Homebrewing is a complicated process, and it’s further complicated by the staggering array of optional steps in the process that may well overwhelm a less experienced brewer. One such step is ‘sparging’, a process that requires a bit of context in order to be fully explained.
What is Sparging?
In order to understand what sparging is, we first need to understand the process of ‘mashing’.
Mashing is the steeping process whereby hot water is introduced in order to hydrate your barley, activate malt enzymes and convert grain starch into sugar. This is a necessary step in fermentation.
Lautering is a fairly in-depth part of the brewing process that follows directly on from mashing, in which the mash is separated into two parts: the grain and the sugary liquid separated therefrom known as ‘wort’.
When lautering, the temperature of the mash is first raised in order to keep the mash and resultant wort (unfermented beer) nice and fluid. This step is known as the ‘mashout’.
Following on from the mashout, wort is drawn off from the bottom of the mash and passed back through the grain bed, in a process called ‘recirculation’. This helps to concentrate the worth further and also assists in removing impurities from it, as the grain bed acts as a sand filter.
Once this is accomplished, the mash can be ‘sparged’ (a technical word meaning ‘sprinkled’, essentially). This simply means rinsing the mash grains in order to get as many of the sugars out of the mash as possible whilst maintaining separation from the tannins (bitter chemical compounds that you don’t really want in your end product). Following this, you should have some good, pure wort ready for fermentation.
There are different ways to sparge; some of them require a bit of kit called a ‘sparge arm’, and some do not.
Is a Sparge Arm necessary?
As mentioned above, that really depends on the sparging method you’re using. One technique is actually called the ‘no-sparge’ method, and as you might guess, does not use a sparge arm. Batch sparging and the new-fangled ‘brew-in-a-bag’ methods also refrain from using a sparge arm.
For the purposes of this article, let’s assume you’re interested in using a sparge arm (there’s a reason why you’re here, after all). For that, you’ll be using what is quite possibly the most efficient sparging method – fly sparging.
What is Fly sparging?
We’re glad you asked! Fly sparging – or continuous sparging, as it’s alternately known – is a process whereby hot water is slowly, continuously introduced to your mash as the wort drains out of it. It’s more time-intensive and requires more attention than other sparging methods, but it’s also the most efficient in extracting the maximum amount of usable wort from your mash.
As we’ve mentioned, in order to do this properly you’re going to need a sparge arm.
What does a Sparge arm do?
A sparge arm is basically a sprinkler, designed to ensure that hot water is distributed throughout your mash as evenly as possible and does not pool up in any one place. It’s absolutely essential if you want a high-volume, high-quality wort, and it’s important that it’s of good quality and properly maintained.
Can I just buy a Sparge arm?
You could just buy one, yes – and this is the easiest route by far. It’s also pretty expensive; expect to pay around £45-200!
Obviously, as a brewer, you’re not only the adventurous type – you’re a do-it-yourself kinda person. Which means, naturally, that your next question is…
What do I need to make a DIY sparge arm?
Making a sparge arm is a relatively straightforward process that is, thankfully, far cheaper than buying one.
There are a number of materials you can use when making a DIY sparge arm, but two of the best are copper and CPVC. Copper can be quite rigid and difficult to work with, so you’re best using flexible copper plumbing sticks, which have a bendable design and will allow you to manipulate them into place more easily.
If you’d rather got the CPVC route, make sure that it is CPVC – not PVC. What’s the difference? That ‘C’ is actually very important – it stands for ‘chlorinated’, and ensures that water that passes through it stays potable – unlike standard PVC, which is used for drains and through which it is not safe to pass potable water.
Once you’ve decided what material you want to use, you’ll need to solder or otherwise join your various bits of pipes into an inverted ‘T’ shape so that your sparge arm splits into two arms once in your mash tun. You’ll also need a flat piece of metal or plastic on which your sparge arm will rest; this will prevent the arm from simply falling into your mash!
Finally, you’ll also need something to ensure that your arm spins whilst sprinkling water, in order to ensure an even distribution.
If you’d prefer something simpler, that doesn’t require a lot of soldering, joining or otherwise assembling, it’s perfectly possible to use silicone tubing and something called the ‘Sabco Method’ – a very cost-effective and simple method of sparging on a budget.
What is the Sabco Method?
Named for brewing company Sabco, the Sabco Method is an extremely simple way of sparging that, despite its simplicity, avoids pooling and channelling in your grain bed. Advocates insist that the Sabco Method avoids unnecessary equipment such as rotating arms and perforated manifolds, and it avoids unnecessary cleaning and maintenance.
The Sabco Method is, very simply, high-grade silicone tubing that sits atop the grain bed. Hot sparge water is pumped through it and passes through the grain, filtering wort out using a perforated false bottom. The setup is simple, cheap, and extremely efficient, eliminating the need for finicky and expensive extra equipment and cleaning steps!
Though sparging can be a complicated (and controversial) step in homebrewing, we hope we’ve managed to shed some light on it and have pointed you in the right direction when it comes to creating your own sparge arm. Shelling out £200 on Amazon for a pre-fabricated one is always an option, of course – but where’s the fun or innovation in that?