Should you use a Secondary for Beer Brewing?

by Brad Smith on January 15, 2015 · 21 comments

Siphon Secondary.About ten years ago a secondary fermentation in beer brewing was considered a “must do” by most top brewers. But in the last ten years, much has changed so this week we take a look at the eternal question “to Secondary or not?”

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Fermentation

Beer fermentation starts in the primary fermenter. The purpose of primary fermentation is to capture the active phase of strongest fermentation, which usually lasts about 3 days.

Many traditional references recommend moving your beer to a secondary after active fermentation has subsided – which is a separate fermenting vessel. Transferring your beer to a secondary separates the beer from the trub, which at this point has both yeast sediment, hops sediment and grain/tannin pieces left over from the mash. By separating the beer from this sediment, you reduce contact with bitter tannins, bitter hop debris and inactive and dead yeast cells. Many people believe this will allow the beer to clear more quickly and reduce off flavors in the finished beer.

Brewers planning to leave their beer in a fermenter for a longer period also use a tertiary fermentation – where the beer is separated from the sediment again after the bulk of flocculation (yeast falling out) has occurred. Often this takes place several weeks after brewing, and it leaves much less sediment to support long term storage of the beer in a fermenter (often a carboy) before bottling or kegging.

Why Bother with the Secondary?

The theory behind moving beer to a secondary or tertiary is that it is beneficial to separate the beer and sediment as soon as possible after active fermentation. The dead yeast cells, hop matter and grain matter left over from brewing and active fermentation could impart off flavors if left in contact with the beer for too long. The fact that many home brewers use buckets or carboys for fermentation means that a fairly large surface of sediment is in contact with the beer.

Also moving to a secondary gives the brewer a great opportunity to harvest yeast for washing and reuse.

What do the Pro Brewers Do?

Almost all craft and pro breweries now use conical fermenters as a “unitank” or single fermenter. They don’t transfer to a secondary or tertiary fermenter. Instead the conical fermenter has a conical bottom that collects the yeast at the bottom of the cone – making it easy to remove sediment from the bottom. Also the conical design means that only a small amount of beer is in contact with the sediment plug at the bottom of the fermenter.

Because of the conical design, they don’t have to transfer the beer to another tank to separate it from the sediment. They simply open the valve at the bottom and drain the sediment out leaving the beer behind. They can harvest yeast this same way. So craft breweries don’t need to use a secondary or tertiary even if storing for a long time – they just periodically drain the sediment and leave it in the same conical fermenter.

The Case Against a Secondary

The main problem with using a secondary fermentation in home brewing is that you take a risk every time you transfer the beer. The first, and largest risk is oxidation. Siphoning your beer involves splashing and exposing your beer to oxygen. Even a very small amount of oxygen can spoil the long term stability of your beer.

The second risk is contamination. Even if you use good sanitation practices you always run the risk of possible contamination.

Finally, many brewers believe that if you use modern brewing ingredients and techniques with robust active yeast, the sediment is not much of a problem. A proper mash pH and long boil will reduce the chance of excessive tannins or sediment problems. Healthy yeast and a good yeast starter will not hurt the beer even if left in contact with the beer for several weeks. We just won’t leave out beer on the sediment for months before bottling.

To Secondary or Not?

So what’s the bottom line? While a secondary can be useful, you need to weigh the risks versus benefits. I would say that the average home brewer runs a bigger risk from oxidation doing a secondary than they do from off flavors introduced by sediment. So if you are using good quality ingredients and techniques, a pure yeast strain with a good starter, and are not planning on leaving the beer in your fermenter any longer than needed – then a secondary is not needed. Just leave it in the primary and let it go.

On the other hand if you are planning to leave beer in the fermenter for a long period, it might be good to use a secondary. Just be very careful to avoid splashing and oxidation.

Finally, if you want to avoid the problem entirely just move to a conical fermenter. There are a number of affordable conical fermenter options available now for home brewers – and a conical lets you remove the sediment without risking contamination or oxidation.

Have some thoughts on the secondary 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.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Robby January 15, 2015 at 12:42 pm

Under “To Secondary or Not?”, there’s a typo (I assume) ” the beer in your fermenter any longer than needed – then a starter (secondary?) is not needed. Enjoyed the article.

