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4 Reasons I’m Not Getting a Conical Fermenter

Blichmann 14 gallon Fermenator conical fermenter

SEXY BEAST: Blichmann Engineering's stainless steel conical fermenters are alluring pro-sumer brewing vessels that top many homebrewers' gear wish lists.

If you’re brewing beer at home, chances are you’ve dreamed of owning your own stainless steel conical fermenter. This beautiful piece of gear has managed to achieve holy grail status among homebrewers; it’s perhaps the ultimate sign of your dedication to the hobby.

I’ve had those same dreams. For years, my brewing friends and I have looked toward the day when we could afford to add this pricey yet functional tool to our arsenal. After all, the oft-touted benefits of a stainless steel conical fermenter are many: It’s easy to clean; it’s designed specifically for fermentation (unlike a bucket or other vessel that is repurposed); it doesn’t scratch; it makes it really easy to dump and harvest yeast; it can be pressurized to easily force beer to another vessel; and (maybe most exciting of all) it looks professional and cool.

Well, that day I dreamed of has arrived. I turned 40 just over a week ago and yesterday was Father’s Day. Sometime last week my supportive wife suggested I get a conical for the big occasion and my heart went a-flutter. But then the soul-searching—and some Internet searching too—started. If it was some small-ticket item, I may not have given it a second thought. These 14-gallon fermenters I had my eye on, however, start at $599 retail. With tricked out (read: more convenient) plumbing options, they total over $800, while others with temperature-control options are priced much higher.

Was this something I really needed?

I ultimately came to the conclusion it wasn’t. Here’s why:

1. I believe it’s more of a luxury than a necessity. Sure, I’d be the envy of many a homebrewer if I had a conical, but frankly, I’d rather brewers be envious of my beer. Adding pricy gear to my setup isn’t going to make the latter happen. After much research, I don’t think a conical makes a huge difference in the end result. Yes, it gives you some different options to play with, but many, many brewers make award-winning beer with simpler setups than I already have. Despite my strong desire to acquire more gear (apparently a common affliction among homebrewers), I’m trying to stay focused on mastering the tools I do have.

2. I’m lazy. Renowned homebrewer and author Jamil Zainasheff brought this point up on a “Fermentors” episode of the Brew Strong podcast, and I can relate. Disassembling and reassembling all the valves and other plumbing after each brew session—which you should do to be as clean as possible—takes extra time and energy. I have enough difficulty finding time to brew as it is. I need to shorten my brew days, not lengthen them. Plastic buckets and Better Bottles, on the other hand, can be soaked and then swiped with a sponge (buckets) or swirled vigorously with a washcloth inside (Better Bottles); in other words, relatively low maintenance. (Full disclosure: I opt not to use glass vessels due to safety concerns.)

3. I need more than one fermenter. Sometimes I brew more than one beer at a time, or sometimes I’d like the opportunity to split one batch into two fermenters for A-vs.-B comparisons. Neither scenario is possible with one conical, unless I want to pick which beer is more deserving of the “good fermenter.” And dropping a ton of money on two or more conicals is not an option.

4. It’s expensive. Actually, it’s a matter of value. I could buy about 33 6-gallon Better Bottle fermentation vessels for the price of one 14-gallon Blichmann Fermenator with the Tri-Clamp Fittings. There are cheaper alternatives out there, like conicals from Stout Tanks and Kettles—still $500 for 14.5-gallon capacity and currently out of stock. (Incidentally I ruled out even cheaper plastic conicals for fear I would scratch them. Plastic buckets and Better Bottles can scratch too, but they can be replaced for a fraction of the cost.) Bottom line, the benefit-to-cost ratio isn’t high enough to sell me on a stainless steel conical fermenter. For my trusty Blichmann BoilerMaker brew kettle, on the other hand, I determined that—to me—the value was high enough to merit the purchase of a relatively expensive kettle.

