There’s nothing more disappointing to a home brewer than losing a batch of beer. All of that effort literally goes down the drain. Any seasoned brewer can relate a tale of the beer that got away, but fortunately most home brewing disasters are completely avoidable. Here is a golden opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others!
Some disasters are not necessarily permanent. With quick thinking some catastrophes can be turned around before the brew is ruined. A very common problem faced by brewers is forgetting ingredients. This is most often the case when brewers indulge in the fruits of their labour during a brew session! By far the most common forgotten ingredient is Irish Moss, which is used by all grain brewers to help clear the wort of sludge near the end of the boil. Forgetting Irish Moss won’t necessarily ruin a beer, but it can leave the final beer with an unsightly haze caused by excess proteins. This can be fixed by cold crashing a beer after fermentation, or by adding gelatin as a fining agent. Both of these techniques cause proteins to fall out of suspension, leaving brilliantly clear beer.
I have heard of a few brewers who have completely forgotten to add any hops! Recovering from this is more of a challenge, but it can be done. Hops can be boiled in water to produce a bitter hop extract that can then be added to the beer during or after fermentation. Dry hops can be added to the fermenter to recover flavour and aroma characteristics. Of course these will not produce the same beer as if hops had been added to the boil, but it may just save the batch from dumping! Forgetting ingredients is best avoided by ensuring that everything needed for the brew day is checked and available before starting to brew. A Recipe Checklist can be very helpful for keeping track of this.
Fermentation usually produces the alcohol and carbon dioxide that we all know and love. But in the process it also creates other compounds that can affect the flavour of a beer. Some of these flavours can be improved by leaving the beer in contact with yeast for a while longer. Buttery flavours caused by diacetyl can fade with time, as can some of the solvent-like taste of fusel alcohols. These are best avoided altogether by using healthy yeast at its preferred temperature and giving the wort a good strong boil, but if they do appear in a beer, some extended aging can be very beneficial!
One of the typical brew day disasters that is more of an annoyance than a catastrophe is the dreaded boil-over. As the wort comes to the boil, proteins stick together and rise to the surface of the beer. This foamy substance is called hot break, and can boil all the way over the kettle. If a watched pot never boils, you can guarantee that an unwatched pot always boils over. Keep an eye on the brew as it comes to a boil, especially after adding the first load of hops, or you may spend the next half hour scrubbing sticky burned wort off your pot and burner. If this happens on a kitchen cooktop it can cause burn spots that are as good as permanent. If this happens, prepare the dog house.
Some brewing disasters are unfortunately fatal for the beer. A great example is an infected brew. Once a brew is infected there is no recovery. It must be dumped. Infections are caused by bacteria and wild yeasts growing in the wort. This can be avoided almost completely by thoroughly sanitising anything that will come in contact with the post-boil wort – spoons, yeast containers, fermenter, bottles, etc. The wort is most vulnerable to infection when it’s cooled following the boil but before the yeast is pitched. Make sure to cool the wort quickly and pitch plenty of healthy yeast so the fermentation can start as quickly as possible. That way the brewing yeast can out-compete any infection organisms and prevent them from taking hold.
Another of the unrecoverable disasters is scorched wort. This is most common when boiling with electric elements, but it can also happen when boiling with gas if making extract beers. Scorched wort is exactly what it sounds like – burned. And it tastes burned. And it’s not a nice, caramel kind of burned. It tastes like someone dumped an ashtray into the fermenter. No amount of aging will help a scorched beer; it’s a goner. Electric brewers can avoid scorching by using a low watt density heating element and by circulating the wort during heating so proteins don’t stick to the element. Extract brewers need to make sure they stir the wort well when adding extract as it has a tendency to stick to the bottom of the brew pot. Once it sticks it can burn very very quickly. And if it burns, the batch is ruined and there’ll be a big black burn mark to scrub off the bottom of the pot. How fun.
The last of the unrecoverable disasters are also fermentation off flavours, but these don’t fade with time. Beer made using water high in chlorine or chloramine has a very high likelihood of tasting like plastic after fermentation. The chlorine compounds react with the yeast and proteins in the beer to form chlorophenols, which taste of plastic. Some describe them as ‘band-aid’ flavours, which tastes about as good as it sounds. Chlorophenols can be avoided by not using unfiltered tap water brewing. A simple in-line charcoal filter can be enough to remove chlorine from brewing water. Beer fermented outside of a yeast’s preferred temperature range can have strong flavours caused by esters. These may taste of banana, bubblegum, pineapple, clove or even nail polish remover. I’ve heard tales told in hushed whispers that esters can fade with extended aging, but that’s never been my experience. Avoid excessive esters by keeping the fermentation temperature within the yeast’s preferred range.
Some ruined batches can be a learning experience. There are a lot of brewers who force themselves to drink a ruined batch to make sure they never make the same mistake again. Personally I feel life is too short to drink bad beer, but to each their own. By all means taste the beer to learn what off flavours taste like, that way you’ll know what to look for in the future. But keep in mind infected beer can make you sick, burnt beer tastes like death itself, and as for a beer with no hops… Well let’s just say it’s not the middle ages anymore.
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