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Do You Need To Use A Secondary Fermentor?

Glass CarboyIn order to understand why brewers use secondary fermentors it is important to understand the different phases of fermentation.

When your beer first begins to ferment, it will go through a few phases very quickly. The first phase is an aerobic phase where the yeast cells adapt to their environment and multiply very quickly but do not produce much alcohol. It is during this phase that the yeast actually need oxygen in the beer in order to do their work. This phase only lasts for a few hours in most cases, and you cannot see anything happening with the naked eye (it is fascinating to watch under a microscope though).

The yeast then begin to metabolize the sugars into CO2 and Ethanol during their anaerobic phase. This is the part you can see as a foamy head or �krausen� on the top of the fermenting beer. The CO2 is evident in the airlock as the bubbles begin to pop faster and faster. This phase of fermentation is very active and usually lasts a couple days to a week.

After the krausen begins to subside, most of the yeast cells fall to the bottom of the fermentation vessel (this is called flocculation), and go dormant or die. A few of the hardy yeast cells stay suspended in the beer and continue to slowly ferment for several weeks. This phase is called "conditioning".

The following chart shows the cycles of the yeast as it ferments your beer:

Beer Yeast Life Cycle Chart

Now, if you�ve ever tasted beer yeast, then you know it�s some bitter stuff. Commercial breweries use conical fermentors that allow them to drain this yeast (called �trub�) out of the bottom of their fermentors. Trub isn�t all yeast, however, it actually refers to the yeast and other fermentation by-products that precipitate out of the beer as it ferments.

The cheap way to get the beer off the trub is to just transfer it to another vessel once the active yeast cycle is over. Most homebrewers use Carboys because they only cost about $20. Home-sized conical fermentors can also be purchased, but they cost several hundred dollars.

My recommendation is to use a plastic bucket for your Primary fermentor, and a carboy as your secondary. The bucket is great for the primary because the active stages of fermentation make a sticky foamy mess that is much harder to clean out of a carboy than it is out of a plastic bucket. The glass carboy, on the other hand, allows you to actually see the beer inside which gives you a great indication as to when the beer is ready to bottle or keg.

Ok, so do you REALLY need to use a secondary fermentor?

Following are some cases where it really does make sense to use a secondary:

  1. Always use a secondary when you are making a Lager
  2. Always use a secondary when you are making a high-gravity beer like a Barley Wine
  3. Always use a secondary if you are extremely anal about your beer and like to make things more complicated than they need to be.

Lagers and Barley Wines take a long time to ferment, and that�s the point. You want to get your beer off the trub if it�s going to sit there for a long time.

Pale Ales and other quick turn-around beers don�t end up sitting on the trub long enough to make a huge impact on the beer�s taste. They usually ferment completely within 2 weeks. So if you are making a beer like this, then you don�t need to worry about it (unless you are anal � see above).

Most Ales will spend the majority of their "conditioning" phase in bottles; getting themselves nice and carbonated.

If you do decide to use a secondary fermentor, following are a few tips you might consider:

  1. Always practice diligent sanitation � wash and sanitize everything that will come into contact with your beer. Duh.
  2. Siphon the beer from the primary into the secondary. You don�t want to pour the beer. Pouring will just mix oxygen into the beer, and your yeast are supposed to stay in their anaerobic state.
  3. If you are Lagering, then you will be lowering the temperature of the beer. This could cause the beer to contract and suck water from your airlock back up into the carboy. The solution to this is to either use a 1 micron air filter in place of the airlock while the beer is cooling, or else just put some good American Vodka in the airlock. American Vodka is basically pure Ethanol and water, so a few drops backed up from your airlock won�t affect the taste of your beer. You will need to check the airlock and refill it periodically to make sure there is a lock. Keep in mind that Vodka will evaporate faster than water.
  4. If you are using a glass Carboy as your secondary, make sure it is in a dark place where light can�t get to it, or else wrap it in a blanket or towel to keep sunlight off. Sunlight will cause the beer to get skunky.
  5. There is a tendency to forget about your beer when it is in the secondary. Try not to forget about it. If you are bottle conditioning your beer, then you will need to get it into the bottles before all the yeast flocculates out. Watch for the bubbles to subside on the surface of the beer, but you don�t want to wait for them to go away altogether. A good rule of thumb is to wait to bottle until the beer is only popping a bubble in the airlock every 60-90 seconds. If you wait longer, you may not get a good carbonation. If you bottle before that you could have exploding bottles on your hands (and on the walls, and your shelf, and on the carpet). Exploding bottles leads to angry wives and girlfriends.

If you are a beginning homebrewer, then my recommendation is not to worry about a secondary. Each time you handle your beer you risk infection, and transferring it to another vessel just gives it one more opportunity to get infected. Stick to quick-turnaround beers (Pale Ales, IPAs, Brown Ales, Bitters, Ambers, etc.).

Once you have 5 or 6 batches under your belt and you feel comfortable with the process, then it makes more sense to branch out to high-gravity beers and try using a secondary.

Happy Homebrewing!

A drunken man gets on the bus late one night, staggers up the aisle, and sits next to an elderly woman.

She looks the man up and down and says, "I've got news for you. You're going straight to hell!"

The man jumps up out of his seat and shouts, "Man, I'm on the wrong bus!"
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