Should you rack your beer to a secondary fermentor after primary fermentation is complete? When is it appropriate to rack to secondary? How long can you leave beer in a fermentor on the yeast cake before all hell breaks loose?
These questions are commonly asked, and there are people in both camps, but one of the camps is wrong. Traditional homebrewing literature posits that racking to secondary is vital if you wish to make the best possible homebrewed beer. Modern techniques and ingredients suggests that racking to secondary is a practice of the past, with an asterisk.
If you don’t want to read a bunch of text, stop after this paragraph. John Palmer, author of the seminal How to Brew, espoused the need to rack to a secondary fermentation vessel. In subsequent revisions of his book and in current conversations, he believes racking to secondary is rarely necessary (and wishes people would just buy his new revision rather than using the free first edition online to get old information). The only time racking to a secondary is advised is when actually performing a secondary fermentation (e.g. when adding fruit or souring the beer).
Quick review of racking to secondary: This is the practice of siphoning or otherwise transferring finished beer out of the primary fermentation vessel into a new one. It was done to allow the beer to condition and prevent autolysis (and its associated off-flavors) in the process. Autolysis is most likely to occur if the brewer uses unhealthy yeast or does not pitch enough yeast for the batch.
What are the risks associated with transferring to a secondary vessel? The two main risks are oxidation and infection. Oxidation can occur due to oxygen exposure during the transfer, which will cause the beer to stale sooner (as will warmer storage conditions, but that is not part of this discussion). You can mitigate oxidation by ensuring that the siphon does not get bubbles in it and that you prevent splashing during the transfer. Infection can come from a number of directions, but can be avoided with relative confidence with good sanitation practices (which you should already have), and isn’t a significant risk anyway given the alcohol content in the beer being transferred.
The alternative to racking to secondary is leaving the beer in the primary fermentor until you bottle or keg. What has changed since traditional homebrewing literature advised racking to secondary? Two main things have changed.
First, the yeast we have access to is worlds better than it used to be. There are multiple excellent sources for great yeast. In fact, it’s the same stuff that actual breweries use. Because we have access to healthy, viable yeast, we don’t have to worry much about autolysis.
The second factor is knowledge. We now know what proper pitching rates are for different gravities of wort. Since we know how much we need to pitch (and how to handle yeast), we can avoid the risk of autolysis by pitching at a proper rate (often a vial of White Labs or packet of Wyeast is enough for a standard/low gravity wort, but creating a starter is often advised for higher gravities or if you are obsessive like me).
It is now safe when utilizing healthy yeast a proper pitching rates to leave your beer on the yeast cake for several weeks, and even up to a couple of months in my experience. Leave it in your primary fermentor and it will condition properly, cleaning up acetaldehyde and diacetyl. Don’t risk oxidation and infection for no reason! This applies both to ales and lagers.
As I mentioned before, racking to secondary is sometimes necessary. However, it is only necessary when a secondary fermentation takes place. The two most common examples would be adding fruit (due to the sugars in the fruit) or souring the beer intentionally. The only other time I do it is if I want to free up my primary fermentor for a new beer.
Some of those who are firmly planted in the secondary camp also believe that the clarity of the beer is improved in a secondary vessel or that tradition is worth preserving. People who like to rack to secondary, keep doing what you’re doing. The clarity argument might be true, but I don’t feel the risk of oxidation or effort involved are worth it, and I cold crash my beer for a week before bottling anyway, which completely negates that benefit in my process.
Final words: White Labs, Wyeast, John Palmer (author of How to Brew), and Jamil Zainasheff (author of Yeast) all recommend against racking to secondary. They are all more experienced and knowledgeable than we are; listen to them.
Incredibly Short Version: I brewed in a bag for about a year (2010-2011), then switched to a more traditional homebrewing method and have never looked back.
- Cleaning the fine mesh is something I never successfully mastered.
- You will invariably end up with some grain in the boil, not matter how fine the mesh, leading to barely-detectable undesirable flavors (I never felt I could achieve quite the best possible beer with BIAB).
