Choosing The Right Fermentor

Should you ferment your beer in a glass carboy or plastic bucket?

You could answer this question by going over the pros and cons of these two…

… carboys can be dangerous if they break, plastic buckets will develop scratches and harvest bacteria over time, etc.

… but I believe there is something else to consider that’s rarely talked about, yet important…

One of the reasons I like glass carboys, is that I can see what’s going on inside… and getting a good visual throughout the brewing process is a great way to speed up your learning about brewing beer…

Here’s why…

When I started brewing I started fermenting in a plastic bucket…

I remember I would pitch the yeast and leave it alone…

While I never worried too much about it, I was always curious as to what was going on inside…

Always anxious to open up the fermentor and secretly hope everything would be alright…

Scared if you will that if I were to look inside I would find something weird ruining my beer… like mold…

Or some sort of bacteria…

As soon as I would pop the lid open – but before removing it entirely – I would take a whiff… almost as a warning to myself in case there was something inside I didn’t want to see…

… and only after making sure it didn’t smell weird I’d look inside…

Some yeast strains would flocculate entirely leaving only a ring of foam around the wall of the bucket, while others would leave a bunch of mysterious white spots on top of the brew…

At first, those mysterious white spots or clumps of yeast used to scare me, but then I learned to use those characteristics as signatures of different yeast strains…

These are visuals that help me determine when a beer is ready to be transferred… rather than going by time…

By fermenting in a glass carboy, I can see other characteristics you can’t see when fermenting in a plastic bucket…

The most important thing about visuals is that it can help you with timing, which can make the difference in getting the right characteristic in your beer…

When brewing Belgian ales for example… depending on the characteristics you want, you have to ferment at a lower temperature during yeast growth and raise it before yeast goes full steam on fermenting the beer…

You can’t time that and say it will be 12 hours… 14 hours… or 16 hours…

You have to use your senses and see when KrĂ€usen starts developing to know when to raise the temperature…

The thing is, yeast don’t always behave the same…

Their viability is not always the same…

That’s why the visual is so important with timing when brewing some styles…

Other times it can help you by determining when to transfer your beer…

When you ferment in a carboy you can see the beer clear up over time… When you become familiar with this you can tell when the beer is ready to be transferred just by visual alone…

You get to a point when the rest of the conditioning can take place in the bottle, keg or secondary fermentor…

This is good if you are planning on harvesting yeast…

Those are some of the reasons why I like carboys (sure better bottles too, or anything where you can see too)…

10 Comments

  • Joe From Hell

    Reply Reply April 5, 2013

    after 15 yrs of using a 6.5 gal glass…lost my 5th batch to a plastic bucket…I have switched to a stainless cone fermentor….thank God I have the experience to know what to do….time wise… yet, its still very strange…

    • Jorge

      Reply Reply April 5, 2013

      Nothing like experience… conicals definitely have a lot of advantages over both carboys and buckets, especially when collecting yeast… Cheers!

  • Norma Miller

    Reply Reply April 5, 2013

    Recently I brewed a dark Cascadian Ale via carboy, OG 1.063. I made a yeast starter using American ale yeast. Had it in the primary carboy (~68-70df) for about 2 weeks until it looked clear with lots of yeast residue on bottom though not much bubbling activity from the blow-off pipe previously. I broke my only G hydrometer and had to use a ‘balling’ hydrometer substitute to take a 2nd reading. It appeared to be ready for the secondary but I wasn’t sure of the reading. I filtered and filled the secondary carboy and brewed for another two weeks (~68-70) until the “balling” hydrometer said it was “ready to bottle” (no activity in the airlock). The brew looked clear and good and smelled right so I dry hopped 4 oz of whole leaf Amarillo and 2 oz of Cascade pellets for about 5 more days prior to bottling (a layer of residue on bottom). I filtered as much as possible from the carboy into the bottling bucket, mixed in 5 oz. of sugar water and filled about 2 cases of bottles.

