Category Archives: Equipment

Plastic Carboys: A good alternative to glass

 I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Yes, sir.
Are you listening?
Yes, I am.

~ The Graduate, 1967

For a long time, glass carboys were the best choice – maybe the only good choice – to ferment and age our wine. Today we can buy PET carboys made for winemaking that are a good barrier to oxygen, don’t leech dangerous substances into our wine, or change the flavor. Should we? I think so. Here are the trade-offs, as I see them (and remember, I’m talking about Better Bottle and similar products specifically made for wine/beer making out of PET plastic – not water bottles or any other kind of plastic container).

Plastic carboys are lighter – glass is more rigid

One of the first things you’ll notice about them is that plastic carboys are lighter than glass. The next thing you’ll notice is that this is a bigger deal than you thought! You’ll notice later that they flex when you move them full, and this means they’ll pull air through the airlock (plus some of the water, sanitizer, or whatever you’ve filled your airlock with). They might also push some of your wine, beer, mead, or cider into the airlock. That’s when you’ll be missing the rigidity of glass. Or changing your mind about the special fitting and custom air lock being too expensive.

 Plastic carboys are cheaper

In comparing prices of 3-gallon carboys, I found I could get plastic ones for about $10 less than glass. You may need to buy new accessories, though, and that could narrow the price gap. I already had bungs that fit glass carboys, but I had to buy #10 stoppers for my new glass carboy. Also, these are available online at good prices, but the shipping costs are very high. So this is one of those items where you’ll be much better off buying from a local store.

Plastic carboys don’t shatter – Glass doesn’t scratch

The reason I bought a plastic carboy – and came to write this article – is that one of my old glass 3-gallon carboys broke. I was lucky, no injury or spilled wine, but these types of accidents can be messy and dangerous. The short drop onto a concrete floor that did in my glass carboy wouldn’t have hurt my new plastic one. Glass carboys, on the other hand, can withstand more aggressive cleaning. Like a scrubbing with a carboy brush that would scratch plastic ones or a long soak in a caustic cleaning soluiton. This is what I’m most worried about. I clean carboys by soaking in oxiclean, and I’m going to use lower concentrations for shorter periods of time on the plastic ones.

Neither is perfect, but plastic is better

I’d love some new material that combined the best of glass and plastic. A glasstic carboy would be rigid and easy to clean, but also lightweight and shatter-proof. Oh, it would cost less too! That’s not one of our choices, though, so I’ll go with plastic. Solving the “flexing and airlock breathing” problem and adjusting my cleaning methods seem like a small price to pay for a lighter, cheaper carboy that resists breakage.

Further Reading

BetterBottle has some great information about cleaning their carboys. I think it applies to other brands of PET carboys that are made for wine/beer making too. I wasn’t able to link directly, so first navigate to their technical information page, then choose “Wash/Sanitize” from the navbar on the left. Check out the whole site – lots of good info their.

Peter Kennedy is a homebrewer who tried plastic carboys after a glass one broke, but in the end he went back to glass. I think plastic is the way to go, but not everyone will. There are very few perfect options, just different sets of trade-offs. Read about his experience, then make up your own mind.

Juicing Apples By Freeze – Thawing

Can you process apples at home without a lot of work or expensive equipment? That’s what I tried to find out when I sealed my small harvest in Ziploc bags and put them in the freezer. They went in whole, no peeling, coring or chopping. I thawed them in sealed bags, treated with sulfite, and pressed them by hand (well, by sanitized spatula anyway).  I wrote about my plans last fall and my hopes of finding a quick cheap and easy way to process apples. Here I’ll talk about the results and the details of what I did and why.

No peeling, coring, or chopping

The first detail is that I froze the apples whole. That’s because I was dealing with about 8 lb (3700 g) of apples and I was looking for a method I could use on 20 or 30 lb – too many to chop, peel, or core.  They are ready to process as soon as they are frozen solid, but can be left in the freezer for a convenient time. When it came time to thaw, I opened the bags and treated them with sulfite.

