By: Jeff Shoemaker
It is hard to believe one could get injured in the process of making wine at home (except for cleaning a crusher destemmer, why is every thing so sharp on those things?) One of the primary causes of deep cuts or foot and ankle injuries I have seen over the years in winemaking is from accidents using glass carboys. Some of these injuries required sutures, and even physical therapy! This could easily extend to missed time off work and so on. Don’t get me wrong, glass storage vessels are a great addition to the home winery. They are easy to clean, straightforward to use and even better, they can be obtained locally on the cheap from places like Craigslist or yard sales. However, one careless move and they can fall to the floor, shattering glass everywhere or even worse, land directly on a part of your body. Not to mention all of your precious wine going down the drain! If you are considering making the switch to a safer vessel, potentially saving yourself from medical bills in the future, please read on. In this article I will provide you with some alternatives to glass vessels and provide safety tips if you choose to use glass anyway (you rebel.)
A Word About PET Carboys
I would like to clear the air about any anxieties you may have about using PET vessels for extended aging. One major producer of PET carboys, Better Bottle, does not hide the fact that minute amounts of oxygen do permeate through the walls of the their vessel. However, studies show this amount of oxygen is negligible at best; less than what is recommended for micro-oxygenation during barrel aging and significantly less than the oxygen leaking past some carboy caps, stoppers and water filled air-locks. You can also rest assured PET vessels do not contain harmful toxins such as Bisphenol-A (BPA) and can be re-used over and over again. These non-issues seem small compared to the disaster a glass carboy could create. As for cleaning PET carboys, bottle brushes should be avoided. The bristles can scratch the inside creating crevasses which could harbor bacteria. For those stubborn stains and general crud, a soak with a percarbonate solution does the trick every time.
Pro Tip: When moving a PET carboy fitted with an airlock, place your thumb over the opening of the airlock while you move it (or just remove the airlock all together during transit,) otherwise the liquid in the airlock will be quickly sucked into your wine. This is not a good thing if there happens to be a fruit fly in the liquid.
Speidel Plastic Storage and Fermentation Tanks
Not only does the German company Speidel make quality stainless steel tanks, they also make a durable, light-weight fermentation and storage vessel made of HDPE (High-density polyethylene) plastic. This material resists oxygen transfer and all ports seal with gaskets, allowing you to use these tanks for aging your wine on the long-term. Each tank is fitted with a handle on each side for easy maneuverability around the winery. An additional perk of these tanks is the wide opening at the top, which makes cleaning the tank convenient as you can fit your hand in. Like the PET carboys, abrasives should be avoided as not to scratch the inside of the tank. A sponge or light scrubby can be used for stubborn debris in the tank. Otherwise, a percarbonate soak will easily remove just about anything. These tanks come fitted with a spigot and an over sized air-lock. Sizes available can accommodate any sized operation at a great price. Sizes include: 3.2 gallons (12L,) 5.3 gallons (20L,) 7.9 gallons (30L,) 15.9 gallons (60L,) 26.4 gallons (100L,) 31.7 gallons (120L) 52.8 (200L) 79.3 gallons (300L) and all the way up to 132 gallons (500L.)
Intellitank is made of ribbed, thick walled, high density polyethylene and high grade 304 stainless steel. This make-up allows the use of a vacuum pump for racking and degassing. Other uses for Intellitank include: long term storage and bulk aging, fermentation and carbonation of wines up to 30psi. With the purchase of their barrel topping accessory, the Intellitank can be used to store any volume of wine under inert gas for storing barrel topping wine. This beats opening up a bottle of a past vintage to top off your barrels in order to keep up with the angel’s share. If you are uneasy about moving these tanks around, Catalyst Manufacturing sells a stainless steel handle. This handle can be installed on the side of the Intellitank, which will make moving your tanks around comfortable and a lot safer. Sizes include 6 gallons (23L) and 15 gallons (57L.) Please visit www.catalyst-manufacturing.com for more information on ordering and the many uses for the Intellitank.
Sanke kegs (the type from beer distributors) make a great vessel for the storage of wine. They are sturdy, inert, and their design allows you to fully top them up, unlike a Cornelius keg which is a little more challenging to fully top up and use for storage without the use of inert gas. Kegs come in various sizes such as: Sixth Barrel 5.2 gallons (20L,) Quarter Barrel and Slim Quarter Barrel 7.75 gallons (29L) and a Half Barrel 15.5 gallons (59L.) A couple features I love about these vessels is they are able to be stacked, which reduces their foot print in the winery (keg stackers can be purchased to make stacking safer and more secure.) They are rugged-meaning if it is dropped, accidentally hit it off the wall or you just feel like kicking one, they stand up to abuse. Once these kegs are full (especially the Half Barrel,) you aren’t moving it for gravity racking. Additional racking equipment such as a vacuum pump or other wine pump will be needed to transfer the wine in and/or out of the keg depending on where you are storing them. (For more information on moving wine, please see my article: Moving Wine and Using Pumps in the Apr/May 2017 issue of WineMaker Magazine.)You may be asking yourself, these sound great, how do I get my hands on them? While it may sound like a good idea to buy a keg of beer, keep the keg and forgo the deposit, it’s actually forcing the brewery to lose money on the keg because your $30 deposit by no means covers the cost of a new one. Keep an eye out for kegs for sale on Craigslist that are too old to return. Breweries and some distributors will decommission kegs that no longer hold pressure. This is perfect for us winemakers that are removing the spear inside to use the keg as a storage vessel. (To remove the spear of your sanke keg, please head over to Youtube. There you can find plenty of videos outlining the process.) All it takes is some research and reaching out to local breweries. Kegs can also be purchased brand new. These vessels accept a #11 ½ bung. Cornelius kegs have many uses in the winery too. They can be used for fermenting juice, kegging and dispensing wine, forced carbonation of wine to make a bubbly and they can store wine under inert gas for easy barrel topping.
