Home Brewery Automation

In my opinion, one of the coolest aspects of home brewing is that it can be as simple or as complex as the brewer wants to make it. The simplest home breweries consist of a couple buckets and a large pot. The most complex home breweries are miniature versions of commercial breweries and can rival them in complexity and cost! My first home brewery was the former and I made plenty of great beer with that setup; I even won a few awards. The bottom line is home brewing doesn’t have to hinge on a big shiny stainless steel system; equally fantastic beer can be made either way. Sanitation, the freshest ingredients and a solid understanding of the brewing process is much more important.

So if a complex automated system isn’t going to make your beer any better, why bother with it all? For a lot of home brewers, myself included, building your own home brewery and then tinkering with it is almost a bigger hobby than brewing the beer. The fact that it just happens to produce outstanding beer is just a happy coincidence. The scope of this document isn’t to provide the specific how to automate a home brewery so much as why you might want to and the most popular options available to do so. There are literally volumes of information generously donated by other home brewers on how they automated their home brewery. This article is designed to be a primer so that when you come across buzz words like “digital hot liquor”, “Ranco” or “PID”, etc you can put it into context and gain more from those articles.

So Why Automate a Home Brewery Then?

There are two primary reasons you might want to automate your home brewery. First is consistency; the addition of electronic monitoring and control to your home brewery will give you a fair amount of consistency and repeatability. The second is shortening the brew day with what I call the “Assistant Brewer” factor. Having an electronic device keep an eye on temperatures and levels for you can speed up the brew day by giving you some time to clean up as you go and speed up the in between steps. A secondary (but no less important) reason is the whole “Bling Factor”. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t rather drive a BMW than a Yugo?! A home brewery with an incredible control panel is really nothing less than awe inspiring.

Levels of Automation

So where to start? The simplest level of automation and probably the most bang for the buck is a simple single-set-point temperature controller via a Ranco ETC, Johnson A419, Love or generic PID controller for your hot liquor tank (HLT). This allows you to dial your HLT to a set temperature and forget it. The temperature controller monitors the HLT temp and opens a gas valve or turns on a heating element based on that set point. You’ll need a gas valve and pilot light or igniter or a Solid State Relay (SSR) to control the actual heat source but I liken it to telling a brew buddy to “Watch this thermometer and make sure it stays at 170*.” This becomes even more important if you have any sort of HERMS or recirculation type system that is pulling heat from the HLT. MoreBeer(r) calls this their Digital Hot Liquor Tank and gets several hundred dollars for this type of automation when purchased with one of their Brew Sculptures.

The second most common addition is mash temperature control. as many ways as there are to skin a cat there are to add this option but most people go with a HERMS or RIMS based system. In depth description of these two methodologies is beyond the scope of this article but in a nutshell a RIMS systems recalculates your mash across a heat source, usually a stand-alone heating element or burner, to maintain mash temperate and a HERMS (or SMART as long as we’re citing More Beer) is recirculating your mash through a heat source, usually a coil of copper or stainless steel in your HLT. This typically consists of monitoring the mash temperature and controlling a pump and/or the heat source. Another method that is gaining popularity is continually recirculating your wort with a pump and directly firing a burner under the mash tun to increase the heat.

There are a few home brewing dedicated devices available on the market as well. These devices can monitor and control various different aspects of your home brewery and provide various levels of automation. The two most popular that I’m aware of are the Embedded Control Concepts BCS-460 and the BrewTroller project. The BrewTroller is unique in that it is an open source project based on off-the-shelf components.

OK, So how does this all work with a home brewery?

Simple feedback devices.

The first devices mentioned above are all simple feedback devices. They monitor a single input source and then act on it. They cannot interact with each other or other devices but multiples of them can be used together to control various aspects of your brewery. These consist of Ranco ETC Series controllers, Johnson A419, Love Controllers and the various PID controllers on the market. Regardless on their individual sophistication, their purpose is singular: they monitor a single set point and react accordingly. The more sophisticated might be two stage where they react to both a high and low set point or in the case of a PID they have a sophisticated algorithm that adjusts the output as they approach the set point but the result is the same. You basically tell it to “do this until this” or “turn on the heat until it hits 170*” These devices are very effective for single causes and work really well if all you want to do is control 1 or 2 aspects of your brewery. There are two commercially available systems that use this technology. The More Beer Brew Sculptures have varying degrees of this technology as does the Sabco Brewmagic system.

Pros:

  • Very simple to operate
  • Ease of programming
  • Slight learning curve
  • Simple installation: Some plug and play models available
  • Accurate and reliable under almost all circumstances
  • Inexpensive if single channel monitoring is all that’s required.

Cons:

  • Can’t communicate with other devices or channels
  • Single channel, simple yes/no operation
  • Several are required for multiple operations and expense can grow quickly.
  • They cannot log data for review.
  • Not purpose built. Limited program.

