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Homebrew Questions: Skipping Secondary and Tinfoil Airlocks

Lately, I’ve been too “busy” (a nice way of saying “lazy”) to keep up with the beers I have in primary fermentation.  I also broke a plastic airlock trying to pry it free from a stubborn bung, leaving me short this key piece of equipment.  This remarkable combination of laziness and manual inadequacy has led me down the path of possible experimentation with my home brew. 

First, let’s talk fermentation.  I have a Belgian Dubbel that’s been sitting in primary for about six weeks.  The directions call for transferring the beer to secondary and keeping it there for four weeks after primary fermentation has completed.  So basically, it’s ready to be bottled now.  The question is do I send it to secondary for a while, or do I go right to bottling?  I’ve had some folks tell me they NEVER bother using secondary fermentation, but I don’t want to wreck the batch by not following the instructions.  Plus, I’ve never tasted their beer, so who knows, right? Any insights are appreciated here.

One reason I’ve been so lax with transferring this beer to secondary is because I’m short an airlock, because I snapped the one I had been using with my secondary fermenter when I bottled my last batch.  Basically, I’ve had no way of safely capping the secondary, so I haven’t used it.

I broke the airlock weeks ago and have had time to get another one, but I don’t want to pay shipping for a single item, and my “local” home brew shop is pretty far away.  So instead I’ve been kind of frozen. But then I remembered a comment made by our pal Evan Burck (who makes some crazy-good homebrew) who said he uses tinfoil as airlock – I think – it was a while ago, and I might have the wrong guy and wrong info.  Anyway, does this sound crazy or doable?  If I can use tinfoil and rubber bands on the secondary, then I have everything I need.

Please share any insights you have on this stuff.  And remember, the reason I keep screwing up is so you guys can show how accomplished you are and that others can learn from your experience.  It’s not because I suck.  🙂

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Categories: Beer, Home Brew, Home Brewing

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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65 Comments on “Homebrew Questions: Skipping Secondary and Tinfoil Airlocks”

  1. Evan
    April 14, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    1: I never use secondary. Ever. They’re useless and only cause one more place for infection to happen.

    2: I’m a tinfoil believer! Couldn’t tell you the last time I used an airlock.

    • Evan
      April 14, 2011 at 10:05 am #

      reason for the foil: you have positive pressure coming from inside the fermenter. bacteria can only fall down, not climb up. there’s no way for it to go up and insidet he foil cover if you keep it tight around the top.

    • Matt M
      April 14, 2011 at 10:40 am #

      This guy speaks the truth. Secondaries are evil containers. You can even dry hop in primary. I lost my last batch to an infection that probably snuck in during my transfer to secondary to dry hop it. Your beer will clear just as well in primary. As long as you have good technique racking the beer into your bottling bucket and you avoid the trub then any benefit of secondary is lost. The only time I would recommend a secondary is if you’re going to bulk age a beer 4+ months. I would be worried about leaving my beer on the yeast cake that long.

      • April 14, 2011 at 11:04 am #

        I’ve never been accused of having “good technique” when it comes to brewing, but if it simplifies the process, I’ll do my best and that’ll be that.

      • johnking82
        April 14, 2011 at 11:10 am #

        Your infection could have came from a number or things, mostly sanitization issues regarding other things besides the use of just a secondary. Last I checked, Infection wasn’t a monster who lives in a Secondary fermenter and attacks beer once it is in there.

        • April 14, 2011 at 11:22 am #

          I think the point is moving the beer introduces many opportunities to introduce a bug into the beer. Having it stay put eliminates this risk, and if a move isn’t really necessary for the quality of the beer, then why take the chance? I agree with minimizing opportunities for a bug to take your beer.

      • Matt M
        April 14, 2011 at 11:15 am #

        John, I hear you. It was absolutely my lack of sanitizing somewhere. The problem is I’m a stickler for sanitizing and I *still* managed to introduce an extra bug in there. The transfer process involves hose, an auto-siphon and a new container with a new bung. Point being, there is more opportunity to get extra critters/oxygen in and what is the benefit? Ales can bulk age on the yeast cake without a problem. You can dry hop and oak in primary as well. I have yet to hear a solid reason why a secondary is necessary or provides benefits over just leaving it in primary with the sole exception of long-term bulk aging where there is the chance of autolysis.

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:02 am #

      I thought you were the tinfoil guy, Evan. I think it’s to the point where I’ll bottle the Belgian without secondary and see how it goes.

      • Don
        April 14, 2011 at 11:04 am #

        You should start a new blog and call it “The Lazy Brewer” with Jim Galligan!

        • April 14, 2011 at 11:23 am #

          Great idea, especially if I never posted anything or shared any updates or info. That’d really drive the point home!