Sulfite, pectic enzyme, and keep the air out

To guard against oxidation, I treated the apples with sulfite while they were still frozen. As a further precaution, I expelled most of the air by partially submerging the Ziploc bag – only the mouth of the bag was above water. They thawed like this, sulfited and with almost no air contact, overnight. The thawed apples were still whole, and the next morning I crushed them by hand (the apples stayed in the bags, so my hands never touched the fruit) and added pectic enzyme. I expelled the air as before and let the pectic enzyme work for about eight hours.

Pressing: Maybe I shouldn’t have used a spatula

That’s when I strained/pressed them in my three-bucket press. With only eight pounds of apples, I couldn’t use the press like I normally would. That’s because the buckets don’t fit together snugly and the small amount of apples fit in the gap between the buckets. Such a press is only effective with 30 lb or more fruit, so I used a sanitized spatula.

I ended up with 1320 ml of juice from my 3.7 kg of apples, which is only 36% juice yield. You can expect double that or more with a conventional crusher/press, and the yield is even lower if you consider only settled juice. I poured the 1320 ml of juice into a 2 liter cylinder and sealed it with an inverted sanitized Ziploc bag that I filled with water.

A DIY settling tank

I wanted to seal the 2 liter cylinder (these rock, by the way – I never knew how much I’d use one until I got it) with little or no air space. I didn’t have a stopper that would fit and it was only about 2/3 full anyway. Imagine in inflating a balloon inside the cylinder. As you inflate it, it presses against the top of the liquid and sides of the cylinder. With enough height, it should form a good seal. I used a Ziploc (sanitized then inverted so that the sanitized surface was in contact with the juice) filled with water instead of a balloon filled with air. At any rate, I siphoned off 1240 ml of clear settled juice the next day (using this, my yield is now only 34%):

SG: 1.048, pH: 3.2, TA: 7 g/L (tartaric).

Keep in mind that time spent thawing, straining, and settling is time that all sorts of microcritters can attack. Use sulfite (about 1 campden tablet or equivilent for every 6 lb/2.7 kg of fruit), minimize air contact, and be careful about cleanliness and sanitation.

A partial success

Oh, one thing I’m really patting myself on the back about is that the apples never browned – not even a little. In the past, I relied on sulfite to reverse the inevitable browning – this does work, but it’s better to prevent it altogether.

So how about my opening question? Well, I did process the apples without expensive equipment, but my juice yield was very low. What happened is that the freeze/thawing/hand crushing worked pretty well to crush the apples but I still needed a good way to press them. My sanitized spatula didn’t cut it. I think that means more fruit so I can use my 3-bucket press or building/buying a small press.

Titratable Acidity: A Better Way?

A man, his contraption, and a different way

I learned of a different way to test for titratable acidity, the other day. At the last meeting of the Puget Sound Amatuer Wine and Beer Makers club, Don Proctor demonstrated this method using an odd looking device. He used ordinary baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to neutralize the acid in a test sample. The important thing about this chemical reaction is that it gives off carbon dioxide (CO2) in direct proportion to the amount of acid neutralized. Now his device didn’t look so odd. The stoppers, tubing, glass cylinders, and green liquid were used to measure the amount of CO2, and if you know how much wine was in your sample and how much CO2 was produced, you can find the acidity of your sample.

The difference is in what you measure

This method, and conventional titration, both aim to measure the amount of acid by neutralizing it with a base. In a titration, you add a carefully measured amount of base until all the acid is neutralized. It’s important that you add just enough base to neutralize all the acid – no more and no less – because you determine the amount of acid in the sample from the amount of base that you add. Because you have to measure the base so precisely, it’s best to add it in liquid form. That means you need to have a solution of base at a precise concentration. Now, this is easy to find, but it’s expensive and it has a short shelf life.

Why the new way is better

You need to neutralize all the acid in Mr Proctor’s method too, but you don’t need to know how much base it took to do that. That means you don’t need to determine the end point (no pH meter) and you can use cheap, shelf stable baking soda instead of expensive perishable sodium hydroxide. That’s a big plus, as I found out the last time I ran out of chemicals. I’m going to have to get one of these contraptions!

Update 9/8/2008: A picture is worth a thousand words

If you’re having trouble visualizing it, take a look at this photo.

Racking The Merlot And Cherry Wine

I made good use of my new 3-gallon (11 liter) carboys this weekend. Three 1-gallon (3.785 liter) jugs, plus one wine bottle, of cherry wine fit perfectly into the carboy. Eight gallons (30 liters) of Merlot filled a 5-gallon (19 liter) and a 3-gallon carboy with a little left over in a wine bottle.

