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Fermentation Chiller Systems and Findings

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Until recently, if you wanted to homebrew lagers, you either needed a giant cave under your house, or you had an additional fridge/freezer of some sort, with a controller to switch the power on/off based on the beer temperature. For those that were used to “Throw it in a bucket in your basement and let the yeast work their magic!” a dedicated refrigerator may have been excess floor space and money they weren’t willing to spend.
There is a lot of info out there on how to make a fermentation chiller out of a fridge/freezer, but not much on the alternative systems. So I set out to evaluate them to see how they worked compared to each other. They come at different price points, have different capabilities/limitations, and require differing amounts of care-taking during fermentation.

Ice Pack Fermentation Chiller Systems



These systems are manual in nature. They consist of an insulated shell of some sort, and you regulate temperature by adding or removing ice packs. There’s no digital control temperature you set, you just monitor the temperature via whatever method you choose (temperature strip, separate thermometer, etc.) and adjust temperature by adding or taking away ice. This might give you the impression that the control is very crude, but physics steps up to make this actually work fairly slickly.
In Regards to Physics: when water is going through its phase change from solid ice to liquid, the physical conversion process acts as a sort of “thermal sponge” and uses any imbalance of temperature to suck up that heat, and use it to melt the ice rather than increase the temperature. As long as you’ve got ice in there to melt, the temperature stays fairly stable. And the temperature inside your insulated shell is controlled by how much ice you have in there. The more ice, the bigger the temperature drop below your room temperature.
Cool Brewing provides a guide with their insulated bag suggesting the use of empty 2L or 1L pop bottles filled with water and then frozen to make up your ice blocks. This has the convenience of allowing you to easily swap out a melted bottle, and replace it with a frozen bottle without having a giant puddle of water to mop up. It also provides a good regulation measure. For each 2L bottle of ice, you’ll get about 5˚F temperature drop, and for each 1L bottle, about 2.5˚F. And with the size of the 2L block of ice, it lasts a bit longer than 24 hours, so it makes it convenient if you have a regular maintenance time of day (every morning before work, just before going to bed, etc.) to change out the bottles without letting them lose their full cooling capacity.
Without electronics to control things, these systems are simple, which means they’re also the most affordable options out there. So you can get into lager fermentation without as much cash outlay. Cool Brewing makes a large, collapsible, zipper-close bag that fits fermentation buckets or carboys, with room to put multiple 2L bottles around them. FastFerment makes the same style bag customized to their unique conical fermenters. Brew Demon makes a “junior” version of these with a small neoprene jacket that slides over their fermenters with little pockets for small ice packs to slide into. With less insulation, and small ice pack size, it isn’t really practical for lager fermentation, but it does come in handy for runaway fermentations that heat up much faster than you want, and you need to get quick control.
The downside of these ice pack systems is the fact they require maintenance on a daily schedule. They are not a “set it and forget it” operation. It can become a bit tedious over a 2-3 week lager fermentation schedule to change out 2L bottles of water/ice every day and shuffle them to the freezer. And if you’ve got an out of town trip planned in the middle of that period, you can lose temperature control temporarily at some point.
But if you plan accordingly, these bags are simple and convenient lager fermentation options that won’t break the bank, or take up a lot of space when you’re finished fermenting (they all collapse and fold flat).

Cool Zone Brewing Modular Systems



Gotta Brew offers a system that is a creative combination of common brewing hardware components, bundled together to create a system with a high level of control. You can customize your kit based on which of these components you may already have on hand. The unique bits are a flexible water cooling jacket, and an insulated bag to fit your fermenter into. It then plumbs into a standard temperature controller, submersible pump, and a 10-gallon cooler for the rest of the work.
The system is controlled by a temperature probe that slides down a sealed thermowell into the middle of your fermentation vessel. You wrap your fermenter (bucket, carboy, etc.) with the custom cooling jacket (which has a continuous water cooling channel weaving through it), and then lower this into the insulated bag, leaving the water inlet and outlet tubes sticking out. These get connected to the submersible pump, that you sit in the cooler full of ice water. The pump plugs into a standard Inkbird controller, that switches on/off based on the reading of the temperature probe. If the beer gets too warm, the pump kicks on and circulates cold water through the jacket until the temperature of your beer gets to the set point.
The upside of this system is that it allows very fine temperature control of your fermenting beer. The wrap-around jacket helps ensure even temperature throughout your whole batch. Utilizing a digital temperature controller allows you to dial in the temperature you want, and then just let the system work. The downside is the 10-gallon cooler still needs maintenance to ensure it’s always filled with ice/very cold water to ensure the system can control to the temperature you want. Unlike the ice pack fermenters, you do have the ability to really load up the cooler with ice, and buy yourself the opportunity to go away for a couple of days without your fermentation going out of control. But it does require some amount of regular ice change maintenance to avoid the disappointing discovery that you didn’t change it frequently enough, and now your 3 week temperature profile has an unplanned blip up…

