racking homebrew

What Does Racking Mean in Homebrewing?

Racking is a term that is thrown around often in brewing circles, but those who are new to crafting beer may not be sure what it entails. When most people hear the word “racking,” they think of pool tables rather than beer.

In homebrewing, racking means to siphon beer from a primary container into a secondary fermenter so that the batch of beer is not sitting on the yeast. It helps develop off-flavors related to autolysis and set the beer up for fining agents and secondary ingredients added during secondary fermentation.

Racking is an integral part of the brewing process if you intend to implement fining agents and other chemical filtration techniques. Keep reading to learn more about the process of racking and why it is controversial in the world of homebrewing.

What Does Racking Mean in Homebrewing?

In homebrewing, when a beer is brewed in the primary fermenter, it leaves behind a cake of dead yeast sediment on the bottom of the container.

This sediment is harmless, but if the remaining yeast is left exposed to it long enough, it will begin to feed on the dead yeast in a chemical reaction known as autolysis.

This chemical reaction puts off rubbery or burnt-tasting flavors that can skunk a batch of beer with a resulting flavor known as yeast bite.

Racking is the process of removing the beer from its primary container (thus removing it from the yeast sediment) and moving it into a secondary fermenting container.

Racking involves the use of an airtight siphon to avoid exposing the beer to oxygen, as oxidization can also create off-flavors in beer.

What Equipment Does Racking Require? 

The supplies necessary to rack beer are:

  • The primary brewing container,
  • A siphon (with or without an in-line filter included)
  • A secondary fermenter.

Be aware that if mechanical filtration is used, this will remove enough of the yeast from the beer that bottle conditioning will not be possible, and unless the beer is force carbonated, it will be flat.

The best choice for a secondary container to use during the racking process is a glass carboy, as these containers are not oxygen permeable.

So, they are the best option for aging beer in the long-term over several weeks without going stale or spoiling.

Glass carboys are also useful because they’re clear, allowing the brewer to monitor the beer throughout the secondary fermentation process closely.

homebrewing racking

When is Racking Performed During a Homebrew?

It is vital that racking is not performed too early during the fermentation process, as the yeast will still be active, and you want them to remain active for as long as possible before the beer is moved to a secondary container.

Fermentation of the beer can be measured either by direct observation (the beer is done fermenting when it stops bubbling) or can be measured by a hydrometer

A hydrometer works by measuring the specific gravity of the brew.

Once the specific gravity remains consistent for several days in a row, the primary fermentation process has been completed, and the homebrew is at an optimal stage to be racked and moved to a secondary fermenter.

Waiting until fermentation is complete is necessary for the full development of flavors.

Why Rack and Age Your Beer at All?

You’ve learned why you don’t want to age and condition your beer in primary fermentation due to yeast bite, but why wouldn’t you want to just bottle it straight after fermentation?

The answer is that the secondary fermentation process results in a better-tasting beer, whereas beers that haven’t been aged can have a bitter or “green” taste to them.

The types of yeast used in lager beers require a long period in storage to process the more complex sugars that are found in these beers, while the types of yeast in ales do not benefit from this additional time in storage.

This means that ales don’t necessarily need to spend the same amount of time in secondary fermentation as lagers do.

Racking and Secondary Fermentation

Racking is an essential part of the process if you plan on moving your beer into a container for secondary fermentation.

Here are the reasons that racking and secondary fermentation are useful additions to the brewing process:

