When you have brewed a few batches, you have certainly encountered problems at some point. It’s as natural as fermentation. There was the time when I dropped the boiling pot and dumped a third of the wort on the floor. Then there was my first blowout, which spilled some sanitizer back into my beer due to inexperienced cleanup. Carboys break, airlocks blow, fermentations get stuck. Life happens.
Especially when you are new to brewing, every emergency can throw you into the darkest pit of despair, because you are sure that NOW you have ruined your beer. For certain! The forums are littered with pleas for help from brewers who want to know if their beer will turn out all right, even though xyz happened. Disclaimer – I was and am not different from you, but now, with a few batches under my belt, I am a bit more relaxed.
Here is the good news – in 99% of the cases, the answer to your question is: Yes, there will be beer and it will be drinkable! Will it be the beer you hoped? Maybe not. But you can try again in your next batch – and I hope you are keeping detailed brew notes!
I have put together a compilation of the most frequent concerns and their possible resolution, but the formula is always: “Stay calm and relax! It is most likely not as bad as you think!”
1) My temperature was too high for my style.
Temperature control is important in brewing, especially when you want to brew to style. If it was too high when the fermentation began, you might have some undesired flavors when doing a lager. Later in the fermentation there is less chance and a good d-rest at the end will clean up some of the flavors. Relax, it will be beer.
2) My yeast doesn’t take off
So you have been staring at the bubbler now for how long? One hour? Three hours? Half a day? Yeast takes time to get going. Especially if you did not make a starter, or rehydrated your dry yeast. Tear your eyes off the airlock and do something else. Take a walk, learn a language, pay some attention to your significant other. Check again in 24 hours. In most cases, you will see activity. Sometimes, it can take up to 72 hours. After that, I would be concerned. So concerned, in fact, that some repitching is in order.
3) I had a glitch in the sanitation process
How bad of a glitch are we talking about? My-dog-dropped-his-slobbering-bone-into-my-wort-pot bad or did you not sanitize the spoon again before stirring the wort for the final time? For your dog scenario I have bad news – your beer is cooked. And not in a good way. No amount of boiling will save this puppy (no pun intended). It might be beer after the fermentation, but I wouldn’t drink it. I would call that heavy contamination.
Light contamination of your wort is a different matter. I know I am on thin ice here, but consider this: for hundreds of years, people exposed the wort to the elements to “catch” some yeast. They did not have a concept of sanitation. The way we brew beer now is probably a hundred times cleaner, even without trying too hard. If you had light contamination (as in forgot-to-sanitize-the-spoon), you are probably fine. That should not keep you from improving the process and keeping good notes!
4) I have an issue with exploding bottles
So this comes up when you think you used way too much priming sugar, or one of your bottles already has exploded. If you are warm carbonating and using plastic bottles, release some pressure. You also should stick the bottles into the fridge to keep the yeast from making more CO2 (the cold makes the yeast go dormant). Are you exposing your beer to oxygen when releasing pressure? Yes, you are. But you are risking your spouse divorcing you, when bottles keep exploding all over the house! The beer might not be as good after exposure to oxygen, but it will still be drinkable.
General emergency procedures:
How to handle brew day emergencies depends largely on where you are in the process. If you encounter a problem with a missing ingredient, and you have not started making the wort yet, the solution is easy - turn the burners off and move the brew date. If the wort is bubbling, find a replacement ingredient or go without it. If not possible and the ingredient is vital, remember that wort can be frozen for some time. Just fill it into some sanitized containers and stick it in the freezer.
Think on your feet and adjust your process. Chances are – there will be beer!