Immersion Rod Chiller



BrewJacket offers an electric heat exchanger system that makes use of a large metal rod that submerses into your fermenting beer to act as a heat conduit up to a chiller plate with a fan. The unit has a digital temperature set point controller, and the fan kicks on when above the set point to dissipate heat from the cooling fins. This effectively opens up a heat flow path up the immersion rod to channel heat out of your beer. The system controls to the temperature as read on a probe taped to the outside of your fermenter, and then the whole system sits in a giant thick insulated bag that’s kind of a cross between a bean bag and an overstuffed sleeping bag.
The limitation of this system is the rate it can cool your beer, if it needs to move several degrees. You may need to wait a bit longer to get your temperature down to the yeast pitch temperature you want. But once you hit that temperature, the immersion rod system does an exceptional job of keeping things under control and tight to your set temperature. The biggest plus of this system is it truly achieves the “set it and forget it” execution once you’ve achieved your target temperature. You leave it plugged in, and the fan will periodically kick on and off as needed, but you can go do other things for the next 2-3 weeks without having to babysit it.

Fermentation Vessel Considerations


If you’re making the move to do lager fermentation, you may want to consider a change to the type of fermenter you use. Typical fermenting buckets are made of HDPE plastic. Since lagering requires longer fermentation times, the opportunity for oxygen to pass through the walls of your fermenter, and oxygenate your beer increases. All of these fermentation chiller suppliers strongly recommend using PET bottles or glass carboys for lager fermentation rather than the typical HDPE Ale Pails. Based on oxygen permeability measurements, HDPE passes through roughly 50x as much oxygen as PET in a given amount of time. So there’s some science to back up these recommendations. Glass is an even better barrier, as it doesn’t allow any oxygen to pass through it. But if you don’t want the cost & weight of a glass carboy, PET is definitely a better fit to long fermentation times than your HDPE bucket.
Better Bottle is quite popular, and they come in a variety of sizes. They have ribs on them to give them strength and make them dent-resistant. But if you’ve ever used a carboy with a frothy fermentation, you’ll know how it can be a challenge to get down past the neck and get the walls clean. The Big Mouth Bubbler figured out how to take advantage of the oxygen barrier qualities of PET, but put a nice large screw-on lid on top of it. So when it comes time to clean up, you just unscrew the lid and you can easily reach inside to make cleaning a breeze.

Conclusions


At $65 (plus the cost of a handful of 2L pop bottles to empty out and turn into ice packs), the Cool Brewing Bag and FastFerment Cooling Jacket offer a great entry price point for experimenting with lagers. The temperature control is surprisingly good, so you won’t be wasting your money. I can’t guarantee you’ll love changing the ice out daily, but these can get you good results, and keep you within your budget.
The Cool Zone Brewing system steps it up to precision level control. It’s a big price jump, but depending on the amount of equipment you may already have, you can limit your expense. The simplest kit starts at $150, and the full kit is $319. You do need to tend to it during the fermentation process to ensure you keep the cooling water cold, but your efforts are well rewarded with great temperature control.
The BrewJacket immersion chiller initially comes off a bit snoozy. It looks almost too simple to really work, and the rate of temperature change if you’re trying to drop the temperature several degrees seems to confirm your initial suspicions. But once you get to your setpoint temperature, the BrewJacket really shines. It holds your temperature effortlessly, and all you have to do is keep it plugged in. The convenience doesn’t come cheap, but if you’re willing to pay the $300, you can keep your ice in that lesser-used side of your beer fridge.
Note: The next part is my findings from doing a trial batch for each type of system. Feel free to jump to the comments, or check out the extra information below.