- To really refine the process, you have to build a method to hoist the grains above the kettle to let them drip, which defeats some of the purpose of BIAB (lean and mean).
- There is (or at least was when I did it) a small chance that the fine mesh will tear under the weight of the grain and wort, resulting in Bad Things That Suck (a big load of grain in your kettle–hope you have backup bags to strain through).
I did Brew in a Bag (BIAB) throughout all of 2010, which equates to ~15 batches. Here’s a none-too-brief description of my journey and why I stopped brewing in a bag.
I lived in a small apartment on the fourth floor with a wooden balcony. I wanted–nay, needed–to brew all grain in a confined space, and my stove just wasn’t cutting it (nor could I use propane on that balcony).
So I got turned onto two things at once. First was using an electric turkey fryer to heat up my mash water and boil my wort. Way back in… 2010… electric heating elements were not really a thing in homebrewing, so they were hard to find and most would scorch the crap out of your wort if you tried to use them.
The second was an all-grain brewing method that was picking up steam in Australia (I was in Massachusetts, as an aside), and that sounded great. Get a fine mesh bag of a size that no homebrew places carried and I could just mash right in my turkey fryer, pull the bag out, let it drip for a while as I heated up to a boil, and I’d be golden.
Long story short, it mostly worked. Not at first, but after I reduced my batch size to ~3.5 gallons, doubled up on the mesh bags I made for myself (because one of them broke and pretty much ruined the whole experience), added Reflectix to stabilize my mash temperatures, and generally refined my process, I was successfully brewing very good beers in a bag.
Then I moved.
I got a house, I had a deck, I was happy. So I got a propane burner and a kettle. I started pricing out parts to rig up a system to hold my bag for me to let it drip and method by which to filter the bits of grain that would always go through the bag. I previously resigned myself to just buying craptons of bags because I never found a way to clean them as thoroughly as I liked, and then…
I realized that the cost and process would be just as expensive, arduous, and space-taking as going more traditional (in a homebrew sense) if I wanted to meet my need (in my mind) for the best possible beer.
So I went more traditional. I stopped BIAB.
And I have never looked back.
Brewing with a discreet mash tun and boil kettle is no harder than brewing in a bag for me, and clean-up seems to be simpler for my process. I get more predictable results and have decided that it’s the way I like to brew.
BIAB is great in certain situations, and it’s an awesome way to get started with all-grain brewing (especially in small batches) without a significant monetary commitment.
If you love it and your process works for you, awesome. For me, maybe I’ll mess with it again some day now that homebrew shops support the practice, but I like brewing the way I do now.
Interested in Brew in a Bag (BIAB)? Here are some places that can get you started.
- BeerSmith BIAB Article – A succinct breakdown of the process.
- Brewer’s Friend BIAB – Probably the first place I found a good description of BIAB.
- HomeBrew Academy BIAB Review – A solid description of his first impressions.
- HomeBrewTalk’s BIAB Forum – Very active discussion about BIAB.
- BIABrew.info – A forum dedicated to Brew in a Bag brewing.
This is a super clean, crisp, hop flavor-forward but balanced pale ale. It is relatively bready for a pale ale, but it dries out nicely on the back of the tongue. It is essentially an American Pale Ale but uses quite a few German ingredients for the grist. The ingredients I’m listing are for a 5 gallon all-grain batch.
- Pale Malt (8 lbs)
- Carahell (8 oz)
- Caramunich I (8 oz)
- Munich I (8 oz)
- Biscuit Malt (8 oz)
- Hops: Magnum (Bittering), 0.5 oz each Cascade and Centennial at 20 mins and 0 mins
- Yeast: California Ale
- Water: Balanced Chloride/Sulfate Ratio, moderate Sodium for roundness
- Original Gravity: 1.052
- Final Gravity: 1.011
- Color: 9 SRM
- Bitterness: 35 IBU
- Alcohol: 5.4%
- Carbonation: 2.5 Vols
I like to ferment this at 68°F for ~2 weeks, then I ease it down to the low 30s over the course of a week.
