Are we there yet? A guide to managing your fermentation

I’ve always thought that one of the hardest parts of making your own beer and wine is waiting. This is especially true when you’re just starting out and you don’t have a decent amount of bottled and ready homebrew in reserve to enjoy while you wait for your latest batch to ferment. Because of that, many people are in a hurry to move on to the bottling stage. I decided to write up my own process, about what I do once I put the lid on my fermenter and get the airlock in place.

What to ferment in?

Let’s start with the basics. I always do my primary fermentation in a 6.5 gallon “fermenting bucket”, meaning that it does not have a drilled hole in the bottom. You can ferment in your “bottling bucket”, the one with the drilled hole for the spiggot, but I worry about leaks with this. Using a fermenting bucket, there’s no worries. These buckets also provide good head space for the krausen, the foamy head that develops during fermentation. I also prefer to use a three-piece airlock. They are much easier to clean than the S shaped ones and do a great job.

The first few days

First, try to get your fermenter to a nice, cool, out-of-the-way place. Most ale yeasts ferment somewhere between 65 to 75 degrees fahrenheit. Lager yeasts prefer lower temperatures, between 45 and 55 degrees. I wrote another blog post here about how you can use an outer bucket to keep your fermentation bucket cool.

The airlock should be bubbling within the first 12 to 24 hours, and will probably keep bubbling for a few days. Sometimes, your fermentation may be so active that the krausen will actually push the airlock out. If this is happens, just take one of your normal pieces of plastic tubing (used for bottling and siphoning), sanitize it, then put one end in the hole where your airlock was. Put the other end on a bucket of water. This is called a blow-off tube and is extremely helpful when your fermentation has gone into overdrive.

When is it done?

When the airlock stops bubbling, it does not mean that your fermentation has stopped! Typically fermentation will take between 7-10 days, but this is just a general estimate. It is extremely important that you don’t bottle your beer before fermentation has stopped, or you run a very high risk of sub-par beer, or even worse, exploding bottles. Here’s where patience comes in. I always let my primary fermentation continue for a full 2 weeks, just to ensure that it has run its course. You can let it ferment for longer if you want, but 2 weeks is a good rule of thumb for me.

If you’re unsure about whether or not your fermentation has completed, pull out your trusty hydrometer, sanitize it, and take a reading. Do this again the next day and see how much the readings have changed. If they are the same, then your fermentation is done and you’re ready to bottle. However, if you use the 2 week rule, there’s little chance you’ll have to do this.

What about a secondary fermentation?

Some people like to rack their primary fermentation to a secondary fermenter, typically a carboy. I’ve done this many times and in my experience, I don’t see or taste a big enough difference in the final product to make this worth the effort. There are some cases where you will definitely want to do this though. The first is when you are dry hopping your beer. In fact, any type of addition, such as vanilla beans or oak chips are best added to a secondary fermentation. A secondary fermentation also helps clear your beer. If this is important to you, then a secondary fermentation would be useful. However, for normal batches that I’m not adding anything special to and aren’t going into a competition, a single fermentation will do just fine.

It’s ready!

Once your fermentation is complete, you’re ready to bottle. Simply sanitize your bottling bucket (the one with the drilled hole and spiggot) and siphon your beer from the fermentation bucket to the bottling bucket. One thing that I always do is to filter the beer while I siphon it into the bottling bucket. I just use the racking cane and hose to siphon, and at the end of the siphoning hose, I hold a metal coffee filter inside a funnel and let the beer run into that. The metal coffee filter catches all kinds of junk, but lets the beer flow through pretty easily. I also keep the tip of the funnel against the bucket wall so it runs down gently without splashing.

Remember, patience is a virtue, especially when waiting for your wort to ferment into a delicious beer!

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3 Responses to Are we there yet? A guide to managing your fermentation

  1. Chris says:

    Great beginner’s guide to the fermentation process! Waiting it out is often the hardest part. It can age in a fermenter (especially secondary) for many weeks, and most of the time just gets better!

    One word of warning I want to add is that I would not recommend filtering the beer when you siphon into the bottling bucket. Any advantage you get from filtering is lost 10-fold by aerating the beer. This will cause it not to store as long before going stale and can introduce off-flavors.

    When siphoning into the bottling bucket, put the hose all the way to the bottom of the bucket and let it fill with as little disturbance as possible. The only time you want to introduce oxygen to your beer is right after you cool it down after your boil because at that point, the yeast need it. Otherwise, try to avoid any additional contact with oxygen.

  2. Scott H says:

    Thanks for the comments! It’s interesting what you said about aerating and oxidizing the beer during filtering, I’ve never noticed an issue with the quality of the beer. If you don’t filter it, how do you get the floating debris out of the beer?

    Oxidation is one of those things that I hear a lot of people get all worked up about, and I’m still not sure if it’s that big of a deal unless you’re storing your beer for a long time… which isn’t the case at my house. Looks like I’ve got some research to do this weekend.

    • Chris says:

      No problem!

      I filter it when I take it from the boil kettle into the fermenting bucket/carboy to get out the leftover hops and hot/cold break. This also helps with the needed aeration at this point.

      As long as you let it ferment long enough, and especially if you transfer to a secondary, there shouldn’t be any floating debris left when it comes time to bottle. I have not ever noticed any. And even if there is some, it will settle to the bottom of your bottle or keg once you put it in the fridge.

      Yeah, oxygen is mostly an issue with storage. I’m doing 10 gallon batches and brewing up a ton for a wedding, so it needs to be able to age well without going stale, so I’ve done some research on oxygen. But it’s true, as long as you’re drinking it pretty quickly, you don’t need to worry about it for the most part. I just think the pros/cons of filtering at that late stage lean in favor of not filtering (plus, less equipment to clean and sanitize!)

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