Sunday, February 17, 2013

Brewing Automation: Brewtroller DX1 Vs BCS 460

When deciding how to automate I had a choice to make between Open Source Control Systems Opentroller/Brewtroller DX1 and the BCS 460 from Embedded Control Concepts. I ended up going with the brewtroller for one main reason. The ability to measure volume. I was so geeked about that fact that I may have overlooked other pros and cons of both of these controllers.

I have now owned and used both of these controllers, and here are my thoughts.

Opentroller / Brewtroller DX1

I picked up the DX1 in late August 2012. We wired everything up, and used an old metal CD holder for the case. The DX1 is made up of a number of parts besides the main controller. Putting those parts together was no big deal. Getting outputs and temp sensors to work was more difficult. Accessing the code and setting up outputs is all done by hooking the DX1 to a computer and uploading them through software that can be found on the OSCS site.

Getting everything functioning took a few trys and I had to seek out help online or from OSCS. Even then I had a number of things that just simply did not work. None were critical to actually brewing beer, but had these things worked I might still be using it.

Con- The click wheel interface 

It is at it's most annoying when you sit there inputting a recipe into the system using the click wheel when the temperature is very cold. It's just horrible. You get this awful lag in the LCD due to the freezing temps. Sure, it wouldn't be bad if I could upload a beer XML file, but I never got that to work. You still have the web interface, but I was never able to import from that interface either.

Pro- Volume measurements

I am marking this as a pro, but I never got to do it. Once I got the controller I had many other issues to deal with so I never got close to measuring volume.

I had a number of issues that I cannot blame solely on the controller. Apparently the switch to the new controller and temperature sensors changed my system enough that I ruined a substantial amount of beer before I realized I had an overheating issue. I brewed over 50 gallons to fill a Bourbon barrel and all of that beer is most likely going to be dumped unless I can get rid of the tannin off flavor. I should have been more cautious but I just didn't think it would cause such a change in how the temperature was being read. I will say that after monitoring temps in a number of locations with multiple thermometers, I was able to get that issue resolved by moving the location for measuring mash temp. So not every batch I brewed with the DX1 was bad.

The biggest gripe I had with the DX1 was access. I disliked the click wheel interface. There is the Brewtroller Live web interface but for me it only worked for basic monitoring, and even then temps refreshed really slowly. I was never able to get any of the commands to work or upload a recipe file using it.

Lastly I had a random issue when brewing and trying to move to the next step in the brewing process where I would get an error "program failed to advance".

After six months of brewing with the DX1, it was not living up to the picture of automation I had in my mind.

This January, six months after I bought the Brewtroller, I went back and checked out the BCS product again. I saw that Derrin over at Brewers Hardware had bought EBC, the company that was producing the BCS. I liked the investment, direction, and the focus that it seemed he was putting into it. Once again the only drawback I was seeing was the lack of volume measurement. But seeing where I was at with the Brewtroller after six months, I no longer cared. I wanted to make the switch. So I did.


We purchased the controller, two temperature sensors, and some SSRs to replace our relays. We had everything wired up quickly. We immediately brewed 15 gallons of Black IPA. We payed extra close attention to temps because of our previous experience, but everything seemed to go really well. We started to play around with the process control functions, but ran everything in manual mode.

Pro- Plug and Play

When originally deciding which system to go with, I did not even really think about this as a deciding factor. I knew the BCS was simpler and the DX1 more complex. So it wasn't until after working with the DX1 and then the BCS that I can now say without a doubt that simple wins hands down. We could have had this thing up and running in an hour but we found our relay switches from the DX1 would not operate with the BCS. We had to wait a little longer as we ordered SSRs. We quickly finished the system set up as soon as they arrived.

Pro- Interface

It looks great, it works great, and the refresh rate is super fast. Therefore the BCS kills it in this area. I already mentioned that the default click wheel input on the DX1 was one of the things I disliked about it the most. With the BCS the default interface is from a browser. At first glance it might seem confusing, but it is pretty straight forward. You can assign all your inputs and outputs from it. No need to edit and upload config files to it.

Yes, you need some other device to interface with the BCS. For me that meant putting an old mac mini and 23 inch LCD monitor into my garage. The nice thing was I already had this stuff lying around unused. The only thing I had to purchase was a swing arm style mount for the LCD. I put the computer in the garage for the BCS, but I now love having it out there. We are using it for a bunch of other things than just displaying the BCS control page.

