We’re so deep into German that you can smell the schnitzel. As we continue our journey in discussing the beer making process we’re finding some fun words and “vorlauf” might be one of my favorites. Right now we’re focused on the part of beer making that involves getting the wort separated from the mash. While it sounds simple, there’s quite a bit to it so we’re breaking it down one step at a time.
Per the usual, my typical disclaimer about the fact that this is a general overview of the topic mentioned above and not an in-depth science lesson applies.
What does vorlauf mean?
As sexy as the German language may be, it’s tough to draw a simple correlation between English and German. True, words like “drink” and “trinkt” are insanely similar but I defy you to tell me what the hell you think vorlauf could possibly translate to.
According to Google Translate, it means “preliminary round,” “qualifying heat,” or “fast forward.” All of these things actually relate to what we’re talking about today. For beer making, vorlauf means to pull the wort away from the grains and recirculate it until it runs clear. In other words, you take the “first runnings” of the wort out of the bottom of the kettle, and dump it back in the top of the kettle. Keep doing this until it runs clear, not hazy and you’re all set. This process helps compact your grain bed, which turns the husks from the grain in the mash into a filter of sorts. This will enhance clarity in the beer as well as remove most debris before it has a chance to get into your boil kettle.
So how do you do it?
As a home brewer, it’s fairly manual: Take a pitcher, open up the valve on your mash tun and fill that pitcher with wort. Then, you take that pitcher and dump it back into the top of your mash tun. Do this until the wort that comes out of the valve is clear, and then you can transfer out all of the wort to your boil kettle. Boom. You vorlaufin’ sumbitch. Some home brewers go the extra mile and buy pumps to do this recirculation for them. This is just a small scale version of what the big breweries are doing.
On a commercial level, it’s the same concept but there are fun things these breweries can do to make it automated. You’ll be hard pressed to find a brewery that doesn’t use pumps so we’re going to assume that’s the norm. In addition to those pumps, most breweries use a “sight glass” which is a clear section of the recirculation system that allows them to see when the wort is clear enough to begin transferring. Some other breweries, like 2nd Shift, use a “grant tank” otherwise known as a “lauter grant” to see when the wort is ready. The grant tank looks like a pot you’d use to boil up some crab legs and it is useful in two ways. The first way is it’s simple to take a peek inside of this tank and assess the wort clarity and get access to the wort for testing PH, gravity, sampling, etc. The other way it’s useful is that by controlling the flow this way, it reduces the chance of a vacuum forming, resulting in a stuck mash. That’s a real buzzkill on a brew day.
Didn’t think there could be so much minutia in this whole beer brewing thing, did ya? Vorlaufing is just one of those things that may not seem like a big deal but in the grand scheme of things, it’s an integral part of the process. Making beer is so easy, it’s hard. Explaining to someone how to make beer in a nutshell will take about a minute. The parts that are left out during that minute are the ones that are the difference between beer and good beer. With so many pieces to this puzzle, it’s easy to see why good beer should be appreciated.
Do you have a beer term that you’d like to know more about? Email me at email@example.com or comment below with something you’d like to see explained in a future Vocabrewlary Lesson.