To rack or not to rack… (to secondary)

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.

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Why I brew beer and make wine

The big push to get me started on making wine and eventually beer was listening to Jack Spirko on The Survival Podcast.  Jack covered in a couple of separate episodes the basics on brewing beer, and some of his personal recipes.  He had also talking about making honey wine or mead.  My good friend’s father had some old beer making equipment he had not used in years, and said that I could have it as long as I used it… and boy have I put it to good use.

I started off making mead.  Dissolve some honey in water, add some yeast, and let it go until it stops bubbling.  Piece of cake… really… that’s all there is to it.  I thought it turned out pretty good… it was a bit rough on the flavors, but I was so excited about the drink I had just created, it didn’t last but a month.  As it turns out, like red wine, mead doesn’t really come into it’s own until about two years, upwards of 5-10 years.  I now plan to make some about every 6 months, so that I have enough in rotation to be at it’s drinking best.  This is now made possible by the fact that I brew beer too.

I started brewing the beer (which was really my intention from the start) just under a year ago.  I bought an ingredient kit from a local shop and followed the instructions on the half page of paper that came with the kit.  I had already purchased a book about brewing over a year prior, How to Brew by John Palmer.  I hadn’t scanned the book much before I had started, so as I cleaned up from making the first batch, I grabbed the book and started reading.  The first thing Palmer suggests you do when you buy a kit is to throw away the instructions… DOH!  Artists don’t just start with all of the techniques required to do their best work, they work at their trade and hone their skills.  Making beer is the same way, you can’t just learn everything you need to now from half a page of paper.

Like many hobbies I have picked up over the past couple of years; gardening, cycling, the shooting sports, I tend to get pretty heavy into the extensive knowledge of others who know the subject.  With brewing, I have now ready several books.  I listen to several podcasts that special in brewing.  I have started growing my own hops.  So, not only do I get the satisfaction of enjoying something that was created from my brain and by the labor of my hands, I also get to enjoy many of the “micro-brew” styles of beer that would cost you $5.00-$10.00 each at a bar… for a little more then a quarter apiece.

As I had mentioned yesterday, part of the whole process is a bit of a mediation for me.  I work on and envision what will be created in my mind before I create it.  I focus myself.  I try to envision the tastes.  I clear my mind and stop worrying about things I don’t have any control over.  And then… I get to drink the product of my labor… how cool is that?

If you have never made something and shared it with someone, I would recommend it.  The look on someone’s face when you hand them a beer and tell them that it is homebrew… priceless.  That is a bit of happiness.

So, why do I brew?  Hmmm… ahhhh…. that taste right there.