I remember being a little bit confused when I first got into homebrewing, what’s a fermenting bucket and for that matter what’s a carboy and at what stage in the process should I use them?
After brewing for a while, I figured out that there are no fixed rules about what vessel you ferment your beer in, however there are certainly some advantages to using one type over another.
So, what should you be using to ferment your beer in?
Brewing buckets are by far the cheaper option and they also have many advantages over carboys, both plastic, and glass, when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing. However, due to the fact that they aren’t see-through, much of the magic of the fermenting process is lost for the first-time brewer.
The thing is though, it’s not all that simple. My choice may not be your choice, so I’ve tried to give a balanced argument for fermenting buckets and carboys, both plastic and glass, below. So please read on for more information.
What’s a fermenting bucket?
I would wager that most homebrewers start off their brewing careers using a fermenting bucket which doubles as a bottling bucket. This is because many starter kits, and the Northern Brewer’s starter kit (link to Amazon) which I highly recommend is included here, often include one as standard.
They are basically a food-grade plastic bucket with a lid, most of the time the lid has a drilled hole which allows you to fit an airlock or blow-off tube.
They do the job and have several advantages over carboys, which we’ll discuss later.
What’s a carboy?
A carboy is a vessel which often comes with a narrower neck than a bucket and can be made from plastic or glass. Outside brewing they are used to store a number of liquids, even acid. However, most brewers know them as their main fermentation vessel.
Again, there are plenty of advantages to using carboys which you won’t get with a fermenting bucket, so let’s get into these now.
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Advantages of Bottling buckets
- easy to store
- easy to clean
Generally, a fermenting bucket isn’t going to cost you the earth, often, as I said before, most brewers will buy one as part of a starter kit. As they are cheap to buy, you don’t have to worry if they happen to get damaged, which to be honest will only come about if you are brewing as the Hulk or something.
As I said, it’s hard to break these things unless you are really man-handling them around your brewery. As long as you are careful whenever listing them when full of wort or beer, you’ll be fine. They are usually made from fairly thick food-grade plastic, but it depends on the brand.
Easy to store
It’s not always a concern for the luckier brewers out there, but those who have to contend with a brew-wife and limited space will prefer fermenting buckets. If you have more than one, you can easily stack them at the end of the brew day and/or store all your other gear inside them. This simply isn’t the case with most carboys which have fairly narrow necks.
Another great thing about fermenting buckets is that they can also double up as bottling buckets, assuming you have two (you should always try to rack your fermented beer before you bottle) or even as a handy cleaning vessel if you upgrade to another type of fermenter.
Easy to clean
In case you didn’t know, homebrewing is 99% about cleaning up after yourself, and of course before yourself. So, anything that makes the job easier really helps. Buckets are generally easy to clean because of the wide access you get right to the bottom. This makes the job much easier than some brands of carboys.
However, some types of plastic might absorb the smell of your last brew. If this is the case for you, check out my article here on how to get the smell out.
When compared to glass, a plastic fermenting bucket is going to be pounds lighter. When you consider the fact that the arrange 5-gallon (19 l) batch already weighs 41 pounds (18 kg) give or take, that’s quite a load to be moving around.
Most of the fermenting buckets you’ll find on the market will give you a lot more headspace than their carboy counterparts. This is important when you are working with yeast which is particularly active and produces a healthy krausen (see my article for more details on krausen).
Rarely will you need to fix a blow off tube to a large fermenting bucket, which is normally required for almost all cases when fermenting in a carboy.
I’ve never actually seen a fermenting bucket which is even remotely transparent, so I’m just spouting this from my own experience. That being said, then non-transparency of these fermenting vessels is really an advantage for the fermenting process.
You shouldn’t have your fermenter in direct sunlight, nor should you have it fermenting in a hot space. So, if you are brewing in winter, by using an opaque fermenting bucket you don’t need to hide your fermenting beer away. Great if space is limited in your home brewery.
