Two of the most common fermentation vessels readily available to homebrewers are the food grade plastic bucket and the glass carboy. Each of these vessels has their pros and cons. Ultimately you as a brewer will need to pick what is the best fermenter to fit your need and price range. Let’s take an in-depth look at both choices so that you can make the best decision.
Advantages of the Plastic Bucket
This is the cheapest way to house your young beer. This style of fermenter can regularly be picked up for around thirty bucks. This price should include a 6.5 gallon bucket and a lid with a grommeted hole. You’ll also need an airlock to put in the grommeted hole. The airlock will let gasses escape without letting anything from the outside in. Add another six bucks and for around $36 you can have your first fermenter.
Weight, Shape and Color
The plastic fermenter is incredibly light and easy to carry around. As a brewer, you’ll appreciate the lower weight of a bucket when carrying it plus five gallons of beer. Pretty much all bucket fermenters come with a handle which is an additional bonus when trying to move all that mass. The wide open top makes cleaning much easier of a task since you can get your whole hand and arm inside to scrub. Finally the bucket is opaque and blocks light from entering the beer.
Disadvantages of the Plastic Bucket
A plastic fermenter has four major drawbacks. First of all, buckets can be scratched which leads to a difficulty in sanitation. Secondly, the shape of a bucket leave a large surface space of the beer exposed to oxygen and to trub. A third concern plastic doesn’t make a good long term storage vessel because it can be infiltrated by air. Finally, the bucket will eventually degrade to the point of needing replaced. It’s a lot to consider when determining what is the best fermenter for you.
Advantages of the Glass Carboy
Glass carboys have strong advantages that make them desirable by many homebrewers. The carboy is impermeable to air. This is a great characteristic if you’re looking to ferment or lager for a longer duration of time. By using glass you can also see the activity going on within the fermenter. You can see the krausen, yeast cake, and even dry hops inside. Glass is easier to sanitize than plastic because it wont scratch which creates areas for bacterial growth. This means that with basic use they’ll last longer without needing to be replaced versus the plastic bucket. Finally, the tapered neck of a carboy can reduce surface area that is exposed to oxygen.
Disadvantages of the Glass Carboy
Carboys come with their own unique drawbacks. The weight of the glass, especially when filled with beer, can be difficult to move or carry. You’re talking about over forty pound of beer alone in addition to the carboy itself. Glass is also easy to break which compound the difficult of moving the fermenter when full. The neck shape make cleaning the inside a difficult task without a special shaped cleaning brush. Since they glass is clear, you risk light exposure to the beer and will need to keep it covered to eliminate the threat. The biggest drawback for many new brewers is the upfront cost of a carboy. A 6.5 gallon carboy costs about fifty dollars plus you’ll want accessories like carrying straps, cleaning brush, and a bung with airlock. Total upfront costs can easily reach over seventy dollars.
Both glass carboys and plastic fermenters can meet the needs of your average brewer. Oftentimes, a mixtures of considerations help brewers make their choice. As a new brewer, I use fermenting buckets because they’re cheap, light weight, easy to use, and replaceable. One of my biggest factors though was the though of how much broken glass one carboy could create. With a dog and small child, I didn’t want to start using glass carboys until necessary.
Soon I’ll be doing my first lager and having a glass carboy will be necessary in my opinion. To properly store the beer for a long duration, I want to be using glass. It will be impermeable to oxygen and since I have a fermentation chamber, I won’t be risking light exposure. I feel when you start doing lagers or beers with longer than two weeks of fermentation, it creates a natural time to make the switch to glass carboys. Ultimately, as the brewer you get to pick what is the best fermenter for you. To see a plastic fermenter in action, check out our Lemon Wheat Brewing Tutorial or our IPA w/ Cascade Dry Hops Brewing Tutorial