    Conditioned the beer for 2 more weeks at 72, but it started getting warmer in the third week (~73 74) while I was gone so I turned down the refer box to 55. Then transfered a few to the cold 40 refer for another day or two. The result, very good, dark, clean beer with light sweet/piney hop aroma & taste and good roasty malt back, abv was right ~6.0 +/- a few points as far as I could tell, one of the better beers I’ve produced. But the only problem was, it was overly carbonated. Out of the cold refer, the first two or three were heady but okay, the next bottle broke at the neck trying to open it and it was flat. Later on the next couple bottles opened were foaming up out of the bottles and had to drink all foam for a while till the brew settled. I broke four more bottles at the neck trying to open and they were flat. The rest of the cold bottles have opened fine but had to pour the contents immediatly into a large 22 oz. tumbler to keep the head contained. Mostly head, a few ozs. of liquid beer till it settles.

    I could not see or detect any problems via visual or smell from the carboys. With no G hydrometer I over compensated by trying to ferment in primary/secondary for longer times.
    I did make a yeast starter, I did ferment at ~70 for most of the time. I did filter the brew three times, I did sanatize everything many times during entire process. Only 5 ozs. of sugar water used. I used the same brew bottles from several other batches, no visible wear or cracks. The temps fluctuated some when I was gone during bottle conditioning. So, what may have caused this over carbonation of an otherwise great tasting beer? Your thoughts appreciated.

    • Jorge

      Reply Reply April 5, 2013

      Here’s how I fix my overcarbonated beers: http://brewbeeranddrinkit.com/how-to-fix-an-overcarbonated-beer/

      From the description you give there’s really not much I can see as far as what could’ve gone wrong… all I can say, with dry hopping and filtering there is a good chance for wild bacteria to go into the beer, but you say there’s none… the only thing left is the amount of sugar… 5 oz is actually quite a bit of sugar… I used to prime with 4 oz for moderately high carbonation and 4.5 for fairly high… If I brewed a hefeweizen then I’d go higher, but keep in mind that not all bottles are rated to withstand the pressure of highly carbonated beers like that…

      Also, you mention some bottles were flat… it could be that the priming solution didn’t mix properly and that made some bottles over carbonated and others flat…

      Hope that helps…
      Cheers!

  • Ken

    Reply Reply April 8, 2013

    I agree about glass carboys. I love being able to actually see the bits of trub floating about like magic, it’s awesome!. Also, I like cleaning them because I can see anything I may have missed where as buckets are harder to tell.

    And as far as breakage- though I have been very careful, I have never busted one. I have a few rubber mats and carboy straps, and don’t have to carry them very far in my garage brewery. I built a fermentation chamber that I can also rack and keg from so I only have to carry a full carboy one time only.

    I have brewed out of a friends conical a few times and like them a lot, but I am happy with the system I have now so..

    • Jorge

      Reply Reply April 8, 2013

      I haven’t broken one either… as much as I would love a conical, I would miss being able to see fermentation… Cheers!

  • Dave Harrower

    Reply Reply January 13, 2015

    I totally agree – I love to watch that primary start and can see when it clears. I switched to the Big Mouth Bubbler for primary and secondary. The primary allows a 7/8″ blow off and I can reach inside for cleaning. The wide mouth makes dry hopping easier to get my hop bag in and out.

    • jorgitoz

      Reply Reply January 19, 2015

      Haven’t seen the Big Mouth Bubbler, but sounds awesome!! 😉

  • marcopolo

    Reply Reply January 31, 2015

    Jorge,

    Thank You for ALL you do for the homebrewing community.

    I ferment in glass carboys, plastic buckets, and a stainless steel (7.5 gal) stainless steel conical. I agree that the glass carboy is very useful for the visual/timing factors that you mentioned. I once broke a carboy filled with sanitizer a few years ago when getting it ready for fermentation, and that is a very scary experience. Breaking a carboy is very dangerous, and I considered going to Better Bottles after that. I enjoy the plastic buckets very much because of their simplicity and easy access for harvesting yeast & dry hoping. I like the SS conical just bcuz it’s cool – I use it for my lagers. I’m looking at the “chronical” – temperature controlled conical. I also like the big mouth bubbler which kinda combines the ease of use of a plastic bucket with the visual of a carboy. I think they are all good & like to use them all, but the carboy is probably the best only bcuz of the visual – I truly believe that fermentation is the most important part of the homebrewing process regardless of whether you are an all-grain, extract or partial mash brewer. Just my thoughts…. Cheers to ALL & Happy Brewing !

    • jorgitoz

      Reply Reply February 1, 2015

      @Marcopolo Glass carboys can be scary for that reason, though ever since I bought the straps (the brew hauler) I haven’t had issues.

      Cheers!

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