homebrew beer

Advanced Brewing: Racking

Part of the appeal of homebrewing is the nearly infinite varieties of beer you can make. Different ingredients and techniques can yield drastically different brews, and there’s nothing more satisfying than cracking open a bottle from a particularly worthy batch. For the most part, you can keep your homebrews relatively simple and don’t need to put out all the fanfare. However, we’ve got some tips for the more advanced brewers who do want to add a bit more finesse to their beer. The process of racking is exactly that: unnecessary for the basic brew but, when you do it properly, racking adds a quality that sets your beer apart. Simply, racking is the process of transferring the partially fermented wort to another container to finish fermentation without the yeast cake.

Benefits of Racking

While subject to some scrutiny in the homebrewing community because of the extra effort and risk of contamination, racking has some notable benefits. During fermentation, there’s a lot going on in the wort. The yeast cake creates a sludgy layer at the bottom and any extra flavorings are UFOs in the galaxy of silty liquid.  If you don’t particularly care for texture and cloudiness in your beer, you can siphon the wort off of the yeast cake and achieve clear, crisp-tasting beer.

The Purest Flavor

If you don’t rack your beer, you might risk leaving the wort on the yeast cake for too long. When it runs out of sugar to eat, the yeast starts consuming itself (autolysis), resulting in a rubbery taste to your brew. Racking ensures that the wort doesn’t soak up this foul flavor when you want to give your brew a longer fermentation to get a stronger beer. However, depending on the type of beer, racking may be completely unnecessary. Some brews have a shorter fermentation that wouldn’t risk autolysis. On the other hand, when brewing beers with a longer fermentation, like lagers, racking is an important step to maintain the highest quality of beer. 

Get Rid of the Gunk

By bottling straight from the fermenting container, you risk getting some gunk in the brews. Whether silty parts of the yeast cake or the bits of flavorings (blueberries, dry hops, etc…) you’ve added in, you’ll likely end up with some chewy sips in your bottles. Racking helps avoid the gunk. By siphoning the wort to a second fermenter, you end up with close to crystal clear beer. 

Reducing the Risks of Racking

The primary critique of racking is the additional materials and movement risks contamination and oxidation. While these are legitimate concerns, there are several steps you can take to reduce the risks. 

  • Fermented wort doesn’t contaminate as easily. First of all, because the fermented wort has both a lower pH and sugar content, it won’t be as susceptible to bacteria and wild yeast compared to the initial wort. Essentially, it’s a less habitable environment. However, that doesn’t mean contamination shouldn’t be taken seriously. 
  • Sanitize EVERYTHING. Sanitization is by far the most time-consuming part of racking. However, it is the most necessary. Before racking, thoroughly sanitize all materials, with a hyper-focus on the primary fermenter’s tap and the secondary fermenting container itself. Items like siphoning tubing can be boiled, and carboys should be prepped with a specific sanitization solution. 
  • Avoid oxidation with a gentle pour. When transferring the wort from the primary fermenting vessel to the second, the key to avoiding oxidation is avoiding splashing. Splashing liquid makes bubbles, introducing air. To reduce any sloshing or sploshing, first, pour your finings in the bottom of the secondary vessel and then tilt the fermenter to a 45° angle to create a deeper pool. Maintaining the angle, lower your racking tube into the fermenter and allow the wort to pour down the side of the carboy into the finings. Once you’ve created enough depth, you can set the fermenter upright to finish racking. 

In racking, a siphon (like the apparatus above) uses gravity to pull the beer from one vessel to the other. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors / 27386 images on Pixabay.

How to Rack

With that overview of racking’s benefits and respective risk reduction, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Here’s a step-by-step on how to rack your beer. 

Tools

  • Second carboy or brewing bucket with tight sealing lid
  • Racking cane or auto-siphon 
  • Extra empty bin or tray
  • Tubing (6 ft)
  • Sanitation solution
  • Gloves

The Racking Process

  1. Sanitize everything. Boil tubing and racking cane or auto-siphon, and cleanse vessels with sanitizing solution.
  2. Set up the system. Attach the tubing to the racking cane or auto-siphon on the primary fermenter. Make sure the end of the cane or auto-siphon stays above the murky layer of yeast at the bottom. 
  3. Create a vacuum. With the primary fermenter on a table or counter, place the secondary fermenter on the ground. The height difference will use gravity to create the vacuum.
    1. (If using a racking cane) Plugging one end or holding in a “U,” fill the tubing with sanitizing fluid or water. This will create a vacuum between the vessels and start the flow of wort from one to the other.
    2. (If using an auto-siphon) An auto-siphon is essentially a racking cane with a pump that will create the vacuum and siphon for you.
  4. Empty the sanitizing fluid. Once the siphon starts, point the end of the tubing at your extra bin to empty out the water or sanitizing fluid. As soon as you notice beer coming out, plug the end with your (gloved) finger and transfer the tube to the carboy or brewing bucket. As the primary fermenter empties, you can also tilt it to provide more depth to siphon from.
  5. Keep the fermentation going. Once you’ve sealed off the secondary fermenting vessel with an airlock, fridge the beer-to-be for up to a month before bottling. Check out Store It Cold’s selection of at-home cooling systems.

Is Racking Worth It?

While not for every homebrewer, racking can take your beer from a murky grog to a refreshing treat. However, if you’re just setting out on your homebrewing journey, make a few batches without anything fancy to get the hang of it. Once you’re comfortable with the process and materials, consider racking your next batch. Many brewers find racking always worth it, while others think it can be a risky waste of time. Let us know what you think.

[Featured Image by Kristian Hunt on Unsplash]

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