For some, a fifth factor could be the need for temperature control, which usually goes hand-in-hand with conical fermenters. (What’s the point of having a great fermenter if you’re subjecting the beer inside to the whims of room temperature?) This could require the purchase of a fridge or freezer large enough to house a fermenter. You’ll also need some sort of temperature controller (basically a thermostat) to regulate temps inside your fridge or freezer. I am lucky enough to be getting a used but new-to-me refrigerator soon, so finding a fermentation chamber wasn’t going to be a problem. This additional equipment is definitely something to consider though if you are shopping for a conical fermenter.

If you’re sold on the idea of buying a conical, don’t let me dissuade you. At some point I may very well invest in one or more of the alluring vessels as my needs change. But for now, it’s not the piece of gear that I need to be spending my—or anyone else’s—money on.

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Discussion

37 Responses to “4 Reasons I’m Not Getting a Conical Fermenter”

  1. This is a great article. I too have really wanted one of these 14.5 gallon conicals. I’ve been saving for awhile and everything I *almost* have the $ together, there is other equipment or ingredients I need instead. Finally I have deceided that I’ll just stick with Better Bottles for now. This article puts to words exactly what I’ve been thinking.

    Posted by Ratchet | June 21, 2011, 7:13 AM
  2. yeah i have been wanting one of these shortly after going to all grain to complete the collection still will but not stainless going DIY with plastic the actual conical hoppers are $70 for a 80L plastic hopper with lid after some mods it will be all ready and to me $70 and some time making a new one wont be a issue and all the other parts will be stainless just no pressure just a bubble cap i like the idea of the dumping the yeast and turb and doing primary and secondary in one fermenter without yeast doing funky stuff

    Posted by chris | July 12, 2011, 1:23 PM
    • Wow Chris, take a breath! Haha. Just kidding, but that was a long sentence. Thanks for the comment and good luck with the DIY plastic conical. My concern with going that route is that I would accidentally scratch the inside plastic and would need to replace it. The price and other advantages are nice, though, if you can keep the plastic clean and scratch-free. Let me know how it goes with your conical and the mods once you break it in.

      Posted by Doug Brumley | July 12, 2011, 2:04 PM
  3. As someone who just started homebrewing the Conical was already the one piece of equipment I had most been eyeing up as a 1 day I will brew that much and that well to deserve one. That changed after reading this article and changed in a good way. It is about the beer that I brew and the beer that I have only in my head, not about the gear I brew it on.

    Thanks.

    Posted by Rick | July 12, 2011, 7:22 PM
    • As with most hobbies, it’s easy to get sucked into the gear want list when homebrewing. Everyone does it at some point. (For example, now I’m thinking hard about adding a plate chiller!) One need look no further than Charlie Papazian, though, for proof that great homebrew can be made without high tech gadgets. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      Posted by Doug Brumley | July 12, 2011, 7:39 PM
  4. I’m a novice home brewer, and I brew with my cousin’s setup. Lately he’s had his eye on a stainless conical fermenter and has been dropping hints like crazy that the family should all get him gift certs for the home brew shop for his birthday. I’m sending him a link to this article. Cheers.

    Posted by Erik | July 28, 2011, 1:00 PM
    • Thanks for the comment and for sharing the article, Erik. The stainless conicals sure are alluring and one may suit your cousin’s needs. Still, it never hurts to give something a long, hard look before you drop that kind of cash. Good luck with your brewing!

      Posted by Doug Brumley | July 28, 2011, 1:10 PM
  5. Strangely, you don’t see many (I havn’t found any)used stainlees conical fermenters for sale. Once purchased, are the homebrewers satisfied with their product’s performance?

    Posted by Ron Quinlan | March 12, 2012, 9:12 PM
  6. I myself have searched for stainless for quite some time n after walking into local brew shop was happy to see it sitting on the floor.
    I have read ups n downs
    but I don’t brew beer just spirits.
    My equipment has already paid for itself over n over. was worried about keeping temp but happy to know that is not an issue. I know its pricey n i dont need it but those plastic screw crevices annoy me a tad, as well as the plastic seems. so il give steel a go

    Posted by brendan seiler | May 26, 2012, 8:10 AM
  7. Hey Doug! Excellent post and great insight to the world of conicals!

