Choosing an efficient method to chill your wort is an important decision when brewing. To achieve excellent beer, you must bring the wort from a boil to the appropriate temperature to pitch yeast quickly. A wort chiller helps ensure a clearer beer, minimal off flavors, a reduced risk of contamination from airborne enemies, and a stress free end to your brew day. If you are a stove top brewer, you can probably manage with an ice bath in the sink. For those who have moved into all-grain brewing, you need to use a wort chiller to achieve a quick cool down.
There are many different types of wort chillers out on the market. However, you have three main styles to choose from. An Immersion Chiller, Counterflow Chiller, or Plate Chiller. All do a great job, but here are the differences between the three.
Immersion Wort Chiller:
Most all-grain homebrewers start out with an immersion chiller. These are simply submerged into the wort while water is pumped through the coil and out of the other end. Cool water enters the coil and passes through the wort to bring the temperature down. They work great, but can reach a stalling point when your ground water temperature and wort temperature reach a similar range if you are not stirring. Stirring the wort around the coils helps cover more surface area and you’ll achieve good results with an immersion chiller. Immersions are great for up to 5 gallon batches. If you want to brew anything larger, I would recommend moving to a counterflow or plate chiller.
Pros: Cheaper, Easy to Sanitize, No pump needed
Cons: Slower chilling speeds
Some people run with two immersion chillers and run the water through a second chiller that is placed in an ice bath.
Counterflow Wort Chiller:
A counterflow wort chiller is similar in visual design to an immersion chiller, but they function differently. You will likely need a pump to use both counterflow and plate chillers. A counterflow works by placing a coil inside of a surrounding hose or tube. Picture a smaller tube inside of a slighter larger tube. The hot wort is pumped through the inside tube while cool water is pumped in the opposite direction through the outside tube. This results in the more surface area of the wort coming into contact with the cooling element (water) than an immersion chiller. This will cool your wort much quicker. It is also dependent on how cool your ground water is. Ice baths may be needed.
Pros: Quick Chill, Sanitary
Cons: Price, Pump likely needed
Plate Wort Chiller:
A plate chiller works in the same way as the counterflow wort chiller by bringing more surface area of the wort into contact with the cool water. This is done by passing the hot wort and cooler water through multiple plates within the chiller in separate chambers. The plates have a large surface area resulting in a quick temperature drop. Some people believe these pull some of the hot break into the fermentation vessel. They also need to be cleaned immediately after use and thoroughly. This should not be an issue for most and plate chillers are the preferred design for commercial brewers.
Pros: Quick Chill, Durable
Cons: Price, Cleaning, Pump likely needed
Or, you can just create a frankenstein chiller like I started out with here. It is ugly, but has never failed me. I still use it today for smaller batches.