Advice by the bucketful

In my last post, I said that I was going to try to get a food-grade bucket and make my own fermenter. That proved to be harder than I imagined. I had read that bakeries are a good place to get buckets because they get big buckets of icing, which is a lot less gross than some things that come in buckets, like pickles and barbecue chicken wings. So I called around and was surprised to find that there is quite a bit of competition for these buckets. If you are going to try this, here is my advice:

  • Call early in the morning, before someone else gets the buckets.
  • Try restaurants, delis, and other businesses that order food in bulk.
  • If the business doesn’t have any buckets, ask when they expect to get some.
  • When you find a bucket, be prepared to pick it up immediately.

Two for the price of one (free)

I finally found a couple of buckets at a supermarket bakery. The lady at the bakery told me she had a couple of 5 gallon buckets but I would have to come get them now. When I arrived, I discovered they were actually 4 gallon buckets but I didn’t want to tell the woman I had changed my mind after she had held them for me.

The beer kit I had bought to make my first brewing experience more likely to succeed makes 6 gallons (23 liters). I was therefore thinking I needed a 6 gallon fermenter. A little research, however, revealed that there needs to be a little room at the top to allow the fermentation to occur. So, I needed at least a 7 gallon fermenter. I knew from talking to restaurants and businesses that the standard 5 gallon bucket was the largest bucket I was likely to find for free. I went to Lowes, Home Depot, and Ace Hardware hoping to find a larger bucket but didn’t find anything larger 5 gallons.

I had to make a choice: I could either bite the bullet and buy a fermenter or I could try modifying the beer kit ingredients to either make less than 6 gallons or split it into multiple fermenters. The point of buying the beer kit was to simplify the process thereby increasing the chance of making beer that was drinkable. If I tried to modify the concentrate and yeast to make a smaller batch or batches, I was complicating things. On the other hand, I’m trying to see how little I can spend and still make a good batch of beer. Spending $15-$20 on an 8 gallon bucket seemed a little ridiculous.

Since I had two 4 gallon buckets and I needed an 8 gallon fermenter, I decided to try my luck and split the beer kit ingredients in two and brew two 3 gallon batches. It doesn’t take a lot of math to divide by 2 so it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

Roll your own fermenter

Air locksAll I really needed to make my buckets into fermenters was air locks. The air lock is a simple plastic valve that you fill halfway with water so that gas from the fermentation can escape but outside air and contaminants can’t get in. I picked up 2 air locks from my local beer store for 2 bucks. They didn’t have grommets or stoppers that fit the air locks so I went to the plumbing section of Ace and got two cone-shaped rubber washers that are meant to be used in faucet repair. I drilled a hole in the lid of each icing bucket and inserted the washers and air locks. Voila! I am now the proud owner of two 4 gallon fermenters which cost a grand total of $3.50!

Homemade fermenterI was planning on splitting the wort into 2 even batches. I decided it would be easier if the fermenters were graduated so I could easily tell how much liquid was in each one. I used a 4 cup measuring cup to pour water into the buckets and marked off half-gallon increments on the outside of the buckets.

I’m finally ready to brew some beer!

Cost so far

  • $20 – malt concentrate (beer kit)
  • $8 – hydrometer
  • $5 – cleanser
  • $0 – four gallon icing bucket (2)
  • $3.50 – air lock and rubber washer (2)

$35.50 – total

12 comments

  1. @gservo
    The air lock allows the gas from the fermentation to escape without allowing anything else to get in. The amount of gas (CO2?) released is not enough to worry about so you don’t have to put the fermentor in a well ventilated area or anything. For this batch I put it in the spare bedroom because I was afraid that the basement would be too cold. I have since learned that ale yeast will ferment just fine in colder temps, down to 50 degrees or so, it just slows the process down a bit.

  2. this really helped me and saved me from buying $200 fermenters. but one question though.. the experiment i want to try does not have to do with making beer but the alcohol fermentation process and which carbohydrate works best.. the obvious answer would be glucose but do you think testing out ie: sucrose fructose and spenda is a good experiment or just a waste of time (no alcohol fermentation would occur) ??

  3. oh and i forgot to add.. can i use smaller buckets or containers (minimum of 4 pints ) since i am just testing the alcohol fermentation process? and do you know how long it would take me to do this process since im not making beer?

  4. @Salina
    The subject of using artificial sweeteners, like Splenda, comes up occasionally in the American Homebrewers Assoc email forum. I am not a chemist but my understanding is that artificial sweeteners are made of amino acids which are proteins and therefore useless to yeast. Yeast needs simple carbohydrates to consume and convert to alcohol. Sucrose (table sugar), fructose (honey, fruit, etc), and glucose (corn sugar) all work well. I can tell you from experience that beer yeast likes corn sugar (also called dextrose) which is often used to raise alcohol content without affecting the flavor. Corn sugar is what is usually used by homebrewers for producing carbonation in the bottle.