    As a thrifty (cheap) homebrewer contemplating this issue, I had many sleepless nights. I even did a bit of research into fabricating my own conical for fermentation, but eventually caved and bought one of the mini brew plastic conicals. I hope you’ll indulge me in my rant. :)

    1. Homebrew quality: I’ve always been a perfectionist and I’m happy to go to great lengths to get better quality from my homebrews.

    After using a conical, I’ve completely stopped using clarifying agents such as Irish moss for the sake of clearer beer.

    After all, I want to taste barley and hops, not seaweed. =)

    Your inactive yeast and other non-tasty bits to drop down the cone and have a smaller surface area, making for cleaner flavor and clearer beer. In fact, I simply purge off a few ounces of yeast as it builds up on the bottom.

    I’ve noticed a dramatically quicker time-to-keg and incredibly clearer beer when compared to racking into secondary and tertiary fermentations. Also, see #4 below about losing less beer to racking and its impact on cost.

    2. Laziness: In my case, I switched from 6.5 gallon glass fermenters to the 6.5 gallon plastic conical. It’s significantly lighter and easier to clean. I simply reach my arm down the wide top and clean it out with a non-scrubby sponge.

    Since I’m turning out batches from a single vessel (no secondary fermenters) I don’t have thick trubby build-up on the bottom of the fermenter anymore. No more bottle brushes, no more heavy, death defying acrobatics swirling glass jugs half full of cleaner or sanitizer around the kitchen. =))

    Let’s not forget about the laziness factor in racking. You’ve got to clean and sanitize the gear, rack it into the new container, and clean the previous container. Even with a bit of practice, you can get the time down to a few minutes. Wouldn’t you rather just purge off a bit of dead yeast and muck in a matter of seconds and get back to drinking homebrews? :)

    3. Multiple batches and Price: These are points I totally agree on. I paid 180 for a plastic conical and I could have purchased multiple glass fermenters instead. I could have had enough glass to brew every weekend without ever running out of fermenter space.

    I suppose if you could quantify the quicker clarifying times in a conical you could argue for higher quality batches per vessel, but that’s a hard point to argue and it could be susceptible to many fallacies. After all, we could just shorten the fermentation times if we’re concerned with production times.

    Some people say time is money but I don’t get paid to drink homebrew at home. I guess if you have a hat that allows for hands free beer drinking the factor might be reduced here. :P

    All in all, I’m grateful for your insights but I thought I would toss in my opinions since I made the leap. Cheers and happy home brewing!

    Posted by Mike | June 12, 2012, 11:48 AM
    • Mike, thanks for the informed comment. I love to hear other opinions on this topic and must admit I still looking leeringly at conicals. I may make the jump one day. Thanks for reading the blog and taking time to comment. You make some great points that are good to have on record along with this article.

      Posted by Doug Brumley | June 12, 2012, 1:14 PM
    • Hey Mike, excellent rant! In my opinion Doug’s most compelling argument was difficulty in controlling fermentation temperatures, which as we all should know is paramount. How do you control temps when fermenting in your conical? I think I’ve bee eying the same plastic one that you just bought!

      Posted by Chad | May 9, 2013, 11:17 AM
      • Hi Chad, thanks, sometimes I rant a while.

        I ferment in a (very) small room which is either heated or cooled to temperature depending on the season.

        I don’t specifically measure the temperature of the vessel, just the ambient temperature.

        I have plans for an STC1000 to make a fermentation chamber. Maybe that’ll come together someday. Hopefully

        Posted by Mike | October 15, 2013, 4:38 PM
  8. Just stumbled onto this site. I have a 14.5 fermenter, with the legs. I love mine. Yes, it’s a investment but well worth every penny. And it’s paid for it’s self over 10 years of brewing, i bought mine on a layaway system 100 bucks at a time (you can spend more than this on good beer in a month). I had to quit brewing for a few months, so I cleaned it and stored it. It was waiting for me all cleaned in it’s chamber. I’ve modified a couple of things, the o-ring and the dump valve, at the bottom of the cone is not the greatest thing. I use a hose washer, works better and is cheaper than the o-rings. I think a conical is a great investment for a Brewer.
    ~Ryan

    Posted by Ryan | November 8, 2012, 5:58 PM
  9. I started brewing on a small stove using extract and bottling my beer. My current rig is all stainless custom welded rig with tri-clamp fittings and a full kegging system. I have a stainless conical and plan on getting another. So here is my argument for them by addressing your reasoning.