  2. brewner
    April 14, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    personally, i don’t do secondaries unless its a sour. you *could* say that kegging is my secondary, as it clears the beers being cold and being still for months on end. if i dry hop, it’s at the end of primary. if it’s oak, cocoa nibs, vanilla, etc, it goes in the keg with a sure screen. if kegging were not an option, i would probably secondary with that stuff.

    as for airlocks, it depends on the cleanliness of the surrounding area. it IS spring time and ants like maltose. i just put foil on my starters on my stir plate, everything else gets and airlock.

    my $.02

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:06 am #

      I have an imperial stout that needs to spend some time on oak, and I’ll definitely be putting that in secondary and using as honest to goodness airlock (it’ll be in there for a while). But I’m curious to try tinfoil in primary…

  3. Brandon
    April 14, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    No need for secondary unless you dry hop or have other additions like oak… etc.

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:07 am #

      I’ve oak aged about half of my beers so far, and those always go into secondary. Mmm…bourbon oak aged anything!

  4. April 14, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    To secondary or not to secondary? A perennial subject of debate. Bigger beers like dubbels can benefit from secondary fermentation. They will age/condition more consistently since the beer is being conditioned in bulk (as opposed to in the bottle), and you will minimize the chance of picking up off flavors from long storage on the yeast cake. However, the length of time a beer must sit on a yeast cake before picking up off flavors is often subject to debate. Another argument against secondary is that you risk oxidizing the beer when transferring it. Personally, I like to do a secondary for big beers (7% and up). Six weeks is probably long enough for your dubbel, so you could probably bottle it.

    I’ve used tinfoil airlocks on yeast starters, but never with a fermentor. However, I’ve seen pictures of folks doing this. I bet it would be OK so long as the foil was sanitized; the rubber band is also a good idea. If you have an extra bit of hose that fits in the bung, you could do a blow-off tube instead.

    Really enjoy the blog, by the way!

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:08 am #

      I have an Imperial Stout that’ll be spending a couple of months on Four Roses soaked oak planks, and that’ll go into secondary with a proper airlock. It should be ready for the holidays! 🙂

      • johnking82
        April 14, 2011 at 11:12 am #

        i expect a bottle. with a bear drawn on the lable. preferably this one: http://x96.xanga.com/7a3f9a1165d35267158975/m213107765.png

        • April 14, 2011 at 11:24 am #

          That’s an awesome bear!

          Snuggie Bear Scotch Ale, coming right up!!

        • Don
          April 14, 2011 at 11:52 am #

          That looks like a deranged Gopher.

  5. johnking82
    April 14, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    1. Quit being a lazy ass and get an airlock.
    2. Would be interested to see the tinfoil airlock though.
    3. Everyone does their beer their own ways, but I always use a secondary. Mainly because I generally dry hop and always add oak or other things to my beers. I generally get creative with my beer. I like getting the trub out, transferring it to the secondary and I feel (although others might not) it cleans and clears the beer a lot better. Just my opinion…I dont think there is a right or wrong.

    • April 14, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      I’m with you on the secondary. I get the argument against it, but I’ve never had issues with it.

      • April 14, 2011 at 11:14 am #

        The issue is that I’d like to skip it if it doesn’t help the beer because I’m deeply, deeply lazy. I thought that was clearly established, Zac. 🙂

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:13 am #

      1. This leopard’s not about to change his spots.
      2. My laziness will satisfy your curiosity, so is it so bad?
      3. I always use secondary for oak aged stuff, including a wee heavy Scotch ale I’m going to brew and age with shredded Four Roses barrel chips. Woot! 🙂

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:43 am #

      I second the motion on the secondary. I almost always get renewed fermentation when I transfer to a secondary. I can be somewhat lazy too with regards to getting around to bottling, and I’d rather have it sitting around in a secondary with less sediment if I do procrastinate. But, I have read that if you’re brewing with a lower volume of fermentable sugars that just leaving in a primary will be okay also.

      • April 14, 2011 at 11:50 am #

        Solid advice, but now I fear transferring after six weeks will allow for oxidization (see above). My procrastination came too early in the process!

  6. ray larkin
    April 14, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    My.02, Foil is ok while the fermentation is strong, but run risks when it slows(you may get some oxegen transfer after primary,O2 bad). The only time I secondary is when I’m adding stuff (fruit,oak,chocolate,whatever, or do very long lagering)or just want to get my beer off the trub for some reason. Advice is good, but everyone’s experience may differ.

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:17 am #

      I agree about getting it off the trub. 8 weeks is my personal limit for this, but it’s totally arbitrary.

      And I want to try the foil thing, but probably won’t if I replace my airlock first – there’d be no reason to. We shall see…

  7. April 14, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    I will say that I find the posts asking for homebrew advice way more helpful than discussion boards. There’s a certain type of brewer who always responds on those forums that just doesn’t work for me.

