Monday, 21 December 2015

FastFerment Review...

With my increase in brew volumes I had been looking to pick up a couple of extra FVs to spread the load. As always with this brewing game you want the latest kit and I had my eyes on the FastFerment conical vessels, but at £85 it was a bit steep considering I could get a perfectly good tried-and-tested Speidel vessel for half the price. About the time I was shopping around I received an email from the head honcho at, Greg Hughes (also author of the excellent Home Brew Beer), asking if I would be interest in taking a FastFerment for a trial run. The timing was so perfect that I actually queried if he had been checking my browsing history! Obviously I took him up on his offer!

A few weeks later a hefty package arrived.

Unpacking it you soon realise it’s serious kit. There’s lots of parts and even an instruction manual. It’s worth spending some time just checking it over before assembly as I found a few plastic strands on the threads as a result of the manufacturing process that needed removing. The manual actually suggested you to screw everything on and off a few times just to smooth out the threads. A roll PTFE is also included so make sure you tape all the threads and then perform a wet run, the last thing you want is for it to be beer to leak out when you fill it for the first time. It did take me a couple of attempts to plug a leak coming from the thermowell thread. On first impressions the build quality is not quite up to the standard of the Speidel FVs I’ve been using recently, but it's easily overlooked with features such as the handy volume markings and the aforementioned thermowell.

So what benefits do you get from a conical fermenter? Firstly as the trub settles in the cone, you’re left a smaller surface area in contact with the beer, as opposed to a flat bottomed FV, thus lowering the risk of that dead matter imparting any flavour. Not that I think this has ever been a problem on small scale brewing, but I guess every positive tweak to your methods helps create a cleaner beer. Secondly, and this is probably the top reason for going conical, situated at the bottom of the cone is a valve which allows you remove the trub/yeast matter, leaving your beer in situ, so that it can condition without having to rack to another vessel. The FastFerment makes this process even easier by supplying a secondary collection vessel that you can attach the bottom, allowing you to draw out the yeast, keeping the system sealed and thus lowering any chance of infection. Plus you can then save the yeast for future brews, saving you a bit of cash in the long run.

As you can see from the photos the manufacturer has opted for a teardrop shaped vessel, which obviously is not going to stand upright on it’s own. They’ve got around this by supplying wall brackets that the vessel sits on, which is a great idea if you have ve got available wall space, but I didn’t! Thankfully you can buy a separate floor stand, which is a bit pricey at just over £30. On the stand with the airlock attached, it’s nearly a metre off the floor, which means I’ve got no chance of squeezing this in my fermentation fridge. With winter drawing in it’s going to get pretty cold in the brewshed, so I needed to think of someway of getting some heat into this thing.

Once the brewday had rolled around I planned to do a split batch, half in the FastFerment and half in my trusty Speidel, which is fully temperature controlled. For the FastFerment I would have to monitor this aspect manually. After a bit of head scratching about how I was actually going to achieve this, given the odd shape of the vessel, I hit on an idea. I still had an old brew belt knocking around from my early days of homebrewing, which sat nicely around the vessel just above the top of the stand. I also had a spare heating which I positioned directly underneath. To insulate it I sat it on a square of silver bubble wrap type insulation and wrapped another sheet around it, which came half way around the vessel. It was a total bodge job, but it worked a treat! With heat being applied underneath and the top of the vessel open to the cold temperatures I actually succeeded in keeping it a steady temperature around 20 degree mark! I’ve since seen that the FastFerment guys have released an insulated jacket, but like all the official peripherals - it’s pretty pricy.

So far so good.

After a few days of fermentation I could visibly seen the trub building up. I decided now would be a good time to draw off some of that yeast. I opened the valve and at first nothing happened, the trub was quite thick so it took a few seconds for it to work it’s way down. Once it started dripping into the collection vessel, the beer above could flow through and drag the rest of the matter with it. I managed to collect a decent amount before it was just the beer coming through. A few days later another trub layer had settled, and needing to draw off a sample I decided to stick the hose barb on and just drain and dump the trub to get to the fresh beer above. This was easier said than done! Due to the gloopy nature of the trub clinging to the sides of the vessel it was nigh on impossible to get a clean sample. In the end my figures show I lost 4.5 litres worth of good beer over the course of the fermentation process. The need for a secondary valve sat above the trub cake was obvious, something that can be easily remedied with a drill and decent valve, but when you’re paying a lot of money for an FV this seems a bit of slap in the face.

This leads me on to my second issue. If you’re using the collection vessel to drain the trub you have liquid and matter swapping places with air, so the pressure inside the vessel stays the same. If you use the hose barb fitting you need to allow some air to get in the top or else you’ll be sucking in the liquid from the airlock, which is what happened to me! Thankfully it was just a bit of Star-san so no harm done. The next time I did it I decided to take out the floating section of the airlock, however that’s easier said than done. It’s so small and sits so far down the main airlock that you can’t actually get to it without child sized hands, instead I fashioned a makeshift hook to get in there to lift it out! Again, something easily remedied with a better airlock.

When it came to bottling the FastFerment worked a treat. With the trub removed what was left in the vessel was going straight into bottles, but I couldn't help but think of the amount of beer I lost to get to that point. In comparison, I lost just 1 litre of beer in my Speidel FV to trub sludge. So any other complaints? Whilst the addition of a thermowell is welcomed, the positioning of it isn't great, in the cone section pointing downwards, so if you’re using the stand you need to get on your hands and knees to view the dial, which is another additional cost (it’s not great quality either).

So would I continue to use it? I’d have to say no. I found it just far too awkward and fiddly to use and the pros were soon crushed under the weight of the cons. For the hefty price tag I would have expected something that was a considerable step up in quality to a standard barrel type fermentor. The price of the vessel and all the other bits comes to just over the £130 mark, for just a little bit more you could pick up an equivalently sized stainless steel vessel from SS BrewTech which looks a much more tidy solution. If you’ve got the wall space and can make use of the supplied brackets it’s a more ideal solution as the cost is then midrange, sitting between your standard plastic buckets and the premium vessels as mentioned above.