Racking is the process of transferring your fermented wort to another fermenter.
The idea is that you can add finings and cold condition when racking for incredibly clear and clean tasting beer.
The racking question
Racking is one of those topics that gets animated discussion on forums and at homebrew club meetings.
Some swear by it and rack as a standard practice. Others argue that it is not worth the effort and introduces a risk of infection and oxidation to the wort.
There are a few points here worth exploring…
Is racking homebrew worth the effort?
I’m all for simplifying and avoiding unnecessary work.
And racking is a fair chunk of extra work.
You have to clean and sanitize another fermenter and racking tube. Proper racking technique also takes care and attention.
This is time that could be otherwise spent with a homebrew, contemplating life.
So you have to weigh this against the benefits.
Benefit #1: No burnt rubber in your beer
The main purpose of racking is to get the wort off the yeast cake.
After an extended time, yeast can start to consume itself.
This process causes rubbery flavors which will stand out in your beer like the proverbial.
For ales, this is thought to happen after two weeks. Lagers, four weeks. So if your wort isn’t sitting on the yeast cake for longer than this, you may not need to worry about racking.
Strong ales and lagers in particularly benefit from racking.
Benefit #2: Clearer and better-tasting beer
Racking makes adding finings more effective and easier.
The bulk of yeast, proteins and tannins will be left behind in the primary fermenter. What is transferred will quickly drop to the bottom of the secondary fermenter to leave a crystal clear wort remaining.
If you don’t rack, and just add finings to the primary fermenter, particles will still quickly fall from suspension.
However, there will be ample material on the sides and bottom of the fermenter to be disturbed and transfer into your final bottles or keg.
The impact will be marginal but you might not hit the clean-tasting premium brew you were aiming for.
If you are brewing for competitions or striving for the perfect homebrew, this can be an issue.
Benefit #3: Separate any ingredients added to the primary fermenter
Adding hops and special ingredients to your fermenter is a great way to enhance your beer. The flavors and aromas infuse into the wort, creating masterpieces.
Unfortunate chunks of blueberry, hop leaves and raspberry seeds can cause alarm in the unsuspecting beer drinker. They can also cause mayhem if they get stuck in keg fittings.
However, if you use a secondary fermenter, you can leave most of the solids behind before final packaging.
Any pieces that make their way into the secondary fermenter will soon drop from suspension and out of harm’s way.
How to minimize the risk of infection and oxidation
Critics of racking will quite rightly point out that you are exposing your wort to contaminants and oxidation.
Risk of infection
Homebrew can be infected at any stage of production.
Luckily though fermented wort is much less likely to be infected. A lower pH and fewer remaining sugars make fermented wort less attractive to wild yeast and bacteria.
Carbon dioxide produced during fermentation will also form a protective layer on top of the wort. When you rack your beer, CO2 escapes and reforms this layer.
That being said, you still need to get crazy cleaning and sanitizing. Particularly racking hoses and fermenter taps.
I boil my racking tubing before using it. Heat will effectively destroy any contaminants.
Pay particular cleaning and sanitizing attention to the tap of your primary fermenter.
Risk of oxidation
Introducing oxygen to fermented wort will cause the beer to stale more quickly. That’s bad.
This is why you need to be very gentle when racking beer.
A great way to minimize any splashing and oxygen exposure is to add your finings solution to the secondary and then rack into it. Tilting your secondary 45 degrees can help.
Always keep the end of the racking tube under the wort’s surface in the secondary fermenter. Stick a short plastic tube (eg from a bottling wand) in the racking tube to help.
How to rack homebrew
The hard part of racking is cleaning the secondary fermenter and racking hose.
The rest is straightforward, however having a helper on hand will make it a little easier.
The basic process is as follows:
Wait until the primary has finished fermenting and add any dry hops or extra ingredient like fruit.
Leave for 3-5 days for the flavors to infuse and then crash cool.
Clean and sanitize your secondary fermenter and the tap of your primary fermenter. Clean your racking tubing and boil for five minutes. Wear gloves and attach the hose to your primary fermenter’s tap.
Gently pour your prepared finings solution into your secondary fermenter and tilt it 45 degrees to create more depth.
Turn the tap on to start racking. Once the secondary has a few quarts (liters) in it, you can gently tilt it back to normal.
Completely drain the primary and then seal the secondary.
Return to the fridge and cold condition for anywhere between a week and a month.
If your fermenter doesn’t have a tap, you will need to siphon from the primary to the secondary.
Whatever you do, don’t suck the tubing to start the siphon. Your mouth is rampant with bacteria that will cause infections.
Instead, fill your sanitized tubing with pre-boiled water.
With a gloved thumb over the bottom end, stick the top end of the tube in the primary wort.
Once you release the bottom end, the siphon will start.
The racking wrap up
Consider racking if you are:
Cold conditioning, lagering or aging for more than two weeks (ales) or four weeks (lagers).
Brewing for competitions or have an A-type personality.
Dry hopping or adding fruit to the primary.
Otherwise, give it a miss and have a homebrew instead.
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