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LabHydrometer vs. refractometer vs. digital refractometer

Homebrewers,

The cheapo hydrometer that came with my deluxe starter kit is off by .005 units when measured at 60 d F DI high quality H20.

Knowing this, it’s easy to adjust my readings by subtracting .005. I’m happy to do this but it got me thinking. Is the ROI there for lab grade hydrometers or refractometers?

With refractometers I understand that you only need a few drops of sample rather than several mls, but what, if any, are the other advantages?

Thanks for your input.

Fox

Personal opinion, 0.005 is a pretty easy number to mentally add/subtract from your readings. But I’m kind of lackadaisical about gravity; if you’re the kind of person who wants to have super-accurate numbers in the brew log then the ROI is there.

A refractometer’s invaluable if you’re doing all grain brewing and want to keep an eye on how the mash is doing. But for monitoring how a fermentation’s going, I’m not convinced it’s a good substitute for a hydrometer.

Agree with bunderbunder. I’ll use my refractometer to monitor mash and lautering efficiency (because it is fast and easy to cool an eyedropper of sample), but I’ll go with my cheap hydrometer to monitor fermentation. In part, that is again because it is easy - once there is alcohol present in the beer, you need to apply a conversion calculation to a refractometer reading to get it right - but also because I am a big believer in simplicity. I’ve checked my hydrometer, and it is accurate within a point or so, and because it is such a simple instrument, I am pretty sure it won’t become inaccurate without me knowing about it. A refractometer can drift. And any digital instrumentation has more ways in which to drift, so they should be checked for calibration more frequently. For me, that means that there has to be a big advantage in ease of use or needed precision or similar before I’ll spend extra for something with a digital readout. My thermapen meets that standard, as does my scale. For reading gravity, no. Gravity readings let you check that your process is under control, but are really not that critical overall that you need them to be highly accurate.

Can you educate me on how you use the refractometer during mashing/lautering? In other words what does the S.G. tell you? Mash longer? Increase water volume?

I don’t do traditional AG, but do BIAB. Is this something I could use?

I’ve actually been considering buying a refractometer FOR monitoring fermentation. I’ve never done the “check the gravity until you get the same reading a few days apart” but I would like to. Only I’m too cheap to sacrifice multiple sample’s worth of beer. I get that the refractometer is not accurate once fermentation starts, but it’s still precise, which is different. Why can’t you take refractometer readings over fermentation, compare them day-by-day and only use the hydrometer (or Math) once the reading stabilizes?

That actually seems simpler to me? So what did I miss?

Alcohol throws off a refractometer reading by a huge amount, so you need to use a calculator which inputs both the reading and the OG in order to get something that is even remotely accurate. Yes, it is still precise but you’ll need to recalibrate your own feel for what the reading means.

Have to say, I don’t understand why people sacrifice samples when they take readings. Buy a wine thief. The hydrometer sits inside it. Sanitize the whole thing in Star San, take your reading, then let the sample go back into the fermentor. Faster, easier and as long as you take care of your sanitiation, no more risky than any other method.

I’ve actually been considering buying a refractometer FOR monitoring fermentation. I’ve never done the “check the gravity until you get the same reading a few days apart” but I would like to. Only I’m too cheap to sacrifice multiple sample’s worth of beer. I get that the refractometer is not accurate once fermentation starts, but it’s still precise, which is different. Why can’t you take refractometer readings over fermentation, compare them day-by-day and only use the hydrometer (or Math) once the reading stabilizes?

That actually seems simpler to me? So what did I miss?[/quote]

You are correct JM good for you thinking outside of the box.
I will not let myself be drawn into a spitting match again, but I feel a digital refractometer
offers both precision and accuracy if used correctly with Sean Terrils calculator and that is all I use now. I matched up readings with a hydrometer for three batches when I first got the unit and it was spot on when comparing post ferment SG. These naysayers can continue to say simplicity or dumb down the operation but you have to try it first to fault it.
I had batches over a year ago that I questioned the SG and compared with a hydro again and it was right on. There is nothing here to argue. You either wish to try a new method or stay with traditional methods. So pick your method and use it in confidence. All three work the main difference is 150-200ml sample to 1ml sample. Analog instruments to digital readout.
You be the judge.

A refractometer is easy to use throughout the brewing process and is just as accurate as a hydrometer. For post-pitch readings, sanitize a metal skewer, dip into the fermenter, and then let a single drop fall on the viewing plate.

I recently went though the same debate. I ended up buying a cheap refractometer off of ebay. Its very similar looking to the one NB sells but is Brix only and cost me 30 bucks with shipping. I’m very pleased with it so far. All of my pre- fermentation readings have matched my hydrometer and with Sean Terril’s calculator my FGs have as well. I can however see why Itspossible suggests the digital as its the lines are pretty small and that alone could introduce error but not much more than +/- 0.2 Brix which is 1.0007 and for me of little importance. If money is not a factor I’d say 100% get a digital one. I’m happy with my decision to get a cheap one so far because for me the extra accuracy and convince a digital one might have offered would not have been worth the extra hundred dollars.

I really don’t see any reason to use a refractometer for FG, the measly 2 oz of beer lost using a hydrometer is nothing. I agree with rebuiltcellers its just so easy to use a hydrometer, only I don’t worry about a couple ounces of beer. Hell I have been known to spill more than that. :oops:

I have both and use both. Hydro samples go down the hatch. I like to taste how the beer is progressing as much as I like to see it. I’ve considered going with lab model stuff but in the end, I don’t think it would give me any sort of advantage. Not knocking anyone that has one though.

I like to use both in my process.

For all hot-side measurements I use the refrac., because it takes too long to cool samples for a hydro. reading. I use a hydro. for cool-side measurements (OG and FG). I like to taste my OG and FG samples. I have never had a reason to take multiple samples at the end of fermentation. I typically wait 2-3 weeks and if gravity is where I expect it to be (it always has been), the beer gets racked to a keg.

I use lab grade hydrometers, because I find the graduation lines are much easier to read than a standard hydrometer (smaller scale with .001 graduations).

Right on, I have never actually used an analog refractometer in the past to check post ferment SG, but I am glad to hear your success as that will encourage others to chek it out. When I owned analog refrac’s I stuck to my old hydro that has always read off by 1.002, so I always compensated as decribed by the OP and also my eye sight is dodgy anyway so the jump to digi was a no brainer as its linear use for all pre/post SG uses was a win/win also. I did heavy research to find the best price around the net years ago when it was bought as I wasn’t looking to pay $130-170 for the privilege. So for $30-70 bucks higher depending on which method/device used, You can actually find a digi for under a $100. If ever interested PM me and I will shoot you the link to where I bought mine.

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