter flow wort chiller got plugged. While Hugo fiddled with things, I read the manual by the light on my phone. Hugo was soon running into the kitchen with the ball and spring in between two safety valves on the discharge pipe, both plugged with hop particles.

Fast forward 45 minutes and half a dozen trips indoors to wash clogged parts. As we once again watched the chiller plug up, Hugo declared we’d transfer the wort to the old boiling pot, reboil it on the stove to kill any bacteria and cool it in the sink with ice.

Mind you, 5 gallons of wort weighs 40+ pounds. I stood aside as my guy gallantly hefted the pot up several stairs and indoors. He gave a final grunt as he hoisted it up and onto the stove. Except that he didn’t make it quite high enough.

I stared in mute disbelief as sticky-sweet wort poured over the stove, the kitchen counters and the floor. After a weird silence, Hugo murmured, “That’s it,” turned toward the sink, and poured the remains of $33-worth of ingredients and 4½ hours or work down the drain.

Watching that wort disappear into the drain will rank as one of the unforgettable moments in our 38 years of marriage—and not in a good way. We spent the next 45 minutes cleaning up, mostly in silence, mopping and remopping and remopping the sticky floor.

When we poured out about a half-gallon of trub (sediment) still in the Grainfather boiler body, the silicone stopper that goes on the pump filter came out with it. We’re still working on how it came off, but it certainly explained our problems. We know we’ll put our hop pellets in a bag for the next brew to reduce loose particles. We’ve learned from some online sites that other homebrewers have had this problem.

We know we’re going to master our Grainfather and that we’re going to make some awesome beers. It’s just going to be a while before that happens. After Thanksgiving and 2½ weeks of business trips for Hugo and Christmas activities and blah, blah, we’ll rebrew that Deschutes Mirror Pond clone.

For now, we’re already starting to laugh a little about our first all-grain homebrew. And next week when we’re in Portland, we plan to visit Deschutes for a couple of pints of the real Mirror Pond.


  1. Jim Dougherty says:

    Thanks for the story of your first brew in your Grainfather. I’m sorry that it did not turn out the way you hoped it would, but sometimes brewing goes wrong. Anyway, I’m glad you still have enthusiasm for perfecting your system and brewing some good homebrew. As Charlie Papazian often said in The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, “Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.”

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Hah, Jim, you and Charlie are exactly right! Thanks for being one of the homebrewers who expressed a helpful opinion while I was trying to decide how to make the jump to all-grain–and for reading “Not My Father’s Beer”!

  2. Christina Sierra-Jones says:

    I appreciate your openness and willingness to share when and how things do not go as planned. I look forward to hopefully seeing your Grainfather in action some day.

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Thanks for reading and for your comment, Christina. While the mess was all too real, the retelling is getting a little funnier each time. I’m actually looking forward to our next Grainfather brew.

  3. Ah that’s a rough start. But I must say I have not heard anyone else with such a rough start and I have sold close to 2 dozen of these. And I use one! Keep at it…you will learn a lot of tricks. I love it and so do my customers.

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Thanks for your encouragement, Rudy. I really did a good bit of research before purchasing my Grainfather and saw a lot of comments like yours. I really am looking forward to our next Grainfather brew!

  4. I can almost feel your body shaking with excitement as you opened up your new Grainfather, Leslie. It didn’t surprise me one bit that you couldn’t wait until after Thanksgiving to get this process started. Just sorry the first run wasn’t as successful as you dreamed. Thank you for sharing what may become one of your fondest brewing memories. You and Hugo will make a formidable team ?.

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Hi Bonita, thanks for reading the post. This brew will definitely go down as unforgettable. We’re already laughing about it (a little bit, at least).

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