Sunday, November 29, 2009

Choosing a fermenter for your homebrew

Choosing a fermenterOne of the first set of questions beginning homebrewers have is: "What should I ferment my beer in?", "What are the different types of fermenters available?", "Is one fermenter better than the other?" and "What does a fermenter cost?".

Selecting a primary fermentation vessel that will convert your wort into beer and act as a place for your yeast to go to work in is not always a trivial task. There are many options ranging from the very inexpensive plastic bucket all the way up to the primo stainless steel conical tanks.

Choosing the best fermentation tank that's right for you and your budget involves examining the options. This two-part article will help you get an idea of the variety of fermentation equipment that's available out on the market today. In this article, part one, you'll read about the more common and less expensive fermenters.

What size fermenter do I need?

Homebrew beer batches come in all sizes ranging from he sub-2 gallon test batches all the way up to 100 gallon super batches for those ready to turn pro. The size of fermenter you need will be based on how much beer you want to produce and how active of a fermentation you expect.

The typical beginning homebrew batch is 5 gallons. Your fermenter will need to hold a bit more than that in order to handle the build-up of yeast, foam and other by-products of the fermentation process. Typically you'll want to minimize the air-space between the beer and the top of the fermenter, especially in a secondary fermenters, where excess air can spoil the taste of your beer.

Typical starter fermenter sizes are: 3 gallon, 5 gallon, 6 gallon, and 6.5 gallon. More advanced models range from 7.5 gallon and up.

Normally, you'll want a fermenter that is slightly larger than your batch size. Example: a 3 gallon bucket for a 2 gallon batch, a 6 or 6.5 gallon bucket for a 5 gallon batch, etc. The closer your batch size is to your fermenter size the less air will stay on top of your beer. However, you'll want a bit of extra room in the primary for all that foam and other blow-off materials as active fermentation can become quite lively.

What types of fermenters are there?

There are nearly a dozen or so types of common fermenters or fermentation vessels available on the market today. They range from food grade plastic buckets, P.E.T. plastic carboys, glass carboys, high density polyethylene containers (HDPE)and all the way up to converted Sanke kegs and stainless steel containers in both conical and non-conical shapes.

That's a lot of choices!

Each type of fermenter has it's own set of advantages and disadvantages. Your choice may depend on your budget, your comfort level with the equipment or the volume of beer you expect to produce. Let's take a look at these different types of fermenters individually. Let's start with the most basic containers in this article and work up to the more advanced models in part two.

Food-Grade Plastic Fermentation Buckets

Plastic Fermentation BucketsOne of the most economical fermentation devices you can get is the food-grade quality fermentation buckets. These buckets come ready to sanitize, are typically white in color, have a re-sealable lid and have a hole for some kind of air-lock or blow-off tube. Optionally, these buckets may have a hole near the bottom with an attached spigot for siphon-less draining.

Fermentation buckets, sometimes known as Ale Pails, typically come in the following sizes (all in gallons): 2, 6, 6.5, 7.5, 10, 12, 20, and 32. These buckets are made of food-grade heavy duty plastic and will generally last a long time provided that they are gently cleaned and kept in good condition.

Most beginning homebrew kits use these types of buckets. I have personally used these buckets in primary fermentations for extract batches and they have worked well. You can safely use these for a dozen batches or so before considering replacing them.

Cost: Typically a bucket with a lid costs anywhere from $6 for a 2 gallon size, $7-$15 for a 6 gallon size, $12-$19 for a 6.5 gallon size, $16-$22 for a 7.5 gallon size, and all the way up to $79 for a 32 gallon (trash barrel) container.

Advantages: They're light weight, safer to handle, relatively inexpensive and can be found in many places including kitchen supply stores and most homebrew shops. If dropped, a lesser risk for breakage and injury.

Disadvantages: Harder to keep clean, may scratch easily, the scratches could harbor bacteria that can ruin your beer. Some people claim beer fermented in plastic doesn't taste as good as beer made in glass or stainless steel fermenters. Risk of chemical leaching over time.

Extras: Spigot holes and kits cost extra ~$3.25 and airlocks cost around $1.25. Blow off tubes vary by size and length.

