A common question I here a lot from home brewers is, “Do I need to secondary ferment?”. The answer to this question is a bit complicated and really is a case by case, so as of now I will say, “It depends”.
Before we dive in too deep, I should first clarify for those that don’t know what secondary fermentation is. Secondary fermentation is when the beer is racked over (siphoned from your primary fermenter into another fermenter) into usually a carboy, acting as a second holding area for your beer, wine, mead etc. With that said, what do you really gain by secondary fermentation? This is where the, “It depends” comes in.
Here are 5 situations when you might consider putting your beer in a secondary fermenter:
1) If the beer has a lots of sediment, by putting it in a secondary fermenter you will not have as much sediment in your bottle. With oatmeal stouts this can be a big plus or a brew that has lots of steeping grains.
2) By putting beer in a secondary fermenter you are allowing your beer to settle and for flavors to blend. This can be a good idea for Belgians or beers of higher alcohols even IPA’s. Think about chili or soup, it always taste better on the second day. Why is that that? The flavors have blended together.
3) You can use secondary fermentation to add clarifiers. Post boil claifers work in secondary fermentation. I personally use gelatin which helps clarify beers. If your not kegging your beer’s this is one great way to avoid even more sediment in your bottles.
4) You can ingredients to the secondary. Dry hopping, oak, spices, all of these work best in the secondary. I have found with my past brews that when you add any or all of the ingredients listed above into a secondary fermentation you can smell them better. In my opinion, if you can smell it, you will start to pick up on them even more when you taste them. So if you are trying to bring out certain flavors, consider what you can do in the secondary.
5) Another reason for secondary fermentation to is if you know you won’t be bottling for a while. Let’s face it we have things to do other then brewing. A good reason to secondary ferment is that if you make a brew, but you know that you aren’t going to have the time to bottle for a few weeks. In this situation I would recommend you put your beer in a secondary and just let it chill out in there for a while until you can get to bottling. Rule of thumb for me is: I try not to keep things in primary fermentation for more then 2 weeks. The reason for this is I’ve found that you can get some off flavors to the beer if left to long in the primary.
So going back to it all, when would you not want to secondary ferment? It really depends. Some beers in my opinion really don’t need it. If you’ve ever come down to Jay’s Brewing or know me personally, I’m sure that I’ve mentioned how I love sessions brews (Scottish 60L, Milds, Browns anything less then 2.5% -3.9% for me). Typically you don’t need to secondary ferment these.
The reason why is that there is not a lot to them. I make sessions and will have them pumped out quickly. Quickly as in a week, then they are bottled (really not that hard to do with such a low alcohol level). If you are trying to stay away from beers that need secondary fermentation, rule of thumb: Don’t brew stuff that is over 6.8%. I should emphasize rule of thumb, every one has there own rule on this one – this has worked fine for me.
If you are dead set on the secondary fermentation or think that you need to for the next brew, the question normally is, “What should I secondary ferment in?”. I would recommend a 5 gallon carboy for secondary fermentation. Now there are 2 different types of carboys: 1) Plastic 2) Glass.
We’ll keep this short because I feel that the discussion of preference between plastic and glass carboy’s deserves its own blog post, which we will do in the coming weeks. But, you will want a plastic or a glass carboy. If it’s for a 5 gallon batch use a 5 gallon carboy. The reason why you want to use a carboy is that the top of the carboy goes upwards, so surface area of the brew is reduced which makes it less likely to oxidize.
The make shift way of getting around this is quite easy and something I use to do when I first got started out with brewing – I didn’t want to fork over money for a carboy. I would take the brew from the primary, rack it over to the bottling bucket, clean out the primary/sanitize, pour the beer back into the primary close it up, then shake it up and your done.
Is that the correct way of doing it? No, but it worked and never had a ruined batch from it. The main thing that you have to do is, make sure to shake it up a little bit. The reason for shaking up the brew is you need to get CO2 to build a layer over the beer to protect it from O2 oxidizing the beer. By shaking up the fermenter you are getting they O2 out of the brew threw the air lock.
At the end of it, I try not to get too stressed over secondary fermentation. I do it for my, “gourmet” brews that I pride myself on with being more technical. On just drinking beers, I don’t. I’m sure people could argue either way, on why you need to do it with every brew and people could argue why not to do it.
If your considering using secondary fermentation, I think you should know why you want to. If it’s one of the reasons that I listed, consider doing it. If you have any other reasons why you should secondary ferment please let us know.