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I have been in the habit of leaving my beers in their primary fermenter for three weeks across the board, which is a significant amount of time longer than their primary fermentation usually takes. My rationale is that this gives the yeast time to start cleaning up any off flavours and by-products prior to me bottling the batch.

How long does this secondary process actually take? Given that I give the beer three weeks to carb and condition after bottling, is this time redundant?

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Generally speaking, the amount of time for proper conditioning after completion of primary fermentation increases with the OG of the post-boil wort. It can also be dependent on beer style and personal taste.

A low gravity (1.040's) ale can be ready in 2 weeks. A high gravity russian imperial stout can sometimes take 6 months to develop the flavors desired and reduce undesirable fermentation by-products.

With hoppy beers like IPAs, care must be taken to not condition for too long or else the hop aroma will fade. It's always preferable to dry hop towards the end of the conditioning period.

Another factor to consider for conditioning time is off flavors and undesired fermentation by-products. One example is acetaldehyde due to rapid temperature fluctuations. This is something that will usually be cleaned up over time, meaning you will need to condition your beer longer than you would if your fermentation temperatures were consistent.

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When you say 'rapid temperature fluctuations', how extreme do you mean? – BrianV Apr 9 '14 at 16:07
    
It's generally recommended that the temperature of actively fermenting wort not change more than a degree F or two per day. Anything faster than this could be "stressful" to the yeast and result in more off-flavors being produced. – Conman27 Apr 9 '14 at 17:15

I buy extract kits complete with instructions. All of the kits I bought say ferment for 2 weeks then bottle. Then condition 2 weeks in the bottle. (one exception being a pumpkin spice ale that required 8 weeks in primary).

That being said, my blonde ales seem to like the 2 weeks just fine but the cream ale didnt really reach its prime until 3 weeks. This I know because I made 2 batches at the same time, but bottled them in 2 separate sessions a week apart because of time constraints. I needed to get a batch in the bottles for a party but didnt have time to bottle both batches that one particular day. the second batch came out WAY better. AND, the longer they were in the bottles the better they got.

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2 Stages for Fermentation

Puting times on the stages differ with each batch and shouldn't be held to a strict schedule.

  1. Primary This is your first fermenting vessle, and where the most active yeast activity is and most if not all fermentable sugars are consumed. Primary is done once the yeast has floculated and settled to the bottom. For lagers when yeast is starting to settle out you raise temp for a diacetyl rest, last two days of primary. This is not needed for Ales.

  2. Secondary This is your second fermenting vessle, you move your beer to. You want to leave all the trub in the primary, racking only the clear beer into secondary. This is important because at this stage nutrients and sugars are minimal, and you want yeast to eat up the phenols they made in primary and not their dead friends. Secondary is your cleaning and clearing stage and where dry hopping and other spice addition are done. Secondary is complete when there is no more airlock action, and the beer is clear. More time can mellow fusel alcohols and other harsh flavors. At this point your beer is done, and only lacking carbonation.

Carbonation is achieved by bottle conditioning, or force carbonation (kegging). Carbonation can be done in secondary but requires a special fermentor and counter pressure kegging or bottling

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