Lager Fermentation Trial


I set up a controlled study to evaluate three of these different systems while fermenting a lager. To make things consistent, my local brewery (Farmington Brewing in Farmington, MI) was kind enough to provide 15 gallons of hopped wort from their Summer Citrus Ale (typically they ferment this to make a Saison at the brewery), which I split equally between three fermenters. I then made a giant starter, using two packets of White Labs Mexican Lager Yeast. This starter was pitched incrementally into all of the fermenters at the same time with the beer at ~55°F, and my basement at 64°F.
My fermentation schedule was two weeks at 50°F, followed by two weeks at 55°F with a second dosing of orange peel added (as the brewery does while in secondary), and then a brief cold crash before bottling. To test the systems’ capabilities, I attempted using each system to cold crash. Each batch was bottled with priming sugar, labeled, and then put into cold storage for cold lagering at 34°F. After six weeks of cold lagering, the initial bitterness of the orange peel had subsided, and it made a nice citrusy lager. Since the recipe wasn’t specifically tuned yet to this yeast/lager profile, a taste test wouldn’t necessarily create a differentiator between the systems. None of the three had any fermentation error tastes detectable.
Below are some plots of the temperature data, with notes of some interesting observations within the temperature control periods.
Entire Cycle (2 weeks @ 50°F, 1 week @ 55°F, 2 days cold crash)


2 Week 50°F Control Point

A: BrewJacket initially showed a higher temperature as thermocouple on outside of carboy mainly was picking up temperature of insulating bag until things started to cool off significantly.
B: Through majority of the experiment, ice bottles were changed out every 24 hours in both Cool Zone system and Cool Brewing bag. At one point, I stopped changing out ice on Cool Zone as it didn’t seem to need to be changed every 24 hours. However, I found out what happened if you don’t change it frequently enough as the temperature climbed 8 degrees in a 12 hour period as the ice fully melted at some point.
Typical 1-week Control Period (at 50°F)

Note: Data from BrewJacket is based on display on control head, which does not show decimal place, so rounding occurs to next highest or next lowest full 1°F.
One Week 55°F Control Period

A: I went away overnight in middle of this period for 48 hours, so I loaded up the coolers with ice. The Cool Zone System was able to maintain control temperature, Cool Brewing Bag lost the ability to control as ice melted, and the temperature went 7°F above desired control temperature.
Two Day Cold Crash

Set control temperature on Cool Zone and BrewJacket to 34°F, and added as many 2L bottles of ice would fit in Cool Brewing bag around the fermenter.
 
Awesome write up! I am new to homebrewing and haven't really splurged on a proper ferm chamber/fridge to store my brews. I've been suprisingly successful at swamp cooling my FV's for the last 5 batches holding temps between 66-71f but now I am using the BrewBag for my current beer. My 2 cents, so far so good for this product I was very skeptical about using. Got it off amazon for about $55 and the day it arrived I've stuffed it into my freezer (wife wasn't too happy) for about 12hrs before sticking my carboy into it. Filled with one bag of ice and two sports water bottles from our bikes and been holding a temp of 65f the past few days. Now, my con is how do one really know the temp of their FV? I was clever to tape two probe thermometers to each side of my carboy and covered it with a shirt to soak up any melting ice to help keep my carboy cool.
 
Excellent article. It has no applicability for as I have the refrigerator fermentation chamber and honestly, lagers annoy me.
You did miss a tried and true old school lager/fermentation chamber method other than the fridge...but similar to the Coolzone in theory but DIY. The two chamber foam, computer fan and ice uber-cooler (forgot the real name) with a crude temperature controller. We used them for years in the "dark ages" of homebrewing when there were like 9 strains of Wyeast.
It is simply a large chamber of foam insulation for the fermenter, a small chamber for the ice, a couple of fans (one push, one pull) between the chambers and a pan to store ice in. You could load it up 30# of block ice if you wanted and the fan would circulate the cool air to the fermentation side.
 
Thanks. It turns out to be fairly time-consuming, but as an engineer I like taking lots of notes and gathering data. I'm glad other people enjoy it, too!
 
For my trial here, I had an extra Inkbird controller which I just used the temperature probe to gather data. I have also done fermentations in the bag and just kept an eye on the aquarium stick-on temperature strip. Based on what I found with monitoring with the separate probe, is temperature really does stay quite stable, and the 2L bottles of ice keep ice for slightly longer than 24 hours.
So, if you take it on faith the temperature is stable and change the ice every 24 hours, you can use your temperature strip readings during your ice changes to keep track of things.
 
There are also ales that like a slightly cooler fermentation temperature where these can come in handy even if you're not into lagers. Scotch Ales like a cool fermentation, Dusseldorf Alts, and Kolschs.
 
