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Should you use plastic instead of glass to ferment beer? (it's not about saving the planet)

using plastic for brewing

I saw on the 'net there had been some debate on NOT using plastic fermenters because of the risk of beer infection.


I thought this was a subject worth investigating further.

All I ever use is plastic fermenters and having only ever had one incident of infection which occurred to two different fermenters used in the same batch, I could be confident that I've never had an infection caused by using a plastic fermenter (what would the odds have been?!)

So what's the argument from the naysayers?

The reasoning is that given plastic is more easily scratched than glass those scratches can harbour bacteria so, the risk of infection is greater.

This seems a reasonable argument right?

And the simple solution would be to not scratch the plastic as you are cleaning and sanitizing right?

Given my experience and the fact there are millions of plastic fermenters safely and happily in use around all corners of the globe, then there is nothing much to worry about.

That's provided of course that you follow a proper cleaning process before you add your beer wort for primary fermentation. 


Any decent beer brewer will tell you that the number one key to beer making success is by adopting methodical cleaning and sanitization practices every time you make beer.

We've covered this need before, but our favorite trick is to use sodium percarbonate and not being shy about using boiling water to kill bugs.

Home brewers around the world often swear by the ability of PBW to get their brewing gear brew ready.

So, to be clear I don't see the threat of infection as a reason to not use a plastic fermenter.

Sure, if they get too old or scratched you might totally want to replace one but on a cost basis when compared to glass carboys, they are a lot cheaper, indeed a check on Amazon shows that a carboy is generally roughly twice the price.

Indeed, if you are new to home brewing, the use of a plastic drum is a great way to start where you don't have to worry about damaging the glass!

Oxygen and beer ageing


Aging beer is perhaps a reason that you may wish to use something other than a plastic fermenter. The reasoning here is that it's a bit easier for oxygen to enter the beer via plastic than it is beer.

If you weren't aware, other then when first mixing the wort, beer is best brewed with minimal exposure to O2 - and it's the same when bottling your beer as well.

That said the difference in permeability between glass and plastic arguably negligible when you consider most oxygen exchange is occurring through the bung and airlock.

ALSO, if you are trying to mimic the effect of a barrel aged beer using oak, then some brewers do consider that some oxygen will help!

What you could do is do your primary fermentation in plastic and then if you intend to age a stout or whatever for a long time, you can transfer it to a secondary glass carboy.

Also (2!) bare in mind that by making such a transfer you create an opportunity for oxygen to enter the beer.

Whatever way you go, you totally need to keep your vessel free from a large amount of oxygen entering as it can assist with the growth of mould or other nasties and we really don't want that do we?

As you can see, it's a vicious cycle of contradictory information!

↠ When to add more sugar to your beer (and when to use less)



Sugar!


It's a silent killer say the health specialists.

It's the devil's food!

Diabetus!

And yet we need sugar to make beer.

The real question is how much do we need to use?

That answer to that question is kind of like when Gandalf says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Rings: "A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”

Which kind of says to me you should use as much sugar as you need or as little as you need depending on what you need to make great beer.

Sounds like some ropey logic right? 

Hear me out.

Have you ever had a beer gusher

It's when you open your beer and whoosh! the beer zings out in a foaming stream and your beer drinking experience is ruined. 

It looks a bit like this:



So in that sense, you don't want to add too much sugar to your beer if you are bottle conditioning with sugar.

But if you are wanting to increase the alcohol content (ABV) of your beer, then you will need to add more sugar at the primary fermentation stage.

And thus it's about knowing when to add sugar to the beer and when not to.

Let's talking about increasing the ABV of your beer


When when your beer wort is undergoing fermentation what happens is that the beer yeast eats the sugar and that produces alcohol.

More sugar for the yeast to eat should mean more alcohol production right?

Too easy.

Yes, adding extra sugar to your beer will, in in the main, increase your ABV.

A big caution is that the more sugar you put in, the more pressure that you place on the yeast. The more alcohol that is produced, the slower the rate at which fermentation occurs. A keen player will consider adding more yeast nutrients to the wort which may give the original yeast a new lease of life and extend fermentation.