    1. I believe it’s more of a luxury than a necessity.

    In homebrewing, necessity is hard to define. A conical will allow you to dump yeast at exactly the right time and can provide a cleaner flavor with less sediment. There is no fear of light or oxygen getting in. It’s also amazing if you want to turn beer out quickly. I’ve managed to go grain to glass with the conical and forced CO2 in under two weeks.

    2. I’m lazy.

    The conical is the lazy man’s dream. Remove fittings, soak in cleaner / sanitizer. If you forgot to clean it before a brew day, or want to rack and brew on the same day, there’s no need to soak it, as you can clean everything by hand unlike a better bottle or glass carboy. You never have to rack beer, simply dump the yeast, and you can bottle / keg directly from the fermenter with no siphon hassle.

    3. I need more than one fermenter.

    If you’re comparing yeast, I don’t have a response for this, but here’s an interesting thought. With the conical, I can ferment a 10g batch, then for extended aging, rack 5 gallons each into 2 cheap fermenters. With primary fermentation complete, you guarantee a clean profile from the conical and can do a far more accurate comparison if you want to dry hop one and put another on fruit.

    4. It’s expensive.

    A good conical will last you forever, saving you money on future replacements. Additionally, dumping yeast for re-use is much easier, so I find myself harvesting yeast more frequently and saving money there. If you brew twice a month, you can reuse your yeast a few times and save $20-$30 a month by doing so. This almost pays for the conical in a year.

    The two best things I’ve purchased for brewing (as they pertain to making my life better and easier), are my kegging system, and my conical.

    Posted by Eric | January 13, 2013, 9:26 AM
  10. Thanks Doug and Mike,

    Was thinking about a conical fermenter – reading both of your standpoints was very informative. My main concern would be – can I fit the conical in my fermenting fridge?
    I’ve only just got the fridge but in my opinion its been the best addition to my fermenting equipment so far (with a STC-1000 temp controller)
    Cheers fellas.

    Posted by John | January 19, 2013, 3:02 PM
  11. Guys! Several buddies who homebrew and I have purchased conical fermenters off an AG TECH site (when I find the exact link again I’ll post). The fermenter is commercial food safe plastic and comes with an optional stand…TOTAL investment is about 139.00 (+shipping). You have to purchase a couple of additional parts: 1 1/2″ Ball Valve and a 5/8″ ball valve for transfer. Well worth the investment, fun and status symbol of having a pretty cool piece of gear in my/our garage brewery :) I still have my (3) glass carboys for staging different versions of my brew. BTW…just finished a Pineapple Saison for the spring. Peace and BeersUp!

    Posted by Dirk | January 24, 2013, 1:51 PM
  12. When I first got into brewing I read this and was persuaded to stay away from conicals, I wish I hadn’t. I have a nice 2nd heated garage to brew in, but it is cold out there most of the time. Hauling those glass bottles down to the basement every week, then racking to a secondary glass bottle. Since I brew often, I now have an inventory of 10 glass carboys that all need cleaning and sanitizing at one point or another, not to mention all of the racking and testing equipment every time I want a sample or to dry hop, whereas 3 nice conicals would have done the job and adding a fermentation chamber in the 2nd garage, no more hauling and lifting. Order is going in this week to Stouts and Kettles. I can then get back to brewing instead of so much maintenance.

    Posted by Gary | February 25, 2013, 2:55 PM
  13. Nobody mentioned the other alternative which is fermenting in corny kegs. For $150 you can get 3 stainless kegs,15 gal fermenting space, rack beer using co2, easy clean, no light issues, no scratching etc etc.

    Posted by Jesse | March 9, 2013, 11:43 PM
  14. great objective article. I am 7 batches in, 4 AG, trying to stay economical after buying 15g kettle for $157 amazon. great product, not the brew step to splurge on, aka keg. smart article, five stars.

