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I've always bottled directly after the primary fermentation has finished. What's the point of the secondary fermentation? Can I use a bucket or is it something that really necessitates a glass carboy?

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The term "secondary fermentation" is misleading since the purpose isn't to continue fermentation. A secondary stage can be used for any combination of things:

  1. Clarification: racking to secondary gets the beer off the yeast cake and allows more particulates to fall out of suspension. This is often the only reason I use a secondary stage; I like clear beer.

  2. Dry hopping: when making an IPA or other beer where dry hopping is involved, it is almost always done in secondary. If you tried to dry-hop during primary fermentation, much of the hop aroma would be lost through the airlock with the CO2 that escapes during fermentation.

  3. Flavor additions: adding things like fruit, spices, coffee, chocolate, etc. is almost always done in the secondary stage. Often this is for the same reason as dry hopping (to ensure the aroma and flavors are retained).

  4. Aging: if aging a beer for a long time (months to years), transferring it to a secondary removes it from the yeast cake and frees up your primary fermenter for another beer. In cases where a beer is going to be aged for 6 months or more, removing it from the yeast cake also prevents autolysis.

I wouldn't recommend a bucket since you want to minimize head space to minimize exposure to oxygen. A bucket often provides too much beer-to-air contact, especially if aging a beer for an extended period of time. Some will argue that glass carboys are necessary, but I use plastic carboys and haven't had any problems.

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Getting the residual yeast away from the beer is also important because that residual yeast can produce off flavors. Additionally, you still want the beer fermenting (though at the end of fermentation) since like you say, you need some CO2 to push the O2 out the top of the carboy. –  Mike S Nov 8 '10 at 23:31
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@Mike S: It's important not to rack too soon though; after primary fermentation the yeast clean up a lot of the byproducts created during reproduction and fermentation. There's a greater risk of off flavors when racking too soon than when racking "late". I've left beers in primary for a month or two before racking to primary; they turned out great :) –  Jeff L Nov 8 '10 at 23:35
    
@Jeff Interesting. So is the importance of that CO2 overblown, or are the beers you're talking about still producing CO2 at the 1-2 month mark? This may need to be its own question, but is there a good heuristic for determining when it is appropriate to move to secondary (or if for that matter)? –  Mike S Nov 9 '10 at 0:47
    
You generally should rack from primary once your gravity reading remains the same for three days in a row. But yes, this would be a good question to ask. –  Jeff L Nov 9 '10 at 0:49
    
@Jeff I'm surprised by your results, I and a brewing friend of mine have both had significant off flavors after leaving a beer in primary for right around 4 weeks, what we refer to as "band-aid flavor". How long did you bottle condition? –  Mlusby Nov 16 '10 at 14:19
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I was told that it helps the clarity of the beer, since the sludge from the primary will be left over in the first fermenter. I use a glass carboy for secondary fermentation.

I also know of many people who bottle right after primary, as you do. If it's working for you, then it's no big deal. Try doing a secondary for a batch and see if you notice a difference.

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I agree with Jeff L, that secondary is useful for particular things.

To your question, I only ever do a 'secondary' when adding fruit or extended aging. My beers clear just fine after two weeks in the fermenting vessel. I've never experienced off flavors from that two weeks on the yeast, and I always dry hop in the primary.

For me I can't find any reason to use a second vessel (except for fruit or extended aging, meaning more than a month) so it isn't worth the hassle.

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