Price a plastic fermentation bucket online:
High Gravity Homebrew, Northern Brewer.

Better Bottles (P.E.T.) Carboys

Better BottlesConsidered a lower cost alternative to glass is the plastic (P.E.T.) carboy. One of the leading brands is the Better Bottle. Better Bottle carboys come in three sizes: 3 gallon, 5 gallon and 6 gallon. These bottles come with one opening at the top or as a ported bottle ready for added accessories like spigots near the bottom.

Better Bottles are mostly clear (see through), colorless and are extremely tough and light weight (about 1.5 lbs). They have wide necks for easier filling. A variety of adapters can be added such as racking adapters and quick-disconnect SimpleFlo valves, which eliminate the need for siphons and make oxygen-free racking simple.

These bottles yield a negligible amount of oxygen permeability and add no taste or odor to the beer. These bottles can soak clean without brushing and are resistant to cleaning and sanitizing agents.

I own both a 5 gallon and 6 gallon Better Bottle and use them for both primary (6 gallon) and secondary fermenters (5 gallon). So far I have been very pleased with the results from these containers.

Cost: All prices without spigot ports. 3 gallon $20-24, 5 gallon $24-26, 6 gallon $25-27. Spigot kits range between $20 to $37 extra.

Advantages: Lower cost than glass carboys. Better Bottles are mostly unbreakable and are extremely light. They are easy to handle and are inexpensive to ship. In many cases, online stores will ship these for free.

Disadvantages: Similar to plastic buckets, these can scratch if brushes are used and can harbor bacteria. The sides can deform when filled with liquid and carried and can draw in water from the airlock. Like a carboy, they can be difficult to clean. with the ridged inner surface areas. They don't come in sizes larger than 6 gallon.

Price a Better Bottle online:
High Gravity Homebrew, Midwest Supplies.

Glass Carboys

Glass CarboysFor years, glass carboys were the standard for fermenting home brewed beer. In the early days of homebrewing, these were the only things available. But even today, it's still considered a preferred container by many for fermenting small batches of beer.

Typical sizes of glass carboys are: 3 gallon, 5 gallon, 6 gallon and 6.5 gallon. Make no mistake, these bottles are much heavier than the previous plastic carboys. A 3 gallon glass bottle weighs 9 pounds, a 5 gallon (13 lbs), a 6 gallon (16 lbs) and the 6.5 gallon bottle (17.5 lbs). When you add 5 gallons of beer to this (roughly 48.1 pounds) a full 6.5 gallon glass carboy can weigh over 65 pounds!

Glass carboys can be found not only in homebrew stores but many drinking water supply companies also supply these. In many cases, used carboys are just as good as new ones as glass typically won't scratch on the inside and can last a very long time.

Cost: 3 gallon: $24+shipping, 5 gallon: $32+shipping, 6 gallon: $38+shipping, 6.5 gallon: $40+shipping. Shipping can cost up to $20 due to the weight and fragility of these items. You can find used carboys much cheaper in your local classifieds, just be sure used bottles don't have chips, cracks or leftover sludge.

Advantages: Many homebrewers swear beer from glass carboys tastes better than from plastic fermenters. There is less likelihood of oxygen getting into your beer. Glass is easier to clean than plastic and won't scratch. Glass has no chemicals to leach out into your beer. Glass carboys won't wear out as fast as plastic.

Disadvantages: The weight. Glass is highly breakable and can be dangerous if dropped. More light gets into glass than a plastic bucket and can change the taste of your beer. It costs a lot to ship these and can be more expensive than Better Bottles.

Price a glass carboy online:
High Gravity Homebrew, Northern Brewer.

End of Part One

In Part Two, we examine the higher end models including: Tuff Tank vessels, MiniBrew conical HDPE fermenters, Converted Sanke kegs as fermenters, and the Blichmann stainless steel fermenters. If you're ready to step up to a more advanced model - read on!

Continue reading Part Two.

Related articles:
- Choosing a brew kettle.
- Putting together the home brewery.
- Creating a yeast starter for homebrewing.
- The trials and tribulations of bottling beer.

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