Whether you’re making small amounts of cider at home or large quantities commercially, one thing is clear: you’ll need food-grade vessels to ferment and age it in. Your choice of vessels runs the gamut, from 1-gallon glass jugs all the way up to wine-industry stainless steel fermenters in the hundreds or thousands of gallons. In this section, I present some options, broken down primarily along the lines of scale–‘home vs. commercial operation’–but also with regard to material type, cost, and features.
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Home Fermenting Equipment
Plastic is a durable, versatile option for fermenting, and can range from inexpensive fermenting buckets to more advanced versions with additional features. It’s a good choice for initial fermentation and for collecting juice during grinding and pressing without fear of breaking a glass fermenter, but it’s not ideal for long-term storage as glass and stainless steel are more inert.
A warning on using plastic –it must be made from food-grade plastic, typically high-density polyethylene (HDPE). This is for safety reasons–you don’t want to use a type of plastic that could leach unwanted compounds into your cider. While you may be tempted to just buy a bunch of plastic work buckets from your local hardware store, don’t do this–a few bucks’ worth of savings does not warrant risking ruining cider or your health.
There are other types of plastic fermenting vessels than those detailed below, but I prefer these:
The most basic fermenting vessel in the home brewing / home cidermaking arsenal is the inexpensive plastic fermenting bucket, equipped with a lid and an airlock.
Here’s a typical fermenting bucket setup that runs about $20:
Fermenting buckets are great to keep around for overflow situations when you need additional fermenter space in a hurry, because you can nest them to take up less space than other types of fermenters. They also have wide openings, which is convenient when working with fruit (i.e., adding additional, whole fruit like tart cherries to a juice fermentation).
Speidel Plastic Fermenters
I’ve become a fan of Speidel plastic fermenters (see my in-depth review here), which are more expensive than fermenting buckets but have additional features such as an outlet spigot above where the lees (sediment) collect which allows you to transfer cider without using a siphon (racking cane).
- 5.3 gallon (20 liter)
- 7.9 gallon (30 liter)
- 15.9 gallon (60 liter)
- 31.7 gallon (120 liter)
- Speidel Fermenters on eBay
I have two of the 7.9 gallon Speidels and they are my favorite fermenter to work with for primary fermentation. The spigot saves a lot of time, they are easy to clean, and like buckets they have a side opening which makes working with whole fruit more convenient. The 7.9 gallon version is typically about $60 at Morebeer.
Glass is inert and can be used for both fermentation and aging. Given that cider benefits from aging for several months, you’ll want to keep some glass (or stainless) around for your home cidermaking operation.
Glass fermenters are typically called carboys.
Here are a few options:
As full carboys come without handles and are very heavy and awkward to move, I recommend using a carrying aid to make moving them easier.
I have one of these on each of my glass fermenters:
If you’re going to both age and ferment in glass, I’d recommend a 6.5 gallon carboy for primary fermentation and a 5 gallon carboy for aging–you’ll lose some cider during siphoning (racking) between carboys–perhaps a half gallon per racking–so you can make slightly more initially to end up with the desired volume at the end. In addition, it helps to age with as little air space (head space) as possible in the carboy.
Stainless steel is the holy grail of fermenting, being inert, durable, and strong. Due to its high price, steel is less common than glass or plastic in the home brewing or cidermaking arena, but there are a few options which are in reach of the serious hobbyist with disposable income.
Variable Volume Fermenters
Variable volume fermenters are cylindrical steel fermenters with a lid that can be placed anywhere along the inside diameter of the cylinder and sealed with a gasket. This is a handy feature if you’re working with your own fruit, as yields–and thus juice volume–will vary from year to year.
Morebeer sells these in its annual Spring Pro Sale–most of which consists of much larger fermenters more suited to commercial use. However, some smaller models appear as well which are home use candidates.
If you’re interested in cider or mead-related equipment deals that come up during the above spring sale, sign up for email updates–I’ll periodically include announcements along these lines as I identify them.
SS Brewtech Fermenters
SS Brewing Technologies is a relative newcomer to the field of stainless fermenters which is quickly becoming popular. They make relatively small fermenters–from their 6.95 Brew Bucket up to 17 gallon, half-barrel fermenters. These have the advantage of being conical in nature, which facilitates fermenting and aging in the same vessel by removing the accumulated sediment (lees) through the lower valve.
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Blichmann’s stainless steel brewing and fermenting equipment has a well-earned reputation of being capable, well-made and feature-rich, though it comes with a heavy price tag compared to most small-scale options. They generally sell at a premium, and it’s a rare day that you’ll find it on sale. Despite the price, most home brewers that I know would love to get their hands on Blichmann equipment.