Higher yield from red wine?

I’m still surprised by the yield from my Merlot grapes. I bought 100 lb (45.45 kg) in October, and I was expecting about 5-gallons of wine, which is about what I’m getting from the 100 lb of Chardonnay grapes I bought at the same time. I think I know what happened. I treated the Merlot with pectic enzyme, then fermented it like any red wine, so the skin and pulp were soaking in a water-turning-to-alcohol mixture for a week. This, to say nothing the fermenting yeast, broke down cell walls and membranes making it a lot easier to squeeze liquid out of the pulp. The Chardonnay, on the other hand, were pressed immediately after crushing. The result: more Merlot wine from the same amount of grapes. I’ll have to make a note of this for next year to see if the extra yield from red wine is real or if this year’s experience was just a fluke.

Looking For A Carboy – Found A Homebrew Shop

The local homebrew shop closest to my house was out of 3-gallon carboys. I was in a hurry, so I decided to look around for other stores in the area and I’m glad I did. Not only did Larry’s Brewing Supply have the carboys in stock, they sold them for 20% less. The two stores have different “personalities.” From the sophisticated checkout to the bar codes, my local shop is clean, bright, and modern. Larry’s is a small shop with a warehouse feeling to it. Hand written signs indicate prices, and Larry’s (yep, that’s really the owner’s name) collection of old (probably not “antique” yet, but getting close) bottle cappers adorn the checkout area. Helpful, friendly staffs make both stores good places to buy homebrew and winemaking supplies, but when you buy a lot of supplies and equipment, like I do, comparison shopping can really pay off.

The Unappreciated 3-Gallon Carboy

I’ve got a little over eight gallons (30 liters) of pressed Merlot that needs to be racked soon. What do you rack eight gallons of wine into? A 5-gallon carboy and three 1-gallon jugs would work, but the best way is to use a 3-gallon (11 liter) carboy. You don’t hear as much about the 3-gallon carboy as you do about it’s big brother. There are many times it could have made my life easier though, and I think it’s finally time to add one to my roster of winemaking equipment.

Calibrating A pH Meter: Maybe The New Buffer Solution Will Do

I racked and measured four batches the other day, and it gave me the opportunity to size up my new buffer solution. I recorded TA values for three of those batches while I was still using my old buffer solution to calibrate my pH meter, and they shouldn’t have changed much. Here are the data:

Name Old Buffer New Buffer
Rhubarb Wine 4/22/07: 6 g/L 11/10/07: 7 g/L
Oregano Wine 8/12/07: 6 g/L 11/10/07: 5.5 g/L
Grocery Store Chablis 8/23/07: 7 g/L 11/10/07: 6 g/L

The old and new measurements are all within 1 g/L. Since I’m measuring my liquid volumes with the plastic syringe that came with my cheap acid test kit, not pipettes or burettes, I don’t think I can claim accuracy better than 1 g/L. So I’m not going to say the new buffer is great, but any error its causing is pretty small.

Calibrating A pH Meter: Buffer Solution

What is a buffer solution?

You need to calibrate your pH meter for it to work properly, but to do that, you need to immerse it in a solution of known pH. Buffer solutions are the way out of that little chicken and egg problem. These are made of precisely measured ingredients that combine to form a solution of known, and highly stable, pH. It would be pretty tough for most home winemakers to make their own buffer solution, so it’s a good thing that they’re widely available at homebrew shops.

Not all buffers are created equal

I was out of pH 4 buffer, and bought some more from a local shop. The first difference I noticed, between the new and old solutions, was the color – the new one was pink and the old one was colorless. There were two other differences, though, that were more significant. Each solution came with a temperature table that indicated the precise pH, to two decimal places, at a given temperature. The old solution listed the pH from 0C to 95C in 5 degree increments, and over that wide range the pH varied from 4.00 to 4.22. The new solution listed the pH at 20C (pH = 4.02) and 30C (pH = 4.99). The detail and temperature stability of the old solution gave me a lot of confidence. The new one is … pink.