For The Big Guys
Stainless Steel Variable Capacity Tanks
For those of you who make larger batches of wine and are eager to move away from glass, variable capacity stainless steel tanks are for you. Sizes range from 26 gallon (100L,) all the way up to 264 gallons (1000L.) (Please note the legal limit to make wine in the U.S. is 100 gallons per adult in the household, up to two adults total. Sorry folks.) This vessel is great for folks who own their own vineyards, where changes in wine volume may fluctuate year to year. The floating lid accommodates those fluctuations. The lid enables you to float it on top of the wine (regardless of the volume,) pump up the lid gasket and store your wine sealed away from oxygen with no head-space. There is some debate as to whether or not these tanks can perform long-term aging. The key to aging in these tank lies in the lid gasket. On most tanks from the factory, the lid gasket has a seam where the two ends meet to form a round gasket, which then fits around the lid. This seam is a wide open entrance for oxygen into the tank. This may be fine for fermentation while carbon dioxide is being created and protecting the wine, but not for bulk aging. The lid gasket must be upgraded to the heavy-duty seamless version. With the upgraded gasket, the lid is then air tight and long term aging can commence. In my article Tweak Your Tank in the Aug/Sept. 2014 issue of WineMaker Magazine, I outline upgrades you can do to your tank to get more use out of it as well as get it ready for aging your wine in it. Note: In order to transfer wine in and out of the keg, a diaphragm or impeller pump will be needed. Unfortunately a vacuum racking rig will not work for racking into variable capacity stainless steel tanks.
Although the flex tank is meant for bulk aging wines, it is unlike the vessels mentioned above. The Flextank provides controlled micro-oxygenation effects close to that of a new wine barrel (without the cost and the upkeep that comes with using a barrel.) The Flex Tank is made of food grade polyethylene, which denies the angel’s share (this allows you keep more of your wine.) These tanks enable the winemaker to experiment with what ever oak adjuncts they choose, in a clean vessel that can be used again and again. Geared toward large-batch winemaking, tank sizes range from 30-570 gallons (100-1, 135 liters.) The Flex Tank has a plethora of accessories such as solutions for temperature control and different valve kits to assist your racking needs. Please visit: flextankusa.com for more information
If the above vessels aren’t your jive and you prefer to use glass (it’s alright, I still have and use glass some glass carboys myself.) Some safety rules should be followed when handling the heavy glass carboys.
Before moving a full (or even an empty carboy) ensure your hands are dry. Picking up a carboy with wet hands is dangerous. It could easily slip out of your hands and fall to the floor, or on your foot. Take an extra second and dry your hands.
When picking up these heavy guys after racking, be sure to have one hand underneath and another on the neck (or handle.) Lift with your legs and not with your back. Some creative folks have fashioned lifts to raise the carboy to their workbench rather than risking injury.
Better yet, use a vacuum pump like the All in One Wine Pump or make your own vacuum racking set up. In my article Moving Wine with Pumps in the Apr/May 2017 issue of WineMaker Magazine, I talk about all the different ways home winemakers can move wine around the winery. Rather than gravity racking into a carboy on the floor (followed by lifting it back onto the workbench,) you can use a pump to rack into a carboy side by side, which avoids the heavy lift after. If you own a Buon Vino Mini Jet, bypass the filter and use the pump to transfer you wine between carboys. Easy!
Rather than man-handling a full carboy, place it in a milk crate for ease of transfer. For added security, a handle can be installed on the neck of the carboy. This gives you something to hold onto during transfer. Another product available is a carboy harness called the Brew Hauler. This is made of heavy duty polypropylene straps that can hold up to 100 lbs and is a secure way to transport full carboys.
Before use, check your glass carboy for cracks and other defects. This allows you to catch any cracks or potential breaking points before you transfer wine into it and/or pick it up and handle it.
Thermal Shock: When glass is hot and it allowed to cool on its own, the glass will cool evenly which prevents the glass from breaking. However, if you immediately introduce cold liquid to hot glass, the rapid and uneven cooling will cause the glass to crack. You may find yourself in this position if you use hot water to rinse out your carboy and then immediately rack cellar temperature wine into it. Please take an extra minute to allow your carboy to cool down before you rack your wine.
In my home winery, I am slowly transitioning out of glass and into sanke kegs and PET carboys. These particular vessels fit my wine making practices best. I’d rather make a change now than wait for an accident to happen. As I have described, there are options to avoid the potential dangers of the use of glass carboys. This gives you piece of mind that if you accidentally drop a vessel, it won’t explode into a mess of glass, and the wine (or most of it) can be saved. Once you have made the switch, you can sell your glass and use the money for more fruit or new equipment. Both of these ideas sound great to me! Cheers!