Conical Fermenter Advantages for Home Brewing

by Brad Smith on December 30, 2014 · 7 comments

FastFerm1Conical fermenters, once out of reach for home brewers, have recently become very popular as companies have started making conicals in small and affordable packages. Many home brew sized conicals have entered the market in the last few years in the sub-$200 price range. I have to say, I’ve been using primarily carboys for many years, but the conical does offer some advantages over a bucket or carboy.

Professional Conical Fermenters

Most modern professional fermentation vessels are cylindo-conical. They are typically cylindrical on the top, but have a conical shape on the bottom, and vary in size from a as little as a half barrel (about 60 liters) to hundreds of barrels (several thousand liters). Professional fermenters are made from stainless steel as it is easy to clean and can be reused almost indefinitely. They all have a valve at the very bottom of the cone which can be used to remove sediment, and also drain the finished beer for bottling or kegging when done. Most also have a second port higher on the cone which can be used to draw samples of beer for measurement or tasting.

The Advantage of the Conical Fermenter

The reason conicals are used almost exclusively in professional brewing is that they have several advantages for beer production:

  • One significant advantage is that a conical is a “uni-tank” which means that you can perform the primary fermentation as well as aging/storage in the same vessel. With a flat bottomed fermentation vessel, you have to transfer the beer to a second vessel to separate the sediment from the beer for aging. However in a conical, you can simply slowly open the valve at the bottom to let the sediment out, but leave the beer behind.
  • Closely related to that is the ability to remove yeast and sediment from the beer easily, and at any point in the fermentation. This makes it easy to reuse the yeast by drawing some yeast off and washing the yeast. This can save you some money in the long run as you can use one yeast vial for several batches.
  • Another advantage is that you can transfer the wort without siphoning, using just gravity as long as your fermenter is higher than your bottling/kegging vessel. Some fermenters with closed tops even allow you to apply CO2 pressure to the top of the fermenter to force the beer out the bottom to transfer.
  • Many conicals are made from stainless steel which makes them easy to clean and maintain. Even a plastic conical can be cleaned pretty easily in most cases.

Using a Conical Fermenter

Conicals are pretty easy to use. You transfer and ferment your wort just as you normally would. Most homebrew sized conicals have an airlock on the top to relieve pressure during fermentation, and you can draw sediment as desired from the bottom of the conical.

When drawing off yeast and sediment you will usually get a mix of beer and sediment – it is rare to get a clean plug of yeast. Its best to draw just a bit of sediment at a time from the bottom over several days than it is to try to remove all of the yeast/sediment all at once. Also you need to be aware that on some conicals, yeast can stick to the side of the cone, so it may require a gentle nudge to get it out. If harvesting yeast for reuse, I recommend that you wash your yeast and store it properly.

When drawing liquid from the bottom of a conical you also need to be aware that some air will enter via your airlock. Make sure you use a two-way airlock that will allow some air in or remove the airlock temporarily. Though adding air to the fermenter is not ideal, it will be fine if drawing off small amounts of sediment as there will still be a layer of CO2 over the beer protecting it, and also some fermentation will still be generating CO2 to push the air out.

When transferring for bottling/kegging, try to separate the sediment first, and once you have a mix that is mostly beer, let the valve run and transfer it all.

An Inexpensive Conical Fermenter

Several of the large online home brew shops are offering conicals now (even in stainless) for a few hundred dollars. If you are looking to get into a conical without a large cash outlay, we’re also offering the new FastFerment conical fermenter for $99.99 (full disclosure – an affiliate). You can learn more about the FastFerment conical fermenter here.

If you have a few hundred dollars, you can move up to a stainless conical such as those from Blichmann, SS Brewtech and others. These are easier to clean and will last longer, though obviously at a higher price point.

Have some thoughts on conicals or fermenters in general? Leave a comment below. Thanks for joining me on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter or my podcast (also on itunes…and youtube…and streaming radio station) for more great tips on homebrewing. Also check out the How to Brew Video series I shot with John Palmer if you want to learn more about all grain brewing.

Happy New Year as well!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy January 25, 2015 at 10:30 am

You say to “make sure you use a two-way airlock”. Could you explain which type of airlocks work two-ways? I typically use a three-piece airlock like this one (http://www.northernbrewer.com/shop/three-piece-airlock.html). Do I need to get a different type for this to work?

John Torchiana June 20, 2015 at 10:47 am

I have been using Better Bottles as my fermenters for years, and it was not unusual for the airlocks in the primary fermenters to bubble for several (4-6) days before settling down. I recently purchased a FastFerment after reading one of your articles. What I was surprised to see was that the airlock stopped bubbling after a single day! I initially thought I had damaged my yeast, but a gravity reading showed 1.108, suggesting that fermentation had occurred. Assuming I did nothing horribly wrong, what makes a conical ferment so rapidly?

John December 14, 2016 at 5:23 pm

I had one of the Fastferment conical fermenters. I traded it for an 8 gallon stainless kettle. I had some problems with the fermenter. The yeast clung to the cone and the beer had to be racked to a secondary to clear it. The threaded hole for the thermometer was difficult to clean an sterilize. The ball valve and threaded fitting are impossible to clean.

Brad Smith December 14, 2016 at 6:49 pm

I know FastFerment has been making design improvements to their conical fermenters to resolve some issues early adopters had with it. I do agree that a stainless conical will last longer and is easier to clean but there is still a substantial price difference between plastic and stainless conicals. That being said, I have been trying out a new stainless conical myself and will post my review on the blog shortly.

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