Interactive devices

While this is a broader category, there are still only two commercially available solutions I’m aware of; the BrewTroller and the Embedded Control Concepts BCS-460. these devices are purpose-built for the home brewing market and therefore have a lot of very specific features with the home brewer in mind. While they can accomplish the same net result they are wildly different devices and have, in my opinion, very different users in mind. I would compare the BCS-460 to the BrewTroller like the top-of-he-line off-the-shelf PC running the latest proven software versus a Nerd-designed, purpose-built PC with components and software specifically selected and matched for the job.

These devices allow interaction amongst the channels they are monitoring. I call it the “but” factor or if you ever took a programming class it’s the ‘then’ factor. A bank of several Simple Feedback devices will all operate completely independent of one another as mentioned above. These Interactive Devices, however, can take into consideration the reading from other channels and create a more unified system. So instead of just “do this until this” they can “do this until this, but if this does this, then do this” Confused? If you wanted to control your mash temp, a Simple Feedback controller could monitor the mash temp and then either control a pump to recirculate the wort or it could control a burner to heat the mash and/or HLT. An Interactive device could monitor the mash temperature and then control both the pump AND the burner! Further it could continue to control the pump and cut the burner at a certain point. Either way, it offers more refined control.

The BCS-460 is basically a direct replacement for up to four Ranco/Johnson/Love/PID controllers and the savings multiply based on how many controllers you might otherwise want/need. This is an embedded device, much like your router or modem and has its own interface. it’s Ethernet capable out of the box and requires a computer to change settings or read parameters. The interface is what you expect from an embedded device; a web page that is nothing short of spectacular and very easy to use. There are even iPhone/iTouch apps available to control it. They just recently released support for expansion boards to increase the number of outputs. From Adam at Embedded Control Concepts:

  • (6) PID, on/off, Differential, or variable Duty Cycle controlled heat/cool Outputs.
  • (48) on/off outputs for Pumps, Valves, etc. (using 4 optional Digi16 expansion boards)
  • (4) inputs for float switches, etc. (and an additional 16 with optional Digi16 expansion boards)
  • (4) Temperature Sensors
  • Onboard Data Logging with interactive charts.
  • Save/Restore multiple configurations using config files.
  • Browser interface with remote monitoring/control support.
  • Flexible State Machine online interface for on-the-fly updates and modifications of programming.

For the more adventurous brewer looking for a more robust level of control, there is the BrewTroller. The BrewTroller is an Open Source brewing microcomputer based on the Sanguino microcontroller. It comes in a kit form and requires a lot of DIY. All your work will be handsomely rewarded though as the BrewTroller has an incredible array of features including an AutoBrew mode and a FermTroller routine for fermentation control. With the addition of level control pressure sensors the BrewTroller allows you to get as close as possible to push-button brewing. The BrewTroller just recently moved from a ‘beta’ version of hardware to a commercially produced board using quite a bit of SMT technology. From the Brewtroller website:

  • (4) PID or On/Off controlled heat outputs (HLT, Mash, Kettle and Steam Heat for support of steam infusion mashes)
  • (32) Pump and Valve On/Off outputs (Using up to 4 optional MUX boards providing 8 outputs each)
  • (6) Temperature sensors (HLT, Mash, Kettle, CFC H2O IN, CFC H2O Out and CFC Beer Out)
  • (3) Optional Volume sensors (pressure transducers) used to measure HLT, Mash and Kettle volume (currently being tested)
  • (1) Optional Steam Pressure sensor for controlling steam heat
  • Simple encoder input providing iPod like controls (rotate left, rotate right, click for enter, click and hold for cancel)
  • 20 column, 4 row backlit LCD character display

The BrewTroller is modular and you can add is many or as few features as you want. While you don’t need to know how to write code to use a BrewTroller, you will need to be comfortable poking around in code. Much of the initial configuration such as configuring for gas or electric etc is done at the code level by commenting certain routines in or out. You then upload the code to the controller. It’s not difficult and there is a lot of support for the BrewTroller forum community but it is something to consider. All of the BCS-460 configuration is done through the web interface.

Conclusion

If you are only interested in adding very simple automation such as HLT control, any one of the simple feedback devices such as the Ranco ETC, Johnson A419 or LOVE controllers will be the simplest and most economical installation and upgrade. If you think you may ever want a higher level of automation and control, then look into either the BCS-460 or the BrewTroller. Both of these units are gaining in user base and both have great support in the form of user forums. If you are not much of an experimenter, then the BCS-460 is probably a better choice for you. If you’re more of the tinkering type and like the thought of nearly endless control possibilities then the BrewTroller would be a good choice. Either way, it’s hard to go wrong with either of them.

Cheers,

Derrin

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