Racking (frustraticus transferius) is one of the most valuable skills the habitual homebrewer can possess. It is a very important part of the entire process, for the sake of beer clarity and flavor.
Simply put, racking is just a brewer’s term for transferring beer from one fermenter to another. This procedure is done to lift your beer off of the sediment formed during fermentation. That sediment can contribute some undesirable flavors, so it is really best if you can leave it behind.
Racking can be done using gravity (place the full vessel higher than the receiving vessel), a pump, or a siphon. The most common method in homebrewing — and one that will never fail you — is siphoning.
To rack beer using a siphon, all that’s really needed is a length of siphon hose. But there are a few other pieces that make the job much easier.
Racking cane: A racking cane is a rigid tube of plastic or metal (less frequently), about 24 to 30 inches long, with a bend in the top. It is attached to the inlet end of the siphon tube and makes it easy to direct liquid exactly where you want it to go.
Tubing (or hose) clamp: A tubing clamp is used to shut off the siphon tube.
Racking tube holder: Like a modified plastic clothespin, the racking tube (or hose) holder clips onto the neck or side of the fermenter and holds the racking tube in place.
These are the bare necessities for the easiest way to start your siphon.
The first step in racking is to sanitize the cane and tubing. An iodophor solution will work well with the plastic.
Attach your racking cane to one end of the tubing. Put your full fermenter on a counter, and place the cleaned empty fermenter on the floor or a low stool. If you have a dishwasher with a very strong door — able to hold a 50-pound carboy full of beer — you can use it as a lower counter. It’s wise to place a support, such as a block of wood, under the dishwasher door.
Cleanliness is important, so please do not attach your mouth and start sucking! The easiest way to start the transfer is to fill the flexible tube with clean water and clamp off the end. Then place the racking cane into the full fermenter and the other end of the hose into a sink or another container. Then release the clamp. The action of the water
flowing out of the tube will start the flow of beer up the cane and into the hose. Once the hose fills up with beer, shut off the clamp and put the hose into the clean fermenter.
Another important point to remember at this time is that you don’t want to introduce any oxygen into the beer. So put the lower end of the siphon tubing all the way to the bottom of the fermenter. This stops the beer from splashing into the new vessel.
Sometimes a little bubble will form where the racking cane is attached to the siphon tube. Just pinch that spot a little to slow it down, and the bubble will flow right out the end of the tube.
There you have it. All you have to do is keep the end of the racking tube submerged and siphon without splashing.
Advanced Siphon Gadgets
Beyond siphoning’s bare essentials there are many gadgets that have been invented over the years to make this an easier task.
Two-hole stopper: The simplest siphoning gadget is a stopper with two holes. Sounds simple, but it really works great. With the same racking setup, put your racking cane through one of the holes so it will almost reach the bottom of the vessel from which you are racking. Stick a short length of tubing out of the other hole. Put the stopper in the top of the racking-from carboy, and put the lower end of the siphon hose to the bottom of the racking-to fermenter. Now all you have to do is pump air or CO2 through the short length of tubing in the stopper, which will cause a pressure buildup inside the fermenter and “push” the beer up and out the racking cane and down into the other fermenter. No mess, no fuss!
If you are fortunate enough to have a carbon dioxide system, put no more than a pound of pressure into the short length of tube. Be very careful, however. Any more than a pound of pressure can shatter the carboy. If you don’t have access to CO2, you can use a hand pump or simply blow into the short end.
Auto-siphon: A new product, the auto-siphon is a racking cane that comes with a 1-inch diameter cylinder of the same length. This cylinder has a one-way valve at the bottom that allows beer to be drawn into the tube only as the racking cane is drawn out, similar to a syringe. When the racking cane is pushed back down into the tube, the beer is forced down the siphon tube. This is really easy!
Tip 1: If you find you need to practice siphoning, a great time to do it is when you are sanitizing the carboy you are going to transfer into. The easiest thing to do is to sanitize it and siphon the sanitizer out. This achieves two goals: you get practice on something that can’t be ruined, and your carboy and siphoning equipment will be clean and ready to use!
Tip 2: If you are having trouble with the end of your siphon tube curling around and splashing against the side of the fermenter, there is a simple cure. If you have a plastic bottle filler, remove the tip, which leaves you with a length of rigid plastic tube. Attach that tube to the siphon apparatus, and it should straighten out your problem.