This is another one of those age old questions, do you want cheese on your burger, do you want a rare or a medium steak, do you rack your beer to secondary? There are arguments for and against. So, which I do prefer?
I have been brewing beer for one year, almost exactly. In that time I have brewed nine batches of beer, with number 10 coming this Sunday. There is one thing that all of these different beers, from California Common to a Double IPA to an Imperial Oatmeal Stout to a 12% Belgian Strong Ale, aside from using malted barley, yeast, and hops, I have racked every batch into a secondary fermentation. For the non homebrewers out there, racking is the process of siphoning liquid from one vessel to another. The idea is that you move the beer off of the spent yeast and other particles that have settled out, to give you a “clearer” brew.
Some believe that unless you are making a high gravity beer, alcohol percent over 8, that you do not need to take this step. They argue that the additional contact with airborne wild yeast and bacteria, the chance of an infection getting into your beer is greatly increased. The idea behind racking a high gravity beer is to remove the dead yeast cells and other left overs from the fermentation so as not to leave any off flavors behind in the beer. Higher alcohol liquids are a very harsh environment, this is the reason alcohol is used to extract essences of herbs… IE vanilla. Over the past year, there have been several podcasts that have addressed this topic. Some argue that the flavor is even better in beer that has not been racked to secondary. To this, I cannot speak, as I have never excluded this step.
One additional situation where racking a beer to secondary is a good idea, is when you “dry hop” a beer. Dry hoping is a technique that was derived from the long trip the English supplies used to take in the colonial days to get from England to India. The beer was spoiling before it could be delivered. So, the brewers started loading up the barrels with hops to help “preserve” the beer for the trip. Dry hopping creates a rather citrusy, floral character in the beer that the soldiers became quite fond of… and the rest is history. The idea is that you want to remove your beer from the left overs from fermentation so that they do not interfere with the character derived from the hops.
Personally, I like to transfer into a secondary. At this time, I only bottle my beer, I do not use kegs. I know many who keg that do not rack into a secondary, the act of transferring into a keg… actually is a secondary, of sorts, so… it is a bit redundant. I feel that the concern of contamination is virtually eliminated with good sanitation practices. So… for me, I will rack and produce a clearer beer.