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Brewjacket Immersion Pro – Great When It Works

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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.

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Headunit with rod

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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.

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The Bitterness Wars

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When you read a magazine, evaluating what to brew next, what are you looking for? Are you jumping right to the style? Is difficulty a factor? Adjuncts? From the beginning of my homebrewing life (early 2012), one factor has overshadowed every recipe decision for me: IBUs and the resulting  bitterness.

I don’t know, if I am more sensible to bitterness in beer than other people, but excessively bitter beers are just not drinkable to me. And I brew what I like to drink. Here is an important distinction: hoppiness is not equal to bitterness. Hoppiness describes the hop aromas and flavors, imparted to the wort by the hops added late in the boil, at flameout, or in dry-hopping.  Bitterness is –  well –  the taste of tar and soil and rocket fuel on your tongue when you force down that IPA that the hipster type at the bar described as a “revelation and a challenge at the same time”.

I am perfectly fine with hoppy. I am not fine with bitter. I can deal with certain bitterness, but I am turned off by anything swings toward the dark side of the malty-bitter balance. Some time ago it was discovered that a gene is responsible, if a person tastes broccoli as bitter or not. Maybe the same is true for beer; maybe some drinkers perceive the bitterness less because of a genetic trait. That doesn’t change the fact that I prefer malty beers, and sometimes the IPA trend frustrates me.

Bars, pubs, and restaurants are proudly carrying whole shelves of IPAs, drowning out malt balanced options. Beer magazines have caught on and are riding the wave. Sometimes I can read really quickly through an issue of Brew Your Own by ignoring all IPA centered articles and recipes. As isolated as I sometimes feel with my taste, I am not alone.

What’s in a name

IPA, or India Pale Ale, got his name from its destination. It was brewed in England and exported to India, and later to other colonies including the Americas. Differing accounts exist about the strength of the early IPAs, but there is consent that it was strongly hopped, to survive the long sea voyage across the world.

In the US the Prohibition was the great brewing inhibitor. Brewing styles and recipes fell by the wayside and after America started drinking again, lagers dominated. It were the smaller breweries in the 1970ies that revived long neglected styles, among them the IPA.

Over the top

The rest is history. The IPA is now more successful than it ever was. But is it too successful? Is it now pushing other beerstyles from their well deserved spotlight? There are nuances, of course, and every IPA is not the same. There are some that I can drink, but I haven’t found one I actually enjoy. And isn’t enjoyment the point of drinking beer?

Again, I am not begrudging hop heads their fun, but I am pleading to not forget about the beer lovers, who just don’t like beer past a certain level of bitterness. On reddit I found proof that I am not alone, as evidenced by this post:

Poster Maltinger writes

I get it! Some people like bitter beers! Good for you! But does that mean that 3/4 of the table in some pubs have to be IPAs?

Other blogs and publications have sounded the same horn, but their voices are few and far in between. Tastes are changing, and that is where my hope resides. If tastes can swing to more bitter beers, they can swing back as well. Hopefully the chase for 100+ is a just what it is now, a craze that will eventually pass.

One can always hope.

Fermentis Saflager W34/70 Dry Yeast – Death, Taxes, And Fermentation

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Few things are certain in life, and two of them are death and taxes. Thanks to Saflager W34/70 dry yeast from Fermentis, there is a third one. For me, this yeast never failed to show signs of fermentation within 24 hrs. I have directly pitched it and rehydrated it, and it always performed quickly and vigorously.

It is a Weihenstephan strain with an ideal fermentation temperature range from 53F to 59F, high flocculation and medium alcohol tolerance. I would recommend it primarily for malty European lagers. but there is one caveat:

Direct pitching makes using this yeast very easy, but it likes to be pitched warm 73F +/- 6F. If you want to cool the wort first and then bring it up to fermentation temperature, I would rehydrate the yeast. I did that when brewing my Traditional Bock, and the yeast started within 24hrs, but fermented not as vigorous as I have seen before.

It produces a very malty, clean flavor that you want in a European Lager. Use Mr Malty’s pitch calculator to determine how many 11.5 sachets need to be pitched.

The Trouble With Trub

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Many homebrewers know this scenario:

The wort is in the settling tank and solids are precipitating out and sinking to the bottom. The layer on the bottom becomes thicker and thicker and one starts to calculate how much product will be lost when the wort is transferred.

And then then the spout is opened and the  liquid level drops and drops until it reaches the layer and the wort becomes cloudy. Yet it takes some self discipline to close the spout and leave the rest of the wort in the settling tank.

Enter the Sediment Blocker Spigot (bought at www.morebeer.com). It’s inlet screw has a half moon opening. The lower (closed) half is supposed to hold back the trub and only the clear liquid passes through the (open) upper half. So far the theory.

 

How does it perform?

I used the Sediment Blocker Spigot recently when I brewed my Traditional Bock. The sediment layer was 1.5 inches thick and I was curious how far I would be able to to decant the wort off the trub.

Installation was a breeze. The spout uses the standard bucket holes. Caveat –  it only comes with one rubber grommet. I was not quite clear if I should install it on the inside or outside, so I poached a grommet off another spout and installed one inside and one outside.

The spigot performed beautifully.

I decanted the wort off the sediment until only an imperceptible layer above the trub was left. The wort stayed clear until almost the very end. However, I could imagine that the performance depends on the thickness of the trub layer –  the thicker the trub, the more useful the spigot should be.

WLP802 Czech Budejovice Lager Yeast – Slow Does The Trick

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White Labs produces Lager yeasts with nice malty profiles and WLP802 Czech Budejovice is one of them. As you can probably suspect from the name, it is best suited for Czech lagers. According to White Labs’ webpage, the yeast attenuates at 75-80% and ranks medium in both, flocculation and alcohol tolerance. The optimum fermentation temperature is between 50F and 55F (http://www.whitelabs.com/yeast/wlp802-czech-budejovice-lager-yeast)

The Good

This yeast has never failed me. It tears through a wort in roughly a week and leaves behind a fairly clean, very malty lager. Even without a starter, it never failed to eat the sugars I threw at it.

The Bad

Without a starter, it can be a bit nerve wrecking, because WLP802 takes it own sweet time to get things going. I am averaging between 48 and 60 hrs before I see activity in the fermenter.

Conclusion

For a malty Bohemian lager I can recommend WLP802 any time. Just remind yourself  that Czech Budejovice is a workhorse, but not a race horse.

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