Racking Your Beer

Moving Day

    So you have devised the perfect Porter, hit all your temps and volumes, pitched a beautiful yeast starter and held a constant temp. All that's left to do today is move this beauty over to a secondary fermenter (or bottling bucket as the case may be.) What could possibly go wrong? LOTS!
    Ok, that may be a little sensationalist, but let's go over some things to make the transfer of your beautiful beer as danger-free and simple as possible.

Racking Tubes, Canes, and Siphons

    "Racking" is just a fancy term for "siphoning" or moving your beer from one container to another while leaving behind any settled solids in the first container.
    If you've looked around, you will see that there are an array of devices available for achieving this. The most basic tool one could use is a plastic hose with no attachments. The more common version involves a hose and a plastic tube with about a 100 degree bend called the "racking cane." Racking Canes generally have some piece of plastic on the end to allow the liquid to enter from above and cause less disturbance in the sediment. Racking canes come in plastic, stainless, steel, and even copper models.
    On up the food chain is the Fermtech AutoSiphon which consists of a racking cane and tube assembly where the cane is placed inside a plastic tube. A semi-loose grommet fits between the cane and tube, making somewhat of a piston out of the whole thing. By moving the racking cane up and down a few strokes inside the tube, the siphon starts with no other intervention. As you will see later, this is a good thing. If I were to to recommend one racking system over any other, this would be it.
    Now, as homebrewers, we are never satisfied with simplicity. What's the fun in that? With a few extra parts, one could endeavour to make a racking system where the beer never touches open air (a good thing, more on that later.) Basically, you will need two carboy caps (those rubber deals with two spouts and caps that fit the mouth of a carboy), one plain racking cane/tube assembly, and, ideally, a sanitary micron filter. (example)
    By placing the apparatus into the upper container and placing your tube through the carboy cap in the lower carboy, you have created an closed system. When you blow air into the top carboy (through the sterile filter) you are creating higher pressure that makes the liquid want to equalize into an environment of lower pressure (the lower container.)
    Pretty neat stuff. Not ENTIRELY necessary, but you can never be too careful.

The Perils of Racking - Oxidation and Infection

    Without opening up another entire can of worms, the reason we rack our beer is to get it off of the trub in the bottom of the current fermenter. That or it's done and we need to bottle or keg the stuff.
    Either way, we need to face the twin terrors of racking - oxidation and infection.
Oxidation happens in beer when we break the surface tension and allow atmospheric oxygen to absorb into our beer. Oxidation in beers shows up as a cardboard, papery, 'old beer' type flavor. In addition, oxidation can cause some darkening in your beer. Not good.
    Infection is caused by bacteria, mold, and wild yeasts brought into contact with your beer either through introduction aboard something you stick in the beer (the racking cane and tube or the vessel you're racking to in this case) or just through the air.

No Worries

    Now that we know what can go wrong, how do we prevent it. Well, it's easy really. Just observe a couple of simple rules no matter what technique you choose.

    RULE 1: Everything must be sanitized. ::: Not cleaned - sanitized. This means StarSan or Iodophor (or, if you insist, bleach - but I really recommend that you quit bleach ASAP as off flavors are imminent.) Before racking, fill a bucket of your favorite sanitizer and stick your racking cane, hose, carboy caps in there. Also, don't forget to sterilize that target container thoroughly. Keep everything in the bucket up until the time when you have everything in place. When you remove your hose/cane assembly - don't throw the thing on the counter. I hang mine across the shower curtain rod at the curve in the cane so it touches nothing.

    RULE 2: No Splashing ::: To minimize chances of oxidation, you will need to reduce any agitation of splashing of your beer. This means that you will need to place the outlet of the racking tube below the level of beer in the lower container. Whether that involves making sure the tube is long enough or raising the lower container, make sure you do it.

    RULE 3: Sucking Sucks ::: The first several times I attempted to rack beer, I had no idea how to get the siphon started and quickly fell victim to just sucking the end of the siphon to get it started. You've all heard that the human mouth is about the dirtiest part of our bodies (bacteria wise.) So, in hindsight, this was not the greatest of practices. Later on, I started worrying at took up the practice of swishing vodka in my mouth before starting the siphon. I suppose that's better, but still not a great idea.
Later on, I somewhat got the idea of starting the siphon through filling the racking cane with water, plugging both ends, and quickly sticking it in place. The water falls the 'right' way with any luck and the siphon starts.
However the day I got the AutoSiphon (explained above) is the day all that nonsense ended. Seriously, get one.

Whatever method you choose, if you follow some simple rules, racking your beer will be simple, easy, and trouble-free.

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