Beer School

Weekend Assignment: Transfer Your Beer from the Primary to the Secondary

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)
(Image credit: Henry Chen)
  • Today’s assignment: Transfer your beer from the primary to the secondary.
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In the last few days, you probably noticed the bubbles in the airlock getting slower and less frequent — a sure sign that the first stage of active fermentation is winding down. The next step is to transfer the beer from that large primary fermentation bucket into a smaller, cozier jug for a few more weeks of conditioning before we bottle the beer.

That is your assignment today — plus we’ll also talk about what this step does, why it’s necessary (or not!), and how to do it right.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Talk Like a Brewer

One-Stage Fermentation: An option where the beer is left in the primary fermenter for the length of fermentation, from pitching the yeast to bottling; this is a good choice for short, quick-fermenting beers that will be bottled within a few weeks.

Two-Stage Fermentation: An option where the beer is transferred from the primary fermenter to a smaller secondary fermenter (a jug or carboy) after the first active stage of fermentation is over; this is better for longer-aged beers or beers that might not be bottled right away.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Transferring Beer from the Primary to the Secondary

A surprising amount of solid material has collected at the bottom of your fermentation bucket. This sediment, also called trub, is mostly a mixture of used-up yeast, leftover bits of hops and grains, and solid proteins.

The main goal of moving the beer from this primary fermentation container to a secondary container is just to move the beer off of this sediment. If left together for too long (more than a month or so), the beer can start to pick up some weird flavors from the sediment as it starts to decompose and go into a state of autolysis. Moving it into the secondary container means we don’t have to worry about bottling it right away.

This also frees up your primary fermenter for another batch of beer. Especially with these small batches, getting a pipeline going of beers in bottles and beers on deck is part of the fun.

The thick trub of used-up yeast, hop and grain sediment, and solid proteins that collects on the bottom of the fermentation bucket. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Is Transferring to Secondary Really Necessary?

Actually, no, it isn’t! You can do what is called a one-stage fermentation and leave the beer in your primary fermenter the whole time until you bottle it. This is perfectly legit, and many homebrewers do it this way all the time.

A one-stage fermentation has a few advantages. First of all, it’s less work, which is never a bad thing! Also, because the beer stays in one container the whole time, there’s less risk of exposing it to oxygen or introducing an infection, as there inevitably is if you’re transferring it.

The trade-off is that you need to be fairly diligent about bottling your beer within a few weeks after brewing. You’ll be OK for a month or so, but after that, you can start to pick up some stale, decomposition flavors in your beer. Because of this, one-stage fermentation is a good choice only with fairly basic, quickly finished beers; it’s not a good choice for any beers that need to age longer (like high-alcohol barleywines or imperial stouts) or that take longer for the solid material to filter out (like fruit beers or dry-hopped beers).

Flavor-wise, a beer made with one-stage fermentation is going to be nearly identical to a beer made with two-stage fermentation. The one-stager beers are often a bit more hazy than two-stagers just because some sediment usually gets stirred up by the bottling process and transferred into the bottles.

One-Stage or Two-Stage Fermentation?

Personally, I prefer, and usually recommend, a two-stage fermentation. I think it’s good as a general “best practice” and it sets you up well for doing more complex brews down the line.

Also, while I can dependably remember to transfer a beer after a week, I inevitably lose track if I leave it for longer — for me, the habit of a two-stage fermentation is some insurance in case I forget to bottle in a timely manner. Yes, there is a small risk of introducing oxygen or infection as you transfer, but this risk becomes smaller as you become more confident at siphoning beer. And of course, the only way to become confident is by practicing.

But this is definitely one place where you — even you new brewers — can make your own choice and feel confident that you’ll still make good beer. One-stage or two-stage, go with whichever feels most comfortable and least intimidating to you. There really isn’t a wrong way here!

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Transferring Your Beer: Let’s Recap!

To transfer your beer, you’ll need your bucket of beer, a clean 1-gallon jug and its stopper, an auto-siphon (or racking cane), and a few feet of tubing. Don’t forget to sanitize everything before you start.

→ Step-by-Step Instructions: How To Transfer and Siphon Your Beer

While you’re transferring your beer, siphon a little into a glass and give it a taste. At this point, it should be starting to taste like real beer, which is exciting! Over the next few weeks of conditioning, any harsh notes you notice now will start to mellow out, and the beer will start to taste more balanced. Consider this taste a sneak preview for how your finished beer is likely to taste.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Brew Better Beer: A Companion to Beer School

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

I love brewing beer so much, I wrote a book about it! Brew Better Beer (May 2015, Ten Speed Press) is a complementary guide to Beer School. Take a look for even more nerdy details about homebrewing, how to brew 5-gallon batches, and plenty of recipes for different beers.

→ Find it: Brew Better Beer by Emma Christensen

With The Kitchn’s Beer School, we’ll teach you how to brew your own beer at home — and brew it with confidence. In 20 lessons and 7 weekend assignments, we’ll get you set up with your own home brewery, walk you through your first brew day, show you how to bottle your beer, and then toast you on your first pint. Ready to brew your first beer? Join us!