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Burton Union

Christopher Swingley


[ burton union ]

burton union

The September 2006 issue of Brew Your Own Magazine had plans for a Burton Union system. I'd been thinking about making one because my latest batch (Cat on a Lap) didn't ferment out after two weeks, and I suspect it's because most of the yeast was lost through the blow-off tube I've been using recently. With a Burton Union system, the overflow foam and yeast from fermentation is cycled through a second container where it can be collected, or returned to the fermentor.

There are two tubes between the fermentor and the second container. The tube that carries the overflow foam and yeast from the fermentor is attached to the lid of the fermentation bucket so it opens into the air of the fermentor. The other end empties into the top of the secondary vessel. The second tube is the return tube that allows settled yeast and wort to return to the fermentor. It's connected at the bottom of the secondary vessel, and extends far enough through the lid of the fermentor so that it is submerged in wort.

Both the primary fermentor and the second container are sealed, so a hole is bored through the top of the secondary vessel for a stopper and a fermentation lock.

As fermentation proceedes and foam rises to the top of the lid in the primary fermentor, it's pushed through the feed tube and dumps into the secondary vessel. The foam and yeast turn back to a liquid slurry, fills the secondary vessel, and then drains back into the fermentor via the second tube submerged in the wort. The pressure in the system causes the fermentation lock to bubble during fermentation.

Construction details

The Brew Your Own setup uses bulkhead fittings to make the connections between the tubing and the secondary container, and uses a two-holed glass carboy cap for the end on the fermentor. I've discovered that if you cut a 1/2 inch hole in the thick plastic of a bucket, 5/8 inch outer diameter (1/2 inch inner diameter) vinyl tubing can be forced into the hole by heating it with a heat gun or hot water. Once the tubing is pulled through and it cools, it forms a water-tight seal.

The trick to pulling 5/8 inch tubing through a 1/2 inch hole is to heat up the part you'll be pulling through with a heat gun or hot water. Once hot, fold the end of the tubing over lengthwise so the cross section of the tube looks like a C. It should fit through the hole. From the other side, put your finger into the opening and wiggle the tubing and your finger until you can get it back into a circular cross section. Then you can pull it to whatever length you need. Remember that the tube that is at the bottom of the secondary vessel needs to be pulled far enough through the top of the fermenter bucket lid so it will be submerged in wort. That encourages the foam to leave the fermentor by the other tube, setting up a circulation between the fermentor and the secondary container.

The secondary vessel in my system is a 1 gallon bucket that used to hold a dog racing supplement (my wife is a sprint musher), and I do my primary fermentations in an ordinary 6 gallon plastic bucket. Any plastic container could be used for the secondary container as long as it has thick enough walls so it doesn't deform from the pressure of the tubing.


By adding a second container to your primary fermentor, plus two new tubes, there's a bunch of extra stuff to clean and sanatize. I use a submersible pump to move cleanser and sanitizer through the tubing and into the secondary container. To clean the lid, I submerge the whole lid in a five gallon bucket and fill it with cleanser, clean water, and sanitizer.

To use the Burton Union, all you need to do is make sure that the lids on the two buckets are tight, and that the fermentation lock is primed with water. Within a few hours of pitching your yeast, the fermentation lock should start to bubble. If it doesn't, and fermentation is active, you've got an air leak somewhere, which probably means the foam will be going somewhere other than through your Burton Union system. I usually see foam start to rise into the system on the second day after fermentation, but it varies depending on the yeast and wort characteristics. Once fermentation has receeded and foam is no longer moving through the tubing, I remove the system and replace it with a plain bucket lid. You can leave the system in place, but it's much easier to clean while it's still wet.

[ Page last updated 2-Sep-2006 ]