Avoiding a Stuck Sparge for All Grain Beer

by Brad Smith on April 24, 2009 · 9 comments

barley_beer_webA stuck sparge can be a painful experience when brewing all grain beers. New all grain brewers often find their sparge has come to a complete halt when brewing their favorite beer, so this week we look at how to avoid this common home brewing problem.

The cause of a stuck sparge is quite simple – a stuck sparge occurs when your grain bed and filter mesh at the bottom of your lauter tun get completely clogged with bits of grain and no longer allow wort to flow. The flow of wort from the lauter tun into the brewing pot will slow to a trickle and then stop completely. While this problem occurs more often when using high protein adjuncts such as wheat malt, it can occur with almost any brew.

Avoiding the Stuck Sparge

The best thing to do about your stuck sparge is avoid it in the first place. Here are some strategies for doing this:

  • Properly Mill your Grains: The crush of your grains has a significant impact on your sparge as the grains form the filter bed needed for proper sparging. You can control the milling of your grains using an adjustable dual roller grain mill such as the Barley Crusher. An ideal milling with break the internal bits of grain into a coarse powder while still leaving the bulk of the husks intact. The husks then form the filter bed for your sparge. In general dual roller mills do the best job overall. Adjust the gap on your mill to achieve as fine a crush as possible without destroying the hull integrity.
  • Use a Well Designed Mash Tun: There are many systems home brewers use to act as a filter such as false bottoms, stainless steel braid, and cut copper tubing. In general the filter area should be as broad as possible with the width and height of the filter area approximately equal to the depth of the grain bed. Cylindrical Gott or Igloo water coolers with a false bottom work very well. Whatever system you use, be sure you have a large area covered by the filter, and the filter elements evenly spaced across the bed. Poorly designed filters are more prone to clogging.
  • Sparge Slowly – Most first time all grain brewers attempt to lauter their mash much too quickly. A full sparge of a 5 gallon batch should take 20 minutes or more. Use a clamp on your sparge line to slow the flow of the wort. Rushing your sparge not only reduces your extraction efficiency, it also can lead to a stuck sparge.
  • Mash Out – A mash out step raises the temperature of the mash to approximately 168F, and halts the active enzymes used during the mash. More importantly, a mash out step raises the mash temperature making the sticky sugars in the wort more soluble, resulting in a slightly thinner and less sticky wort. The less sticky wort helps reduce the chance of a stuck mash.
  • Keep the Grain Bed Afloat – If fly sparging or batch sparging, it is important to keep the grain bed afloat with a small layer of water above the grain bed. If you let the sparge water run too low, the top of the grain bed will dry out, compressing the entire grain bed and increasing the chance of a stuck mash. Adjust the flow of water into your lauter tun to keep a layer of water over the grain bed so the top of the grain bed is floating and not compressed.
  • Add Rice Hulls – Rice hulls, available from most brewing stores, add no flavor or sugars to the beer but can significantly reduce the chance of a stuck mash by providing a proper grain bed that filters the wort. Rice hulls are particularly useful for recipes using high protein additives such as large amounts of wheat or flaked barley.

Dealing with a Stuck Mash

What should you do if you already have a stuck mash? Here are a few steps you can take if you are faced with this difficult situation already:

  • Float the Grains – Unless you are at the very end of the sparge, add water to float the grains which will help to expand the grain bed and free your stuck sparge.
  • Add Hot Sparge Water – If the temperature of the grain bed is below 168F, you can add hot water to the grain bed to raise the overall temperature to 168F. This will help reduce the viscosity of your wort and aid in breaking the stuck sparge. However, make sure you don’t raise the temperature above 170F, as this could result in extraction of unwanted tannins from the grains.
  • Stir the Grain Bed – Though in general you always want to avoid disturbing the grain bed once it is set, you can stir up the grain bed as a last resort. This will almost always break the stuck sparge, but it also will result in some grain material being released into the wort and also hurt your overall efficiency. You can help mitigate both of these by drawing a few quarts of wort off the grain bed after stirring and recycling these back into the top of your lauter tun until the wort runs clear again.

These are the basic strategies for dealing with a stuck mash that I’ve collected over the years. If you have your own ideas to add, please leave us a comment below. Thanks again for joining us on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Please consider subscribing for regular email or RSS delivery if you enjoyed this week’s article.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

John Jarvis May 11, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Yup I made the same mistake when I was a newbie. I did my mash much too quickly. Patience is the key folks!

at Roller August 19, 2010 at 10:25 am

Now that’s what happened when someone new to this type of thing and don’t know what to do but after the mistake they learn and then they are ready to go.

Oat Roller

Adam November 20, 2010 at 1:06 pm

“If fly sparging or batch sparging, it is important to keep the grain bed afloat with a small layer of water above the grain bed.”

Do you know what batch sparging is?
by definition batch sparging is running the grain bed dry then refilling. and NOT having water running into the lauder tun during the sparge.

Brad Smith November 21, 2010 at 10:58 am

In researching the topic I found there is tremendous variation in the way people batch sparge. I agree that most people empty the tun for each batch, but there is a group that believe you should not empty the tun as it leads to stuck sparges. If you talk to 10 people about what batch sparging is you will likely get 10 different answers.

BobBrews April 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm

If you use the Brew In A Bag method (BIAB) you don’t have to worry about a stuck sparge. Brewing a wheat beer with rye? Brew in a bag will let you brew it without “sticking”! http://www.biabrewer.info

Justin Frank March 6, 2013 at 7:31 pm

I created my own manifold system for my 10 gallon Igloo mash tun and haven’t had any issues since. I could run all the way open if I wanted but I’ve found that middle of the road tends to help rinse more efficiently,

Jonathan W. March 4, 2016 at 10:36 pm

I have heard of sparge water being pumped into the MLT outlet to help reset a stuck sparge. Do not recall effectiveness but sounds like a good idea.

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