Stepping up to carboys

By Gregg Smith

Dateline: Vancouver, Washington, location of the now defunct Lucky Brewery. Makes you wonder just how lucky it was. The owner is moving the fermentation tanks to a new brewery and a crew is treating the giants with more care than you'd expect steel tanks would warrant. As the process goes on crane operators and riggers watch anxiously while the vessels are slowly lowered to the security of a transport cradle for their trip to a new home in China.

Why all the care in handling? Simple, those tanks were built in the days before stainless steel. Beer in regular carbon steel tanks will pick up ions from the metal which even stainless steel can transfer into the finished brew. Those older fermenters didn't have that problem because the beer was protected in the tanks by a lining of glass. In fact many large breweries still use this method.

What's the point? Glass is one of the most inert containers devised and as a storage medium it will have minimal impact on the finished beer.

The implication for the home brewer is cleaner beer, and the application is the glass carboy. Most homebrewers start off with a kit which contains a food grade plastic fermenter. It will serve as a reliable primary vessel for several brews but note: it does have a limited life. The reason big commercial brewers don't line their tanks with less expensive plastic also applies to you. Over several cleanings the plastic acquires small scratches. Although nearly invisible to the naked eye these will act as the breeding ground for all types of beer infections. Even microscopic sized scratches are potential beer ruining trouble spots. Glass surfaces are smoother and more durable and should lead you to switch eventually to glass carboys as both your primary and secondary. When you decide to take the plunge there are several considerations, and the first of these is size. A six and one half gallon capacity carboy will function fine as a fermenter and in a five gallon batch the additional head space will reduce the potential of blowing a foamy mass through your airlock. However, a five gallon also has its advantages. Some brewers believe the foamy head which forms on the top of fermenting beer contains overly bitter resins which should be "blown off". Of course to do this you need to rig a blow off tube which we'll get to shortly. The next consideration for either size carboy is the cap or plug. Again each has its advantages. The cap (those weird looking orange things) can hook up either an airlock or a blow-off tube by means of two fittings molded into the top. The problem with the caps is that after several uses they will leak where they grip the carboy. The alternative is a plug but for these you'll need two: one to fit the airlock and another sized for a blow-off tube. Of course if you'd prefer the cap there is a simple way to avoid leaks. Just use a rubber band wrapped around the outside of the cap where it grips the carboy mouth. Doubling over a stout rubber band a couple of times will usually do.

Here's another useful hint. If you go the route of a smaller carboy and use a blow off tube, how do you keep the hose from crimping? A blow off tube uses tubing connected to the carboy cap with the other end dropped into a bucket one third full of B-Brite. Under normal conditions the hose will bend under its own weight at the top point of the loop from the cap down to the container of water (a blow off works like a giant airlock). To avoid the crimped area, which can clog and cause the hose to pop off, resort once again to the brewers trusty friend - a rubber band. Place a large one around the neck of the carboy and then run the hose up in a loop and back down through the rubber band. Adjusting the amount of hose forming the loop will eliminate the crimp and hold the hose in place. (It'll look like a the hook of a candy cane with a rubber band across the top. Do remember if you use a blow off tube that they become dirty hoses which can be difficult to sanitize, so you'll need to replace them often. There are your options; you decide which system is best for you.

Another carboy gadget which proves quite useful is the carboy handle. A caution here - be sure to tighten them firmly around the carboy neck. These are worth the investment because five gallons of beer will weigh more than 40 pounds. Don't be afraid to use a screwdriver and pliers to tighten the handle a bit more than hand tight. And occasionally remove the handle and clean both the carboy neck and handle.

One final hint. When you drain your carboy after sanitizing you'll wonder why it empties so slowly while shaking and noisily going CHA-LUG, CHA-LUG, CHA-LUG... well there's a way to avoid that too. You can either buy a vacuum breaker - which is nothing more than a short piece of plastic, or make your own by utilizing your curved, hard plastic racking tube. Simply rest the carboy's shoulder on the edge of the sink and insert your racking tube into the carboys neck. Surprise! the noise will go away. Without getting too technical what you did was to give the air one path to get in (the tube) and the water another path to get out without them running into each other and battling for limited space in the neck.

So there's your primer on carboys. But what do you do with the old plastic pail? Don't throw it out, just designate it as your sanitation catch all. Fill it with sanitizer when you're ready to brew and dump in all your various brew gadgets: airlocks, carboy caps, hoses, funnels, etc. Often you can even see the commercial brewers using white plastic pails for just that purpose. That's all for now and Good Brewing!

Gregg Smith


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