Troubleshooting a Stuck Sparge

The flow of the sweet wort slows to a trickle and the start of the boil is pushed later and later into the day. When night falls, all your friends leave you high and dry with a stuck sparge and an empty soda keg. Such is the sad tale of the brewer whose run-off has mysteriously stopped. Fortunately, steps can be taken to avoid this fate.

Sparging is the step in all-grain or partial-mash brewing following starch conversion. The hot sweet wort sits in the lauter tun, intermingled with the grain particles. The purpose of running off the wort and then sparging what’s left in the lauter tun with hot water is to remove the sweet liquid and leave behind the spent grains. Often this relatively peaceful event, involving the flowing of sweet nectar from hearty grains, is disrupted by subversive equipment or ingredients.

Mash Tuns and Malts

There are several different models of lauter tuns on the market. They range from a mesh bag in a plastic bucket to a converted keg with a stainless steel false bottom. Most designs will not directly be responsible for any stuck run-offs.

However, the speed of the run-off will vary between models largely depending on the surface area of the false bottom. A larger surface area means a shallower grain bed. The sparge water will run through a shallow grain bed faster because it has to travel a shorter distance to reach the bottom.

If a homemade lauter tun is used, the holes of the false bottom should be about one-eighth inch in diameter. Anything smaller will slow down the flow; anything larger will allow too much solid material through, potentially clogging the spigot.

Insulated lauter tuns, such as picnic coolers, have the advantage of keeping the liquid hot. This will keep the sparge moving along more swiftly and efficiently, because the sugars will dissolve better and the wort will flow more easily at a higher temperature.

Even the best lauter tun will not perform without properly crushed malt. To avoid a stuck sparge, the bed of grain must be permeable to water. The husk of the malted barley is the structural component of the grain bed that allows the bed to stay permeable. Without the husk the grain bed can be likened to a pile of mud. Having no use for mud, most brewers try to preserve the husk during the milling process.

The standard corona flour mill tends to shatter the husk of the grain, often leading to stuck run-offs down the road. Roller mills keep the husk more intact while still crushing the grain effectively. A roller gap setting of 0.05 to 0.055 inch usually gives a good crush. If a roller mill is too expensive, a good homebrew shop will usually have one on hand for customers to use.

Brewers should also avoid overcrushing for fear of fines. After milling, crushed grains should contain intact husk pieces and small chunks of meal. Fines are the smallest particles produced from malt crushing and have the consistency of flour. Fines can form impermeable layers within the grain bed and impede flow.

Sometimes an all-barley-malt beer just doesn’t suit your favorite style. So you try other mash ingredients, such as flaked wheat in a cloudy Belgian wit beer, raw barley in an Irish stout, or malted wheat in a German weizen. Professional brewers call these adjuncts. When using adjuncts or malted wheat, which has no husk, the brewer must use caution to avoid a stuck sparge.

In traditional weizens, up to 70 percent of the grains might be wheat malt, but don’t think these brewers have an easy time of it. Lowering the quantity of wheat malt to 50 percent or less can relieve a sparging headache. Unmalted adjuncts, such as flaked wheat or oats, may be used cautiously at proportions up to 50 percent with a highly enzymatic malt such as six-row.

Unmalted adjuncts, such as barley or wheat flour, are typically problematic. Flaked or rolled grain is easier to handle than flour and is just as effective. Of all the adjunct grains brewers use, raw barley is infamous for causing the stuck run-off blues. One or two pounds of flaked barley in a five-gallon batch of Irish stout is more than enough to keep the leprechauns out of the lauter tun (and the wort stuck in it, with the run-off at a standstill).

Filter Aids

In the past brewers mixed chopped hay and oat husks into the mash to help filtration — often at the expense of beer flavor. Although this is no longer practiced, homebrewers have recently rediscovered mash filter aids in the form of barley husks and rice hulls. Rice hulls are the husk portion of the grain removed during processing.

