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More specifically, what methods exist to cool your wort after the boil, and what are there respective pros/cons?

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This should maybe be a community wiki question, I think. –  Ben Nov 13 '10 at 5:22
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up vote 16 down vote accepted

There are a few methods, each with advantages and drawbacks.

Cool your Kettle

Take your hot brew kettle, full of wort, and submerge it in ice water.

Advantages: No real equipment expense, just take your pot and put it in a cooler or bathtub full of ice water.
Drawbacks: Extremely slow, higher risk of contamination. Probably have to change out the ice several times.


Mix in Ice

Add ice directly to the hot wort. (Alton Brown does this in his brewing episode.)

Advantages: Same as above.
Drawbacks: Can only be done for a concentrated wort boil. Only able to add enough ice to get to desired volume. No way of really ensuring your ice is sanitary--so a significant risk of contamination


Immersion Wort Chiller

A coil of copper hose immersed in the hot wort, with cold water flowing through it.

Advantages: Much faster than previous two methods. Faster cooling means sooner yeast pitching, which lowers your risk of contamination.
Drawbacks: Modest equipment expense, plumbing setup required to route water into and out of the copper tubing. Chiller must be sanitized before use. Corroded copper can impart off-flavors to your beer. Still have to transfer cooled wort to your fermenter.


Counterflow Wort Chiller

A coil of copper hose within a coil of other (typically rubber, vinyl, or garden hose) tubing. Wort flows through the copper tubing, and cold water flows through the surrounding hose in the opposite direction.

Advantages: By far, the fastest cooling method. Hot wort goes in one end of the chiller, and by the time it comes out, it is cool. Chiller can be used as part of the siphon path on the way from brewkettle to fermenter. It's possible to cool a 5-gallon batch to pitching tempurature in less than 5 minutes.
Drawbacks: Also the most complicated setup. Interior of copper tubing must be sanitized. More expensive (usually) than immersion chiller. Requires reasonably extensive plumbing setup (siphon to chiller, chiller to fermenter, faucet to chiler, chiller to drain), and requires siphoning hot liquids. Requires cleaning the interior of a (usually) narrow copper tube when you are done.


Plate chillers and other heat exchangers

(Thanks to Morgan for pointing this one out)
Similar in function to counterflow chillers. Hot wort and cold water in, cool wort and warm water out.

Advantages: Same as counterflow chillers, possibly more efficient, depending on your model.
Drawbacks: Again, largely the same as counterflow chillers: expense, plumbing setup, and cleaning.


My first two batches used the "Cool your Kettle" method. It works, but it can take half an hour or longer. I've been using a counterflow chiller ever since, and I'll probably never use anything else.

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You forgot plate chillers, such as the Blichmann Therminator or Shirron chillers, which are usually the most efficient. They are also the most expensive option, and demand similar levels of care and sanitizing fastidiousness as a counterflow chiller. –  Morgan Nov 13 '10 at 1:20
    
Good call on those--all of those are basically multiple sides of the same (multisided) coin. In one form or another, they're just heat exchangers. –  Tristan Nov 13 '10 at 1:23
    
Regarding the ice method, couldn't you just boil some water, then freeze it in sanitized tupperware? –  Fishtoaster Nov 13 '10 at 1:24
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Note on sanitizing the immersion chiller - You can just put it into the boil for a bit and it will sanitize it for you. So pretty easy all in all. –  LoganGoesPlaces Nov 13 '10 at 18:02
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While more complicated then most setups. With my wort chiller, instead of dumping tons of water down the drain, I bought a cheap pump from Home Depot. Instead of straight tap water, I recirculate water from a cooler full of ice. I find it works faster than regular tap water and it saves a LOT of water. Depending on how much ice I have, I can usually chill my wort in about 10 minutes. –  alexp206 Nov 16 '10 at 19:19
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I brew 23-litre batches split between two 20-litre canning pots. Cooling them down in a bathtub of cold water works quite well.

I had an old copper immersion chiller, which a friend had gotten from someone else. It was old and a little tarnished. I cleaned it off to what seemed to me to be an acceptable level and used it on my first all-grain batch, and I'm pretty sure it ruined it. That batch is not drinkable, and the off-taste it has seems metallic.

But I think bad experiences from copper-coiled immersion chillers are very rare -- lots of people use them without problems. But now I'm happy with my bathtub solution, and don't intend to change any time soon.

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I use an immersion chiller and a pump (March 809-HS) to recirculate the wort back over the chiller. Remarkably effective.

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Before or during the boil I usually set a few pots of water in my freezer and use that chilled water (and a bunch of ice packs) to fill my laundry tub and perform the "Cool your kettle" method. It's not the fastest method but using the chilled water helps a bit and I haven't had any bad experiences yet.

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