Should I Secondary Ferment My Home Brew?

Should I Secondary Ferment My Home Brew?

Introduction

As a new brewer, you’ll run into the question about secondary fermenters quickly. If you purchase a kit or follow an extract recipe you’ll likely see the instructions to use a secondary fermenter. Many kits call for two weeks in a primary fermenter. Then they instruct brewers to transfer their beer to a secondary fermenter for another two weeks.

(Need help picking your first kit?  Check out: 9 Straightforward Home Brewing Kits for Beginners,)

As a new brewer, you likely don’t have a dedicated secondary fermenter. If you’re like me, then you likely have a plastic bucket fermenter and a bottling bucket. This set up doesn’t include a dedicated secondary fermenter. So if you wanted to comply with the instructions, then you’d need to purchase more equipment.

I have read countless books, blog posts, and forum threads about secondary fermenters. I feel comfortable in saying that the general opinion is that they’re an unnecessary step. Actually doing a secondary ferment can be harmful and open the door for a possible infection. Let’s discuss the pros and cons, figure out when a secondary ferment is necessary, and talk about a third option.

(Looking for the best books on home brewing?  Start with Three Essential Home Brewing Books for Every Brewer.)

You Shouldn’t Secondary Ferment

As with any rule, there will be exceptions to this rule. However, as a general rule of thumb, standard ale brews don’t need to have a second fermentation. I expect to see a few brewers who disagree with this statement. I even welcome your comment below. As a home brewer I’ve decided secondary fermenting isn’t worth the risk.

There are lots of technical cons to doing a secondary ferment. I’ll cover those later in the post. A big reason you shouldn’t do secondary fermenting as a new brewer is that it requires additional equipment. You’ll need a glass carboy and bung to properly complete a secondary ferment.

Buckets are not impervious to oxygen. During primary fermentation, carbon dioxide is being off gassed. This keeps the oxygen at bay and outside of the fermenter. During a secondary ferment, carbon dioxide isn’t being produced as quickly. This means you’ll need a glass carboy to keep oxygen out.

(Not sure about whether to use buckets or carboys?  See my article, Best Fermenter for New Brewers: Plastic Buckets Vs. Glass Carboys.)

Reasons Why People Use a Secondary Ferment

The general thought behind using a secondary fermenter is remove the beer from the primary after active fermentation is completed. This separates the beer from hop trub, tannins, and dead yeast cells. Brewers do this with a goal of creating a clearer beer without off flavors.

If you’re going to lager your beer, then a secondary fermentation is a must. The extended time requires that the beer be removed from the yeast cake and debris. This also allows brewers to harvest and wash their yeast for reuse. How long your beer will be in contact with the yeast and debris is the deciding factor on if you should use a secondary.

Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Secondary Ferment

As a new homebrewer, it’s unlikely you’re starting with a lager. It’s unlikely that you’ll be brewing a lager style beer for quite a while. The majority of ales, especially ale beer kits, require only a few weeks of contact with the yeast cake. Because of this, you’re actually taking more of a risk by transferring for a secondary ferment.

Opening the lid on your fermenter exposes your beer to oxygen. As a home brewer, your goal is to keep oxygen away from your beer. Beer that’s been exposed has off flavors and many say it tastes like cardboard. By moving the beer from primary to secondary you take the risk of causing the oxygenation. You can limit your risk by transferring a few of times as possible.
When you sanitize your fermenter, you’re creating a safe environment where a transformation can take place. We sanitize to ensure only the right elements are present to make fermentation happen. We don’t want rogue bacteria infiltrating the party. Bacteria are everywhere in our environment. By sanitizing and using an airlock, we’ve ensured our wort is protected while it transforms to beer.

Racking the beer from primary into a second vessel for a secondary ferment is a risk. You risk bacteria infiltrating your beer and creating an infection. An infection could be caused by less than perfect sanitizing but there are countless other ways it could happen. One common issue is a fruit fly swooping in unnoticed.

Why New Brewers Should Avoid a Secondary Ferment

As a new brewer, your ultimate goal should be to brew good beer. This will keep you interested in the hobby. Having a great first experience will inspire you to brew again and again. By limiting your risk, or exposure, you can help ensure your early beers will turn out well. Basically, there isn’t a big enough reward for the risk.

Assuming you infect a batch, then it’s basically ruined. For many new brewers, this might turn them off to the hobby. My goal is that you avoid unnecessary steps that could compromise your brew. A secondary ferment doesn’t provide a noticeable enough difference to outweigh the risk of infection. My suggestion to you would be to avoid the practice altogether.

(Avoid common mistakes by reading: Home Brew Stores Explain Eight Common Brewing Mistakes.)

How to Decide on Secondary Fermenting

This should be a no-brainer for new brewers. If they style you’re attempting for your first brew honestly requires a secondary ferment, then it may not be the right choice. I highly recommend a style of beer that is a basic ale for your first beer. Even if it isn’t your absolute first beer, basic ale recipes are a great way to learn the basics of brewing before branching out into more difficult styles.

The majority of ale brews should require a secondary ferment. Still, many kits and recipes allude to the need for a secondary fermentation. While there are exceptions to the rule, most ales just don’t need them. I would recommend skipping almost any secondary fermentation for a basic ale.

Lagers on the other hand can greatly benefit from a secondary ferment. This is simply because of the long time period in which the beer would be in contact with the yeast and trub. I personally wouldn’t recommend a new brewer starting with a lager style beer.

(Get to brewing by watching my first complete brewing tutorial video: Lemon Wheat Beer Kit.)

A Pricy Compromise

So, do the pros use a secondary fermenter? Well, not necessarily. Professional brewers have the advantage of using high end equipment. A conical fermenter is a great solution to needing a secondary.

Conical fermenters have cone shaped bottoms. This reduces the surface area of the yeast cake and trub. By reducing the surface area, brewers also reduce the amount of contact it has with the beer. Conical fermenters also allow for the harvesting of yeast and sediment during fermentation with valves at the bottom of the tank. Stainless steel conical fermenters are but a dream for many brewers. There are however some available to home brewers.

(You can drool over this 7 Gallon Stainless Steel Conical beauty and if you buy it we’ll get a small percent of the sale to keep the site going!)

Many home brewers turn to plastic conical fermenters instead. This is a compromise in quality to achieve a lower price point. There are a few different models available on the market. If you intend to brew regularly or lager, this might be a good middle ground investment.

Conclusion

Is a secondary ferment necessary for new brewers? Not in my opinion. If you’re starting by picking an appropriate style of beer to brew for your first beer, then I don’t suggest doing them. It’s my opinion that they bring more unnecessary risk, steps, and equipment to the simple process of home brewing.

If you’re considering investing in a conical fermenter, you can hedge your bets on fermenting. Conicals are a great way in which home brewers can learn from professionals. Personally, I only use buckets and carboys but would love to have a conical in the future.

What’s your opinion on a secondary ferment? Leave your comments or any questions below and I’ll do my best to respond. If you found the article informational or entertaining, consider giving it a social share with the icons above. Thanks for reading!

Ryan Caldbeck
NewToBrew.com

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