Remember though, the more sugar you add, the more sweet your beer will taste and the greater chance your beer will have that classic 'bad homebrew' taste.

Instead of sugar being used in the primary fermentation stage, many (most?) brewers will use dry malt extract (DME) as their sugar source. If you are wondering where to get some DME, your local brewing shop will have some - it's usually the main ingredient found in beer enhancers!

As a rough guide, an extra pound or 1/2 kg of DME will add an extra half percent to your beer. Doubling that will give you an extra whole percent.

Roughly.

There are some alternative sources of sugar that you might be interested in using too.

Maple syrup, honey and brown sugar can all be used as well but remember, like jelly beans, they will influence the taste of your beer.


So that was adding sugar to beer but what about using less?


Perhaps you are looking to drop some weight and might want to have a lower calorie beer to help with that. 

Is adding less sugar to your beer the solution?

No.

The best solution is to cut back on your drinking and get out in the sun and do some fun shit with friends and family.

But if you're looking to get a well conditioned beer that won't explode when you open it, cutting back on the sugar when it's time to bottle your beer is a fine idea.

There are two main schools of thought when bottling beer. One is that you can 'batch prime' the entire batch of beer in one hit or you can add sugar individually to each bottle.

I've been a fan of the latter as doing it feels like I'm really being involved in the process of making beer.

However after many gushers over the past year or so, I've come to the conclusion that for myself, batch priming beer is the way to go.

It also means that I'm adding less sugar to my beer as I am using a single measured amount of sugar to carbonate my beer rather than by adding random teaspoons measures of sugar.

How the term 'session beer' is abused by craft brewers

What is a session beer?


What is the definition of a session beer? 


I saw this question asked in a beer-oriented Facebook group and I thought it seems such an obvious question that it didn't need an answer but then I realized not everyone drinks like a fish! 

A session beer is oft considered to be a beer which has an alcohol content of around 4 to 5 percent ABV or less.

A session beer is not defined by flavours or aroma.

The concept of this is that in a 'session' of beer drinking, you won't get hammered by drinking 5 beers at 4 or 5 percent as you may just do if you have 5 beers at eight percent (although obviously the difference between four and five percent beers can quickly catch up with you, given the way alcohol accumulates in the body and affects the brain)

So basically before the rise of craft beer, most beers were session beers - as historically beers have been from 4 - 5 % ABV.

How did this expression come about?

You can thank our beer drinking friends in England when back in the day and when men were still men,  many industries had rules where men could drink on the job in approved drinking 'sessions'.

Given their employers didn't want them getting hammered on the job, lower ABV 'pale ale' beers were consumed.

How times have changed!

But is this definition still true of craft beers?

And therein lies, the rub - the word session for beer has been totally abused by many craft brewers and their promotional campaigns and now it feels like every damn beer is pitched to beer drinkers as being a session beer. 

Even beer reviewers have started to throw it into their articles as if it adds a sense of romanticism to beer.

It doesn't and it devalues the meaning of the concept.

So a session beer is historically a beer of traditional strength which you can several glasses of in the course of an occasion. The more modern craft beer meaning of a session beer is any beer! It often seems to just be marketing verbiage or puffery.

How to choose the best wort chiller



Using a wort chiller - what are the best ones out there to buy?


If you've done your all-grain brewing session, you've boiled your work well using a burner with high BTU, your hops timings were just perfect and it's all smelling incredible, it's time to quickly cool your wort so that your beer will taste the best it can be.

This is because the key part of the whole exercise is getting fermentation occurring as quickly as possible once the wort has been prepared.

The trouble is, the wort is usually bloody hot and if you add yeast to the wort straight away, it will die a miserable death.

Like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 when it falls into the molten steel.

So what can you do?

It’s simple.

You may wish to consider investing in a wort chiller.

Here's some selections to think about and compare:


Why do I need to use a wort chiller to cool beer?


The use of one can improve the quality of your beer in several ways.

The first is to protect the beer against infections.

