Siphoning (also correctly spelled ‘syphoning’, and often referred to by homebrewers as ‘racking’) is perhaps one of the simplest things to do, but at the same time seems to be one of the most complicated. There are some extremely advanced, award-winning homebrewers out there who still cannot start a siphon to save their lives. Before trying this with beer we strongly recommend that you give it a few tries first with water. And if you do not master it the first time, do not fret because all you need is a bit of practice. I clearly recall my first batch of beer when I managed to siphon the beer into the bottling bucket, but then was completely unable to get a siphon going to move it from there into the bottles. At one point I was literally up to my elbows in beer trying to get that siphon going! Nowadays, after many years of practice, I can get the siphon going every time, no problem.

Rules of the Road

There are a few basic rules about siphons that may help when trying to get yours going.

  • you need to ‘prime’ your siphon. All this means is that for your siphon to flow, your hose must be filled (or actually mostly filled – some air space is OK) with liquid. That can be water, beer or just about any liquid at all.
  • it works by gravity. That’s right, simple gravity drives a siphon. As long as the hose is full, and the ‘source’ end of the hose is elevated higher than the ‘destination’ end, liquid will flow through it. Also, the greater the elevation between source and destination, the faster the siphon will flow.
  • this is really just an extension of the above point, but the only parts of the hose that matter to the siphon are the source and destination ends. The hose in between can whirl and curl any and every which way, and it does not affect the siphon in the least. It can go up to the ceiling, then down into the basement, and back up again. As long as your destination end of the hose is lower then the source end, your siphon will flow
  • plugging the end of the hose, prevents the siphon from flowing. Well duh! That’s almost too stupid to mention, isn’t it? Well, the part the follows from this, however, may not be obvious to many. When the hose is full and you plug one end, nothing will come out of the other end, either. If you really shook the hose violently you could force some liquid out the other end, but as long as you are gentle, nothing will come out. With clean hands you can use your thumb to tightly cover one end of your siphon hose to turn off the flow. Or you can tightly kink the flexible end of the siphon hose by bending 3 or 4 inches of it securely back onto itself. Once one end is plugged, you can safely move the other end anywhere you like and the liquid will stay in the tube

Priming the Siphon

There are a couple of ways to prime a siphon. Perhaps the easiest is to fill the hose with water and then use your thumb to plug the flexible end. Now as we’ve just learned we can move the hose anywhere we like and as long as we keep the end tightly plugged, the water in the hose will stay there. So how do you fill it? Running water from the tap directly into one end of the hose is a good way. You can also buy a wallpapering trough and fill it with water. Lay the assembled siphon in there and fill it up.

Another way of priming the siphon is considered by many to be a mortal sin – sucking on the hose! Actually, we wouldn’t recommend you suck directly on the hose by any means since there are lots of nasty bacteria in your mouth that you do not want getting into your beer. But there are several ways to use the suction from your own mouth, without contaminating your siphon. One easy way is to cut a 5 or 6 inch (15cm) length of 3/8 copper tubing, or even hard plastic tubing like a j-tube. Sanitzie it and stick this into the flexible end of the siphon and suck on the tube until the liquid comes through the hose to within a few inches of the piece you added in. Now thumb the end to stop the flow, and kink the flexible tube a few inches before the piece you inserted. Pull out the piece of tubing while keeping the hose firmly kinked to stop the flow. Voila! Your siphon is now primed and ready to go!

With a bit more experience you can do this without the need for an extra piece of tubing inserted in the end. We’ve been doing it this way for years now. Simply make a tight fist and open it just a hair in the middle, so that your fist makes a narrow tube. Take the flexible end of the siphon hose and insert it a half inch (1 cm) into the little-finger end of your fist, and hold it tightly there. Now you can safely suck on the thumb end of your fist-tube to prime your siphon. When the liquid gets close to your fist, use your thumb to stop the end, or kink the hose to do the same. Voila!

If you are really paranoid about your mouth going so near your siphon hose, you can mouthwash before doing this. But as mentioned we’ve been doing it for years without mouthwashing, and have never had a single problem.

Go!

Now that your siphon is primed, there is not much more to it – you are ready to go! Normally you will stop the ‘destination’ end of the siphon and then move the ‘source’ end into the bucket or carboy whence you are siphoning. Do not forget the j-tube end if there is sediment that you want to leave behind. Once the j-tube is in place, simply lower the destination end into your destination vessel, and let go! You will want to get the end of the hose to the bottom of the vessel as quickly as possible so as to avoid splashing. This will cause aeration which after primary fermentation has completed is a bad thing.

I find that using a clothespin on the j-tube helps a lot in holding the siphon in place and keeping the source end off the bottom of the source container, if that is what you want to do. We tip the source container and put a phone book or something else 2 or 3 inches (6 or 7 cm) thick under the vessel. This is the side of the container closest to the edge of the surface you have it setting on, with the destination container just below on the floor. The j-tube enters the source container right above the phone book, and proceeds to the bottom of the other side of the container. The clothespin clips to the j-tube where the j-tube touches the upper rim of the container, just above the phone book, with the pin on the outside of the container. It does not clip to the container – simple gravity holds it in place and keeps the tube from slipping further into the bucket. As the source vessel empties, you can slowly lower the source end of the j-tube further and further into the vessel.

Helpers

If you really are completely unable to start a siphon, there are a number of gizmos that you can purchase or make, which help. One of the first ones on the market is a little tube with a ball inside that you put onto the end of your J tube. You immerse the J tube into the beer and shake the tube up and down and the ball moves back-and-forth and magically starts your siphon. You can watch as the beer climbs your J tube and then starts the action.

A fairly recent newcomer to the scene seems to be catching on quickly and gets rave reviews from beginners to advanced brewers alike is the autosiphon. Seen below here, it turns your J tube into a giant syringe, and truly is a foolproof siphon starter.