10 gallons. Gone. Tears…
3 weeks earlier.
I had brewed 4 successful extract batches. My beer was winning awards at homebrew competitions. Beer was disappearing from my kegs as fast as I could brew it. I was confident that it was time to step up to all grain brewing. I was going to try the Brew in a Bag (BIAB) method. I’d already been steeping specialty grains to add complexity to my brews, this just felt like the next logical step in my brew quest. So I bought a bigger pot, did a lot more reading, and designed an all grain recipe similar to my 1st Brown Ale. I didn’t expect much as I was trying a whole new process. My brew day went off without a hitch, except I didn’t hit my target OG, and after my fermentation I also missed my FG by a little bit as well. But in the end, it tasted good. It was beer. A nice Brown Ale. With that kind of spectacular success I was convinced I was now a full fledged all grain Brewer. Well… That didn’t last long.
March 13, 2014. I went to the Bearded Brewer and bought over 20lbs of grain. It was my intention to Brew 2 different batches on back to back days. Night 1 – I was going to Brew a coffee Porter for SWMBO at her request. Brew night went as planned. I put 5.5 gallons of beer into my Ale Pail and called it a night. The next night, I set up again and commenced brewing an all grain version of the honey blonde I made that was a huge success. I put 5.5 gallons in a glass carboy and went to bed dreaming of 11 gallons of delicious beer that I would be drinking in a few weeks.
Fast forward a little over a week. I figured it was about time to move the coffee Porter to secondary so I could add the coffee extract, and cold crash the honey blonde. So I go to take the gravity reading on the porter. 1.040. Wait, what? That’s not right. Target gravity was 1.018. I was looking at a 3% Porter that should actually be over 6%. Something wasn’t right. I checked the honey blonde. 1.034. Wait. Huh? This isn’t right. I had 5 batches under my belt, I was by no means a pro, but I knew that there was supposed to be more fermentation by now. I start reading. A lot. Everywhere. I’m thinking it’s a stuck fermentation. First I try swirling the yeast a little bit and adding some yeast nutrient. I check 2 days later – no movement. So I get some more yeast and repitch. No new activity. 3 days later – still nothing. I’m thinking, maybe the beer will still be good. I’ve heard of “session” beers that come in under 3%. So I taste the porter. Horrible. I try the honey blonde. I vomit in my mouth a little bit. Definitely off. For giggles, I still wait a couple more days. Just in case. And… Nothing. Now I’m faced with an inevitable, undesirable, unavoidable decision to make.
Everyone has been there. They’ve seen someone at a party drink half a beer, set it down, and walk away. Never to return. They left a man standing in the field. Or you see a clumsy drunk fool swing his arms wildly and knock over a beer. PARTY FOUL! Worse yet, you see that girl that was trying to be cool and grab a beer, only to “discreetly” pour it into the sink, or the nearest houseplant. It’s a travesty. That kind of waste and abuse of beer is a sin. It’s like the Cruciatus Curse. It’s unforgivable. Yet here I am, in circumstances that make the unthinkable justifiable. I have to dump 10 gallons of beer. I have to unceremoniously dispose of all of that grain that I converted into wort and had such high hopes for. I took the 2 containers out of the fermentation chamber, walked them to the front lawn, and went to dump them. Then I paused. I looked down at all that would be beer. Not only was this hours of time and energy for naught, this was also many glasses of liquid libation that would have brought joy, euphoria, and inebriation to countless people. This represented memories that would never be made, late night confessions that will never inform people of unrequited love, 2am trips to a Mexican fast food drive thru that would go unmade.
I had to bestow upon this moment the solemn respect it deserved. I thought about a eulogy. Saying a couple of words. But then I realized that would just look a tad too ridiculous. So I paused for a moment of quiet introspection. As I tipped the 1st bucket over, I took off my hat in a quiet Salute and watched the earth soak up the wort. I then did the same with the 2nd container. If I had bagpipes, they would’ve been playing. This was a moment deserving of a 21 gun salute.
I’m not gonna lie, a small tear MAY have fallen. But then, I started thinking. If it was one of the two batches of beer, I could chalk it up to a random stuck fermentation. But it was 2 different beers, brewed on 2 consecutive days, using the same process, that had the same problem. I started looking into water chemistry, grain crush, yeast pitching rates, anything I could think of. I then talked to the Bearded Brewer and he asked me about my mash temp. I told him that I started at 154 degrees, and maintained it by adding a little burst of heat when needed. He said it sounds like I could have been mashing too high. Raising the temp during mash stops the sugars in the grain from processing, causing a lack of fermentable sugar, which results in a high final gravity.
I thought I actually had that covered. Since I was using steeping grains, I never used the floating thermometer that came with my starter kit.
Instead I had purchased a nice dial thermometer with a clip and extra long probe from the LHBS.
I needed to calibrate it to make sure. I took for granted that it would just work. So I looked up how to check my thermometer. I had to check freezing temp and boiling temp. 1st I created an ice bath with crushed ice and enough water to just fill the cracks in the glass. After 5 minutes, if I put the thermometer in the glass it should read 32 degrees. It read 46… Then, if I boiled water, and put the thermometer in the pot, it should read 212. It read 190. There was my problem. I though I was mashing at 154, when in reality was more like 174. I wasn’t getting conversion. The yeast didn’t have enough sugar in the wort to eat and convert into alcohol. I was ruining my own beer. I ended up doing some research and purchasing a ThermoWorks temp probe and sensor. Accurate +/- 0.9 degrees. I was able to monitor my mash temp without opening the lid. To be safe, I calibrated it before my 1st use. It was spot on. Problem solved.
I proceeded to Brew another batch. Mashed at the right temp, pitched the right amount of yeast. My 2nd attempt at Cymbre’s Sinful Coffee Porter was a success. Lesson learned. Don’t blindly trust your equipment. Test and check it. Also, research will lead you to the right answer. But more importantly, check your equipment. Don’t make the mistake I did. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you have to dump out 10 gallons of beer.
As you can imagine, this wasn’t an easy article to write. It took me 6 weeks to finally type this. And a few pints of WhIPA it Good IPA. And a pint of Poppa’s Amber Ale. And some ice cream. So please join me in one more moment of silence for the beer that fell, and the good times that never happened as a result.