How to sparge your mash to collect the wort

Friday, May 18, 2018
how to batch sparge


A lot of beer brewing is intuitive, you know you need malt and grains and you need to cook them up and you can sort of follow your nose from there.

But when I came across words like sparge and lautering I had no idea what on earth that means.

Once you know it's as simple in concept cracking open a well-earned beer.

Sparging is the process of separating the wort from the mash. Hot water is rinsed through to that as much of the sugars can be removed from the 'grain bed'.

And lautering? It's the same concept but is more a reference to the whole process itself and the movement of water. How about that eh?

While it is a simple idea, it's actually a three-step process if it's to be achieved properly.

Get ready to fire up those BTU on your gas burner!

But first, how do I know if my mash is ready to be sparged?

Your mash should have rested for an hour. This is so that the malt enzymes have had an opportunity to digest the starch into sugars. And Iodine test can be done for this. Take a sample from the mash and add a drop of iodine. 

If it goes black or purple, your mash needs more time.

If the iodine stays the same colour, your mash is ready.

Step 1 -  The Mashout

This is when you raise your mash to 170 degrees Fahrenheit or 77 Celcius. The reason for this temperature is that both stops the enzymatic conversion of starches to fermentable sugars, and makes the mash and wort more fluid and thus easier to sparge. 

To set this up, one pours the heated water into the mash tun. Slowly add the grist (crushed grain) to the water in the mash tun. You'll need to stir well the mash to prevent clumping. The temperature should stabilize at around 153 degrees.

You should then let the mash rest for an hour as the sugars are released from the grains and your wort forms.

If you undershoot the target mash temperature by more than 5° F, you may raise the mash temperature by adding heat. Stir the mash constantly while you are applying heat to avoid scorching.

Step 2 - Recirculation of the wort

The idea behind recirculation of the wort is to clear it of debris.

At first, it may seem odd that the idea is to put this cloudy liquid back into to the mash - well this is the beauty of recirculation,  the grain bed will begin to act as a filter and reduce the cloudiness of the runnings. This is why proper milling of the grain is so important so the husks can perform this task.

You may find your initial drawings from the lauter tun are cloudy and filled with what's known as  'draff' - these are small solid grain particles but repeated filtering through the grain will clear the wort.

To recirculate, your lauter tun should have a handy valve. Use it to collect the runoff in two clean intermediate vessels of say 1 quart or more in size.

As you are filling one vessel,  you are pouring the other gently down the side of the lauter tun. Keeping switching back and forth until the wort appears clear of debris.

This can take some time and you need to be patient and pour slowly.

You can now drain the wort into your kettle.

This process is sometimes called vorlauf.

Step 3 - The actual business of sparging

You can now 'rinse' the grain with fresh boiling hot water to collect any residual sugars. The water should be no more than 170°F to avoid tannins being released by the grains.

The trick is to work out the water required for the boil that matches your recipe.

Carefully add this second round of water to the grain mash and slowly drain it into the first wort you prepared.

Once fully drained, you are now ready to boil the wort as per your recipe.

This instructional video by the American Homebrewers Association is really well done and shows how straightforward the process is:

Do I have to sparge?

You do not, however, you will miss out on some efficiencies - a good deal of the potential fermentable sugars are not extracted from the mash,

If you are not sparging, you can simply drain the grain bed and get it ready for boiling by adding the required water.

Why should the sparge water temp not be higher than 180°F/82°C?

This is in order to avoid the extraction of tannins from the grain which is a chemical you simply do not want in your beer. Tannin can give your beer a kind of astringent taste and it simply ruins the drinking experience.

That said, a large factor is the ph level of your wort (which many suggest should be in the range of 5.2-5.8) as to whether you're gonna have a bad time with tannins or not.

Here are some ph meters that you may want to consider using.

Does milling grain technique affect the sparge?

A well milled and crushed grain will give you a good extraction efficiency.

A fine, but not too fine crush will offer more surface volume for the mashing process to release the sugars from the grain. If grains are crushed much then the grain bed can compact during the sparge which just disrupts the whole process.

If it's done just right, the grain better will act like its own filter and the lautering process should be straightforward. 

Can I simply cold water sparge?

Yes, you can. There are many brewers who swear that hot water sparges offer no greater utility than cold water efforts. Some brewers have done identical brewers, save for a hot or cold sparge and found when offering punters a blind taste test, they were unable to determine the difference. Go figure. 

I have also seen brewers suggest that a lower temperature will result in a lower body beer. Given body is quite a crucial party of the drinking experience, this is probably why most brewers sparge with hot water. 

I'd also suggest a higher temperature will mean you wort is more fluid and thus is more easily extracted from the grain bed - certainly, it will be a quicker process if your wort is not so viscous.

Your personal safety

When lautering and sparging you are using a lot of hot water, gas burners, mash tuns and kettles.

There are plenty of means and avenues for things to go wrong and you could literally end up getting burnt or scalded by hot water or wort.

Be careful. It's best to do your beer making in an area that gives you enough space. This is why many brewers often like to brew on an outside deck or sturdy table.

It's, of course, handy to teach children about the dangers of getting too close to gas burners and hot kettles. Better yet, you might want to keep the little ones away while the boil is on and when you are pouring hot water.

You yourself may wish to consider using some protective gloves and perhaps wear a waterproof apron and shoes!

While this may be teaching you to suck eggs, a new first-time brewer should be very mindful of these things. 

And for goodness sake, if you do burn yourself, get some cold water on the burn site pronto! Your skin is more important than your beer!

If I am doing a boil in a bag, do I need to sparge?

If you want to get all those sugars that might still be lurking in the bag, then it's wise to sparge.

Help, my mash has got clogged!

You may have over milled your grain and now the grain filter is too compact. This can also be caused by running the water off too fast. If this happens 's stop what you are doing and give the grain bed a gentle stir. Adding sum sparge water may help.

If things have gone really wrong, you may have to remove the mash, clean your tun and start again.


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