    • johnking82
      April 14, 2011 at 10:36 am #

      agreed. everyone does things differently…if we didnt…we’d all be drinking bud light.

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:15 am #

      I certainly find the info I get here to much better and more clear than all the other stuff out there. That’s why I keep doing these silly “help me” posts – you guys give the best answers and there are no (or very few) yahoo’s giving bad advice.

      • johnking82
        April 14, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

        can you get a “help me” post involving how to get wives to invite their hot friends over and drink heavily and a hottub maybe be involved?

        • Don
          April 14, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

          Only if you invite a bear too… 😉

        • April 14, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

          Oh, I need no help there, fella. 😉

  8. PuGz
    April 14, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    1) If it has been six weeks don’t transfer to a secondary. You may not get enough fermentation to protect your beer from oxidizing.

    2) As for the air lock you can make a blow-off tube that would be more effective then the tin foil.

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:27 am #

      Didn’t think (or know) about the oxidizing risk – that’s a very good tip, PuGz.

      I’ll see if I have a tube laying around – I bought a kit to start and there’s a few tubes that I haven’t used yet. I bet one is a blow off.

      • Matt M
        April 14, 2011 at 11:31 am #

        You can connect a blowoff hose to the tube inside a standard three piece airlock for the early, vigorous part of fermentation then just take the hose off and put the airlock together after the krausen calms down. No mess, no fuss, no transferring bungs. You have to use a larger diameter hose though or you will have a heck of a time getting it off the airlock.

        • April 14, 2011 at 11:50 am #

          You can’t just keep the tube in place?

      • Matt M
        April 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

        Well certainly Lazy Jim.

  9. April 14, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    I asked the members of a private group on Facebook. On guy who has an answer for every homebrew question ever provided the following response:

    “Secondaries are not necessary for beers that you want to turn around quickly. Secondaries are really only necessary for: 1) aging a beer (i.e., getting it off of the trub from the primary to avoid autolysis); 2) helping to clear the beer – you can however cold crash your primary after fermentation is complete and reap the same benefits of clearing the beer of yeast; and 3) dry-hopping or adding an adjunct like oak, coffee etc… – this of course is not necessary and can also be done in the primary. So it all just depends on how quickly you want the beer to be ready.”

    I asked him what he practices…

    “Average/low gravity beer = 2 weeks primary (or when ferm is complete, Belgians sometimes take longer), 1 week cold crash then onto the keg for carbonation. If dry-hops are involved (or an adjunct), then I will move it to a secondary and let the yeast clean up after itself naturally while adding hop aroma etc… If it’s a high gravity beer, then 3 weeks primary and into the secondary until I feel it’s ready (sometimes this is glass, or even a keg). Higher OG beers mature better/quicker when they are is in one vessel vs. multiple bottles.”

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:48 am #

      Good info, Zac. I wonder how cold the beer needs to be to “cold crash” it in the primary. Also, does that kill off the yeast that would otherwise provide carbonation?

      • April 14, 2011 at 11:57 am #

        From what I’ve read, something around 45 degrees should work. Most use a refrigerator. I don’t think it will kill off the yeast. It might just cause it to go dormant, but I’m no expert.

        • April 14, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

          Cool.

      • April 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

        Any dormant yeast should be reactivated enough when you add priming sugar during bottling. At least it has during my experiences. It also depends on what yeast you use, smack packs for me have produced far less carbonation versus the active yeast cultures some brew suppliers offer.

        • April 14, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

          I’m becoming aware of the limitations of smack packs. Mostly by drinking flat beer.

  10. April 14, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    Jim,

    Couldn’t you just clean the secondary, transfer the beer, clean up your airlock, and put it on the secondary vessel? Do you have another batch you will be putting in the one that is currently occupied?

    In regard to secondary containers: I could not disagree more with those who say the secondary is worthless. First off, the hot and cold break (trub) will be sitting at the bottom of your fermenter and will eventually effect flavor if you leave it on too long. Second, the cycle of yeast when it flocculates (falls out of suspension) is to gather the stuff it needs for healthy cellular activity on the way down. A byproduct of the flocculation is that the stuff is stores and some other stuff that would be considered off flavors are cleaned up on the way down.

    But if you leave the beer sitting the yeast too long it will begin to degrade. This is called yeast autolysis and those off flavors will begin to slowly leak into the beer. Moving to secondary gets this bee off the trub and yeast allowing it to clean up more, mature more quickly, and to prevent off flavors.

    After fermentation, beer is pretty microbiologically stable, so infection is much harder. Good sanitation will prevent infections. I have always used a secondary and have never had a bacterial infection. I’ve even used fermenters that I made lambics in…just clean them well is the rule. By the way, I’ve brewed more than a 1000 gallons of beer now (5 gallons at a time) and have found secondary fomenters to be a meaningful means of improving beer flavors.