Some people have requested that I post a calculator for the BU:RE ratio. This uses degrees Plato instead of Specific Gravity. If you don’t work in degrees Plato and don’t know how to convert from Specific Gravity, here’s a quick formula you’ll need to know:
degrees Plato = Specific Gravity / 4
To briefly describe what BU:RE does you, it is roughly a 10 point scale that helps estimate beer balance (with 5 being balanced, 10 being very bitter, and 1 being very sweet). It takes into account the bitterness of a beer (in IBUs) as well as Real Extract (in degrees Plato, which is calculated for you via the Original Gravity and Final Gravity inputs). While it can’t account for X factors like roasted malts and water composition, it goes a long way toward quantifying balance and is my current favorite method for calculating it.
BU:RE = IBU / ((0.1808 * OG °P) + (0.8192 * FG °P))
If you’d like to compare your beer against a style, here’s a large spreadsheet with all the BJCP style data you’ll need (including a column for the average BU:RE of the style). Beer Style Data (Google Docs)
I have a new calculation that I’ve been using when determining the expected balance of my beer recipes. It is a child of the commonly-used Bitterness Ratio (BU:GU), and the numbers output can be read in the same way as BU:GU. However, the one thing that is taken into account with the Relative Bitterness Ratio (RBR) that BU:GU does not account for is Apparent Attenuation (ADF).
The higher the degree of Apparent Attenuation (ADF), the more fermentable sugars are consumed and the less residual sweetness is left behind. That means that as ADF gets higher, beer balance tends more toward the bitter end of the scale. As ADF gets lower, beer balance tends more toward the sweet end of the scale.
For example: A beer that starts out at an OG of 1.050 at 25 IBU would be said to have a Bitterness Ratio of 0.5. If it were split into two batches and one had an apparent attenuation of 80% (Beer A), while another had an apparent attenuation of 60% (Beer B), Beer A would be perceived to be more bitter than Beer B, as the latter has considerably more residual sweetness.
In the pages linked below, you can find out a plethora of information explaining details about the Relative Bitterness Ratio (RBR). If you aren’t interested in the details, I’ve included the formula for figuring out RBR as well as a simple calculator if you just want to input some numbers and get results.
To quickly explain the formula:
RBR = Relative Bitterness Ratio. ADF = Apparent Attenuation. 0.7655 is the average ADF of all beer styles. Since the Relative Bitterness Ratio takes into account balance relative to all beer styles, it uses this as a constant. You are comparing your beer’s ADF against the average ADF (0.7655), then adjusting the standard Bitterness Ratio accordingly (it goes up if your ADF is higher than average, down if your ADF is lower than average). Just like BU:GU, higher numbers mean more bitter, lower numbers mean less bitter, and 0.5 is roughly average balance.
RBR = (BU:GU) x (1 + (ADF - 0.7655))
- Relative Bitterness Ratio (RBR): A fairly detailed explanation of Relative Bitterness Ratio.
- Beer Style Data: The underlying data used for these charts plus all other style data from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines.
- Bitterness Ratios (Chart): The average bitterness ratio for every beer style with relevant data.
- Relative Bitterness Ratios (Chart): The average Relative Bittneress Ratio for every beer style with relevant data, corrected for attenutation.
- Balance Rank: The balance of beers relative to each other, with BU:GU lined up next to RBR.
- Relative Bitterness Calculator: A simple web-based calculator to calculate RBR using BU:GU and Apparent Attenuation.
- Beer Style Data (Google Docs): This is a link to all of this data over at Google Docs
- Mad Alchemist: The author’s (Ryan Shwayder) homebrew website.
- External Resources:
- 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines: The official 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines can all be found here. This is where the numbers came from.
- Balancing Your Beer with the Bitterness Ratio: This is from Brad Smith at BeerSmith. It explains how to get the BU:GU ratio in the first place.
- BeerSmith: My favorite brewing software. Free trial, but you have to pay for the full version. It’s worth it.
