Buckets versus Carboys for Homebrewing

Fermentation is the magic that turns wort into beer. Home brewers have a plethora of options for what type of container to choose for fermentation. The selection process may seem daunting, but four key considerations outlined here might help select a vessel that’s appropriate for the beer style, a brew system, and current capabilities.

1. Safety

The first and most important consideration is safety. Choosing a 6.5 gallon glass carboy to ferment a saison in the attic when you've had a recent back surgery can lead to trouble and broken fermenters. Yeast and fermentation are also important to consider, if over-pitching on a large beer, choosing the correct vessel would include a blow-off tube.

2. Beer Style

7.9_gallonCertain beer styles lend themselves to glass carboys more so than plastic buckets. For example, if aging a sour beer or a cider, the oxygen transmission rates of a plastic bucket (saturation of the beer into the plastic) might make the glass carboy a better choice. A key consideration of style also includes additions to the primary or secondary fermentation. Removing a muslin bag of whole leaf hops isn’t a fun experience through a 2.5” diameter glass opening. A general rule of thumb is bulk aging should be done in glass carboys and shorter fermentations with secondary additions are best in plastic buckets.

Below are a few examples of when it may be better to use a carboy or a bucket:

Beer Style Bucket vs. Carboy Reason
IPA Bucket for secondary Easier to dry hop through a larger opening.
Sour beer Glass carboy for secondary Bulk aging without fear of O2 or leaching into the plastic
Russian Imperial Stout Glass carboy for secondary Bulk aging as the beer matures in a secondary fermentation
Fruit beer Bucket primary or secondary Easy addition, cleaning of bucket and disposal of fruit
Brett or funk beers Glass carboy primary or secondary Easy to clean and sanitize for removal of all non-sacc yeast strains

3. Ability to Clean

star_san_8ozA clean fermenter is a critical aspect of making good beer. A glass carboy is harder to scratch, and often scratches are easier to spot. A plastic bucket, if not taken care of properly, can develop small scratches that act like hiding places for bacteria or wild yeast strains. This makes any beer fermented in an old plastic bucket with scratches more susceptible to an infection. Avoid using any type of abrasive cleaning method with a plastic bucket, and if scrubbing is needed for cleaning, use a soft towel or cloth.As always, be sure to use sanitizer on your equipment to ensure that, in case you missed a scratch, your fermenter is ready for a clean fermentation!

4. Replacement Costs

Starting out in a plastic bucket can be more forgiving to a budget. Getting more familiar with the brewing process and the type of beer brewing can help show what is the next step in an expanding home brewery.

Conclusion

Both the plastic bucket and the glass carboys have limitations and excel with specific types of functions. Often brewers have access to both types of fermenters and utilize them based on their style, fermentation schedule and additions. For example a short primary fermentation for a Russian Imperial Stout might be completed in the plastic bucket, but then bulk aged in a glass carboy as a secondary fermentation. Alternatively a primary fermentation with a DIPA might include a glass carboy which is suitable for a blow off tube, followed by an aggressive dry hop schedule in a secondary fermentation in a plastic bucket.

Other options for fermentation include stainless steel, conical fermenters (often stainless, but some plastic), wide mouth glass carboys, or open fermentation vessels. These other fermentation vessels help further refine the set of tools available for the homebrewer and offer combinations and trade-offs of clean-ability, mobility and user-friendliness.

by Joe Heinzelmann

written by John Heinzelmann

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