A perpetual debate among home brewers and on various discussion forums is the merits of aluminum vs stainless steel pots for brewing beer. This week we look at the pros and cons of each to help you make your own educated decision on your next beer brewing pot.
Aluminum pots are widely available and inexpensive because aluminum cookware is widely used for preparing foods. Inexpensive Turkey pots in the 36 quart range can be found at your local Walmart, particularly right after Thanksgiving at great prices. Aluminum pots cost considerably less than stainless steel – often half as much. Aluminum is a better conductor of heat than steel, so your pot will come to a boil faster and also cool down faster after you are done boiling.
The only major disadvantage of aluminum is that it will oxidize, so you can’t use oxygen-based or caustic cleaners such as Oxyclean. This is the major reason why professional brewing equipment is made of stainless steel and not aluminum – the stainless steel is easier to clean with caustic cleaning agents. Also, over time aluminum will get an oxide layer over it which can discolor the aluminum and give it a grey tone. This is not a cause for concern – the layer of aluminum oxide actually protects the pot, but it is not as pretty as stainless steel.
I feel it is important to address a number of myths about aluminum. First, aluminum pots are not linked to Alzheimer’s disease. A number of medical studies since the 1970′s have found zero link between Alzheimer’s and the use of aluminum. Keep in mind that every day you drink soda from aluminum cans (though most are lined) and eat food prepared in aluminum cookware – it is safe.
A second myth is that aluminum will react with acidic content of the wort and either add off flavors or eat away at your pot. This is also untrue – water has a pH of7.0, your wort has a pH of around 5.2, while spaghetti sauce can run as low as 4.6 and the most acidic diet sodas you drink run as low as 2.5. For comparison, battery acid has a pH of 1.0. Your wort is simply not acidic enough to react with your aluminum pot.
Stainless steel pots are the “Cadillac” of brewing pots, with designer pots running into the many hundreds of dollars in price. They are more expensive than comparable aluminum pots, but are a favorite of serious brewers. Stainless steel will remain shiny, as the passive oxide layer is not visible – so its easy to tell when your stainless pot is truly clean.
An advantage of stainless steel is that you can use oxygenated cleaners on it, which makes it a favorite with professional brewers who need to clean large vats. You should avoid long term exposure to bleach based cleaners as these can pit your stainless steel pots and vessels.
Stainless steel is stronger than the softer aluminum metal, so it is less prone to denting and scratching for a comparable wall thickness. However, you are unlikely to outlive a well made stainless or aluminum pot in either case. Stainless has a strongly bonded oxide layer, so it is less susceptible to attack by acids, though again the acidity of wort is not a concern for either metal.
The major disadvantage of stainless steel is that it does not conduct heat as well as aluminum, which means a longer time to reach boil and also longer cooling times after the boil.
Which to Choose?
If you select a well made heavy-duty pot, large enough for a full boils that is heavy and conducts heat well, you can’t go wrong with either stainless or aluminum. I look for a heavy pot with thick walls as it will conduct heat better and also hold up well to the occasional nicks and dings. An ideal pot has a diameter approximately equal to its height. A well made aluminum or stainless steel pot will likely last a lifetime.
If you are a brewer on a budget, you can’t ignore the large price advantage of aluminum – often it costs half as much for a comparable pot. Stainless steel has a “cool factor”, but it also has a price associated with being cool. Now I personally use stainless steel, but I’ve also been brewing for 25 years and started out using a cheap kitchen pot.
Do you have your own thoughts? Leave us a comment below. If you want to support us, you might want to consider a pot from Adventures in Homebrewing, a BeerSmith Supporter here. Thank you for reading this week’s BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog, and don’t hesitate to subscribe if you want more great brewing articles on a regular basis.
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