Jason Chalifour January 15, 2015 at 1:07 pm

I used to secondary everything because I felt it helped the clarity of my beer. I think big beers, and/or beers with a lot of different flavors benefit from additional aging and in cases like that I still do a secondary. I brew an imperial summer ale that needs the extra time for the alcohol to mellow out. The other time I will use a secondary is if I don’t have time to bottle within 3 weeks or so.

Beyond those situations I have gotten away from it. Using an immersion chiller and Irish moss has done wonders for my clarity. In most situations it is just an unnecessary step.

Mikey January 15, 2015 at 6:16 pm

I never, ever secondary and my beer turns out fantastic!! However, I am contemplating buying a conical fermenter, though they are expensive for what you actually get.

Mike January 15, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Not that I have tons of experience, but my beers come out better after doing a secondary. Plus I like to add my dry hopping at the time of moving.

Brad Smith January 16, 2015 at 12:11 am

Thanks – I corrected it!

Sean January 16, 2015 at 1:57 am

When I started brewing some 12 years ago I would secondary everything, simply because it was highly recommended. I found with ales it made zero difference, I still do for my Pilsner as I like to keep it longer in the fermenter and don’t like it sitting on the sediment. I have recently purchased a couple Brew Buckets from SS Brewtech, they have the conical bottom but no release tap for removal of sediment, however, due to the shape has a lot smaller contact area for the beer and sediment. After reading this article I might test the theory and not rack my Pilsner, however, agree with Jason in regards to big beers, I will probably continue racking my Belgian Ales.
I will also add, the stainless steel brew buckets from Ss Brewtech are awesome, love using them, easy to clean, seal really well and the beer comes out cleaner, one reason is the tap is above the sediment so your beer isn’t running over it to get out.

Sean January 16, 2015 at 11:35 am

I used to secondary in the early days because I was scared of autolysis in my yeast. But I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject and realized that most of the time autolysis is kind of a boogey man. So I stopped worrying about it.

To date, the longest I’ve ever left beer on it’s lees is a belgium tripel that spent 6 months on it’s yeast cake. I kind of forgot about it and went off and did other stuff. When I came back there was no off flavor that I could detect. I don’t suggest frequent testing of this approach though.

For most ales though I leave things on the yeast cake. Autolysis isn’t a big deal, I usually get most of my hops debris out before fermentation these days, and I find that exposure to the yeast cake speeds up the aging process a little, which is a good thing for me.

For beer clarity it’s hard to beat a good cold crash. A few days before you bottle crank the temps down to the 40’s and hold it there for a day or two. Then you probably want to bring it back up for bottling purposes. I get crystal clear beer without the use of a secondary.

I will secondary though if I”m bring a particularly big beer. It will mellow faster in bulk than in bottle, and so a few days may cut my wait for optimum drinking down by weeks. But for my session beers? I don’t worry about it. I’ll rack into a bottling bucket to mix up my sugar for carbonation but that’s about it.

Brian January 16, 2015 at 4:16 pm

I am firmly in the camp of no, there is no need for a secondary unless the beer is one that requires extended aging (barleywines, etc.) or lagering. If you are brewing a beer where the “old school” instructions were to do a 5-7 day primary followed by a 10-14 day secondary, just leave the beer in primary for 21-28 days and then keg or bottle.

If you are dry-hopping, add them to the primary but after the most active portion of fermentation has completed. I normally work backwards from the date I plan to keg, so if I want to dry hop for four days I’ll count backwards from the packaging date and add the dry hops then.

And, if you are going to lager or age your beer, still do a 21-day primary before racking and give the yeast an appropriate amount of time to complete fermentation and clean up as much of the fermentation by-products (acetaldehyde, diacetyl, etc.) as possible.

Autolysis is a greatly exaggerated worry, especially at the homebrew level. I’ve left beers in primary for months with no off-flavors (although one time I left a beer in a bucket for three months — I normally ferment in stainless — and while there were no autolysis indicators there were clear signs of oxidation!).

In the end, homebrewers can sometimes be an impatient bunch… and patience is often rewarded well in this hobby!

phynes1 January 17, 2015 at 3:42 am

I’ve read places that in some cases the yeast isn’t finished its job when primary subsides. And that leaving your beer in contact with the trub for an extended period can help clean up some of the byproducts of fermentation. Any opinion on this? Is there any science to back this up?

