Homebrew Tips: How to Rack - and why
Racking is a key process in home brewing and wine making. Your recipe may call for you to rack your brew once, twice and maybe even three times before bottling it. So how to rack in wine making and home brew is a handy thing to know about. And it is a very simple process.
What is Racking?
Racking is the process of gently transferring homemade wine, beer, cider or mead from one vessel to another, with the help of gravity.
What is the Purpose of Racking?
The reason we rack is to take the liquid off the sediment. Sediment at the bottom of a bucket or demijohn will vary in make up and quantity. It will include some of the fruit and vegetable particles if you used those, the remnants of any yeast nutrients that you added, plus a lot of dead yeast particles. Yeast reproduces during fermentation and, once it has finished fermenting, the whole lot will float to the bottom. The purpose of racking is to move the wine, beer, mead or cider away into a fresh, clean, sterile vessel, leaving the sediment behind.
Why do we need to Rack?
All that sediment on the bottom can lead to an off-taste if it is left for too long. It can also make it difficult for your brew to clear since every time you move (or even accidentally knock) the vessel, the sediment is disturbed again. Occasionally you will come across a white wine recipe that doesn't need racking, and kits generally don't need to be racked either. But most ciders, meads, wines and beers made from scratch usually do. We find we get quite a bit of sediment when we're making cider from apples, for example, whereas the kits don't produce much at all.
Racking should be a gentle process which, when done correctly, does not disturb the sediment too much as you transfer from one vessel to the other. You may need to do it twice or even three times to a wine as it clears, depending on the recipe.
Do I rack my brew when it is still fermenting?
No, you generally rack when the first main fermentation has finished. It is not a good idea to rack it when the fermentation is still going strong.
When you think your fermentation has finished and you rack the liquid into a second vessel, it may briefly start fermenting again which is absolutely fine.
Can I rack too often?
Yes you can. Every time you follow this process, you expose your brew to the air which may make it taste oxidised, and risk exposing it to bacteria and contamination which can spoil it completely. So don't be tempted to do this too often.
How to Rack
You will need
- The original vessel (from now I'm going to refer to this as a demijohn, you may be using something different) containing your wine, cider, mead or beer (and I'm going to refer to the contents as wine for the purposes of this post), with the sediment settled on the bottom.
- A second demijohn big enough to take all the contents of the first.
- A syphon tube - we recommend the Simple Syphon.
- Either a new bung and airlock, or be ready to clean and sterilise the existing one.
1. Clean and sterilise all the equipment you're going to use, including the inside of the syphon tube.
2. Gently move the demijohn containing the wine with sediment on to a high surface, such as a counter top or a chair.
3. Ensure the sediment is still at the bottom of the demijohn. If the sediment was disturbed, leave it for a bit before racking so it settles back down again.
4. Put the second, clean and sterile demijohn on the floor below the first. Or a chair, if that's below the first. Wherever you choose to put the second demijohn, it must be below the first. That is because we are using gravity to transfer the liquid. If they are not one below the other as outlined here, it won't work.
5. Remove the airlock and bung from the first demijohn and, if you are going to reuse them, wash and sterilise them.
6. Put the sediment trap end of the simple syphon gently down into the demijohn.
If you have a lot of sediment, you might want to secure the syphon in the top of the demijohn with pegs, as we did here. That minimises movement so the sediment isn't swirled around as you siphon the liquid off. We also do that when we're using the syphon for bottling.
7. Gently suck* the tubing end of the syphon until liquid starts travelling up the tube, then pop that end into the second demijohn. Be very quick or you may get a small spillage - we lay newspaper on the floor when we're doing these kinds of jobs as we tend to find spills inevitable. Or is that just us... ?
Your wine will start transferring into the second demijohn.
8. As the second demijohn starts getting full or when you start hitting the sediment in the bottom, whichever happens first, turn off the tap on the simple syphon to stop the flow. You are trying to strike a balance between not letting too much sediment into the second demijohn, but not having too big a gap in it either.
As a general rule it is better to get a bit of sediment in the second demijohn, rather than having a crystal clear second demijohn which is nowhere near full. What I sometimes do is put the sediment in the demijohn through a coffee filter to try to extract as much liquid as possible. It may be not be crystal clear, but it does fill the gap! The little sediment that gets in the second time will simply sink to the bottom.
If you end up with a large gap in the second demijohn between the surface of the liquid and the neck, you could top that up with bottled water, or grape juice, or sugar and water, or grape juice and water... you get the idea.
9. Finally, fit the sterilised bung and airlock into the second demijohn.
We put the sediment from the demijohn into the wormery. The worms love it!
* if you're not a sucking type person you can spend a little more on an automatic syphon which you pump instead! You can get 4.5 litre automatic syphons for use in a demijohn, or 23 litre automatic syphons for use in a bucket.
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