Pro- Use it how you like

Want to just control HLT, MLT temps? You don't need to build processes to do that. Just pull up the manual control page, enter temps, and off you go. Ready for more complex events and automation? It can do that too. Just start creating processes to do multiple steps. With the DX1, you can define your system set-up. So number of vessels, capacity, that type of thing. However when it comes to the event of brewing, you have to go through every part in a linear step by step approach. But what if I don't do mash outs? You cannot remove it. When it gets to that step you can use click wheel, open the menu and step past it. But I shouldn't have to worry about doing that if I don't mash out. It is probably possible to change this in the software code itself, but that is something I would rather do from a simple interface. The BCS lets you build processes that match your brewing routine. So it is truly customized to you.

Con- No volume measurement

I need to put this down as a con since I originally saw this function as the deciding factor in a home brewery automation control system. I have heard around the inter-webs that EBC is working on adding volume measurements. If it happens that will be great and I will look to add it quickly.

I only have two brew sessions with the BCS so far, but those brew days went smoothly. I am really looking forward to building some more complex processes. I am also already thinking about adding more automation, rather than trying to fix functionality that's not working correctly.

Here is a quick glance at some of my thoughts on how these two compare

Final Thoughts

While it is obvious after reading this that the BCS is the right hardware for me, I have nothing but good things to say about the people over at Brewtroller. They were always there to help me when I was encountering issues. Some of which were undoubtedly created by myself.

I felt ready and willing to take on a system that I knew was way more DIY than plug and play. Looking back it seems that although I was able to work through issues and get the thing functioning, I was underwhelmed with what I had. To improve it, to make it work as expected, was probably over my head and too time consuming for me. So in the end I made the switch to something simpler in many ways, but also very powerful and complex if you want it to be.

*** Update *** 9/4/2013

I have now been using the BCS setup for 9 months and have brewed -ahem- a lot of beer with it. I can say without a doubt that I have made the right decision. I will note that we did have one issue that bugged me for a while. The temp would bounce or fluctuate quite a bit. This would take place during mashing. The jumps were completely illogical, and could not be real. Example: No heat source on, 38 pounds of grain, and 15 gallons of water recirculating in the mash tun and the temp would jump up or down up to 7 degrees at a time. Then it would jump back.

That issue seems to have resolved itself. We first looked at it as a electrical shielding issue. We reconfigured our set up by moving things into a much larger control box. Then we updated the firmware on the BCS. The last couple of brew sessions have been very stable and I feel the issue is now resolved.

I have also created processes for most of the brew day. I use these processes to maintain HTL temps, mashing, including multi-step mash profiles, as well as the boil with alarms for every hop addition.

Overall I am very happy with the controller.

Monday, February 11, 2013

SF Beer Week Opening Night 2013

On February 8th I had the chance to attend the opening celebration event of The San Francisco Beer Week. This is a beer tasting event with nearly 80 Northern California breweries pouring. All the big names like Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas are there along with a ton you most likely have never heard of. From up and comers, to smaller brew pubs, to the gypsy brewers such as Almanac and Pacific Brewing Laboratory that I am so fond of. In case you have never heard the term gypsy brewers, it means that they rely on the equipment/facilities of other breweries to produce their beers. They don't have to start out committing huge $$$ to build their own. They just need to find brewers that have the spare capacity to brew their beers. Some will end up moving into their own brew house at some point in their business plans, but not always.

We rode BART and walked to the event. We had to go 6 blocks north and 1 block east. As fate would have it, the one block east we took at random happened to be the home of City Beer. The selection for a Utah guy like me was totally mind blowing. I could have blown some big bucks here, but that just wouldn't have been practical given the situation. They also have a pretty great selection on tap, albeit a much smaller list.

I had a glass of Allagash Interlude which is a farmhouse ale with brett and aged in red wine barrels. This was quite tannic, and a little tart. I really enjoyed it as it warmed up.

After our stop at City Beer we continued onward to the event. 15 minutes before the doors opened and the line was quite long and trailed off around the corner and down the street. It took around 15 minutes to get into the hall once the doors opened. The venue was fairly large, but it was still full of people with many more coming in. Although it was full, it didn't feel to cramped or hot. Most lines were a few people at most. Some of the rarer beers were drawing lines with 5-10 minutes to get a sample.

I tried to keep track of everything I was tasting, but that only gets harder as you go. I did track a number of them. From that list, and my memory I can say some of my favorites were the NC Old Rasputin XV, Devil's Canyon Sunshine Rye IPA, Black Diamond Brandy Barrel Grand Cru, RR Sanctification, Mill Valley Beerworks Old Wisconsin Red, and Hanger 24's DIPA (Not Nor Cal, but 1 of 4 guest brewers).

Cheers from SF Beer Week!