PH.

Steve B January 17, 2015 at 6:06 pm

Isn’t a secondary fermentation beneficial if you’re dry hopping or adding additional flavor/aroma ingredients during fermentation? Or do most people add these right into the primary fermenter?

Mighty Penguin Brewing January 20, 2015 at 5:14 pm

I have always gone to a secondary and never had any contamination or oxidation issues. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. However, ever since buying one of the low cost Ss Brew tech conical last year I’ve tried to use that as often as possible.

I love your software and this is my first time here, great blog too!

Mike January 26, 2015 at 9:37 am

You state that “almost all craft and pro breweries now use conical fermenters” and that “they don’t have to transfer the beer to another tank to separate it from the sediment”. So in fact pro brewers feel that it is beneficial to remove the sediment. If they did not use conical fermenters I would assume that they would use some type of secondary fermenter to separate the beer from the sediment.

Your next article should ask professional brewers why they use a conical fermenter and why they choose to remove the beer from the sediment. My feeling is that they are trying to avoid “the dead yeast cells, hop matter and grain matter left over from brewing and active fermentation could impart off flavors if left in contact with the beer for too long”. Also, most packaged beer, even craft beer, is extremely clear. Even if you cold crash instead of filter you are better off getting rid of the sediment before you cold crash.

Jim L January 26, 2015 at 6:17 pm

I also use to transfer to a secondary but quit about 15 years ago leaving all my beers in the Primary for no more than 2 weeks. I also use SS Brew Tech Buckets which are great and now use my kegs as secondary’s. I transfer from Primary to a keg, purge the kegs with co/2 and let them sit like bottles. Then just hook up a cobra tap after another week or two and the first glass is any left over yeast cake. Just remember to shoot the yeast cake from the keg before you move it!

Russell Fitch April 22, 2015 at 1:25 pm

I’m on just my second batch and am only brewing 1 to 1 and 1/2 gallon batches at a time. However I do use a secondary to assist in harvesting yeast for the next time. I’ve had no issues with oxidation, but use a siphon to avoid splashing and overexposure. I also use a 1/2 gallon glass growler that I got from a local brewpub as the secondary for the 1/2 gallon portion to reduce head-space. By the way your software works great for small batches. All I did for making my own recipes is adjust the equipment profile and then try to work within the guidelines of a particular style.

Beth H. June 4, 2015 at 8:09 pm

Interesting information. I might try using a secondary.

Bob W. October 18, 2015 at 11:48 am

I just bought a secondary vessel, but then began to read all these pros and cons. I was thinking that I could get a CO2 bottle and flush out the secondary fermenter while siphoning in the brew. CO2 is heavier than air, so that would seem to minimize the oxidation risk. Thoughts?

Henry October 27, 2015 at 1:20 am

Hi, I am a little confused..
I am relatively new to Home Brewing, I am wondering how you get the beer out of the fermenter if you don’t rack your beer. I have a big brewing vat that I make all of my beers in.. Just wondering if there was a method to remove the beer, and where do you store the beer if not in bottles or second fermenter??

Thanks for any advice..

🙂

Brett Binns December 15, 2015 at 2:33 pm

One thought on another possible reason to use the secondary: I use a racking cane to start my syphon which has a roughly one inch cap on the end to avoid picking up trub. I accumulate quite a bit of trub in both the primary and the secondary and wonder if I will be more likely to suck up the trub if I complete my fermentation in the primary. Any thoughts from Brad or the community are welcome.

This is an interesting idea, and even if I am a decade behind, maybe I will give it a try. Thanks Brad!

Henry: Whether you rack to you bottling bucket or a keg, you are still going to have to rack your brew from the primary. I believe that the point here is to minimize the number of times you have to rack, as each is a source of possible contamination with oxygen or undesired yeasts and bacterias.

Andrew May 22, 2016 at 10:54 pm

I only use a secondary when doing extended fermentations or aging my brews, Brett., oak, etc… I just picked up a Brew Bucket by Ss Brew Tech, baby step before moving into a full on conical fermenter. Did not get the temperature control but might make that plunge this summer, gets pretty hot down here in Texas. It is so much better than a carboy, easier to rack off the trub and easier to clean. Picked mine up from http://www.letshomebrew.com

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