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.
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!