Transferring liquid from one vessel to another is an unavoidable procedure by today’s methods of homebrewing. At least once during the process you will need to safely move liquid — whether wort and/or beer — from one place to another. In the beermaking world, this is known as racking.
There are a few ways to rack beer, but in homebrewing perhaps the easiest, most efficient and most sanitary way is by use of an auto-siphon.
What is an Auto-Siphon?
An auto-siphon is a simple piece of equipment that many would say is worth its weight in gold (for the sake of that, we’ll pretend like the auto-siphon isn’t lightweight). It consists of a racking cane with tubing on one end, with the other end housed within a racking tube. The racking tube will typically have a filter of some kind to block out unwanted particles and the racking cane will have a rubber grommet that allows easy movement within the tube without letting air by — very basic, yet very effective.
The auto-siphon takes the concept of a normal siphon, which utilizes atmospheric pressure and gravity to its advantage, and adds automation by allowing you to start the whole process without having to create a vacuum by “old school” means, like sucking on one end to get things flowing. In fact, that method is a terrible way to go about it as the bacteria in your mouth will undoubtedly contaminate the wort/beer as it flows through. With an auto-siphon, getting things started is even easier and much more sanitary.
How to Use an Auto-Siphon
Using an auto-siphon is a relatively basic step in the grand scheme of beermaking, but do it incorrectly and it could hurt more than it helps. First, make sure that the vessel from which you wish to rack is at an elevated position, such as a table or countertop. If this vessel is a fermenter, you should carefully move it at least 24 hours prior to racking to allow any sediment that may have been re-suspended during the move to settle back down to the bottom. Next, place the sanitized vessel in which you plan to rack the liquid nearby, but at a lower elevation. This is important in allowing gravity to do its job.
Now, take your auto-siphon and properly sanitize it by placing it in a bucket of sanitizer. A primary fermenter is a great choice! Make sure that you get as much of the tubing as possible immersed in the solution, and any part of the racking cane and tube that will come in contact with the wort/beer. Pump the racking cane continuously for no less than 30 seconds, allowing the sanitizer to flow freely throughout the entire assembly. Then lift the siphon out of the solution and pump it a few more times to clear out all of the liquid.
Then, place the tubing into the vessel that you’re transferring to until the tube outlet comes in contact with the bottom of the vessel. Gently place the racking assembly into the vessel from which you are transferring and give the racking cane a few good pumps while holding the racking tube. This will create the vacuum necessary to initially move liquid from the higher atmospheric pressure environment to the lower atmospheric pressure environment—or the elevated vessel up the racking cane and down through the tubing.
Once the flow starts let gravity do the rest, but don’t get too careless. It’s important to keep the racking assembly upright and the tip fully submerged within the liquid to avoid creating air bubbles in the line. You also want to avoid submerging the racking tube’s tip in the sediment bed of a fermenter, otherwise known as the “trub”. After one transfer, you’ll quickly realize how easy the auto-siphon makes the whole process.
Avoiding a Post-Fermentation Abomination
What many budding brewers fail to learn (or simply overlook) is that after fermentation has taken place, it is imperative that you do not introduce oxygen into the beer. Doing so will create a higher potential for infection which will ultimately lower the overall quality of your beer. Seems silly to put all that effort into every other step to throw it all away on something as simple as racking, right?
While splashing is acceptable when moving wort from a brew kettle to a primary fermenter the opposite is necessary for racking your beer from a primary fermenter to a secondary fermenter. It’s crazy to think that the way you transfer your beer can have an effect on flavor, but the fact is that it can. An auto-siphon greatly assists you in avoiding unwanted splashing to produce a final product of much higher quality.
Driving forces for an auto-siphon’s operation are atmospheric pressure and gravity and also happen to be two things that you cannot control, so it’s important to use the auto-siphon to your advantage. If you’ve never used a siphon before, let alone an auto-siphon, practice with water before you actually dive into transferring your precious beer. While auto-siphons make the process much easier, using one can still take some getting used to at first.
Many quality homebrew equipment kits include an auto-siphon, so if you’re in the market for a new kit, double-check that it has one. Also, be sure that it’s actually an auto-siphon and not just a “racking kit”, which only contains a racking cane and tubing without the racking tube. And if you’ve been racking with a basic racking kit or say, a carboy cap and tubing, it’s time you step your homebrewing up and upgrade to an auto-siphon.