  • Racking prevents autolysis. It’s crucial to keep beer off of the yeast cake in the primary fermenter once it has stopped actively fermenting to prevent the development of any strong or yeasty flavors and odors.
  • Racking gets a beer out of the primary vat. If you want to do multiple batches of beer back to back, secondary fermentation helps free up your original brewing equipment by moving batches-in-progress to a secondary unit.
  • Racking provides an opportunity for adding fining agents and additives. Fining agents like isinglass or gelatin can be added during secondary fermentation to help scrub up any remaining yeast particulates and create a clearer, smoother beer.
  • Racking provides a point of mechanical filtration. If you rack between one keg and another with an in-line filter between them, it can introduce a secondary point of filtration other than chemical filtration to your clarification process.
  • Racking provides a chance to add additional ingredients. Ingredients such as fruit, sugars, or spices can be safely added during the racking and secondary fermentation process without the threat of either the fruit releasing too much pectin or the yeast interacting negatively with the new additions. Additions like this should be added as late in the brewing process as possible.
  • Racking to a secondary container for aging results in cleaner, brighter-looking beers. Even the haziest of beers will eventually settle out if left long enough in secondary, especially if exposed to lowered temperatures.
  • Racking lets you move your beer to an easily refrigerated container. Keeping beer cool during the post-fermentation process is crucial for helping any remaining suspended particulates drop out of the beer, so be sure to leave yourself plenty of fridge space after racking to store your carboy in the cold.
  • Racking allows you to split your batch into smaller glass containers that are easier to store. This is especially useful if you plan on giving away batches of beer or need to be able to fit containers into your refrigerators more easily.
  • Racking to a carboy allows the brewer to observe the beer more efficiently. Glass carboys are easier to monitor than plastic fermentation buckets.
  • Racking often throughout secondary fermentation allows you to slow down the fermentation process. This can let you retain sweetness in the resulting beer or manipulate alcohol volume.

There are a bunch of reasons why you might want to rack your beer. If you’re only siphoning the beer from one container to another and you’re not introducing mechanical filtration, there’s no reason you should have to bring forced carbonation into things either.

Racking your homebrew is one of the best ways to achieve the highest levels of clarity possible in your brew without having to depend on mechanical filtration techniques that might negatively impact flavor.

Racking and Fining

Some fining agents, such as Irish moss, can be added during the boiling point of the brewing process, but others, such as gelatin and isinglass, benefit from a chilled environment for the best possible filtration.

Racking a fermented beer, adding a fining agent, and then chilling the beer in the refrigerator will result in much more successful clarification than allowing the beer to stand at room temperature.

Once you have used a fining agent, beer can be racked again to remove more sediment that has settled out of the suspension in the brew.

Beer can be racked several times to improve clarity incrementally throughout the secondary fermentation process if efforts are made to reduce the brew’s exposure to oxygen in the process.

Racking and Dry Hopping

Racking is an integral part of the process known as dry hopping or double hopping, which involves adding hops to the beer during secondary fermentation to add back some of the hops flavors and aroma that are naturally boiled off during the fermentation process.

This is done by soaking hops in the beer during a period of secondary fermentation and aging. 

Unlike boiling hops, which adds a specific bitter note to IPA flavor profiles, dry hops that are added during secondary fermentation do not add bitterness to the resulting beer, only aroma and fresh hops flavor. This results in beers with a very hops-forward presentation.

Racking and Temperature

One of the significant benefits of racking is that it allows you to quickly move your batch of beer into a refrigerated setting for a cold crash.

While you might expect that cold crashing would remove almost all of the yeast from the beer (and it does), it also leaves enough yeast so that carbonation can be achieved naturally during bottle conditioning. This results in a beer that is as clear as you can get it without mechanical filtering.

Risks of Not Racking Your Homebrew

Racking isn’t a necessity for homebrewing, and many brewers deliberately skip the step.

But what are some risks of not racking your homebrew?

  • Your beer will end up with a yeasty or burned-rubber flavor from yeast autolysis. This could range from “weird top note” to “throw it out immediately” bad. Unless you keep a daily eye on your brew, you can easily miss the end of the fermentation process and give your beer the chance to go yeasty.
  • You won’t have the chance to add a secondary fining agent. If you’re developing an English IPA or some other type of beer where cloudiness or haze isn’t a factor, this isn’t a problem. But if you want a crystal-clear lager, you’ve got to use secondary fining to achieve it.
  • You won’t have another good window of opportunity to add fruit or other additives. If you add fruit in straight after a boil in the primary fermenter, you risk the fruit releasing pectins and turning the brew cloudy. Again, if you don’t mind the haze, this isn’t an issue, but a large part of the point of racking is to introduce further points of clarification.
  • Your beer may end up exposed to oxygen. The plastic fermentation buckets used to brew beer are not completely airtight, and this can lead to the onset of stale flavors and aromas in the brew. Once a beer’s primary fermentation is complete, it should ideally be moved to glass.

