Back in my college days we had a saying, “if it isn’t glass, it tastes like ass”…now this wasn’t in reference to beer, but the saying has stuck with me and forms a preconceived notion. As such, I typically don’t use a plastic bucket. I was recently asked by a friend what the differences between a glass carboy and plastic bucket were and thought if he had this questions others probably did too. I also thought it made sense for me to do some research to add some validity to my preconceived notion. Here it goes…
There are two types of fermenters commonly available: food-grade plastic buckets and glass carboys. Each type of fermenter has its own merits.
Advantages of Plastic Buckets
The plastic buckets are inexpensive and are readily available at most any store. Plastic buckets can also be fitted with spigots which makes siphoning unnecessary which can be a real plus. When fitted with a spigot, it eliminates siphoning between fermenters when racking into a secondary fermenter and it also helps simplify the bottling process. Buckets are typically 6-gallon in size which (for brewing beer) leaves about 1-gallon of head space which is most often sufficient enough.
Disadvantages of Plastic Buckets
Plastic buckets “breathe” more than glass carboys and as such can oxidize a brew. Sanitation is extremely important when brewing your own beer and although plastic buckets are easy to clean (since the top lid lifts off), the interior of plastic buckets unlike glass can easily scratch which can make it harder to sanitize and lead to infectious mold and bacteria. If using plastic, make sure it is made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET plastic is a non-barrier plastic, meaning oxygen can not transfer through the plastic and oxidize your beer. Unfortunately, even with PET plastic oxidization is not eliminated due to the seal of the lid and airlock hole.
Advantages of Glass Carboys
Glass carboys allow the homebrewer to see their beer while it is fermenting allowing you to gauge its activity during fermentation. They also provide for a proper seal using a 3 way valve that lets out the co2 being formed as a by-product. There are two sizes commonly available; a 6.5-gallon, which is ideal for primary fermentation (as well as for making wine) and a 5-gallon size, which is ideal for secondary fermentation. The larger size typically has enough head space to contain the kraeusen without the need for a blow off hose and the 5-gallon size almost completely eliminates the head space above the beer, preventing oxidization during the conditioning phase.
Disadvantages of Glass Carboys
Glass carboys can be dangerous if handled with damp or wet hands. Glass carboys are usually clear, so you will need to keep them out of light. The small opening at the top of the carboy will require additional purchase of equipment; a funnel or siphon for adding the cooled wort to the fermenter and a carboy brush to clean the interior of the carboy.
There you have it…advantages and disadvantages of both. Having done my own research and giving this some thought, if I were to go back and do it all over again, I’d probably still stay with a glass carboy. The glass carboys I have owned look and function the same as when I first purchased them, whereas the buckets have come and gone. I like the immediacy in life and as such I enjoy seeing the color of my beer and watching its activity while it ferments. One is not necessarily better than the other, each have their advantages and short comings, it is really a matter of personal preference.