Houston, we have a problem! – will my beer be ok?


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!

Verboten – a new brewery works with “forbidden” ingredients

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According to the Coloradoan’s David Young, there is a new brewery coming to Loveland. The “Verboten” (german for “forbidden”) brewery prides itself to break the German purity law in using “forbidden” ingredients. This, of course is more a marketing ploy since the German purity law, to use only barley, hops and water, was largely revised over the centuries and – obviously – does not apply to Colorado. That leaves a wide field of experimentation for the new brewery and one can look forward to new compositions.

Source: Verboten brewery eyes Loveland

Beer and women in the Middle Ages – the Alewives

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Quick! Close your eyes and try to come up with a mental picture of “a brewer”. Personally, I see a man with an apron, in front of two large fermenters. The man has a bit of a belly and a beard. How far is my picture off from yours? Regardless of the details, I am pretty sure most of you imagined a male brewer. Well, you might be in for a surprise, because according to Woolsey, in his work Libations of the Eighteenth Century female brewers were the norm for centuries, from the middle ages onwards.

Brewing for the household was done in the kitchen and therefore part of the women’s domain, and in the Middle Ages a new profession developed – the Alewife. These women not only brewed for their household, but also for pubs and religious institutions. Remember that you heard of the excellent monastery beers? Well some of those were not brewed by monks, but by alewives.

Woolsey points out an important difference to the Babylonian women brewers: women in Europe in the Middle Ages could not own property, and therefore did not own pubs and sell their own beer. Alewives persisted until modern-type commercial breweries took over in the 18th and 19th century. In colonial America, they were rare, because “with wages being low for women in the eighteenth century (if women were allowed to work for pay), it was often better for a woman to remain at home, and bake bread and brew beer for the household.” (Woolsey, p.19) Those beers often involved homegrown ingredients.

Source: David Alan Woolsey: Libations of the Eighteenth Century: a Concise Manual for the Brewing of Authentic Beverages from the Colonial Era of America, and of Times Past. Universal Publishers, 2002.

Beer Review – BJ’s Jeremiah Red: hopheads beware!

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I like Irish Ales and BJ’s Jeremiah Red from BJ’s Restaurant isn’t breaking the chain. Dubbed as “Irish Style Ale” BJ’s proudly announces that it contains five specialty malts with a moderate hop aroma. It is an exceedingly complex, pleasing taste with a nice red color and a very good mouthfeel. I would recommend this beer to people who are not looking for a lot of hop aroma, but the malt lovers will break out the green bowlers and celebrate!

PARTAY! Planning a homebrew event

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There comes a time in many brewers’ lives, when their spouse looks at them disapprovingly and points out that their bottles with homebrew have taken over the family fridge completely, filled the garage, and, btw, they also want their sewing room back. So the homebrewer needs to look for creative ways to put his/her beer to good use. In summer the answer is easy: host a homebrew party!

Of course I know that you know how to host parties and entertain your friends, but since this is a party centered around something that you created, I have a few tips to make it a raging success and ensure that after the party there is enough room for new brews in your house.

Scope: the party we are aiming for here, is not getting a few friends together, breaking out the beer, the Pringles, and get wasted watching a game. This reduces the amount of your homebrew too, but it will not give you good feedback on your beer (“DUDE! I don’t know which bottles I drank yesterday and how they tasted…I was sooo wasted, I threw up in that bucket in the garage. What? What’s a fermenter?”). The goal is a barbecue type of situation with adults tasting your homebrew and eating lunch or dinner, with nice conversation and socializing. That is entertaining and will ensure that the fruit of your hard labor is consumed in a respectful way.

1) Invitation – On your invitation make it clear that it is a BEER party. There is a rumor out there, that some people, and I know this is kind of shocking, do NOT like beer. It is just a crazy rumor and completely unverified, but just in case – mention it! You don’t want to have a guest at the party who feels like a literary critic at the ComiCon. Also, it gives the guests a good hint, what age group is expected at the party (don’t call in an “Adult Party” though – people will arrive with totally different expectations).

2) Beer – This party is centered around your homebrew. Take stock and make sure that the beer is cold and carbonated. Have ice and buckets on hand if you don’t want to run to your fridge all the time. Also don’t hog the privilege of presenting beer. Encourage guests in the invitation to bring an interesting beer that they have discovered. That will considerable liven up the party, but you should also make it clear that this is not a BYOB situation. If a guest brings a bottle of a beer nobody ever heard about – great! If a guest shows up with a sixpack of Bud Light (to a HOMEBREW party!) don’t be afraid to show the guest the door and lose their number. I usually assume that each guest drinks on average two glasses of beer. Remember that beer is more nourishing and filling than wine. However, I do not assume that I should have less than that in stock. If you have a large number of people headed for your house, it is perfectly acceptable to have some store bought backup beer (NOT Bud Light!). Make your friends comfortable to talk about and criticize your beer, without being afraid to offend you. I tell my friends they should be honest, or I will torture them with bad brew in the future, just because they tell me it’s great! That works pretty well. Also, don’t follow them around and nag them about their opinion. A casual question now and then will give you an idea (if they don’t come to you first and tell you how great your beer is!)