    Additionally, professionals know the value of a bright tank which is conceptually the same thing as a secondary fermenter. Call it conditioning or what you will but you are hard pressed to find pros that aren’t transferring their beer off the yeast and trub for the very reasons I have named.

    As the foil, it might work if you sanitize it and have a tight seal. However, the real strength of the airlock is one way travel in regards to beer. CO2 out and nothing in. The same cannot be said for foil unless you are very careful, even with positive pressure. A tight is hard to get. Personally, I think will probably be fine and work in a pinch but it is not the best method.

    Obviously, my real point of dispute lies with the argument that a secondary is meaningless. By the way, noticeable autolysis can occur as quickly as three weeks. I would also note, as PuGz said, that transferring can be an oxidation risk if too much time has passed and so can container size. So you are best getting a container that you can leave less head space on.

    That’s my two cents on the whole thing.

    • April 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

      Looks like I need another secondary vessel then. I have one, and my stout is headed there this weekend. I have another primary, but don’t want to use it because of headspace issues.

      • April 14, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

        They just keep coming when you really start to get into brewing. Next is the push into mashing…right? 🙂

        • April 14, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

          Right…eventually!!

          I still have two extract kits to brew.

          Maybe that should have been your answer: “Still brewing extract kits? Then who cares how you treat that crap during fermentation!”

        • May 20, 2011 at 9:34 am #

          Funny, I just noticed your reply. Gave me a good laugh.

    • Matt M
      April 14, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

      I would like to read more about your claims, especially that “noticeable autolysis can occur as quickly as three weeks.” Do you have any reference for all of the benefits you’re touting? I’ve never tasted the benefit of a secondary. From what I have gathered in practice and reading it seems secondary lore is passed down and taken as fact rather than based in actual experimentation or scientific results.

      I think homebrew secondaries actually started due to the professional use of bright tanks. It was a way for us lowly homebrewers to act like the big boys. However, bright tanks accomplish more for the pro brewer than just clearing the beer. The most important task they perform for a production line is empty a fermenter for additional production. Bright tanks also perform the cold crash to clear the beer and chill it down for forced carbonation. Pro brewers are working on a much tighter time frame than homebrewers. They will take most beers from grain to bottle in 10 days or so. In order to accomplish that they need a lot of yeast, tight temperature control and a way to clear the beer quickly (bright tank).

      Homebrewers can handle most of those processes without a secondary and we don’t need to go from grain to bottle in 10 days.

      • April 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

        Or from syrup to bottle in my case…

      • Matt M
        April 14, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

        Until the all-grain urge gets too strong! I think of it this way, if there was an apocalypse today and our society was taken back to primitive status, where would I fit in? I would like to think I would be the tribal brewer. I can’t do that if I don’t know how to mash grain, right? 🙂

        • April 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

          True. But we’d still need a bear whisperer, right?

      • johnking82
        April 14, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

        (whisper)

        • April 14, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

          Hey – that’s my gig!!

      • johnking82
        April 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

        you’re just a careless whisperer Jim.

        • Don
          April 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

          Ohhh, You totally got George Michaeled!

        • April 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

          Aw snap, like being Rick-Rolled on my own blog!!

      • April 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

        Apart from this reference in Palmer, I’ve read it in Wolfgang Kunze, the the MBAA handbooks. I’ll look at them when I get home. I’ll admit that Palmer says he has had beer on the yeast for a few months with ill affect but that is a concession to the idea the autolysis is not inevitable. However, it is clear what his opinion is on best practice. I’ll give you the other references when I’m home in front of the books.
        http://www.howtobrew.com/section1/chapter10-3.html

  11. April 14, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    I once used a balloon with a tiny pinprick as an airlock. Needed something in a pinch. It worked just fine. I have since bought a few backup airlocks. Good luck! I have always used a secondary fermentor, I have never had an infection problem, but then again, I don’t have many batches under my belt. I have been getting some nice clean clear beers.

  12. April 14, 2011 at 7:57 pm #

    Charles Bamforth Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing page 153. MBAA Practical Handbook for Specialty Brew Vol 2 page 25-26. Wolfgang Kunze Technology of Brewing and Malting page 368. All agreed on one point, when fermentation is complete (Bamforth mentions a rest for diacetyl, which the others appear to assume) get the beer of the yeast for fear of autolysis…especially if you are propagating.

  13. September 27, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Wait! I’m the Lazy Brewer 🙂

    http://lazybrewer.com

    Mark

    • September 27, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

      There can be only one!

      Wait, that’s the Highlander, and I’m waaay to lazy to fight you for the title…

      • September 27, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

        Been at it since early 2008. I’d arm wrestle you for the title of Lazy Brewer!

        But wait, arm wresting would take effort – and I am The Lazy Brewer:)

        Love your blog!

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