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.