Pre-packaged homebrewing kits are created to include everything you need to get started on your path to brewing your own beer. However, some are also compiled for the purpose of affordability. In order to keep price down, the first component that these types of kits elect to omit is the carboy, instead substituting a fermenting bucket in its place. While the fermenting bucket can get the job done, there are certain advantages to using a carboy instead.
Carboys vs. Fermentation Buckets
Perhaps the biggest advantage there is to using a carboy instead of a bucket for fermentation is that it is transparent. Having a fermentation vessel that you can see into enables you to more easily monitor the fermentation process.
Being able to see when fermentation begins and ends helps take out the guesswork and also helps you better understand what it is that you should be looking for and the specific phases that should be taking place during any given fermentation.
With a bucket, you have to remove the lid, which not only increases the chances of introducing outside contaminants but can also disturb the trub or krauesen, resulting in a lower level of clarity in your beer.
Carboys tend to be a bit smaller volume-wise than fermenting buckets and reduce the amount of unnecessary headspace that can create an opportunity for oxidation of your beer to occur during the conditioning phase when active fermentation may not be forcing the air within the fermenter outwards.
Additionally, the tapered neck of the carboy reduces unused space and creates a channel through which oxygen can be funneled upwards and out through an airlock or blowoff tube.
One advantage that buckets have over carboys is that they are easier to carry and handle because they often have a built-in handle.
However, you can just as easily move your carboy around by using a carboy handle. This simple device securely attaches to the neck of the carboy just below the lip allowing you to more confidently lift it by use of a rubber grip handle.
Glass Carboys vs. Plastic Carboys
Carboys can come in a variety of sizes from 3 gallons all the way up to 6.5 gallons, though there are only two main types of carboys: glass and plastic. Both types will work for homebrewing use but there are advantages to each.
Glass Carboys: Pros & Cons
Glass carboys are the original form and are still widely used today for good reason. They are the standard because they can be used countless times without showing any signs of degradation or wear.
The smooth glass surfaces inside and out are non-porous preventing anything from sticking to the carboy itself, including odors. This makes them great for brewing as you don’t want any byproducts, flavors, aromas, etc. transferring from one batch to another. It also makes them very easy to clean, especially with the use of a jet bottle washer and carboy brush.
The downside of the thick glass construction is weight. Glass carboys are far heavier than plastic carboys making them a bit more cumbersome to handle. Pair that weight with the smooth construction and handling the carboy can prove to be even more challenging when either the carboy or your hands are wet.
Plastic Carboys: Pros & Cons
Plastic carboys are the alternative whose main advantage is the considerably lower weight. An empty glass carboy can weigh in at around 20 lbs. whereas an empty plastic carboy of the same capacity will weigh in around just 5 lbs. In addition to being lightweight, you can expect to get a little bit more grip with a plastic carboy due to its polyethylene construction, making it even easier to handle. Furthermore, the polyethylene is impermeable to air so you don’t have to worry about any kind of contamination or excessive evaporation loss.
Another aspect seen to be a big advantage of plastic carboys is their potential for dual-purpose usage. Unlike glass carboys, they can be ported allowing for insertion of a spigot. This makes them particularly useful when it comes to bottling. After secondary fermentation is complete you can simply bottle directly from a plastic carboy with a spigot, eliminating the need to transfer to a bottling bucket or use a siphon at all.
Plastic carboys can also prove to be easier to use when it comes to dry hopping. They typically have a wider opening making it easier to both add and extract hops. However, this wider mouth requires a larger stopper and may make it harder to rig a proper blowoff assembly for those that go that route.
The major downside of plastic carboys is that the polyethylene is much softer than glass making it susceptible to scratching. While some may view scratches as being no more than a cosmetic flaw, scratches can actually present tiny crevices that can harbor bacteria. This means that you do not want to abrade a plastic carboy with any metal brewing equipment or even use a carboy brush whose stiff bristles can scratch the surface. This inability to use some cleaning tools makes them a bit more difficult to clean and also means that you’ll want to clean a plastic carboy immediately after use so as not to allow dirt and grime to really set in. Also, unlike glass, the plastic is porous, which is another reason why immediate cleaning is highly advised.
Plastic carboys also technically have a limited lifespan because the plastic is softer and can wear down over time so it is recommended that they be replaced every 20-30 uses. Though, this is not a rule and merely serves as a recommendation. It should also be noted that plastic carboys are much more affordable than their glass counterparts so replacement shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg when that time does come.
Regardless of which type you choose to use, carboys can offer many advantages over fermenting buckets when it comes to fermenting, conditioning and clarifying homebrew.