Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ditch the Siphon: This is a Better Way

One task of homebrewing that I really dislike is siphoning. There are guys who don't think starting a siphon is any big deal; they wonder why I have a problem. Well I don't know why I have a problem with it, but I do.

A siphon, of course, uses a tube and gravity to transfer a liquid from one container to another. Set one container lower than the other, get the liquid started running through the tube, and gravity will do the rest of the work to empty the higher container. In brewing, you normally using a curved piece of rigid tubing (either plastic or stainless steel) called a racking cane, to reach down to the bottom of your fermenter. Then you attach a piece of flexible tubing to the racking cane, start the siphon, and direct the beer into whatever second container you want.

But that's the problem--starting the siphon. In a brewing environment you have to maintain strict sanitary conditions, or your beer will get infected and taste nasty. I once thought I could "get away with" taking a sample from a beer that was aging in my cellar using an unsanitized turkey baster. It looked clean enough. I just dipped the tip of the baster in, took the sample, and recapped the beer. But over the next few weeks, a white scum started to grow, creeping out until the whole surface was covered. By the time I dared try it, the batch had turned distinctly sour. I fed all five gallons to a hog that we butchered a week later for our annual Harvest Fest (at least his last days were happy.) Yes, you must sanitize everything that will come in contact with your beer. You will pay for your shortcuts in both dollars and disappointment.

Another big key to making good beer is to be sure that you do not, repeat, do not get oxygen into your beer after it has fermented. This was a big problem for me when I first started brewing. Some of my early batches tasted fine when they first went into the bottle. But about three weeks later they developed a strong, sherry-cardboard taste. I was not siphoning carefully enough and the splashing was incorporating oxygen into my finished beer.

So it can be tricky to start a siphon without infecting or oxygenating the beer. Some guys just suck on the tube; I've done this too and never had a problem, but obviously it's not sanitary and I'm just waiting to get an infected batch from this. Some guys fill the siphon tubing with water, attach it to the racking cane, and let that initial outrush of water start the siphon. That has only worked about 33% of the time for me, which is why I've ended up sucking on the tubing the other 67%. Another way that works well for me when using a glass carboy to ferment the beer is to use a carboy cap with two holes; the racking cane goes into one and you blow into the other to start the siphon. Works like a champ. Finally, some folks use an auto-siphon. You just give it a pump and the siphon starts automagically. I'm sure this works just fine.

But I have found a Better Way. Last night I transferred the all-Amarillo amber ale that I mentioned in a previous posting from the fermenters into kegs using the invert tube backnut and spigot from Williams Brewing.

If you ferment in plastic buckets, as I am doing more and more, you just drill a hole in the bucket, install the spigot and backnut which then sits just above the yeast and trub that settles out of your beer when it's done fermenting. To transfer your beer into a keg or bottling bucket, just sanitize a piece of tubing, squirt some sanitizer up into the spigot, attach the tubing, turn the handle, and Presto! your beer runs effortlessly into your keg. No messing around with siphons. As I've mentioned before, between a family of six, a full time job, a farm, and church responsibilities I'm trying to optimize my brewing set-up for speed. This is another nice notch up for me.

And oh, by the way, the All Amarillo Amber Ale is Awesome!

À votre santé!


Kevin said...

Siphoning was kind of a pain for me before I got an auto-siphon, but I've been relatively happy with that. Sure, it still takes a bit of time, but the entire thing can be sanitised, and you don't have to stand there and hold it while it siphons: you can go do other things.

I've pondered the use of a spigot. I have one in my new brew-pot for getting the wort from the stove into the primary. But after that, I have concerns. How can you be sure that you are really sanitizing the whole spigot by squirting the sanitizer up into the mouth of the spigot? It seems like this is asking for trouble.

One idea might be to sanitize the bucket and spigot before use, by running sanitizer through the spigot. Then, immediately attach some kind of plastic bag to the spigot. You could use a ziplock bag and just rubber-band it tightly to the spigot so no air can get through. If your hands are clean, and you sanitize the bag and rubber band, this could help.

Here's a radical idea: find a small container a few inches deep and wide enough that you can set the bucket down into it. Fill that space with sanitizer and let the spigot stay submerged the whole time. Too extreme?

Anyway, I'm just thinking out loud. Squirting a bit of sanitizer up into the spigot sounds like asking for trouble, though.

ThePalmHQ said...

Thanks for your comments, Kevin. I hear where you're coming from, so let me fill in a few details.

Before I put the wort into the bucket I disassemble the spigot assembly, O-rings, and backnut and let them soak in sanitizer (I use StarSan and I'm totally sold on the product.) Then I sanitize the bucket with StarSan. Then I put on a pair of rubber gloves and sanitize them by holding the fingers in the StarSan solution. Then I reassemble the sanitized spigot and put it onto the bucket with the O-rings and backnut.

Now, the entire backnut and inside of the spigot assembly is sanitized--it has to be because it's in contact with the fermenting wort. It's only the spout of the spigot assembly that's not sanitized. That, I believe, is sufficiently sanitized by spraying it inside and out twice with StarSan solution. Others have had good luck with this process as well.

Let me know what you think.....

Kevin said...

That sounds like due diligence. I guess it depends on how convoluted the shape is - whether you can get the sanitizer to all the surfaces on the inside of the mouth of the spigot. I can't say.