Plastic or Glass Fermenting Drums? The Age-old Debate

Wednesday, November 1, 2023
Ah, the great fermenter debate that has been bubbling up in home brewing communities worldwide! With passionate arguments on both sides, it's clear that the choice between using plastic or glass fermenters isn't as simple as it seems. 

Let's delve into the intricacies of this matter.

Plastic Fermenters: The Common Choice for beer makers

1. The Infection Argument

Many naysayers point out the potential for infection when using plastic fermenters, a concern rooted in the idea that plastic is more susceptible to scratches that can become hiding spots for bacteria. On the surface, this seems like a valid concern. After all, the logic is straightforward: scratches can house bacteria, leading to a higher risk of contaminating the beer.

However, one's personal experience, combined with the vast number of successful brews from plastic fermenters worldwide, challenges this notion. If you've been brewing with plastic and have rarely, if ever, encountered an infection, then you've already debunked this myth based on personal experience.

2. Maintenance and Care

The key to preventing infections, irrespective of the fermenter material, lies in meticulous cleaning and sanitization. Every seasoned home brewer understands the paramount importance of cleanliness in the brewing process. And it's not just about avoiding infections; it's about ensuring the flavor, aroma, and overall quality of the beer remains top-notch.

Using cleaning agents like sodium percarbonate or the ever-popular PBW can make a world of difference. And of course, never underestimate the power of boiling water to eliminate any lurking microbes.

3. Cost and Durability

Plastic fermenters have another ace up their sleeve – affordability. Glass carboys, while durable and long-lasting, are notably more expensive. For budding brewers taking their first steps into the world of home brewing, plastic drums offer a more budget-friendly and less fragile alternative.

Glass Fermenters: The Traditionalist's Choice

glass fermenting drum or plastic debate

1. Oxygen and Aging Concerns

While plastic fermenters are widely used, there's a particular aspect where glass might have the upper hand: aging. Beer, especially during its brewing process, prefers minimal exposure to oxygen. Excessive O2 can alter the beer's flavor profile and even promote the growth of unwanted microorganisms.

Some argue that plastic is more permeable to oxygen than glass. But is this difference substantial enough to impact the final product? 

Most oxygen exchange, in reality, happens through the bung and airlock, not the vessel's walls.

adding hops to beer wort

2. Secondary Fermentation and Barrel-aging Effects

If you're looking to age your brew or impart specific characteristics, like those from barrel aging, glass carboys for secondary fermentation might be worth considering. However, this transfer process itself can introduce oxygen, a paradoxical challenge that brewers must navigate.

The debate between plastic and glass fermenters is a testament to the intricate and nuanced world of home brewing. Both materials have their merits and potential drawbacks, but the choice ultimately boils down to the brewer's preference, experience, and brewing goals.

What remains universally true, however, is the need for stringent hygiene practices and a deep understanding of the brewing process. Whether you're a novice brewer starting with a plastic drum or a seasoned pro with a collection of glass carboys, the journey of brewing is filled with learning, experimentation, and of course, some delicious beer!
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