    Posted by tad | April 19, 2013, 8:20 PM
  15. Piss or get off the pot! Between my every-other-weekend 10 gallon all grain brewing sessions, or my wife’s wine/mead concoctions of excellence, we have 8 carboys that require maintenance, and frankly, I’m rather done with all the sanitizing and hauling! We purchased TWO new plastic conical fermenters today. As we wait to receive shipping, we shall finally rebuild our garage to start our pilot brewery. CHEERS FOLKS!

    Posted by Phill Brewer | April 23, 2013, 8:41 PM
  16. Heres a thought for you.. you want a really cheap way to ferment your batches,.. do what I do.. Go buy some 20gal food grade Polly bags from a supplier.. slip the bag into a 20 or 25gal drum, (open top garbage pale works fine) fill the bag with your wort and pitch the yeast,, twist the bag closed semi tight and keep closed with a plastic ziptie.. the CO2 will gas off as needed and not allow any air to enter,, when its done, siphon off with a sterile hose of your liking… Ive brewed hundreds of batches with this method and it works fine.. cost me 80 cents a bag,, and in the end,, the yeast stays in the bag and I can toss it.. or wash it and reuse.. no mess, no washing out buckets,,no clean up.. try it!!!

    Posted by jungle john | May 5, 2013, 12:54 PM
  17. Actually I’ve been brewing with conicals and tri clamps for years. I’ve also been brewing with pots and pans, buckets and glass carboy fermenters. I guess everybody brews differently, but fermenting with stainless steal is really the way to go if you can afford it. Fermenting out of a bucket is extremely risky in my book. As far as disassembly of the conical with all of it’s tri clamps are a snap. You can unscrew those things just as fast as wiping out the sides of a bucket. You can go cheap and just ferment out of glass carboys, which I’ve used the same ones for about 13 years…or you can buy the cadillac of fermenters and get a nice stainless steal conical…well worth the extra buck

    Posted by aaron | May 20, 2013, 12:52 PM
  18. Hey, let me chime in. I have 2 fermenters, one for ale (a flat bottomed SS Pot, the other a 10 Gal Corney keg I ferment Lagers in. I want the flat bottom so I can leave the yeast cake on the bottom and pitch the new wort right on the left over yeast.

    I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and it works. Less handling of the yeast the better off. I once used a WYeast 1056 ale culture for over 6 months. It will build up excess which you will have to decant off.

    No conicals for me thank you.

    Posted by Bill | May 22, 2013, 9:33 PM
  19. It’s probably pointless to comment on such an old post, but this post keeps getting linked to so I might as well.

    I use a fleet of blichmann conicals, they’re awesome.

    Points #3 and #4 are the same, because there is absolutely nothing keeping you from using more than one conical but money. This is the main point I see people throw about but it is nonsense. Even if you just buy one, if you used to use 3 carboys and now you have 3 carboys and a conical, you are still allowed to use the carboys.

    Point #1: you can say this about almost everything in the brewing process. People are out there making extract beers that win awards, so therefore all-grain is not a necessity either. Same for temp control, yeast starters, nice 3-vessel brew setups etc. Nice equipment always optional in this game. A good conical is just really nice, heirloom quality homebrewing equipment.

    Point #2: If this is a serious factor I’m not sure why you like this hobby at all. It takes me 20 minutes to break down, clean, sanitize, and reassemble one of my conicals on brew day. I normally do this during the boil or during cool down. It adds 0 minutes to the brew day and I get good piece of mind that my equipment is very sanitary.

    So, at the end of the day the only real disadvantage of stainless steel cylindro-conicals: price.

    Some people say they miss not being able to see the beer ferment, but this is worthless and probably only hurts you in the long run, similar to how new brewers always worry endlessly about their airlock bubbles. Taking wort samples is a much more meaningful data point and this is where the conicals shine. You can take a drop or two for your refractometer every day and take the guesswork out of the equation. This is how the pro’s do it.

    Posted by Nick | July 22, 2013, 3:17 PM
  20. I’ve been reading all of these comments with great interest. I’ve been considering a conical for a while. I guess beyond the price issue, I really have a concern about temperature control.

    I live in Washington. During the cold season, I have to ferment inside where it is a stable 69*. In the summer, temperatures range between 59-88 inside and out. We don’t have AC.

