Chilling your wort down to pitching temperatures is more important than it may seem at first glance. The faster it cools, the lower the chance for contamination and off-flavors. What’s the best option for chilling your wort?
The three most popular wort chiller styles are immersion, plate, and counterflow. Immersion chillers work by cooling the whole wort at the same time. Both counterflow and plate chillers chill the wort as it flows through their systems. While plate and counterflow chillers are more efficient, immersion chillers are better for brewers on a budget.
Keep reading for a detailed comparison of these chillers, including cost, cooling speed, ease of use, and ease of cleanup.
Immersion chillers vs plate chillers vs counterflow chillers – which is best?
When you grow tired of the ice bath method, there are three main options available to you. On one side there are immersion chillers that cool the entire wort at the same time. On the other side are the plate and counterflow chillers that cool the wort as it travels through the system.
The best one for you will depend on your budget, batch sizes, and dedication to efficiency.
The best wort chiller on a budget is an immersion chiller. When budget is not a concern, the fastest is a plate or counterflow chiller. If you’re looking for the most convenient wort chiller when it comes to set up and cleaning you will want an immersion chiller.
As you can see, each type of wort chiller has its advantages. It can be difficult to pick which advantages you value most until you’ve tried the different methods. If you’re not too particular, all of them will work better than hauling a large kettle full of boiling wort to an ice bath.
Let’s explore the specifics of each wort chiller style.
Initial cost and equipment needs
Buying ice for an ice bath can be costly over time, which is just one reason it can be helpful to invest in a wort chiller. While immersion chillers are the cheapest on average, there are relatively cheap options for each style.
Much of the difference in pricing comes from the materials used. Stainless steel and copper are two common metals for tubing. Stainless steel is cheaper but isn’t as reactive to temperature as copper. On the other hand, copper takes more care since it can develop verdigris.
The initial cost can also depend on the size of the chiller. Immersion and counterflow options will be more expensive as the length of the coil increases. Plate chillers will get more expensive as the number and size of the plates increases.
However, some of these chillers need extra equipment that adds to the cost. Connections are the most common extra equipment you’ll need. Since most hoses have male attachment ends and some chillers also have male connections, you’re likely to need an adapter.
Other common pieces of equipment you’ll need are hop filters and high-temperature pumps for the counterflow and plate options.
While cooling times are primarily determined by the temperature of the water, the style of the chiller will have an influence.
At peak performance (adequate flow rate and cold enough water) the fastest homebrew wort chillers are plate chillers. They can cool a 5-gallon batch down to pitching temps in 4-5 minutes.
Counterflow chillers are also able to cool your wort at such speeds, again, dependent on water temp and flow rate. The average immersion chiller will take longer. They take about 20 to 30 minutes. This can be improved by whirlpooling your wort.
Ease of use
While price and cooling speed are both incredibly important considerations when choosing a chiller, the best equipment isn’t helpful if you can’t make it work.
The style of wort chiller that is easiest to use is immersion. Once you’ve set up the input and output for the water, you just need to put it in the kettle and begin cooling.
Plate and counterflow chillers both require some form of filtering in order to avoid clogging. They will also need the receiving container set up. If you choose to use a pump with either that will be another step.
Immersion chillers are the easiest to clean when compared to counterflow or plate chillers. You only need to sanitize the exterior of the pipes since nothing else comes in contact with your wort. This can be done quickly by placing it in the wort for the last 10 minutes of the boil.
Of the other two, plate chillers are the worst to clean. Since most models can’t be taken apart, you have no idea how clean the interior is. Counterflow chillers are similar, but the simple tubing makes it easier.
Immersion chillers – when does it make sense?
As detailed above, immersion chillers are pretty good all around. They can be better for some homebrewers than others.
Immersion chillers are best for homebrewers who are on a budget, value simple setup and cleanup, or brew primarily light lagers.
This style of chiller works great when brewing light lagers because it is the best at reducing dimethyl sulfide (DMS). This off-flavor is especially common when brewing with pale malts like you would in a light lager such as a pilsner.
The best way to avoid this off-flavor is to rapidly cool your wort post-boil. Even though counterflow and plater chillers are often faster, they leave the majority of the wort in the kettle. The wort that is moving through the system cools, but the wort in the kettle stays hot. By cooling the entire wort, immersion chillers can reduce DMS production.
Additionally, this style of immersion chiller is great for keeping cold break particles in one container. This can make it easier for you to keep these particles out of the finished product.
How do immersion chillers work?
Like all wort chillers, immersion chillers work by removing heat through conduction.
Immersion chillers specifically work by running cold water through metal pipes in a coil shape that is immersed in the wort.
As the cold water moves through the piping it will absorb heat from the wort. The heat then leaves with the water when it makes its way out of the immersion chiller.
Are immersion chillers worth it?
When you consider the consequences for your beer if you don’t chill your wort properly, the answer is an easy yes.
Immersion chillers are a worthy investment for the benefits they bring as compared to a simple ice bath. They are much easier to use and reduce the chance of off-flavors. When compared to the other options their worth comes from the fact they are cheaper.
- Chills the entire wort at the same time
- Simple to set up
- Simple to clean
- Not water efficient
- Size limited by kettle
Plate chillers – when does it make sense?
This style of wort chiller is more effective at cooling the wort so it does not need as much water. Due to this, it is also much faster on average.
Plate chillers are best for homebrewers who want water-efficient cooling, value speed, and don’t typically brew with pale malts.
Because of their size and the fact you can’t open most models, these aren’t great for brews with lots of hops. That said, clogging can be avoided with a good filter if you want to use one with a hoppy brew.
Since plate chillers just chill a portion of the wort at a time, it can lead to an increased chance for off-flavors and contamination. This is somewhat offset by the speed at which it cools. In regard to DMS specifically, darker malts have less of the compound that eventually results in DMS.
You shouldn’t have to worry too much about DMS when using a plate chiller if you brew darker beers.
How do plate chillers work?
Though they operate on the same concept of heat transfer, plate chillers are rather different from immersion chillers.
Plate chillers work by running the wort across a series of metal plates while cold water runs in the opposite direction. Usually, the wort goes from one container to another, but you can run it back into the same container.
A good plate chiller with water at a proper temperature can chill the wort to pitching temperatures with one run.
- Difficult to clean
- Requires filters
Counterflow chillers – when does it make sense?
Like plate chillers, counterflow chillers are efficient when it comes to water use. Their speeds are comparable as well. Just like with plate chillers, you should keep in mind the risk of DMS.
However, unlike plate chillers, this style is a little more clog-resistant. Additionally, cleaning is simpler. There are fewer nooks for gunk to get stuck in with a spiral coil.
Counterflow chillers are best for homebrewers who like the speed and efficiency of a plate chiller but want something a little easier to clean.
Go with counterflow over plate chillers if you don’t want to deal with clogging risks. Otherwise, the two options are fairly similar.
How do counterflow chillers work?
Counterflow chillers may look similar to immersion chillers, but they work more similarly to plate chillers.
Like plate chillers, counterflow chillers remove the wort from the boil kettle and run it into another container. The pipe that carries the wort is surrounded by another pipe that carries the cold water going in the opposite direction. As the cold water runs over the hot wort, it carries away heat.
Counterflow chillers can also cool the wort in one pass under ideal circumstances.
- Size not limited by kettle
- Requires filters