- Brewtarget: The best free brewing software I’m aware of. Not as comprehensive as BeerSmith, but gets the job done for many.
What’s the Perfectly Average Beer? Well, it’s all of the averages from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines in one beer. I was surprised after entering all of the data that the average beer is roughly what I would expect an average beer to look like. For example, the average bitterness ratio (BU:GU) is almost exactly 0.5, which I’ve always considered perfectly balanced for most malt bills.
Want the short version? The Perfectly Average Beer looks like this:
- ABV: 5.8%
- IBU: 28.6
- SRM: 14
- OG: 1.058
- FG: 1.013
- Bitterness Ratio: 0.5
Want some more details? I’m happy to oblige!
|Alcohol By Volume||ABV Low: 4.95%||ABV High: 6.71%||ABV Avg: 5.83%|
|Bitterness||IBU Low: 20.68||IBU High: 36.51||IBU Avg: 28.60|
|Color||SRM Low: 10.07||SRM High: 17.97||SRM Avg: 14.02|
|Original Gravity||OG Low: 1.050||OG High: 1.065||OG Avg: 1.058|
|Final Gravity||FG Low: 1.009||FG High: 1.016||FG Avg: 1.013|
|Attenuation||Apparent Atten Avg: 76.55%||Real Atten Avg: 62.71%|
|Bitterness Ratio||IBU/OG Avg: 0.496|
Want even MORE? Well, you’ll have to wait. I’m working up another post about beer balance and how attenuation figures into it, and I have a massive chart of all the style guidelines I’ll link at that time. Until then, enjoy knowing what the Perfectly Average Beer looks like.
I moved to Rhode Island last year and have been on the lookout for a great homebrew shop ever since. Massachusetts had a couple decent ones, but nothing compared to what I’m used to from Colorado.
I saw on RIFT (Rhode Island Fermentation Technicians homebrew club) that this opened up in Wyoming, RI, and decided to check it out. I’m pretty particular about my homebrew shops being an advanced all-grain armchair brew scientist.
What a pleasant surprise!
This is the cleanest homebrew shop I’ve ever been in. It’s neatly organized, and the location is great (just off 95 in a nice part of town, unlike many homebrew shops where you double-check that your doors are locked).
The folks who run the place are friendly and knowledgeable. You can even send them your recipe the day before you go and they’ll put all the grains together and crush them for yo. Or, you can go and grab exactly how much you need from bins rather than having to buy grain 1 lb at a time (or formulate a recipe on-the-spot with the staff).
The selection is quite good. They have most of the Weyermann malts along with several from Muntons and some special malts like Special B, Honey Malt, and Victory. Lots of adjuncts like candi sugar and vanilla beans alongside just about any of the additives you could need. I also found the Platinum Strain yeast from White Labs I was looking for, and they even carry some local hops, which is very cool.
This is the best homebrew shop in Rhode Island, bar none–I’ve been to all of them in my search, and this absolutely leaves the rest in the dust.
If you live in Rhode Island or eastern Connecticut, check out Craft Brews Supplies and you won’t be disappointed. This is now my official LHBS.
Who doesn’t like charts? I decided to dig around for a while to see if anyone had made charts based on beer style guidelines and, if I couldn’t find anyway, I was going to make some myself. Well, someone else did it for me! Over at Lug Wrench Brewing, they created a series of charts about bitterness, alcohol, yeast, etc. A lot of useful stuff over there.
Perhaps my favorite one is the IBU to OG ratio chart, since I use the same information to balance my beers and this is a nice visual representation. Another chart I often look at is John Palmer’s age-old style spectrum, which compares malty vs. fruity and bitter vs. sweet in one chart. Another cool one is a motion chart of various BJCP guidelines made by the StrangeBrew.ca guy.
I might still make some sweet charts. If so, you’ll know.
I recently found a website/smartphone app called Pintley. Essentially, you rate beers you’ve had and it gives you recommendations based on your taste. It’s a great idea and the site is very well-executed, so I’m very hopeful that it’ll catch on and I’ll start discovering new beers through the tool. Sign up for Pintley!