    How do conical owners react to a heatwave that was unexpected? Or address the cold temperatures of the night? I have heat pads and carboy baths to maintain temperatures within the yeasts’ prescribed ranges. (During the night, we leave the windows open because it’s 85 – but wake to 58 in the morning.)

    Maybe i’m too new and worrying about minor details. I’ve only brewed about 10 batches so far. Any help from the masses would be helpful.

    Posted by Lance | August 2, 2013, 11:25 PM
  21. Conicals are amazing, but the only thing that keeps be pulling the trigger is temperature control. I can throw 2 6 gallon carboys in a temperature controller freezer and not worry about it, but how do you cool a stainless steel behemoth without investing twice as much as you did for the fermentor?

    Posted by Tiberiu | September 10, 2013, 6:05 AM
  22. Interesting article. Two mates and I have a brew club and have done some nice brews, but limited to 25 litres, which between three of us is not a lot!

    We are now upgrading to 100 litres and although most of that setup is reasonable, the conical fermenter is pricey. However, fiddling about with 4 carboys or one conical? I still think the conical will win

    Posted by Geoff | September 12, 2013, 7:14 AM
  23. Great discussion. I utilize a fermentation chamber made by duct taping 1″ panels of construction styro together to form a 3′ x 5′ x3′ high box on a bench top. Front panel removes to access. For fermentation, I used carboys, demi johns and 20 gal brute trash cans for big batches with great results. I’m thinking about a conical fermenter in the 15 gal range, so my current chamber wouldn’t work unless I rebuilt another on the floor. Curious what you guys with conical fermenters do about maintaining temperature. Thanks.

    Posted by Chris | October 4, 2013, 4:51 PM
  24. I ran across this site in my search for conicals. I am purchasing one for a Christmas gift and know very little about brewing let alone conicals.

    As far as I can tell, the best options are Blichmann and Stout, opting for the later due to price. I am also leaning towards the 7 gallon version for the same reason.

    The lucky recipient currently brews a single keg in a plastic bucket. He generally has one fermenting at all times. He has the temperature control taken care of via launrdy room and wine celler.

    I really don’t want to spend the extra money the 14 gallon, but also don’t want to spend the money on something that will limit him either.

    Thoughts?

    Posted by Shawn | November 26, 2013, 11:52 AM
    • Shawn, if you said he has one brewng all the time, then the incremental cost of the larger fermenter would double his capacity. It doesn’t take much longer to brew 10 gallons over 5.
      I think I need more thoughtful friends like you! Ha!

      Posted by Chris | November 27, 2013, 4:50 AM
      • We have 2 Stout Conicals (14.5 and a 27 Gallon one. They are easy to clean (actually more than the carboys). We have a temp controlled room. I wouls say bigger is better!

        Posted by Fritz | December 5, 2013, 12:27 PM
  25. Wow. Thought provoking article, well written, thanks!

    And all the comments really complete the thought process.

    I’m ten batches in, fully AG, and fully hooked. I’ve been doing primary, secondary in glass carbons. I like glass. I guess it’s a lot of work but I don’t seem to mind it.

    I’m building out a home brewery now though, and I plan to add a 14g conical SS fermenter to go in the ferm ctl chamber aka old freezer with an stc1000.

    So I will continue to use both. The 14g SS conical for 10g batches and the carbons for splits and smaller batches.

    As they say, it’s all good. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, idea and experiences and enjoy the brewing!

    Posted by PhilipCT | March 4, 2014, 6:34 AM
  26. Hi Doug,

    Hope you’re still brewing! I found your site while searching for more info about my newest brewing luxury purchase: http://www.ssbrewtech.com/products/brewbucket

    I picked one up today from my LHBS and am pretty impressed by the price point and build quality. (It’s about as heavy as your average SS turkey cooker kettle and a bit more dent-resistant.) Obviously, I can’t corroborate that they’re stackable (and with four dogs, I’m a little afraid to try) but the rest of the literature matches the product.

    May you always hit your target gravities and volumes,
    Grafton

    Posted by Grafton | March 15, 2014, 5:49 PM

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