How a Brew Day Goes Horribly Wrong

Posted on 02 August 2010

The last couple of years, I’ve taken time off from brewing during the summer months due to the fact that I have a hard time keeping my fermentation temps regulated when the weather is warm. Sure, I’ve used a swamp cooler but cycling out the ice packs gets to be tedious and and have a hard time keeping the actual temperature below 68°.

Well, with a vial of White Labs WLP500 (Trappist Ale Yeast) sitting in the fridge and just past it’s “expiration” date, I decided to say, “What the Hell” and give a summer brew a chance. We keep the ambient air in our townhouse around 72° and the last time I used the yeast (and tried to ferment it at a warmer temperature), the brew came out great and keeps improving with age. All I’d need to do is swing by the local homebrew shop, pick up some grains and dry malt extract, and then work out the specifics from there.

As I was driving home another lightbulb went off and I decided to take things one step further: why not harvest some of my Fuggle hops and throw them in fresh?

And, after harvesting about 1 1/2 ounces of hops, another lightbulb went off: why not mix the Trappist Ale Yeast with the yeast harvested from the bottom of a couple bottles of Blanche de Chambly? I already had one bottle in the fridge and it wouldn’t be a problem to pick up a couple more for yeast-harvesting purposes.

Oh, wait — another lightbulb! — I could try doing an open-fermentation! (No, I’m not planning on harvesting the yeast but I wonder what effect, if any, it will have on the final flavor of the beer)

So here’s the recipe I started with:

Wet-hopped Calamity Ale
BJCP Category: 16E (Belgian Specialty Ale)
2 lb Pilsner malt
3 lb Bohemian Pilsner malt
8 oz Belgian Biscuit malt
8 oz Belgian Aromatic
3 lb light DME
12 oz light brown sugar
1 1/2 cup white sugar
1 oz German Tettnang (5.1%, 60)
1 1/2 oz fresh, wet Fuggle (~1%, 10)
1 tsp Irish moss
8 oz light DME
1 tsp Fermax yeast nutrient
1 tablet White Labs Servomyces Yeast Nutrient
Yeast slurry from bottom of 3 bottles of Blanch de Chambly
1 vial White Labs WLP500 (Trappist Ale Yeast)
Estimated Original Gravity: 1.068
Estimated Final Gravity: 1.015
Bitterness: 20.1 IBUs
Alcohol: 5.45% (ABW), 6.97% (ABV)

After consuming 3 bottles of Blanche de Chambly and collecting the slurries, I had the starter ready to go on Friday night but the real adventure began on Sunday…

Sunday morning started off well with a nice hearty breakfast of pan-fried steak, homefries, and scrambled eggs. In the meantime, I’d started the grill to get a pork shoulder set-up for a slow smoke. Maybe I’d taken on too much when you factor in the brewing but, in my head, I’d planned everything out so that brewing and smoking the pork shoulder shouldn’t conflict with one another. As most homebrewers know, brewing is a long, lazy process punctuated by moments of wild activity. I had everything organized so that the brewing and grilling endeavors should sync right up nicely.

Yeah, whatever.

Right from the start, I realized I had a problem: my mashtun isn’t big enough to hold 6 pounds of grain. As I poured the grain into the container (a converted 3 gallon Rubbermaid water cooler), I thought to myself, “Funny, I’ve used 6 pounds of grain in previous mashes — why won’t this fit?” Unfortunately, I didn’t listen to the little alarm bell going off in my head and I thought that I’d be fine. There wasn’t a lot of extra space at the top of the mashtun but, if I was careful, there would be enough to let the grains expand.

I proceeded to heat up the mash water to 150° and added 1 tablespoon of 5.2 pH Stabilizer and I think this is where the real problems began. Once the water was up to heat, I poured about 1 gallon of water into the mashtun and carefully stirred-up the grain bed to make sure the water was well incorporated. Then I gingerly screwed on the top of the mashtun and sat back to wait. My original plan was to do a 60 minute mash at 150° and then a second 30 minute mash at 160° before sparging with 2 gallons at 165-170°.

After letting the grains mash for 60 minutes, I tried to collect the first runnings. A slow stream of milky white liquid drained from the mashtun and, after I’d collected about 3 cups in a pitcher, promptly stopped. Shit.

I shut the valve on the mashtun, poured the liquid back on top of the grain bed and tried again. Shit. Shit.