I do a Dark Mild (sort of) in the winter that spends its first three days at about 53 f (basement temperature) before it is moved to the fermentation chamber to heat up to about 59f for the remainder of two week before a diacetyl rest at 70 f for couple days.
I get the need for a year round fermentation chamber. For me I use heating as much as cooling and I think on the Coolzone with the addition of an aquarium heater would be fine for this and if the "rod" chiller can have peltier (sic?) polarity reversed, it could likely as well.
 
Both of those systems have versions that heat as well as cool. I only evaluated the cooling versions, but Gotta Brew sells 2 different electric heater wraps that you layer in around your fermenter so you have the ability to cool and heat. With that schedule you have above, you could do that all without moving your fermenter.
The BrewJacket has a "Pro" version out or soon to be out that heats and cools.
I don't know how well either of these systems/options work, but I do know they are options available.
 
I made a clamshell fermentation chiller by lining two plastic recycling totes with 3/4 in foam insulation board. The carboy goes into the bottom tote, the top tote covers it like, well, a clamshell. I rotate out three quart bottles of ice every 12 hours or so. I have held a steady ferment at 65-68F for a week with my English Dark Mild, and there is usually some ice left in the bottles when I swap them out. The whole set-up cost me about $12, for the insulation(the totes were free)I plan on running an experiment with more ice and a carboy full of water to see if I can hit and maintain lagering temps.
 
If you want an accurate temp from inside your FV, get a thermowell:
http://www.midwestsupplies.com/stopper-thermowell
 
That sounds like a great solution- at a great price. I don't know how you seal the edges of your clamshell, but I think that will be the key to getting colder temps. The 3/4" foam would be equivalent or better than some of these systems I tested, so the key will be not allowing a path for air to leak out. If it has a leak path you'll end up setting up a convection heat transfer path as warm air and cold air move around and trade places.
 
Great article! Thanks for the all the work in researching and gathering the data. One question I have about the BrewJacket immersion rod. How does it work with an air lock or an overflow tube?
 
Yeah, so far I've only had to worry about cooling to the mid 60's in a basement that's right around 70F, so sealing the edges hasn't been an issue. Maybe for lagering I can put a rubber gasket around the edge of the bottom tote, like on a freezer or fridge door, then seal the seams in the insulation with foam tape.
 
On a bucket they have a lid drilled for the rod and blowoff tube. On a carbon you drill a hole in the neck for the blowoff
 
They have different interface options. They've got lids for the Big Mouth Bubbler (glass & PET) that fit the immersion rod, and has a separate hole to put an airlock/blow-off tube. They also have a small 1-way valve with a grommet that can be inserted into the neck of a PET carboy neck (once you drill out a hole in it). And lastly you can use it in a standard fermenting bucket.
For glass carboys, the neck size is too small to fit the rod diameter down (much less add a breather in addition).
 
Thank you for the awesome write up! I've been seriously thinking about purchasing 1 of the systems you used & thanks to your research, I've just made my decision.
Regards, GF.
 
You'd have to be willing to drill a 1.75" hole in the lid for the cooling rod to fit down through. And you might struggle depending on the volume fill. You'd need to be sure the rod was in contact with the bulk of your liquid otherwise you cooling capability would be significantly reduced. And if you get too much volume of wort/beer, the cooling rod might have a harder time keeping temperature spike during active fermentation under control.
They've got a lot of info on their website showing compatible fermenters. SS brewbucket isn't listed, but you can find dimensions of the rod length and try to assess if it would work for what volume you're doing. They also have good support so you could try out the contact links at the bottom to get their assessment based on the volume of beer you'll have in your fermenter.
http://www.brewjacket.com/compatible-fermenters/
 
I was just cleaning out some old files and one of them was an article by a guy named Ken Schwartz titled "Son Of Fermentation Chiller". It has diagrams, cut list, parts list, instructions and all for exactly what you are refering to. It was stuck in the "Way Back Machine" from 2000, the year 2000! Nine strains of Wyeast was a stretch for me. I drove for two hours round trip in a Chevy Suburban for a couple fresh smack packs. The good old days when electric brewers were still looked at as a little wierd. I've been all electric for twenty seven years now and haven't ... let's just leave it there.
 