While the wort it is still hot bacteria and wild yeasts are inhibited from toying with your beer which is a good thing but it is very susceptible to oxidation damage as it slowly cools.

An efficient cool down can prevent this damage from occurring.

It also prevents the production of dimethyl sulphide. This compound can produce off flavourings in the beer so obviously, you’d want to remove the risk of this being produced as much as you can.

Ideally, the conscientious brewer should aim to get the wort to below 80°F (27°C) before oxidation or contamination has a chance to occur. The use of a wort chiller will get you there in no time.

You may have heard of ‘chill haze’. This is a really common cause of beer cloudiness where the wort has been boiled and the cooling process has not generated enough ‘cold break’.

The cold break is the proteins from the beer that are precipitated to the bottom of the beer by the cold temperature.

Using a copper wort chiller allows for an effective way to get more cold break forming and thus reduces the chance of chill haze in your finished beer.

The less crap in your beer, the better it will taste.

A tale of three kinds chillers


There are actually three types of wort chillers: immersion and counter-flow and plate.


  • Immersion chillers are the simplest and work by running cold water through the copper coil (or stainless steel) which is immersed directly in the wort. The heat of the wort is transferred via the copper into the water which is quickly is carried away by the flowing water in the pipe.  If you are doing a 5 gallon brew, the length of the tube is usually from 20 to 40 feet, although theу can be even longer.
  • Counterflow chillers work in an opposite manner. The hot wort is drained from the cooking pot via  copper tubing while cold water flows around the outside of the chiller. Counterflow chillers thus get their name because the two sets of tubing are set up so that the wort goes in one direction, and the cooling water the other.
  • Plate chillers work by cold water is run through the unit's 'plates' in one direction and the hot brew is cooled very quickly with the cold water that is running through the other side in the opposite direction. Such a chiller will have hundreds of plates to offer a good surface area to allow for the heat exchange (so it's efficient).


Each kind of chiller has pros and cons. Given immersion chillers are usually the cheapest and easiest to keep clean and maintain and given that do not need a pump to push the water through, they are the most popular units used.

If you're thinking that surface area is the key to quick cooling you'd be right - but just remember that even though a plate chiller has a lot of surface area in the plates, a right sized immersion chill will likely have a comparable surface area.

No one kind of chiller will reduce the water or wort temperature more than the other, they will only cool as cool as the the temperature of the coolant used.

Our featured wort chiller - Copperhead Immersion Wort Chiller


copper head immersion wort chiller

The two stand out features of Northern Brewer's  popular chiller are that it comes with 25 foot copper coil for efficient cooling and its vinyl tubing comes with the standard garden hose connection.

The Copperhead features:

  • All copper coil construction is easy to clean and will conduct heat better than other metals.
  • Ensure secure tubing with proprietary barbed fittings. Eradicate shooting streams of water that make a mess in your brew cave.
  • Drop-angle connections provide insurance against contamination.
  • Dimensions: 9 inches wide, 16 inches tall to the bend, 3/8 ID tubing.
  • No need to sanitize. Simply drop your clean chiller into the kettle a few minutes before the end of the boil and it will be ready to go. 
  • Cleaning is a breeze
  • Standard garden hose connection allows for brewing outside or connects to a laundry sink faucet as your chilling water source

Here are some real reviews from real users who bought on Amazon

"Don't cheap out on the ones with simply raw copper ends and hose clamps. The ends connectors on this IC are top notch. Brew on!"

"Worked perfectly and as expected. No leaks and cooled my wort very quickly."

"This is the best on Amazon. I thought about making my own, but considering my time and effort involved, made sense to pay a bit more for one already set up"

Check out the pricing on Amazon.

The Copperhead also has a cousin from Northern Brewer, the 'Silver Serpent'



Called the Silver Serpent for hopefully obvious reasons, Northern Brewer claims this is the most sanitary immersion chiller on the market and it features:
  • Drop-angle connections and secure tubing with proprietary barbed fittings. 
  • Do away with ill-fitting hose clamps on misshapen chiller connections.
  • The Silver Serpent drop-angle eliminates kinked tubing. 
  • No more hassles with propping up the water hose. Tubing can now hang tension-free, kink-free and problem-free. 
  • Surprise leaks stay outside your kettle and away from cooling wort.
Believe it or not! Remember if you have Amazon Prime you can probably get free shipping!

