Fermenters: Blichmann Stainless Steel Conical vs. Ale Pail Throwdown
Nick LaVelle, O’Connor’s Home Brew Expert
This month I wanted to do something a little different. Instead of exploring a brewing technique or a style of beer, I really wanted to do a side-by-side comparison pitting our Blichmann Conicals up against my trusty 8 year old Ale Pail. That’s right, I said 8 years old. I don’t change out my equipment unless there’s some sign of deterioration. My brewing bucket has made it through thick and thin (not something I can say for the “siphonless” equipment in my possession which was harboring infections within a couple years). So what gives then? Why spend all that money on fancy equipment when my bucket has been kicking a$$ and taking names for almost a decade? So, I brewed up a 10 gallon batch so I have something to compare. And since I’ve brewed about 15 wheat beers this year I figured a space-age wit beer would do nicely.
Beer: Pink Peppercorn Wheat with Tangerine and Grapefruit Peel
Total Post Boil Volume: 10 Gallons
Grains: Flakes and Instagrains – Rice, Oats, Red Wheat and Barley (3# Rice Hulls)
Boil Hops: Hallertauer, Sapphire, Citra Dry Hops: Columbus Additional Boil:– Tangerine and Grapefruit Peel; 4 Days into Fermentation – Pink Peppercorns
Process: I brewed up the batch and had a little loss, so I ended up with about 4.5 gallons in each fermenter. It was a basic single infusion mash, and I ran the wort through the Citra leaf hops in our HopRocket and into each fermenter. Once in fermentation, I let each go for 4 days before I added in the pink peppercorns. The biggest difference in Fermentation was that once the beer reached 1.012 terminal gravity I was able to dump the yeast on the conical while the bucket was left to its own devices. After dumping the yeast, I transferred the conical beer to keg under CO2 and brought both the keg and bucket up to crash in the fridge overnight. The next day I added dry hops to the keg and the bucket and let it go for an additional 4 days on the dry hops. I used the trusty ol’ autosiphon on the bucket and transferred that to a keg on the same day I pulled the dry hops from the conical’s keg. I carbonated both up on the same day and had a little tasting with Ben and Andrew to see what thoughts were on them.
Look – Both beers had great head, golden color and there was no difference in haziness.
Aroma – The Conical had far more subtle and balanced aromas. For whatever reason the keg hopping added a nice rounded aroma complement whereas dry-hopping in the Bucket did very little. The peppercorns were an overwhelming aroma on the Bucket beer which may have been the result of continued contact with the yeast cake or it could be that the dimensions of a Bucket give more surface area with the pepper… whatever the case the result was apparent.
Flavor – The Bucket mouthfeel was a little more toothsome and had more of a bite from the peppercorns but the base flavors were pretty similar outside of that. As with the aroma the flavors too seemed more subtle and complimentary with the conical than with the bucket. I think the minimal amounts of oxidation that occurred in the bucket definitely changed the flavor a bit, but both have a month of storage in the keg and seem to be stable in flavor. I do NOT think the bucket version was dramatically more oxidized and it hasn’t shortened the shelf life in a noticeable way.
What would I do differently: I wanted to keep it to a one vessel comparison but with dry hopping and all I ended up moving the beers to kegs on different days. Next time I would try racking the bucket to secondary when I racked the yeast off on the concal. Because of the differences in machinery there was a need to do things differently that I didn’t anticipate so now I can find a better way to compare the two (i.e. just keg hop both).
My Conclusion? I think that the bucket cleaned and sanitized properly exceeded my expectations. Overall the beer fermented in the conical and keg hopped was superior, but does that mean that it was $300 better? Not for my money. If you have money sitting around you should make the upgrade to Stainless Fermenters, but they still have downsides so don’t go thinking they will solve the worlds problems. You encounter a little more loss (closer to a half gallon) with a conical and they tend to take a little more time to clean up after. The results were noticeable enough that here at the shop I’ll stick to using the conicals but things like Yeast Starters, Fermentation Temperature Stability, and above all Proper Sanitation are definitely bigger issues than the shape and material of your fermenters.