Here is a search for their conical fermenter–called the Fermenator–at MoreBeer
Stainless steel kegs–for instance, the 5-gallon Cornelius-style (‘corny’) keg–can certainly be used for aging cider, and can also be used as a fermenter by attaching a modified lid with an airlock. Not a bad option if you have extra kegs lying around and need fermenter or aging space.
My favorite supplier for corny kegs is Adventures In Homebrewing. This combination will allow you to ferment in a keg:
Commercial Fermenting Equipment
While it tends to be less common than stainless at larger scales, I have seen some larger plastic fermenters in use. Of these, one option is not designed to be a fermenter at all but is rather the food-grade Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC) that juice is often transported in.
Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBC’s)
The food-grade version of the Intermediate Bulk Container is, like its chemical-transporting cousin, a large, square HDPE container surrounded by a metal cage, often with skids on the base that allow it to be moved by a forklift. In the U.S., these are typically 275 gallons or 325 gallons in volume and are often used to transport juice–often frozen and/or sulfited–to cideries.
Some cideries or individuals choose to ferment the juice directly in the IBC, then transfer it to another container for aging. To my knowledge, this function isn’t in the original design of an IBC, and customization to the lids may need to be made in order to accommodate this, but a number of people have been successful in modifying IBC’s for this purpose.
I don’t personally have much knowledge of fermenting in IBC’s, but will link some here when I learn more. If you have experience fermenting in IBC’s–or if you know of good resources along these lines, feel free to leave a comment or contact me via the Contact Page.
The Speidel Fermentegg
This one is on my own wishlist, as I’ve found the smaller Speidel fermenters to be great to work with (see above). This one is larger, and at 66 gallons / 250 liters, can ferment enough cider to fill a 59-gallon wine barrel for subsequent aging.
It also has some features common with in conical steel fermenters, such as a yeast blow-off valve–which can be used to remove the yeast and lees without having to rack the cider.
Here’s the link:
Oak barrels–typically 59-gallon, French Oak wine barrels–are commonly used to age cider in post-fermentation. In some cases–such as with English Farmhouse style ciders–primary fermentation is done in a barrel as well.
Oak is not inert–non-yeast microorganisms can easily take hold in a barrel–and is porous, so it is a much more difficult material to ferment in when aiming for consistent flavors and outcomes. However, some very high-quality ciders are made in this fashion, so its use bears mentioning.
Good oak barrels can be hard to come by, but if you have a winery in your area, that’s a good place to start–they may be interested in selling their barrels after a few uses.
Whiskey barrels are another option, but the strong flavors of the whiskey–and the harsher tannins of the American Oak the barrels are often made from–can easily overwhelm the more delicate flavors of a cider, so use caution with these.
The most expensive of the options, stainless steel is also the material of choice for large-scale production–it’s strong enough to be made into some very large tanks, and lasts decades if properly maintained.
Variable Volume Fermenters
As mentioned above, variable volume fermenters are stainless steel vessles which accommodate differing volumes by means of a lid that can be placed and sealed in different positions within the tank. These can come with either round or conical bottoms, the advantage of the latter being the easy removal of the lees (and precipitated yeast) by means of a lower valve.
Here are a few examples of larger-scale, variable-volume fermenters.
- Speidel Variable Volume Flat Bottom Fermenter (290L/77 gal)
- Speidel Variable Volume Flat Bottom Fermenter (650L/172 gal)
- Speidel Variable Volume Conical Fermenter (300L/79 gal)
- Speidel Variable Volume Conical Fermenter (530L/140 gal)
- Speidel Variable Volume Conical Fermenter (910L/240 gal)
- Speidel Variable Volume Conical Fermenter (3300L/871 gal)
Stainless Wine Tanks
There are many specialty suppliers of large, stainless tanks for fermentation, aging, and carbonating. There are various things to consider with commercial tanks–such as size, steel type, conical vs. round bottom, and jacketed vs. non-jacketed–that could constitute a post (or twelve) in itself, but most cidery or meadery owners I’ve met tend to use conical bottom, jacketed tanks.
The conical bottom allows for the lees and settled yeast to collect at the bottom and be removed after fermentation, allowing aging in the same vessel in which fermentation occurred. Jacketed tanks can be cooled using a glycol system–this is useful for keeping fermentation within a given temperature, for cold-crashing a fermentation with residual sugars still present in the must, or for aiding clarification by cooling post fermentation (which helps to precipitate yeast and other particulates out of suspension).
Glacier Tanks of Portland, Oregon sells tanks via eBay:
Other suppliers of note:
More to Come…
As I accumulate knowledge of new fermentation equipment, I’ll add them here.
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