While racking does increase the amount of work and equipment necessary in the brewing process, the reward of brighter, better-tasting beer is well worth the effort for many brewers.

Risks of Racking Your Homebrew

Racking homebrew is often considered ideal, especially for lagers and other beers that require a long secondary fermentation process for full flavor.

Still, there are also some drawbacks and risks associated with racking homebrew.

Here are some of the issues involved:

  • Oxidation: Like leaving your brew alone in the primary fermentation bucket, siphoning your beer off into a carboy can potentially introduce oxygen to your beer if it isn’t done correctly. Most racking equipment is designed to be airtight and prevent as little exposure to oxygen as possible during the racking process. However, it should be noted that more oxidation occurs in the primary fermentation container than in the process of racking.
  • Beer loss: The process of siphoning beer from one container to another can result in the loss of some beer if you’re not experienced at doing it. This is a drawback of racking that decreases the longer you continue to do it and the more comfortable you get with the process.
  • Loss of space: Racking homebrew into a secondary container to age and store can take up a lot of extra room, especially if you do it in a fridge and even more so if you chill and age large batches of beer. You may end up requiring extra refrigerators to properly chill your beer during secondary fermentation, which isn’t a feasible option for everyone.
  • Loss of time: There’s no doubt about it; the process of racking and secondary fermentation takes more time than just conditioning and bottling as soon as the primary fermentation is complete. If you’re an impatient person, you may not have the patience to sit through a few extra weeks of aging.
  • More stuff to clean: Racking does involve the use of more equipment such as carboys and siphons that have to not only be rinsed out but also sanitized to prevent the introduction of bacteria to the brew. For some households, having one more thing to clean up just isn’t an option.

Racking homebrews can be a great way to add clarity and a fuller flavor to your beer, but it is also a trade-off in the amount of work you have to put in, the amount of equipment you have to invest in, and the amount of time that the batch of beer ultimately takes until it’s ready to bottle.

However, there are some significant benefits to aging beer with a sense of patience. While it can be tempting to bottle up your first homebrew beer as quickly as humanly possible, you will be rewarded with a richer flavor by making an effort to rack and perform a secondary fermentation.

Tips for a Successful Racking

When it comes to racking your homebrew, there are a few methods you can use to make the process go a little easier. Here are some tips to make things go more smoothly when it comes time to rack the beer: 

  • Don’t forget to use a sediment tip. The sediment tip on your siphon is what prevents the sediment in the dregs from being taken up into the new fermenting container. This is a significant point of racking—to move beer from one container to another while leaving particulates and sediment behind.
  • Don’t let the beer splash. Remember, you’re trying to avoid as much oxygen exposure with your beer as possible, so you want to reduce the surface area that is exposed to air during the racking process. Be sure to siphon beer directly into the bottom of your secondary fermenter.
  • Make sure that beer is wholly fermented before bottling. Bottling beer prematurely can lead to overly carbonated beers or even beers that explode in the bottle from the pressure of carbon dioxide build-up.

If you take your time and have all of the proper equipment sanitized and ready to go, racking your beer doesn’t add a lot of work to the homebrewing process.

Racking Isn’t Necessary for Homebrewing, But It’s Useful

In some brewing cases, racking is a step in the process that can be safely skipped without ruining the resulting beer.

But as a refining technique, racking can allow brewers to both create complex flavors through the use of additives as well as achieve a higher level of clarity and smooth flavor without mechanical filtration.

Because it only involves a few more supplies than regular homebrewing, racking is a skill that is useful for both novice and veteran brewers to master.

While it might not be necessary for more rudimentary beers, racking can provide a way for brewers to manipulate the flavors, aromas, colors, and appearance of more complicated batches.

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