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Most wineries use stainless steel as the build material for their large wine tanks. Oak vats used to be popular, but steel has several advantages: it is more cost effective, easier to clean and repair, and has no effect on the flavor of the wine. Plastic tanks are also available, but they are not nearly as durable.
Because fermentation releases excess heat, it’s important to properly control the removal of that excess heat so that the fermentation process can be controlled.
Cooling jackets wrap around the fermentation tank, and hot/cold fluid is circulated through the jacket, thus heating or cooling the fermenting wine. Know your winemaking goals – the type of wine you want to create, your production needs – before speaking with a supplier so that they can offer specific advice regarding cooling jacket installation (dimpled/channel style, location of the jacket on the fermenter, etc.).
Commercial wineries sometimes also choose to insulate their fermentation tanks to make the temperature control more precise. There are many available options for insulation, so have a discussion with your supplier to help you decide which option works best with your setup.
The following are standard configuration wine fermentation tanks. There are many customized options on the market (suppliers may offer innovative variations of the standard), so consider your options carefully.
Plastic fermentation tanks are popular among beginning winemakers. Typically, winemakers use food-grade polyethylene plastic buckets, but there are suppliers offering custom plastic tanks that come equipped with airtight lids and spigots. Plastic tanks are the cheapest available option, but the main issue is that they are not particularly durable and may play host to bacteria if not kept in perfect condition. Washing the tank exposes it to micro-scratches, in which bacteria can grow and, if left long enough, can ruin fermentation.
Stainless Steel Tanks
Smaller stainless steel fermentation tanks are a step-up from plastic tanks, but are also pricier. The benefit of stainless steel is its durability. Maintained properly, it will last a very long time and, if the stainless steel is of good quality, there should be less of a risk of bacterial contamination.
Larger stainless steel fermentation tanks are popular among commercial wineries, though the basic functionality and structure is the same.
Variable Volume Tanks
Variable volume tanks incorporate a useful innovation: the height at which the lid sits can be changed. Thus, you can set the lid height at a level where oxygenation will be minimized (you won’t have to fill empty space with inert gas, for example). Variable volume tanks are typically stainless steel. They are also typically used by commercial wineries, and not by individual, craft winemakers.
Oak vat fermentation is the traditional way of fermenting wine, and though many wineries have moved past oak fermentation, there is still a contingent of winemakers who prefer oak – whether for the sake of tradition, as a stylistic choice, or for the unique flavor and aroma introduced by oak. It is not entirely necessary to use oak vats to ferment, however, in order to gain the benefits of oak. It has become very popular for wineries to simply place oak chips in stainless steel fermentation tanks, thereby imparting unique oak qualities while gaining the advantages of more modern fermentation equipment (faster aging of wines, for example).