Wort chillers.  It sounds like an indie aggro-punk band from the west coast doesn't it?  
 
Loud noises aside, below we explain just exactly what a wort chiller is, why they are good to add to your home brewing kit and which are the best wort chillers in each category.  

What you talkin' about? 

Wort, the hot and malty unfermented liquid made during the brewing process, needs to go from boiling to around 60-70* in a hurry, and the faster it gets there the safer your beer will be.  Bad things happen in those balmy in between temperatures.  Flavors can go bad, unwelcome bacteria and yeast can start to go wild, and the aromas can start to turn.  
 
Also, if temperatures drop too slowly, your beer will never get to cold break, the point in the chilling process where suspended proteins that form a hazy cloud "break" out of the wort and settle to the bottom as quickly as they normally would.  Hence the clearer beer.
 
The bright eyed and bushy tailed novice home brewer just starting out can usually just pour the hot liquid into a bucket of cold water and top it off with more cold water.  Dunking the entire brew kettle into an ice bath works too but unless you have a giant ice maker in your garage for just this type of occasion, buying bags of ice can get a little costly. 
 
That works, but of course there's a better way.
 

Immersion Wort Chillers

Leave it to science to make the cool stuff.  
A wort chiller in action.
Immersion wort chillers are copper or steel tubing, coiled tightly.  This tightly wound coil is then submerged, immersed, into the boil shortly before the process is completed.
 
Once the boil is finished, cool water is then pumped through the piping and the heat transfer properties of the metal and water start to make the magic happen.  
 
Cold water goes into the tube, circles around the coil and drains out the other end.  As it goes, the water in the tube takes on the heat from the wort and out it goes down the drain or to your fancy water reclamation system.  
 
Be very careful with the outlet as the water will be hot.  Practically boiling.
 
As the heat leaves, the wort chills and before long you're out of the danger zone.  Although it takes significantly LESS time to lower the temperature this way, it still takes a while.  Some brewers with their fancy ice machines or bagged ice suppliers will also submerge the wort in an ice bath at the same time.  Extreme cooling.  
 
As with everything in brewing, and we mean everything, the wort chiller must be cleaned and sanitized.  It doesn't take much, a little mild detergent and some warm water will do the cleaning and your handy dandy sanitizing solution will kill the bugs.  
 

Best Immersion Wort Chiller?

Your wort chiller has one job.  Cool down liquid fast.
 

The Affordable

25' Copper Coil by Adventures in Homebrewing

The hose fittings on the 25 foot copper coiled wort chiller from Adventures in Homebrewing

Welcome to your first basic kit upgrade.  It doesn't get any simpler than copper in a coil.

This immersion wort chiller is twenty-five feet of it.  The coil itself is only 10" in diameter which means it should fit inside most brew kettles with no problems. 

Attached on either end is six feet of rubber hosing with standard garden hose adapters that allow for easy hook up to clean cold water.  Faucet adapters are available for a little more that allow the wort chiller to connect directly to the kitchen sink.

Cons: Although affordable, this chiller doesn't come with soldered barbed fittings like more advanced versions and instead the hose is attached to the bare copper with hose clamps. 

If purchasing this chiller be sure to tighten the hose clamps and watch it through the entire chilling process.  Do a trial run before using it to see how much flow the chiller can take and tighten accordingly.  

Don't ruin a good batch with a leak.

GET IT HERE

Top of the Line

Silver Serpent Stainless Steel Home Brewing Immersion Wort Chiller

Stainless steel has a magical property that makes it a whole lot easier to clean and sanitize.  

This one is claimed to not need sanitized and can just be thrown into your wort and get with the cooling.  We're wary but for the price and quality this can't be beat.  

With its huge rise it will fit in most home brewing kettles.  The inlet and outlet tube are bent in a way that prevents any leaks from flowing back into the wort.  This "drop-angle" keeps the hoses out and away from the wort and off the hot pan so it is a win-win.

The fittings, barbed with hose clamps, allow a lot more water pressure to course through the wort chiller, cooling the liquid off faster. 

Like most wort chillers, it comes with a hose fitting but for a little bit more a faucet adapter is available.

Cons: The only potential negatives are the height of the drop-angles and the stainless steel itself.  If your brew kettles is too large or too tall then this wort chiller will hang off the side of the kettle.  

Also, because copper has better heat transfer capabilities, the cooling in this worth chiller is slightly less efficient than its copper counterparts.  

GET IT HERE

Plate Chillers

The big boys of the brewing business use plate chillers to quickly transfer the wort from scalding to serene in no time flat.  Plate chillers are all around more economical than an immersion chiller. 
A Blichmann Therminator wort chiller in action.
The Blichmann Therminator plate wort chiller cools fast with less waste.
Instead of running gallons and gallons of water through copper pipes to pull the heat out of the wort, the wort is drained from the brew kettle through the plate chiller as it goes to the fermenter.  
 
No wasted water here. 
 