Check out the pricing on Amazon.

I see people raving about the Blichmann Therminator, is it any good?


As far as we can tell, the Blichmann Terminator is probably the most popular plate chiller in the brewing community. 

Brewers often name drop it in brewing forums everytime someone asks 'what is the best wort chiller?"

Just google it and see! Actually, don't google it, keep reading!

best plate wort chiller - therminator

Blichmann is a tried and true brand and boasts a strong inventory of brewing equipment.

Their gas burner is a well-respected piece of brewing day equipment (good for frying turkey too, apparently!) so you wouldn't go wrong to consider using their chiller.

The Therminator is a stainless steel plate-type wort chiller, a miniature version of the plate chillers that the pros use. It is the fastest and most efficient way to chill your wort to yeast pitching temperature.

The Therminator can chill 10 gallons of boiling wort to pitching temperature within 5 minutes when using 58°F cooling water at 5 gpm. This super-efficient chiller uses less water than most other chillers on the market, and is especially great for brewers in southern American climates!

Blichmann boast of their 20 years of experience designing cooling systems and coupled with 17 years of homebrewing experience, they stand by their product claim that it's the 'king of coolers':
  • Broad operating range at fast cooling rates.
  • Low water usage for high efficiency.
  • Low restriction for gravity feed at high flow rates.
  • Compact size for easy use and sanitation.
  • Heavy-duty mounting brackets for simple installation.
  • Convenient straight-through water connections to prevent kinked hoses.
  • Resistance to plugging.
  • Substantial reduction in ice usage for chilling below cooling water temps.
Reviews of real users of the Therminator:

"This chiller is incredible. I had been using an immersion copper wort chiller for a few years, so moving to this plate chiller was a big step up. It instantly cooled down my wort as I pumped it through. You do have to make sure you clean it well afterwards, but I think this product is well worth the money."

"Works phenomenally well. Took wort from boiling to 54 degrees in about 6 minutes. I used a gravity setup with my boil kettle valve wide open."

If brewers have one complaint about this product it's that cleaning the plate unit is a real process - as is with all plate chillers. I guess you have to factor in the time savings if using a plate chiller is an effective tool for you. 

If there's a counterflow chiller you like, make it the NY Brew Supply Deluxe 


Don't let its look put you off because remember, counterflow chillers are not placed inside the hot wort so the black piping serves a purpose:

counter flow wort chiller ny


NY Brew Supply state the following about their chiller:

"The outer coil of our deluxe counter flow wort chiller is a super durable, high temperature 3/4" hose that will not get brittle over time and is more durable than standard garden hose designs. 25 feet of 1/2 inch copper tubing provides an extremely efficient transfer of heat.

Heavy duty brass fittings allow for easy connection to your cold water source (via garden hose connection). Unlike some "soldered copper" designs, our heavy duty brass fittings allow you the option to adjust the angle and position of the input and output hoses."

But don't let them do all the talking, try the opinions of these actual users on for size:

"I've used this twice in the last month. This is one of those purchases I wish I would have made years ago. Initially, I was considering upgrading my copper/immersion wort chiller to something larger. This is really not that much more expensive and MAN does it perform."

"This product works great, is well priced, and I would recommend it. If you buy it, keep the end caps as you can pour star san water into the copper inner coil and keep it sanitized while not in use. Also, I would recommend using proper silicone tubing and tube clamps."

"I went to the hardware store to gather the parts to make this. As I added up the cost in my cart, I realized I couldn't beat this deal! It costs as much to make on your own so, why bother! My time is worth the $100! And yours is too!"

If those testimonies sound right up your alley, have a gander at the price on Amazon.

How to use a wort chiller


The basic principle behind using an immersion wort chillers is fairly straight forward. The copper tubing, usually around 25-50 feet long, is formed into a large coil that can be submerged into the wort to cool it.

