Transferring to a Secondary Fermentor

The other day, I was transferring a batch of IPA to a secondary fermentor and thought it would be a great post for first-time homebrewers to read. Transferring your homebrew to a secondary fermentor isn’t required by any means, but I believe it’s a crucial step that can really yield a high quality end-product. Brewing your own beer takes a lot of time – it’s not like cooking dinner. It’s more like cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

When you transfer your beer from the primary to the secondary fermentor, your main goal is to get rid of the trub. Trub is the stuff that settles to the bottom of your fermentor (particularly your primary fermentor) when active fermentation is complete. Trub contains a number of things: hop particles, inactive yeast, proteins and fats. All of these things combined can produce off-flavors in your finished product. Depending on your recipe, the flavor can vary from an undesirable butterscotch flavor to a metallic taste. Primary fermentation takes only a few days (maybe an average of 5 days). I usually let the beer settle out and transfer it to a secondary fermentor on day 10. It’s not a simple job, and it usually takes about an hour from start to finish.

Things to keep in mind:

Air is your enemy
Just a few days ago, you were trying to introduce all the oxygen you could to your wort for your yeast to stay happy and healthy. Now that the yeast has consumed all the sugars in the sweet wort, oxygen is no longer desired and should be avoided. When you siphon your beer from the primary to the secondary, be gentle. Don’t create any splashing. You should have a tube that’s long enough to reach the bottom of the secondary fermentor with a foot or so to spare.
Keep it clean
Yes, your beer now has an army of alcohol behind it to fight off a small amount a microorganisms, but you still need to use best practices and sanitize everything the beer comes in contact with. That means your siphon, siphon tubing, the secondary fermentor, air-lock, and whatever else touches your beer during its journey to its new home for the next few weeks. Fermentors provide the perfect environment for parasites to grow. It’s dark, humid, room temperature (most of the time), and undisturbed.
Harvesting time
Have you ever tried to harvest yeast? Now is a great time to do that. A vial of liquid yeast is about $7.00 on average. If you plan on brewing a couple of batches of beer over the next couple of months, you can save a nice little chunk of cash just by not throwing it down the drain. I usually collect 4 or 5 jars of yeast every time I harvest. Let’s see… $7 x 5 = $35, which is about how much ingredients cost on a batch of homebrew. Not only that, but you’re saving the lives of all those yeast soldiers that have worked so hard for you – maybe 500 billion of them.
Check your numbers
While you have your beer exposed to the elements, you might as well check on the gravity with your hydrometer. Is it getting close to your final gravity? Were you expecting it to be lower than it is? At this point, it should be relatively close to your anticipated final gravity. Also, yes – I said hydrometer. I also own a refractometer which can give you a gravity reading by passing light through a viewport, but keep in mind that alcohol is present now and it will impact the accuracy of your reading on a refractometer. I usually measure post-fermentation readings with the good old trusty hydrometer. It measures the gravity and also gives me a little taste test.

How to actually transfer the beer:

This is the easy part. Most of the time spent is preparation and cleaning. Once you’re all ready, you simply siphon it from one vessel to another. I would recommend tipping the primary fermentor on an angle and try to avoid as much trub as possible. It’s not the end of the world if a little bit gets sucked up. It will just settle out in the secondary and you’ll have a second chance once you bottle your homebrew or keg it.

I should mention that this isn’t a rule or anything. It’s just something I make a genuine effort to do. I am sure there are a few styles that could really benefit from leaving the trub behind and just letting it ride the whole time in the primary fermentor. What are your thoughts? Do you do two-stage fermentation on your batches? Share some of your tips/advice in the comments below. Cheers.

3 thoughts on “Transferring to a Secondary Fermentor

  1. Have you ever tried using kegs as your secondary? I just started doing that, racking from primary to a keg for secondary/aging. It’s nice because I only have so many fermenters and they are usually all filled with beer ;) Also because you can eliminate most of the O2 danger by purging the kegs with CO2.

    1. We must be wired the same way or something Alex because I was just thinking about that the other day. I only have 3 kegs and it’s rare for me to have an empty one. It WOULD provide a dark environment, and I like the idea about purging the O2 out. Do you think secondary fermentation really needs the air-lock? There’s not that much CO2 being released at that point and I’m wondering if you could just burp it once every few days while it’s aging.

    2. Yeah exactly! I don’t really think it needs an airlock at all. Like you said not a lot of CO2 is being produced, unless you add some kind of new fermentable. The kegs are rated to a pretty decent pressure as well so there is really no danger from a little coming out. I am lucky and got 5 corny kegs from work, so I actually have more kegs then fermenters now!

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