    There are different strains of yeast to consider as well. Any kind of yeast will consume sugar and make alcohol but each yeast produces a distinct flavor. Brewers yeast will work for fermentation but the flavor may not be very palatable. Also, some yeast can handle high levels of alcohol while others can’t. Beer yeast can generally handle up to about 8% alcohol. Wine and campaign yeast can go up to maybe 20%. Beyond that, I’m not sure. I really don’t know anything about making liquor.

    You can make small batches to experiment but it can be tricky. The secret is to get the right amount of yeast with the right amount of sugar. Beer yeast is usually sold in amounts appropriate for a 5 gallon batch of beer. If you wanted to make five 1 gallon batches, for example, you would need to divide that yeast into 5 equal parts. That sounds fairly easy but the trick is to do it without contaminating the yeast. I suggest taking very careful notes on all variables in your experiment batches. When you get a batch you like, try scaling it up to a larger batch and see if you get the same results. You may need to make some adjustments as the sugar and yeast amounts increase.

    As far as time of fermentation, a .5 – 1 gallon batch will ferment very quickly. I would guess that fermentation would be complete in 24 hours at the most.

    One other thing to keep in mind. Heat can have a big effect on fermentation and the resulting alcohol. Different yeast ferments better in different temperature ranges. Ale yeast likes warmer temps: 65-75 degrees; lager yeast likes cooler temps: 40-50 degrees. I’m not sure about other yeasts. Higher temps will generally speed up fermentation but will change the flavor of the resulting alcohol.

    Sorry this is so long but hopefully it answered your questions.

  5. thanks for the helpful advice and it answered all my questions. but one thing: i have gotten almost all the materials for my experiment and i am using four 2 gallon buckets as fermenters with lids.. and i have gotten a rubber stopper too but not the air lock yet. i don’t know how the rubber stopped goes with the air lock, like how is it they attatch? and what do u suggest what the size of the airlock should be? and you mentioned above that the yeast should be distributed equally among the different fermenters. are u saying i should prepare the yeast separetly? each time? let me clarify my self by showing you my procedure: Procedure
    I. Preparing Yeast – must re-hydrate before pitching [adding yeast to fermenter(s)]
    1. Prepare 1 cup of water at boiling point into a sterilized jar and add two packets of dry ale yeast.
    2. Cover with plastic wrap for 15 minutes
    3. Boil 1 teaspoon of desired carbohydrate (sucrose, fructose, Splenda or Glucose) in 2 teaspoons of water and cool.
    4. Put carbohydrate in yeast jar and place in warm area
    5. Wait 30 minutes until yeast begins to foam.
    i. Plan B: if it doesn’t start foaming in 30 min., use another packet……………..
    Now should i divide the resulting yeast into four equal parts? or should i increase the amount of the packets to make more yeast?
    and how could i control the temperature since winter has arrived?
    and do i measure the gravity with the hydrometer before making the airlock secure? and i should fill the airlock half way right? not all the way?

    sorry for all the questions.. i just don’t wanna screw everything up since it is my first time doing this type of experiment lol
    thanks for all ur help though =]

  6. Salina,
    The rubber stopper should have a hole in the middle into which the airlock fits. The airlocks that you buy at beer brewing suppliers are all the same size, as far as I know. Fill the air lock half-way with water.

    What I was talking about in regards to dividing the yeast is that a packet of ale yeast is meant to ferment 5 gallons of wort (unfermented beer). So if you are making smaller batches, you must divide the yeast accordingly. You can do this either before or after you rehydrate it just be very careful that everything that comes into contact with the yeast is sterile.

    I may be reading it wrong but it looks like from from the process you outlines that you are planning on adding the yeast to boiling water. DON’T do this. Boiling water will kill the yeast. The water should be less than 80 degrees and 70 degrees is even better. Boil the water for 10 minutes or so to sterilize it. Cover it to prevent airborne contamination and allow it to cool to <80 degrees. You can put the pot in a cold water bath to speed the cooling.

    I don't know if 1 teaspoon is enough sugar but you can experiment to find out. Just remember that one packet of yeast is enough to ferment 5 gallons. Unless you are talking about making a yeast starter that you will then add to a larger volume of fermentable liquid. When I make a yeast starter, I use 1 quart of water with 1/2 of dry malt extract (glucose).

    I would wait longer than 30 minutes for fermentation to begin. I allow at least 24 hours for my yeast starters to finish fermenting but I don't know how long it takes them to start.I would not recommend adding more yeast with the low amount of sugar that you are using.

    Regarding temperature, ale yeast likes temps between 65 and 75. Higher temps will speed fermentation but negatively affect flavor. Lower temps will slow fermentation and may also negatively affect flavor. Normal room temperature is perfect for ale yeast so as long as you keep it indoors, you should be fine.

    You should measure the gravity before adding the yeast although it doesn't hurt to do it after adding the yeast as long as fermentation hasn't begun.

    Feel free to email me at chris[at]beerutopia.com if you need any more help.

  7. Wouldn't brewing the whole batch and seperating the wort be easier? It seems like you just doubled the time, making two beers instead of one.

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