After the boil and, when you are ready, you connect your chiller to a piping system of some kind. Many brewers make their beer outside and so are quite happy to connect to the garden hose. If you are inside, your laundry taps might have the correct tap connectors.

NE ways, you run the water through the chiller until the wort is at the desired temperature. And gosh, if you need to ask how you know what the right temperature is, you take a thermometer reading!

But then you're going to ask but what is the best temperature to pitch your yeast? Look at the guidance on your yeast packet but note that different yeasts like different temperatures.

Just don't over cool your wort or it may take some time for fermentation to begin!

What does the garden hose have to do with chilling beer?


You may wish to consider buying a wort chiller that has a standard garden hose connection. 

This allows for brewing outside on a nice summer's day or connecting to a laundry sink faucet as your chilling water source. 

That can give you some room to breathe outside rather than managing all kinds of cooling shenanigans in the kitchen!

Go for quality


You get what you pay for so look for wort chillers that cool efficiently, don’t leak and will last many brews so don't cheap out.

Just as you should always get the bigger brewing kettle, go for the quality but affordable wort chiller. 

In the long run, it will be wort(h) it.

What are some good DIY options for cooling wort?


There are a few DIY options you can consider attempting.

If you're feeling like a bit of a mongrel you can always curl up your garden hose, tie it off and use it as you would an immersion cool but who are we kidding, the damn thing would probably melt if placed in a boiling wort!

Seriously though, you can buy your own tubing which will still allow for efficient cooling rates and be friendly on your wallet.

How to make your own wort chiller


This guy has some good ideas about making counter flow chillers. Here's a great video on how to make your own copper tubing chiller:


What if my groundwater is too warm to chill the wort?


If you have found yourself in a very warm climate area, your groundwater temperature may not be sufficient to cool the wort to the desired lower temperature.

If that's the case, you will need to use a cooling water pre-chiller set up. You can use a copper coil immersed in a pail of iced water. 

We recommend the coil is 25 to 50 feet in length. Use this to cool the groundwater before it enters the chiller i.e. it is placed between your chiller and the water source. 

It might look rough but here's a good set up:

wort chiller- pre chill set up

In the blue box, you can see the water bottles. These have been frozen and added to the water. Saves you buying ice!

How to clean wort chillers


Cleaning an immersion cooler is the easiest of the three kinds because you only need to wash the exterior coils. A quick rinse with a hose should be sufficient. Make sure you get all the gunk off.

Plate chillers are tough to clean as the metal plates are placed very close to each other and if you don't separate out the hops before cooling, they can clog up the 'plate trenches' quite quickly. 

This reduces cooling performance and will make the unit just that bit more tricky to properly clean - and you need to clean them well so that no residue can pass on nasty bugs on the next use. 

It’s a smart move to sanitize your plate chiller right after the brew is done. So your instructions are to not leave it for a day or two (or even next weekend) or you will likely have problems with the wort and gunk inside the chiller that will be very difficult to get out. 

Do yourself a favour and back-flush your plate chiller with water from the faucet as soon as you finish your brew. By back-flushing, we meant that you rinse in the opposite direction of the wort flow to try and first expunge any hop or trub residue that may have entered collected inside the exchanger.

You can actually add PBW to your cleaning water to help with cleaning those pipes out...speaking of:

What chemicals and cleaners do I clean a wort chiller with?


All the usual good stuff, including vinegar! PBW is probably your best bet. Star San has been known by home brewers to work really well on copper so feel free to give that a try.

Blichmann actually recommends that you do not use any chlorine products containing chlorine such as a bleach as chlorine can pit and erode stainless steel. So stay away from anything caustic.

Using a pump with wort chiller


If your water pressure is low or you want to reticulate water you just want to get on with the job of cooling the water, you may want to use a pump to help move the water along.

There are many different kinds of pumps on the market but I've noticed many brewers simply use pumps intended for ponds or aquariums as they operate at the power levels needed for chilling wort!

The benefit of using a pump is that it can contribute to lowering your overall chilling time.