Fermenting Your First Beer
Choosing Your Fermenter
So now you have the fruit of your labors cooled in the boiling pot and you feel like celebrating. But don't call in your friends because it's not beer yet. It won't be beer until you have pitched your yeast, and the beer won't be finished until it has completed fermenting which is probably a couple weeks away at least. And then you will still need to bottle it... But have no fear, the hard part is over.
What we need to do now is transfer it to your fermenter, make sure the wort has been aerated, pitch the yeast, and find a quiet place to put the fermenter for the next couple weeks.
Buckets vs. Carboys
There are two types of fermenter commonly available: food grade plastic buckets (bins) and glass carboys. Each type has its own merits. The plastic buckets are slightly less expensive than the glass and much safer to handle. The buckets have the outstanding option of being fitted with spigots, which makes siphoning unnecessary; a real plus. The buckets are typically 6 gallons, giving 1 gallon of headspace for the fermentation, which is usually sufficient.
The spigot option eliminates siphoning and is practically a necessity at bottling time. A bottling bucket with a spigot allows greater control of the fill level. In my opinion, this is the only way to bottle.
Although you will need a siphon, glass has the advantage of letting you see your beer and be able to gauge the activity of the fermentation. There are two sizes commonly available, a 6 1/2 gallon size that is perfect for primary fermentations and a smaller 5 gallon size which is ideal for secondary fermentation. The large size typically has enough headspace to contain the krausen, while the 5 gallon size almost completely eliminates the headspace above the beer, preventing oxidation during the conditioning phase. You will need to shield the carboys from the light, but you can easily tell when fermentation is over and the yeast is settling out.
Airlocks vs. Blowoffs
The decision to use an airlock or blowoff hose is determined by headspace. Usually the buckets and large carboys have enough headspace (at least 3 inches) that the foam does not enter the airlock. If the fermentation is so vigorous that the foam pops the airlock out of the lid, just rinse it out with sanitizer solution and wipe off the lid before replacing it. Contamination is not a big problem during the primary phase. With so much coming out of the fermenter, not much gets in. If the fermentation keeps filling the airlock with crud and popping it out, there is an alternative.
The alternative is called a blowoff hose and it allows foam and hop remnants to be carried out of the fermenter. A blowoff is a necessity if you are using a 5 gallon carboy as your main fermenter. Get a 1 inch diameter plastic hose and fit this snugly inside the mouth in the carboy or enlarge the hole in the bucket lid if necessary. Run the hose down the side and submerge the end in a bucket of sanitizer/water. It is important to use a large diameter hose to prevent clogging. If the tube gets clogged, the fermenter can get pressurized and blow goo all over the ceiling, or worse - burst.