3) Children and pets – The invitation made it clear that there will be alcohol, but some people have no problem bringing their children, or don’t have a baby sitter. After all, it’s summer, afternoon, and vacation time. Have sodas and water on hand, separate the soda table far away from where your serve the beer, and explain to kids and parents what is where. Make absolutely sure there is not a mixup. Dogs LOVE beer, but are generally not a problem, until something breaks. Keep the pets away from the glass until it is cleaned up completely. That leads to the next point…

4) Glass or plastic – There a many reason to like plastic at a party, but homebrews just need glass. This is a personal opinion. My taste buds react completely different to beer in plastic. It looses something. It looses a lot. You don’t have to geek out completely and serve the right style in the right glass ( http://beeradvocate.com/beer/101/glassware/ ) but serving beer in glasses can never go wrong. Have non-wobbly surfaces on hand, where people can place their glasses, and relax – breakage happens. If you use your vintage Bavarian beer stein, keep an eye on it and keep it close, or you will have to wipe the shards off the floor!

5) Food – Lots of good pairings and choices for beer are available. Obviously meats and cheeses offer themselves up. Your food should be substantial. Nothing against a salad, but fattier food delays absorption of alcohol into the blood stream and keeps your guests a little bit more sober. Food is also an area where you can go potluck. If you grill, beware of tipsy guests. Which leads to the next point…

6) Safety – The best party is the one where everybody arrives home safe afterwards. Encourage people to have a dedicated driver on hand and have lots of non-alcoholic choices. Have a dedicated grilling area and keep tipsy guests, kids and pets away from it. Take a stand and police the alcohol when you feel a guest has had enough.

I hope these tips will help you plan your next get together and give you good feedback from your friends. A party is a lot of work to prepare, but think about all the brewing you will “HAVE” to do to restock afterwards!!!!

Poll – To rack or not to rack

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Ah, the big controversies: does God exist? How eliminate the household deficit? Did Han shoot first?
Let’s add – should a homebrewer rack the beer to a secondary fermenter or not?

The pros and cons are quickly listed:

Pros – prevent autolysis (the breaking down of the dead yeast that produces off flavors) and store the beer safely for long periods
Cons – risk of oxygenation and contamination. 

Let’s look at the pros first. Most information I have come across so far, does not see autolysis as a problem for the homebrewer, UNLESS the wort is in the fermenter for an extended period of time. And therein lies the rub: extended period of time. There is no consensus what that means, but many brewers agree on some sort of lower range.
If the wort stays in the fermenter more than 5 to 7 weeks, it should go into a secondary.
It should also be noted, that a whole range of brewers advise that the wort can stay in the primary fermenter for several months before there are any off flavors from autolysis.
The point of racking is also in question, but this post is mostly about the “If”, not the “When”.

The cons are oxygenation of the wort and contamination, which can lead to off flavors or spoilage. Not exactly trivial consequences.

I also want to add that, regardless if you leave the wort in a primary, or rack to a secondary –  after two months or more, be ready for some yeast re-pitching, if you don’t force carbonate.

In my humble opinion, the cons, outweigh the pros in all fermentations that take less than five weeks. After that I definitely consider racking my wort to a secondary.

What do you do? Do you rack to a secondary?

Yeast Review: WLP400 Begian Wit Ale – fermenting wort one bubble at a time

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Sometime there are two ways to get from point A to point B.

1) You climb into a race car and put the pedal to the metal until you are there in half a day.
2) You saddle a burro and trot on a long, winding road for several days and weeks, step, by step, by step,…

White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit is more in the “burro” category. Watching this yeast ferment is like watching grass grow. I direct pitched one vial with expiration date September 2012 into 2 gal of Mr Beer Witty Monk well aerated wort, with a gravity of 1.042 at 71 F.

I pitched the yeast on 7/15 and after 24 hrs lag time saw the first bubbles in the airlock. The first slow bubbles. Hardly any kraeusen. Over the next few days the kraeusen increased, but stayed low. The bubbles never exceeded seven to eight seconds intervals. On the plus side –  today is 7/20 and the airlock still bubbles with about 15 seconds lag time. I did not swirl the wort (as recommended in some reviews) and I plan to leave it in there at least two weeks before I perform a gravity reading. It’s slow, but I hope it’s “the little yeast that could”.

Here are the specifications from White Lab:
WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale Yeast
Slightly phenolic and tart, this is the original yeast used to produce Wit in Belgium.
Attenuation: 74-78%
Flocculation: Low to Medium
Optimum Fermentation Temperature: 67-74°F
Alcohol Tolerance: Medium

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