Homebrewers can add one-half cup rice hulls or unmalted barley husks per pound of grain at mash-in when using wheat malt or a large portion of adjunct. The hulls or unmalted husks will play a similar roll in the filter bed as the malted barley husks, allowing for a smooth run-off. Whenever adjunct grains, wheat malt, or rice hulls are used, they should be mixed thoroughly with the malt. Mixing the crushed malt and the adjunct while they are dry ensures that no clumps of adjunct will block flow.

Water’s Role

While conducting the sparge it is important to make sure the water is at 168° F and stays at least that hot throughout the run-off.

The sparge water should not be alkaline, because this can cause proteins to coagulate and block drainage. Adjusting the pH of the sparge water to 5 to 5.5 will avoid this problem and decrease the extraction of harsh tannins from the grains.

The sparge water should be applied as needed to maintain an inch or so of water over the top of the entire bed. Don’t let the bed run dry. When all liquid is drawn off, the grains are pulled by gravity against the false bottom and the grain bed collapses. When the sparge water is poured over the collapsed grain bed, it will have a much harder time filtering through the densely packed grains. Besides causing the mash to stick, rehydrating the collapsed bed may result in the channeling of water within the bed. When the water flows through distinct channels, it fails to extract the sugars throughout the bed and decreases the original gravity of the beer.

Clogged Spigots

When it seems like everything was done right but the open lauter-tun spigot is still just dripping like a leaky faucet, it could be time for more extreme measures. At the start of the run-off, the spigot may become clogged with rogue grains that escaped past the false bottom. An easy way to solve this problem is simply to shut off the spout for a few seconds and open it. This will increase the pressure and help flush out the grains.

The more daring brewer might attach a piece of plastic hose to the end and try to suck the grains out. This is not recommended. If the brewer fails to remove the hose from his mouth when a visible flow starts at the top of the tube, many important taste buds will be burned to death.

Another good way of dealing with jammed spigots is underletting. Underletting is the practice of introducing hot water from beneath the false bottom. It is also a good way to float the grain bed off of the perforated plates when they clog or stick.

Homebrewers can underlet using a bucket with a plastic spigot on the bottom. Secure a plastic hose so that it connects the spigots of the lauter tun and the plastic bucket. Pour hot water (168° F) into the plastic bucket and open the spigots. When you lift the plastic bucket above the mash tun, gravity will force the hot water under the plates in the lauter tun, clearing out any clogs and resuspending the grain bed.

A Matter of Mash Mud

A stuck run-off may also be attributed to troubles with top dough or teig (German for “paste”). Teig is a layer of gray sludge caused by the accumulation of fines on the top of the grain bed during recirculation of wort and sparging. Teig, like fines and flour, is mash mud. However, it is not really a problem unless it builds up to a thick enough layer to keep water from passing through the bed.

If the teig builds up, the brewer may rake the top of the grain bed with a large fork or cut it across in lines an inch or so deep with a knife. This will allow water to bypass the teig and percolate down. Another way to keep the teig at bay is to not over-recirculate. Brewers recirculate a sparge to remove protein when their runnings are cloudy. Recirculating is time consuming and can build up a mighty teig. Set a time limit of 15 minutes or so for recirculation, and if the wort hasn’t cleared, move on. Most of the proteins causing the turbidity will precipitate with a vigorous boil.

The Last Resort

If all else fails, a brewer has little choice other than to stir the grain bed. This is not so bad considering that brewers who batch sparge do it as a rule. Add some extra sparge water so that the top of the bed is submerged by at least two inches, then stir up the bed with a spoon. The run-off may not be as clear as it is with an undisturbed bed, but at least a brew day isn’t wasted. Next time try to figure out why your sparge stopped flowing and keep changing parameters until you don’t have to resort to the spoon.

Sparging is the bottleneck of the brewing process. To a professional brewer a drawn-out sparge can make the difference between completing one or two brews in a day. Still, it is a slow process for a reason. Running off too fast can cause a suction from the bottom of the lauter. This may collapse the tiny passages through which the wort flows and result in a stuck mash. Furthermore, the sugars must be extracted by the hot water during the sparge. This takes time. The total sparge time should be at least 50 minutes for a five-gallon batch. Taking time to have a beer and hang out around the lauter tun is one of the many joys of homebrewing, particularly when everything is flowing well.

Issue: May 1997