Tips for Wort Oxygenation - The Why, What, and How

Category : Technical
Date : September 28, 2022
Author : Neva Parker, White Labs Director of Operations


Oxygen is something brewers inevitably want to minimize in their process, with one exception: wort
oxygenation. In other aspects of beer production, oxygen causes detrimental effects on flavor and
stability, but the opposite is true in the early phases of fermentation. Yeast depends on oxygen to provide
them with the building blocks needed to synthesize fatty acids and sterols, essential components in the
yeast cell membrane. Oxygen also contributes to the formation of hemoproteins, which help the cells
protect themselves from oxidative stress, critical in a fermentation environment.  
 
This concept is not particularly new to brewers. The main challenge over the years has not been the
“what” of oxygenation but the “how.”  As crucial a piece as this is, it is a much more difficult task to
oxygenate wort properly and adequately.
 

How much oxygen do you need?
 

Most texts will recommend a standard dissolved oxygen rate of 8-10ppm (mg/L) in a moderate gravity
wort (up to 12° Plato). The key here is understanding that we’re talking about dissolved oxygen and the
oxygen dissolution rate in wort can be dependent on a number of factors including temperature of the
wort, gravity of the wort, and size of the bubbles.
 

What happens when you don’t oxygenate enough?
 

Technical data found in many brewing journals, and in our studies, it is clear that an increase in available
oxygen in the wort results in a higher budding percentage and therefore, higher cell growth and more
effective fermentation capability. In fermentations where no additional oxygen is added, yeast never
reach the cell mass obtained in oxygen-enhanced fermentations, resulting in long lag times and
sometimes, not reaching expected terminal gravity. Fermentation with a dissolved oxygen process in
place, reach terminal gravity faster than the controls (with no oxygen added).
 
If you repitch yeast, the long-term effects of reduced oxygen levels on multiple yeast generations is also
significant. When the yeast is deprived of adequate oxygen levels early on, it causes weaker cells in later
generations. This is most significant after the third generation. These yeast cells have not had ample
resources to build up solid cell walls, resulting in fewer cells with glycogen reserves and membranes that
can withstand the stress of fermentation and the alcoholic, low pH environment of beer.
 

Air vs. Oxygen

 
While it’s fine to use air (or shaking, splashing or other manner of physical air delivery), from an efficiency
standpoint, it is not an ideal method. When you consider that air is 21% oxygen, you have lost a bit of
your dissolution rate. In this case, the maximum solubility is only around 9.5ppm, and backpressure is
usually needed to keep oxygen in solution. When working with pure oxygen, your maximum potential
dissolved oxygen (DO) jumps to 40ppm (saturation). Other factors keep DO levels from landing at
saturation, such as the temperature and gravity as mentioned before, as well as the flow rate and time of
oxygenation.
 
It is important in this regard to find an efficient method for wort oxygenation, whether through a small tank
and carbonation stone on a small scale, or inline oxygenation with a larger brewing facility. While there is
not necessarily a “standard” process, there are a few primary factors that will affect the efficiency of
oxygen dissolving in wort:
 
1. The cooler the wort, the better the dissolution of oxygen.
2. The higher the gravity, the less efficiency of dissolution of oxygen.
3. The smaller the bubble, the more efficient the dissolution of oxygen.
 
Keep these factors in mind in relation to your own process, and make adjustments in your aeration
process as needed.
 
The bottom line? Yeast love oxygen, and yeast make beer. So oxygenate your wort!
 
Need a better way to oxygenate? Check out the Spike Oxygenation Kit!