Lager brewers know the pain: how on earth do I keep my wort around 50-54F while fermenting?

For years I used a large plastic tub, which I filled with water and placed the fermenter in it. Then I used frozen blue icepacks to hit the required temperature. It was not pretty. Lucky brewers have a spare fridge and a temperature control unit. Others have given up on exact temp control and ferment their lagers in the 60ies. But there is help!

What is it?

IMG_2109.jpgBrewjacket promises to keep your fermenter up to 35F below the ambient air temperature and that in an exact manner. So how do they do it? According to their website this is how it works:

“At the heart of Immersion is a patented solid state cooling system. Solid state cooling technology relies on dissimilar metals joined in circuit within a microchip. When an electrical current is passed through the metals, heat is moved. The result is an instantaneous transfer of an enormous amount of heat.”

What that comes down to is a massive rod that is immersed in your fermenting wort. Is is attached to a head unit that is located above the fermenter. The head unit contains something that looks like a heat sink and a fan. When it is plugged in, a control board lets the user dial in the temperature and through the heatsink and the fan, heat is drawn out of the beer.

A separate thermometer cable is attached to the fermenter or is placed, through a thermowell, in the wort. It tells the fan when the desired temperature is reached and it turns off. The system  is supported by an insulated jacket that envelops the fermenter and helps keeping the temperature stable.

What do you get?

I was sick and tired of shlepping blue ice blocks, so my wonderful wife bought me a unit for Christmas 2016. To set up the system one needs a head unit, AC adapter, thermometer cable, the rod, and then – depending on the fermenter –  the right tools to seal the unit.

Brewjacket supports several type of fermenters. I opted for a Better Bottle, which needed to come pre-drilled with a hole in the neck. The bottle came with a nipple that would go into that hole and has a blow off tube attached. It became quickly apparent that I was not able to use a bubbler with that setup.

Does it work?

In one word: yes. My first lager turned out fabulous. The unit cooled the beer from 70F to 52F within 48 hrs. Now here comes the warning. It is slow to cool or heat. Your wort must be close to the desired temperature when you start the unit, if you want to see results soon.

According to Brewjacket the unit cools 1F per hr for the first 10F below ambient, then 0.5F/hr for the next 10F below ambient, and finally 0.25 fr the next 10 to 15F below ambient. It worked great for me. It cooled an kept my fermenting baby at 52F.

Along came the failure 

I did not brew much in 2017. Only four beers in all, but the Brewjacket worked. My fifth beer with the Brewjacket happened in 2018. It started out fine. My Pilsner was chugging along at 53F. Then after two weeks, the temperature suddenly rose to 64F. And then 68IMG_2110.jpgF. I turned the unit off and on again. No change.

I contacted Brewjacket and that is where the problems began. I told them that I knew that it would be out of warranty, but asked if a warranty repair was possible, since it has lasted for only 4 brew cycles. When I sent the email, the automated return mail promised a response within 24hrs. That didn’t happen, but I got a reply after 48 hrs. I was asked to submit pictures of my setup to a different address, which I did. And then the waiting game began. 

After a week I started sending reminder emails.  Answers first came not at all, and then very sparingly. What it boiled down to, was that the Brewjacket support was convinced that the insulation in the fermenter cover was doubled over and was not covering the entire fermenter. I checked, and lo and behold it was doubled over. It was sent this way and I thought that this was what is was supposed to look like. 

I unfolded the insulation and argued that this couldn’t be the problem, because I had already fermented four beers successfully with the folded insulation. With the guidance from support I ran some more tests and the head unit still didn’t cool. Finally, support sent an email that I was right, the unit had failed, but that I was out of warranty and just should order the failed part.

The Price

And here comes my main sticking point: an entire unit without the fermenter costs $299 plus shipping. That should last longer than four fermentations. I gave them another chance and ordered the failed headunit, just the bottom, not the control board, for a whopping $150! If that one fails whithin a short time, I am dropping Brewjacket. 

Conclusion

Should you buy it? Difficult to say. When it works, it is fantastic. It’s expensive, but fermenting a beer is as easy as plugging it in and dialing the temperature. If you are sick of your current lager fermenting system and you have $300 dollars lying around, go for it. But use it often within the warranty period, to see how it holds up.

And be prepared for a very tiring support process.

IMG_2107.jpg

Headunit with rod

IMG_2108.jpg

Headunit and control board disassembled

Update

I received my headunit part. Taking the control board off the failed unit and putting it on the new unit was painless. I will test the repaired brew jacket with a Lemongrass Luau recipe shortly.

Advertisements