Is a Wort Chiller Really Necessary On Brew Day?

wort chiller and beer brewing kettle

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As a homebrewer, you are always looking for ways to make your brew day run smoother and more efficient. It’s pretty common to begin adding additional equipment to your brewing toolbox as you find ways to streamline the entire brewing process.

A wort chiller is often one of the first pieces of new brewing equipment that a homebrewer will consider purchasing the next time they brew a batch of beer.

Yes, a wort chiller can be a significant time saver, but is it really needed and worth the investment?

Keep reading on to learn more…

Table of Contents

What Is The Purpose of a Wort Chiller?

It is very important that the wort is at the optimal temperature range before pitching the yeast. Adding the yeast when the wort is too hot can kill the yeast and can also cause unwanted off-flavors in your beer.

Since micro-organisms and bacteria love to thrive in warm environments, it is crucial that you get the wort chilled down as quick as possible to avoid these little nasty’s from taking over.

The wort chiller is basically a heat-exchanger designed to cool the wort much quicker than other traditional cooling methods.

How Does a Wort Chiller Work?

A wort chiller does its thing by circulating cool water through copper or stainless steel coils while absorbing the heat from the boiling wort. Cooling the wort without a chiller can take 45 minutes to an hour, but depending on which wort chiller you use, can get you to a safe yeast pitching temperature within 10 to 15 minutes.

This is important for several reasons:

  • Save Time and Reduce Contamination: A wort chiller will rapidly cool the wort, saving time and greatly reducing the risk of contamination and infection.
  • Improve Beer Clarity: Cooling wort quickly can enhance the cold break, a process where the proteins in the wort coagulate and settle at the bottom, leaving them in the brew pot and out of the fermenter.

Types of Wort Chillers

There are three major types of wort chillers to get the job down and get it done well. However, each chiller works in a slightly different way.

Immersion Chiller

If you’re brewing 5-gallon, or partial 2 to 3-gallon batches, or working with a tight budget, an immersion chiller is an ideal option.

Like the name says, the immersion chiller is placed in the brew kettle and “submerged” in the wort. The wort is then cooled by attaching a water line (usually a garden hose) and running water through the coil.

The water will circulate through the coils while in contact with the wort, cooling it down. These wort chillers are easy-to-use, cost-effective, and since your wort doesn’t circulate through the coil, they will not get clogged from the proteins and hop material.

copper immersion wort chiller

Depending on the climate where you live, the wort will only get to the temperature of your ground water. So, if your ground water is running about 80°F, that is what you will be able to cool your wort to.

Many homebrewers will use 2 immersion chillers for more effective cooling.

Both chillers will be connected together. One of the chillers will be in the brew kettle, and the other chiller will be submerged in an ice bath. The water source will flow through the coils in the ice bath, and then again through the coils in the pot.

Pros

  • Easy to clean
  • Is sanitized by the boiling wort
  • Cold break material is left in the kettle
  • Inexpensive

Cons

  • Longer cooling times than other types of wort chillers
  • Uses plenty of water
  • Requires to be used with the kettle uncovered

Counterflow Chiller

Counterflow chillers are designed to cool the wort to just one pass.

Unlike immersion chillers, they are comprised of the outer tube (often a hose made of vinyl, rubber, or PEX) and an inner tube made of stainless steel or copper.

The hot wort is circulated through the inner tube from the kettle, and directly to the fermenter, while cold water is simultaneously pumped in the opposite direction through the outer tube.

That creates a counter-flow heat exchange that is more effective than an immersion chiller, but also more difficult to keep clean and sanitized.

counterflow wort chiller from ny brew supply

Pros

  • More efficient cooling than an immersion chiller
  • Resistant to clogging
  • Uses less water than immersion chillers

Cons

  • Bulky
  • Cold break material can be transferred to the fermenter
  • Some require a pump and more space to operate
  • Harder to clean

Plate Chiller

Plate chillers work like the counterflow chillers, but they push the cold water and hot wort through plates with thin gaps between them.

This type of chiller allows for the most efficient and fastest chilling. The more plates a chiller has, the more rapid and efficient it is in cooling down the wort.