Against my better judgment, I tried stirring the grains and scraping the bottom of the mashtun thinking my filters (a converted vegetable steamer and Surescreen) were clogged. Oh, they were but I couldn’t unclog them enough to get any liquid to flow through. Shit. Shit. Shit.

Now I was getting desperate. I figured that, if I could muddle through the first mash and collect something — anything! — I’d be fine. I tried pouring a bit more water on top of the grain bed thinking that might help.

It didn’t.

I tried scooping out a bunch of the grain bed and then poured in more water. That didn’t help, either. I dumped out all of the grain bed, thoroughly cleaned the mashtun with hot water, made sure plain water flowed through (which it did), and then dumped the grains back in to try again. That didn’t help, either.

By this time I was thoroughly frustrated and didn’t know what to do. Looking back at my notes from previous beers, I realized that I’d had similar problems with stuck mashes and sparges whenever I’d used the 5.2 ph Stabilizer. By this time I didn’t really care what the culprit was, I just needed a solution. The pork shoulder was cooking nicely and all of my “careful” planning had gone out the window. A 1 hour process was turning into 2 and I was still on the first mash.

Thankfully my wife suggested that I try pouring the grains into a grain bag and then putting that into the mashtun as another form of filter. I wasn’t sure it would work but, at this point I was willing to try anything, so I split-up the mash slurry and put 2/3 in the grain bag and then poured another half-gallon of water (at 160°) over the top. Needing a break, I let the whole concoction rest for 30 minutes before continuing.

This time things seemed to work: liquid was running out of the mashtun and I could actually start recirculating and collecting some in the brew pot! Rather than tempt fate, I continued to recirculate the first runnings through a couple times and then just dumped the remaining grains and water back into the mashtun. From there I did a 3 gallon sparge at 170°, stirred in the DME and other sugars, and then topped-off the brew pot to about 7 gallons. Just to be safe from boil overs, I removed about 2 gallons of wort. Since I was planning on doing a 2 hour boil, I figured I’d just add these 2 gallons back at the 1 hour mark.

And on to the boil I went but this is where the pork conflicted with my brewing duties: the wort was getting hot but not too close to boil so I pulled the pork off the grill and started to pull it. One minute I’m happily going at the meat with the cleaver and the next I look up to see thick white foam erupting from the brewpot and getting everywhere. The beer had come to a rolling boil. Hot break was all over the patio and burner, making a complete mess.

By now I was so exasperated that I reduced the boil time from 2 hours to 90 minutes and just wanted to get the whole ordeal over with. I’d already cleaned-up the mess in the kitchen from dealing with the mash and now I was looking at a brewpot covered in schmutz and carbon blackening. I erased most of the brewing notes I’d written down the previous night, replaced it with, “Complete cock-up — brew day was a total mess”, and decided to relax and pop-open a bottle of homebrew. The hops were added at their appropriate times and the wort was cooled and dumped into the fermenting bucket.

This morning I peeked into the fermenting bucket and saw a nice brown head of kräusen so I removed the lid. There was no point in worrying about any problems at this point…the messes were all made and everything is now in the hands of God and his happy Saccharomyces helpers.

UPDATE — August 9, 2010:

I racked the Wet-hopped Calamity Ale to secondary yesterday after only a week in primary. Normally I let my beers sit in primary for a couple weeks just to make sure that the yeast have had sufficient time to do their work and then have a nice rest but, this time, there was almost no activity from the airlock after just a couple days. There was a nice, full head of kräusen the morning after I pitched the yeast, which was gone by that afternoon and the roiling tumultuous fermentation stopped shortly thereafter.

It appears that I the beer has over-attenuated with a current gravity reading of 1.008 (I was shooting for 1.015) but, besides a bit of alcohol “hotness” (that I’m sure will go away as the beer matures, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with the overall flavor profile of the beer (at this point). The banana and clove esters from the Trappist Ale yeast don’t seem to be as pronounced as the Dubbel I brewed earlier in the year.

So, while the brew day may have been a complete mess, things could still turn out fine. That’s the wonder and joy of homebrewing: even if you mess-up, all may not be totally lost. You just need to give it some time, relax, don’t worry, and have a homebrew!

2 responses to How a Brew Day Goes Horribly Wrong

  • Kirby says:

    This seems like way too much work.

    • Anthony V Parcero says:

      Well, I hope that all the work was worth it. I may be fermenting a bit warm (the ambient air was about 78 ° this afternoon when I got home) so who knows how this thing will turn out.

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