Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My Brewing Fridge

I recently got into the hobby of homebrewing beer, and I really like lagers.

One of the more important pieces of equipment for brewing lager beer is some type of refrigerator. To keep the yeast happy (and happy yeast makes better beer) it must ferment and condition at the correct temperatures. For ales, you can often get away with brewing at room temperature. Lagers on the other hand require temperatures in the 50s.

The choice faced by homebrewers is what type of beer fridge to use. The two standard options are either an upright fridge or a chest freezer. Either one will require an external temperature controller for best results. I went the chest freezer route, and here is how I came to that decision.

The Refrigerator


  • Easier to fill. You don't have to lift heavy items very high at all to get them in and out of the fridge.
  • More durable. A fridge is designed to operate above freezing. It should last many years.  
  • No condensation issues. A fridge is designed to collect and drain off condensation from the air instead of allowing it to collect inside the fridge. 
  • Limited capacity. A normal fridge has less room for kegs and carboys than is available in most chest freezers. 
  • No secondary containment. When you open the door, any liquid in the bottom of the fridge will drain out. Rapidly.
  • Less efficient use of space. The freezer portion of the refrigerator is pretty much useless at this point. 

The Chest Freezer

  • More usable space. I can easily fit two carboys or three 5-gallon kegs in my 7 cubic foot chest freezer. 
  • More efficient. Chest freezers tend to have thicker insulation than refrigerators because they are designed to operate at lower temperatures. This means it should use less electricity.
  • Secondary containment. Any liquid that leaks will collect in the bottom of the freezer, and it will stay there until you remove it. 
  • Fits better in an apartment. A chest freezer is not nearly as imposing as a second fridge. It also doubles as extra counter space. 
  • Questionable durability. Chest freezers are designed to operate below freezing. The evaporator coils are usually made of mild steel. This is fine for something that will only be exposed to ice, but when operated above freezing, liquid water can cause corrosion. The expected lifespan for a chest freezer in this application is probably only a few years. (Some precautions, of unproven effectiveness, can be taken - like caulking any seams in the internal lining to prevent water from migrating in to the evaporator coils.) 
  • Condensation. Every time you open the freezer, room-temperature air laden with humidity rushes in. When this air is cooled, the water condenses out and collects as puddles in the bottom of the chest freezer.  (This is mostly just an annoyance in my experience.) 
  • Harder to fill. Anything holding 5 gallons of liquid is heavy. Kegs, carboys, and CO2 cylinders all have to be lifted up and into the chest freezer. 

To be fair, the value of secondary containment did not cross my mind until after I already had the chest freezer and had kegged my first batch of beer. A misbehaving CO2 pressure regulator slowly forced beer out through the faucet. I did not discover this until the next morning. I opened the lid on the chest freezer to discover two inches of beer sitting in the bottom. It was tragic and heartbreaking to lose two to three gallons of beer. It would have been so much worse to wake up to two to three gallons of beer on the floor of my apartment. 

I have rationalized away the shortcomings of the chest freezer. Condensation is easy to dry off periodically with a towel. Lifting items in and out is a good workout. If the evaporator coil fails eventually, it gives me an excuse to tinker and come up with a way to possibly eliminate the condensate issue.. But until then, I am very happy with my chest freezer. I was happy enough to buy a second one so I could ferment and condition different batches at the same time.      

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