I remember a time prior to owning a wort chiller… and I don’t miss those days at all! I started home brewing without one and never really thought I needed to buy one or needed to learn how to make my own. Early on I came across articles and brewing instructions that suggested wort chillers aren’t essential, and so I spent my money on beer ingredients rather than a wort chiller. I wish I would have had someone tell me to just get one. So, let me be the one that tells you this… you NEED a wort chiller!
Why do you need one? Why do I consider this an essential part of home brewing now? The short answer is that it will save you a huge amount of time. If you don’t have a chiller in your collection of home brewing equipment, you are most likely familiar with the method of using an ice bath to cool your wort to under 80 degrees F. You may be like I was; oblivious to how unnecessarily time-consuming the ice bath method really is. How long have you waited for a 5 gallon bath of wort to cool? Maybe 2 hours… maybe 6 hours… maybe over night? With even the most basic wort chiller you can get your wort temperature under 80 degrees in less than a half hour… and maybe even under 20 minutes! I was amazed by this when I used my wort chiller for the first time and you will be too.
Another reason for using a wort chiller is to decrease the potential for unfavorable bacteria in your beer. The longer your wort takes to cool, the longer it stays in the warm temperatures favored by some bacteria that can take hold in a beer and ruin it. Yes, it can be argued that the alpha acids from hops also prevents such bacterial growth, but not all beer styles have high levels of alpha acids and some bacteria are not affected by lower levels of these favorable acids provided by hops. Therefore, cooling the wort as quickly as possible will help make sure your beer turns out great.
An immersive type chiller is really a very simple piece of equipment that nearly anyone can make. You can buy one as well that will probably look nicer and have all the water lines and fittings you need. While you can find these made of stainless steel and in various designs, the basic idea behind these is to take advantage of the heat conducting properties of copper or other metal and harness the heat absorptive abilities of water. By flowing cool water through a coil of copper immersed in a pot of hot wort, you take a much more active and more effective role in wort cooling. This is very similar to how the radiator in a car works to cool off the engine.
Honestly, I will never choose an ice bath over a wort chiller, and once you have used a wort chiller you will understand the huge advantage one of these provides over other wort cooling methods. You WILL NOT regret buying or making your own wort chiller, this I can assure you! Hopefully you are seriously ready to get your hands on one before the next time you brew, but will you make one or buy one?
To answer this question, you need to ask yourself 2 questions:
1. How important $30 is worth to you? (as this is about the savings of making your own versus buying one.)
2. Do you like making things other than home-brew?
Depending on where you get your materials, you may save a little less or a little more. The typical wort chiller can be bought for around $60 and up. You can make a wort chiller for around $30. For me, it wasn’t the savings that motivated me to build my own. Rather, I just like making things with my hands and I thought it could be a fun project… the savings was just bonus. You can make a very effective immersive wort chiller from a $22 coil of copper line. I bought a 20 foot coil of 3/8″ copper line from the local home depot. I spent another few bucks on a few fittings to allow me to connect some vinyl tubing to my kitchen faucet.
I’ll offer directions on making a wort chiller in an upcoming article, but for now I strongly urge you to commit to having a wort chiller in your equipment collection. If you decide to buy one, you should know that stainless steel immersion chillers are worth considering. It’s true that stainless steel isn’t as effective at conducting, and thus transferring, heat. However, the difference is small and doesn’t really translate to any significant difference in the time needed to cool a pot of wort. In addition, stainless steel looks great, is very durable, and is sometimes cheaper. A stainless steel immersive wort chiller of equal size to its copper counterpart will typically cost $5 to $10 less. Maybe on large scales, such as big 20+ gallon batches, the conduction advantage of copper may make a difference, but not for 5 to 10 gallon sized batches.
Do you need a wort chiller if you homebrew? Yes!