General Advantages of carboys
By far the best advantage of both plastic and glass carboys is that they are see-through. The most exciting thing about brewing, except drinking the stuff, is watching your yeast do its thing.
Opaque fermenting buckets don’t offer you a ring-side seat to your beers transformation, and that can actually lead to your beer being compromised.
As so many new brewers want to see what is happening, they open their lids and expose their beer to the air. Often a bacterial infection is the end result. So for this reason alone, carboys win every time.
Generally all carboys both plastic and glass are quite strong. You’ll not break them in normal use, so here they are somewhat on a par with fermenting buckets. However, I’ll come back to this point a little later.
Glass vs plastic carboys
- strong/ breakable
- heat resistant
- easy to clean
Strong but breakable
Glass carboys are a lot more solid than plastic, but of course, there is a risk that you can drop them and shatter the glass or get a crack. This hasn’t happened to me yet but I’ve definitely seen the photos. However, I’d always take the risk and get a glass fermenter.
Although both glass and plastic have this property, I’m really talking about using glass fermenter for a particular task. Of course, if you pour boiling liquid into a glass vessel it can shatter, but most glass carboys have been tempered (as far as I know).
This means that you can actually pour your wort directly into your glass carboy and leave it too cool overnight, which is a really great method to save water as you don’t need to chill it with a wort chiller. See my article for more information and the reasons you may want to do this.
You can still do this with a plastic carboy, but I trust plastic a lot less when it’s heated up than glass. Although you are probably using food-grade plastic, it probably wasn’t designed to hold hot liquid, so chemical leakage into your beer is a possibility.
Again this is another advantage that glass carboys have over plastic ones. If you are fermenting for a longer time or even storing your beer (when talking about glass bottles) there is less chance that air will traverse the sides of a glass carboy as it’s not as porous as plastic.
Easy to clean
Now here what I mean by easy to clean is more the material, especially when you are using glass. Now, there is nothing bad in using a plastic fermenter, but I just find that glass seems to clean up more easily and with less risk of scratching the inside of the fermenter when using a green scrubber.
Of course, I mentioned that a fermenting bucket is normally easier to clean because it has a very wide rim. Most carboys only give you about a couple of inches of access, except one popular brand.
Best fermenting buckets
Ale Pail Fermenting bucket
You can’t go far wrong with this fermenting bucket from Ale Pail. It comes with a lid already drilled for a standard size airlock and has plenty of headroom (6.5-gallon capacity) for your standard batch size. You can check out the latest deals and availability here on Amazon.
Northern Brewer Starter Kit
As I said before if you are just starting out, get yourself a fermenting bucket as part of a starter kit. I recommend the Northern Brewer starter kit (sold on Amazon) one, it’s got everything you need for your first brew.
I really recommend the Big Mouth Bubbler, sold by Northern Brewer on Amazon, if you want all the advantages of a carboy with the cleaning access of a fermenting bucket.
Alternatives to bottling buckets and carboys
Even though they are perhaps more commonplace, you don’t have to settle for fermenting your beer in a plastic bucket or narrow necked carboy.
You can upgrade to something a little bit more engineered than the common place fermenting vessels, or even leave plastic and glass far behind.
Fermentasaurus Starter Kit
This is definitely more than you need on your first brew day, but it is a piece of kit which will allow you to upgrade your batch sizes later on. With a 9 gallon (35 L) capacity, the Fermentasaurus gives you the ability to brew over the normal 5-gallon quantity of beer.
Ss Brewtech Home Brewing Brew Bucket Fermenter
If you want to leave plastic and glass far behind, then the SS Brewtech stainless steel fermenter may be an investment worth making. In all honesty, this isn’t something for a brand-new brewer. For one it’s more than you need to pay before you really get into the craft. Also, you’ll lose the excitement of seeing your beer brewing.
However, if you have a few batches under your belt and have been well a truly bitten by the brewing bug, this would be top of my wish list on Amazon