I think it's interesting that you were able to cool to 50 degrees and hold it there. Note that most of the DIY solutions and hacks work well for getting to the low-60s MAYBE, but they are not really workable solutions for lagers. With a swamp cooler and fan, I always had trouble getting to 64 degrees.
In my old house, the basement was cooler, and I could ferment ale at about 62-66 without a problem. My current basement is very hot (why?!?), but I now have a ferm fridge. I fought with most ales except in the fall or spring.
 
I use the CoolZone and really like the system. You list as a downside the need to refill ice in a cooler. I do NOT use a 10 gallon igloo for cold water though. I keep a small (1.5 gallon) bucket of water in my kegerator. I run the water lines through the side of this refrigerator and ferment next to it in my garage. This system works continuously, with no need to refill ice.
 
one of my pet peeves in brewing is buying something only to outgrow it later. I hate the feeling of spending cash only to have spend more later on. if you are going to brew lagers, and you have the space, a 14 square foot chest freezer with a temp control (that goes directly into your fermentation container) is very difficult to out grow. when i'm not fermenting at 50 degrees, i use it as my kegerator - no fancy drill thru holes, just open the lid, reach in and pour. (if i ever stop brewing, i can craiglist it). it also serves as my cold crashing method for ales. a kegerator by itself was more expensive than my chest freezer alone. i realize some might not want to go this route for cost purposes, but if this is where you will end up anywhere in a year or two bite the bullet now (or use ice and keep saving some $) and do double duty with a chest freezer system, rather than spend $100 here and there and still not have a keg cooling system. you will not regret it. not to mention the fact that when i set a fermentation temp IT STAYS THERE within .05 degrees! note also that you should get a large enough chest freezer to hold two 6.5 gallon carboys, and two 5 gallon kegs plus co2 tank. my 14er works great. that way youll never really need to go bigger.
 
Luckily you don't always need to get as low as most people do for most lager yeasts as Brolosophy has proven:
http://brulosophy.com/2016/02/08/fermentation-temperature-pt-4-lager-yeast-saflager-3470-exbeeriment-results/
http://brulosophy.com/2015/06/22/fermentation-temperature-pt-3-lager-yeast-exbeeriment-results/
But that said, I use a fermentation freezer myself with temperature control for all my ales (don't care for lagers). Living in FL necessitates basically year round cooling being required even for ales.
 
A little late to this party, but I mostly agree with Sparger. The only difference is that I bought a largish dorm fridge. It is fermenting my lager as I type this, and will also hold the keg when it is done. I still have all the parts, didn't permanently modify anything, and will serve as a regular fridge if ever needed. A pair of 3 gallon Better Bottles fit squarely in it, as does a keg and CO2 tank, but not at the same time. I built the controller with an STC-1000, and it just works. The probe fits squarely between the Better Bottles and registers the actual internal temp without ever touching the beer.
 
Some thick weather stripping from the hardware store ought to do. Put some on both sides of the shell and use some spring clamps on to seal the two sides up tight.
 
Looking at the price of the cool zone systems leaves me scratching my head...more than I paid for a new scratch n dent 7 cubic foot chest freezer from Home Depot plus a Johnson digital controller. I regularly make lagers and have been using the setup for several years now with zero issues. Adding a second setup right now to enjoy better fermentation control on ales and temperature ramping on Belgian Abbey clones. Sourcing from craigslist for a used freezer would only lower the initial cost. The design on the cool zone system replicates some medical device that we used post surgery on my wife years ago--worked well the first couple of days and I thought it was a very nifty concept in my mind, but didn't turn out to be very rugged and we ended up using packs of frozen corn to finish out her post surgery recover when the small channels began to plug and the cooling capacity diminished. The cool zone system might be better built...haven't worked with one.
 
I like your review. I happened upon this in the middle on building a modified son of fermentation chamber (I made it longer to accommodate two carboys). I think materials will end up being around $120 for everything, and I'm expecting to lager in it. That will include the ability to precisely control temperature (just cooling to start), but I will need to change out ice containers once or twice a day. It also is a large space investment. Perhaps 8 square feet. If I owned a house I would have probably made a converted freezer or something, but if need be this can be disassembled and carried out of my basement without breaking my back.
 
Better and cheaper thermowells here...
http://www.brewershardware.com/Straight-Wall-Thermowells/
Read about them at the site, welded and polished ends for better sanitation.
I use this type carboy cap...
https://www.amazon.com/Learn-Brew-LLC-7H-EOH8-VCRW-Carboys/dp/B0064OED86/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1477148461&sr=8-1&keywords=carboy+cap
One tap for the thermowell, one for the bubblier.
Enjoy!
 
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