How to shop for buffer solution

My pH meter had been pretty steady, often needing no adjustment at all between uses. When it had drifted, it was only by 0.02 or 0.03. So I was taken aback to see my pH meter read 3.74 when I first put it in the new solution. Maybe the meter drifted by that much since the last time I used it, but maybe the pH of these two “pH 4” buffers differed by 0.26. I was out of the old solution, so I couldn’t check this. The new solution is fresher, so it’s possible that the old one drifted over time, but I’ve got my doubts about the new one. Live and learn. The next time I buy buffer solution, and that’s going to be pretty soon, I’ll try to find out when it was made and how much detail is in the temperature table.

Update 5/13/2012 – Hanna buffers are my favorite

I’ve been calibrating my pH meter for five years now, and I’ve bought various brands of buffer solution. I keep going back to Hanna. I’m not a chemist, but the detailed temperature corrections and the small drift give me a sense that theirs is a cut above. They’re readily available at good prices too, so for whatever it’s worth this is what I buy.

How To Clean A Big Fermenter Without Scrubbing

What I hate about winemaking

Once I pressed the Merlot, it was time to watch airlocks bubble as the wine fermented out and then slowly cleared. It was also time to clean the fermenter. This is on the list, along with washing bottles, of my least favorite things about making wine. The best way to do this is to get someone else to do it, maybe a friend or loved one. This isn’t as easy as you might think, so sometimes we must take drastic action. Yes, there are times when we have to do it ourselves.

If you gotta do it, do it the easy way

So how do you clean a 24 gallon fermenter? It’s big enough that bending over, or tipping it on it’s side and crawling in, to scrub the inside and bottom will be hard on your back and knees. Besides, why scrub when you don’t have to? I like to rinse it with a garden hose right after I’m done with it, that way nothing has a chance to dry and harden on the surface. Next, I fill it with water and a detergent, I like to use Oxiclean. You’re not going to want to move it while it’s full, so make sure it’s in a good spot before you fill it. You’ll want it someplace where you can leave it for a long time, someplace where you can tip it on its side, to drain, without getting it dirty, and someplace near a garden hose. The garage, just inside the door to the driveway, works for me. I like to let it soak for several hours, often overnight. After soaking, I’ll drain it and rinse with the garden hose. After I’ve rinsed thoroughly and I think I’ve gotten every bit of detergent, I’ll fill it with clean water and let it sit for a while (again, several hours or even overnight). I want to make sure there isn’t a thin film of detergent on the bottom or on the sides. I drain it after that and turn it upside down to drip dry over my utility sink.

Not as bad as it seemed

As you can see, this process can take several days, but for most of that time, the fermenter is just soaking. It takes very little time and effort on your part, leaving you free to make more wine!

Pressing Merlot

When to press red wine

When making red wine from grapes, you crush the grapes then ferment them. You leave the skins and pulp in the fermenting wine, for a time, then you press it and leave the solids behind. The amount of time will vary according to the style of wine you’re making. Three or four days, will yield a light bodied wine. A few weeks will yield a tannic, full bodied wine. A good full bodied wine requires top notch fruit, and since I don’t have detailed information on how my grapes were grown I decided to make a medium bodied wine, and pressed after a week.

Pressing Merlot in a bladder press on 10/20/07

Here you can see the bladder press I used to press my Merlot.

Using a bladder press

I loaded the fermenting wine, pulp skins and all, into a perforated cylinder. At first, “free run wine” flowed out of the perforations, leaving seeds, pulp and other debris behind. Later, I applied water pressure to inflate a rubber bladder that squeezed the grapes against the sides of the cylinder and “press wine” flowed out. Altogether, I got over eight gallons (30+ liters), which is more than I expected from my 100 lb (45+ kg) of grapes. I was going by the rule of thumb that 100 lb would yield 5 gallons (about 19 liters).

Pressed Merlot in 5-gallon carboys, press wine in the carboy with the orange handle and free run in the carboy on the right. 10/20/07

I kept the free run and press wine separate. The carboy on the left, with the orange handle, contains press wine, while the carboy on the right contains free run. It’s still fermenting, and I expect it to finish in another week. Once it starts to clear, I’ll rack into fresh containers for aging. At that point, I’ll have to decide if I want to keep the press and free run separate or combine them.