Blichmann thermonator plate chiller

That makes them an ideal option for larger batches due to their speed and efficiency. However, plates are the most expensive option and are often difficult to use.

They require a lot of work to clean as the hop and grain matter can stick easily between the plates.

Pros

  • Fastest cooling of all wort chillers
  • Compact
  • Generally better on water usage
  • Expensive

Cons

  • Hard to clean
  • They’re prone to clogging

Other Ways to Chill The Wort

There are a few other ways to cool the wort besides using a wort chiller:

Ice Bath in a Sink

If you are using a 5-gallon extract beer ingredient kit, you can do a partial boil of only 2-1/2 to 3-gallons, you can use an ice bath to cool down the wort. Typically, the process will take about 45 minutes to an hour before cooling wort to yeast pitch-able temperature.

This method entails filling a sink with ice and water and then placing the boil kettle in it.

Remove the lid of the brew pot and use a sanitized spoon do gently stir the wort in one direction while circulating the ice water in the other direction.

cooling wort in an ice bath

Try to avoid splashing so you won’t get any of the ice water into the wort. Continue to add new ice and fresh water to the sink as it begins to melt.

Remember, this method is only recommended for smaller batch brewing, and not larger all-grain batches of beer.

The No Chill Method

The no chill method is about as simple as it gets. All you do is transfer the hot wort to a high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic jug, and allow it to cool naturally.

This method is inexpensive and easy to do. However, depending on the volume of liquid, it can take about 24 hours for the wort to reach the right temperature.

DO NOT attempt to do this with a glass carboy, unless you want a mess of glass and wort all over your floor!

Things to Consider Before Buying

When shopping for the wort chiller, you should consider the following parameters to pick one that suits your needs:

What the Chiller is Made of

Typically, wort chillers are made of copper or stainless steel, and the difference between the two is how they conduct heat. Copper is an excellent thermal conductor (more than twenty times compared to stainless steel).

Copper will oxidize and it is easier to manipulate the coils because it is softer. Stainless steel might not cool as quickly as copper, but the stainless steel will not tarnish, and will always look new.

You will usually pay a little more for a stainless steel immersion chiller, compared to a copper chiller.

Length of the Coils

Your chiller needs to suit the batch size to get the most efficient temperature drops and create an excellent cold break.  Depending on the beer batch you are brewing, a 25ft or 50 ft coil should be sufficient.

The 25ft coil is ideal for cooling smaller batches of 1 to 3 gallons. The larger 50ft coil is much more efficient for cooling large batches of up to 10 ten gallons.

A longer coil will have more surface area for the wort to make contact with, and get the job done much quicker.

Wort Chiller Tips

When using the chiller wort, here are some tips that you should follow to ensure you attain the best results:

Sanitizing

If you are using a counterflow or plate chiller, make sure they are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before using, just like every other piece of brewing equipment that will come in contact with the beer.

An immersion chiller must also be cleaned before using too, but it can be sanitized by submerging it in the boiling wort, 10 to 15 minutes before the end of the boil.

Test all Fittings for Leaks Before Brew Day

Do yourself a big favor and avoid a big headache by checking all your hose and water fittings for leaks ahead of time.

Reuse the Water

There is no doubt that you will be using quite a bit of water when you use a wort chiller.

To save water, you can use large containers or 5-gallon buckets to collect the water. The water can be used to brew another day, clean the homebrewing setup equipment, water some plants, or wash your car.

Final Say

So is a wort chiller really necessary on brew day?

It depends.

If you are just brewing small batches of beer or partial extract boils, using an ice batch to cool the wort should work perfectly fine for you.  But if you are brewing 5-gallon or larger all-grain batches, or plan to move to all-grain sometime in the future, a wort chiller is highly recommended.

As mentioned earlier, homebrewing is about effieciency and saving time.  Using a wort chiller can definitely save you some time, but more importantly, get that wort cooled down as fast as possible to minimize the risk of infection.

A wort chiller doesn’t have to break the bank, and is definitely a piece of equipment you should add as you continue to brew. If you need some help, have a look at our review page of the best wort chillers for homebrewing.

Happy Brewing!

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