One downside, especially for gravity fed systems, is that you only get one chance to pass the hot wort through the plate chiller to cool it off.  If you send the liquid through too fast it won't have a chance to cool off enough to reach yeast pitching temperatures
 
Thankfully, recirculation is a thing.  Transferring the wort through the plate chiller and back into the kettle allows the brewer to have more control over the temperature.  Recirculation can go on and on until the temperature is perfect for the pitch.
 
One more pro for our plate chilling friends is their size.  Plate chillers compact a lot of cooling in a little space.  And they look neat.
 
A downfall for the plate chiller is the inevitable and unfortunate clog.  Sometimes the ingredients still swirling about in the wort make it into the chiller, or heavier particles in the trub, which cause the plate chiller to clog up.  Using a pump to help force the liquid through can help prevent clogs, but the sticky wort will cause issues unless cleaned thoroughly and completely.

The Blichmann Therminator

The Thor of plate wort chillers

This bad boy is as close as the homebrewer can get to professional gear without actually buying it.

Constructed of stainless steel with copper connections between the plates, it fights corrosion and has a high heat exchange rate for cooling the wort lightning fast.

It is super compact and can fit permanently in any set up.  The adapters are made to fit a garden hose, like most wort chillers, but of course faucet adapters are available.

Cons: Truly the biggest issue with this wort chiller is the cost. 

Sitting around a couple hundred dollars it is one of the most expensive things a beginner homebrewer can purchase to upgrade their kit before going to bigger and more complex systems.  Also, plate chillers can be a bear to clean and sanitize and some are at risk of clogs depending on the water source, however the Therminator's wide inlets keep the liquid flowing.

GET IT HERE
The cost and sanitizing headache of a plate wort chiller holding you back? Of course there is one more option.
 

Counterflow Wort Chillers

Yet another miracle of science, the counterflow coil takes the immersion chiller design and ups its game.  
 
Counter flow chillers work with a tube inside another tube.  While the hot wort circulates one direction, cold water flows the other way. As the wort passes through the tubing it continues to encounter fresh cold water.  This results in a lightning fast cool down that minimizes water flow.  It works fast, especially for big batches. 
 
Counterflow wort chillers cool the wort so fast that cold break occurs during the chilling process.  We want this.  The wort that exits the chiller is cloudy because the proteins and particulates that occur during the boil have separated out.  These won't harm you or the beer, but will slowly settle to the bottom of the fermenting tank.
 
That's a very good thing to get from a chiller.  And due to their compact size in relation to the speed that they cool, these are a great step up past the simple immersion chillers.
  
Sounds perfect?  Pretty darn close by our guess except because the dual tube configuration your sanitization game has to be on point.  Double the tubes means double the places for bacteria to party down. The best method to remedy this is to run boiling or near boiling water through the pump to clear out any debris that might have gotten stuck.

The zChiller

Compact counterflow coils.
The large zChiller counterflow wort chillerThe most common counterflow wort chiller aside from making your own is the zChiller.  It comes in three variations, small, large and square. 
 
These chillers utilize a unique "star" interior tube to create more agitation that in turn maximizes heat transfer.  They cool down the wort almost as fast as a big plate chiller.
 
Cons: Like the immersion wort chiller, this uses up water. If the cooling isn't happening as fast as you would like, the more water is needed. Also, cleaning them can be a bit more involved due to the dual tube nature, but it shouldn't take much more work.
GET IT HERE

Chilling Tips

Here are a few tips that we have found help to keep your wits about you during and after the brewing process.
  

Cleanliness is next to Beerliness

Cleaning is the paramount activity for home brewers.  We do it constantly.  Sometimes we even dream about it.

Stealing the idea to clean as we go from chefs (we're cooking, aren't we?) we can reuse the hot water that is jettisoned out of our wort chillers to clean and sterilize some of our brewing equipment.  Fill the sink or a giant bucket with a little bit of sterilizer or Oxyclean and let the hot water fill it up.  Toss your tools in like the thermometer, spoons, bags, etc and they will ready to go for round two.

Before pitching the yeast, take a quick second to run some hot water back through your chillers to flush out debris or wort that is still left.  Doing it now while everything is fresh will keep it from clogging up or letting bacteria and mold ruin your shiny new toys.
 

Wort Chiller Summary

Whether you are collecting equipment the hard way or upgrading your homebrew kit, wort chillers are the next, and sometimes first, steps to getting serious about home brewing.

With these suggestions and a bit of knowledge you'll take your homebrews to the next level.

Now, what do you have fermenting for us?

 

2 Responses

  • Counterflow is also used in micro brewery design. But it is not using the copper coils, it use the plate heat exchanger with the same work principle.
    For example: 8M2(cooling area) heat exchange for 1000L beer system is two stages for city water and glycol water. First stage: City water, below 20℃ (about 17-18℃). cool the wort from 98℃ to 45~50℃. Second stage: the -4℃~-5 ℃ glycol water. cool the wort to fermentation temperature like 9-12℃. The glycol water becomes about 0℃ to return glycol water tank.

    Jana
    http://microbrewerysystem.com

    • Glycol in brewing is really fascinating. We want to learn more. Is it only used in systems with high production? Or do smaller systems (100-200 bbl) use it too? Something for us to research!

Comments are closed.