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Ask the Experts: Do I Need a Conical Fermentor to Make Good Beer?

Homebrew expert Brad Smith, author of the Beersmith homebrewing software and the voice behind the Beersmith podcast, examines the importance of conical fermentors.

Brad Smith 11 months ago

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A Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine reader recently asked us the following question:

I see a lot of homebrewers switching to conical plastic or stainless-steel fermentors. Do I need a conical fermentor to make good beer?

A conical fermentor has a cylindrical main fermentor attached to a conical bottom. The cone is typically set at around a 60° angle, which allows any sediment or yeast to slide rapidly down the cone and settle in the bottom. This leaves minimal contact between the sediment and beer and makes it easy to draw the sediment/yeast off the bottom using some kind of dump valve at the bottom of the cone.

A conical fermentor is what professionals call a “unitank,” in that every stage of fermentation can be completed in the same vessel (primary, secondary, tertiary, clearing/aging) without needing to transfer the beer from vessel to vessel. Yeast can be harvested for reuse from the bottom of the tank, and typically, every few days the sediment is drawn off so it will not affect remaining beer. Commercial conicals also have temperature control for precise fermentation profiles.

Home conicals have the same advantages: You can ferment and age beers for an extended period in the same vessel without transfers, and you can harvest yeast easily and keep your beer separated from sediment. Lower-priced plastic conicals have collection balls for harvesting yeast, thermo-wells to monitor temperature, and are priced competitively. Higher-end home stainless-steel conicals have similar features and often add separate racking valves, and some have optional temperature-control systems. Some larger ones can also be pressurized for low-pressure oxygen-free transfers using a CO2 tank.

All of that being said, a conical is not required to make great beer. In fact, you can ferment great beer in a cheap food-grade plastic bucket as long as you use proper sanitation techniques. You can certainly separate your beer from sediment by just racking it to another vessel, and you can harvest yeast from the bottom of your bucket or carboy. A conical just offers some time savings, less risk during transfers, and ease of use, particularly for larger batches (10 gal/38 l or larger), where it becomes harder to lift and transfer large volumes of beer.

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