The Value of Brewing Failures

7 Feb
Used under a cc-by-sa license from flickr user Tomasz Stasiuk
Used under a cc-by-sa license from flickr user Tomasz Stasiuk

For the first time in five years, I had to dispose of a beer rather than finish, package and share it. The only two other times I have had to do this were pretty early on. Summer of 2011 I was making beer once a week, often after work, as part of an activism project. I was new to all grain brewing, the most complicated but rewarding way of making beer. Each of those failures was a learning moment, the result of a common mistake that experience would have helped avoid.

I won’t lie, deciding a beer has failed is gutting. Beer is pretty forgiving and we home brewers are good in the crunch, applying a good deal of ingenuity to avoid pouring our hard won efforts down the drain. Many forms of failure are simply missing a target, not getting what we intended. Results can be tasty even if not exactly what we meant. Even less than tasty beers can be salvaged.

I had one other failure from early on, a Scottish ale. It was my first time making an original recipe. The beer tasted great all through the process, right up until bottling. A week after bottling, something just didn’t quite taste right. I was still learning how to package beer consistently and correctly. I back tracked and realized I had been a little naive in how I had been cleaning and not entirely sanitizing bottles, creating an opportunity for some sort of infection.

As disappointing as that failure was, at least one in about every four bottles was still fine. I simply drank that batch myself, tasting as I went to figure out if a given bottle was good or should be poured out. I am glad I didn’t let that failure get to me too much. That recipe has become one of my very favorites to make and share.

Towards the end of yesterday’s brew day, the new chilling system I had put together failed to work as I had hoped. Thinking quickly, I tried something else, grabbing my racking cane to get wort flowing out of the kettle that just wouldn’t budge from the drain valve. The thing about racking canes is that they are designed for moving beer at room or cellar temperature.

What at first seemed like a save the day moment quickly turned into a horror show. The end of the cane, part of an auto siphon, started to bend as the still near boiling wort softened the plastic. The vinyl tubing running into the chiller likewise because uncomfortable to handle and dangerously soft.

Nothing ruptured and nothing melted into the kettle or any of the fittings. After about a gallon and a half, I just didn’t like the idea of the hot liquid leaching who knows what out of equipment simply not designed to do what I was doing. I noticed black flecks of what looked like plastic flowing through the tubing. At that point, I made the call. Even if I could get the rest of the beer out and chilled, I was increasingly worried about what else might now be in the beer that at best would ruin the flavor and at worst could be toxic.

Pouring all of the beer out was still hard even as I rationally knew that was the right thing to do. I had spent my entire day on this beer, several friends had also shown up up to help. I felt bad that I would have nothing with which to reward their volunteer efforts.

I am clearly still processing. Here is what I am telling myself to help me feel better.

My friends come to brew day as much to socialize as to learn to brew by listening and doing. Even if there is no beer resulting from their efforts, I still share my other home brews generously and will make it up to them with future brews. I had two other recent beers on tap which everyone seemed to enjoy greatly. We cracked a bottle of another brew from a little further back. One of my friends brought some of his recent home brew, a stunningly brilliant pale ale with Earl Grey tea. (Thank you, Jason!)

Most of the friends who saw this failure saw a salvageable mess from last Summer. I’ve written or talked on the podcast about the hefeweizen. It almost failed but I managed to get that beer finished. While it wasn’t exactly what I was shooting for, it was tasty. The friends who witnessed that mess agreed, as did everyone else with whom I shared that beer. Those same friends still came back to this brew day and I am pretty sure that despite seeing me struggle now more than once, they will happily come back again. Whether they have been at all of my brew days or not, they have tasted a very broad sampling of my efforts and let me know how much they clearly enjoyed them. One bad beer a bad brewer does not make.

In even short retrospect, the culprit for my ultimate failure was inexperience with a new plate chiller. This is a heat exchanger at the heart of a new part of my constantly evolving brewing rig. The cooling setup didn’t entirely fail, either. Half of the rig circulates cold water through the chiller while the other half circulates the boiling pre-beer. My plan for the cooling half was to re-use one of my brewing vessels as a cold water reservoir to conserve water. That part of the setup worked brilliantly, circulating an ice cold flow throw the plate chiller the whole time.

The part of the rig that failed, moving the wort from the brew kettle into the chiller and then to the fermenter, I hadn’t tested before the day. I made a simple mistake, assuming the pieces would just work without trying them first. Before putting everything away, I did a little testing which helped me realize my mistakes and formulate a plan between now and next time. I will test that plan with just water or sanitizing solution well before the next brew day. I should have done that test before yesterday. Now I have an object lesson in the value of testing new gear ahead of time.

The plate chiller was not the only piece of new equipment nor was it the only mistake I made. The impeller pump I have had for a year didn’t work as well as it had on past brew days. I learned two things about that pump. I should probably taking the pump head apart and clean it thoroughly every six to twelve months to keep it performing as well as it can. And an impeller pump works best when at the lowest point in the system.

I knew that second point but had forgotten it. The pump had worked in a less than ideal position before so I didn’t have anything to remind me of its limits. An impeller pump is not like the pump you normally think of. While this kind of pump is perhaps less powerful it is safe to pump beer through, not just water or coolant. The trade off for this safety is the pump needs as much gravity assistance to do its job as possible. Hence the need to put it at the lowest point so that there is a good weight of liquid going into the inflow. My mistake about the pump’s limitations was easily corrected and will now stick with me as a function of direct experience of near failure.

In addition to a kegging system and this new chilling system, I bought a new brew kettle as part of this year’s upgrades. Using electric heat in my kitchen allows me to brew regardless of season or weather. My electric range got the job done but when bringing six gallons or so of wort to a boil it took its sweet time. Time to boil is one of the variables a home brewer can optimize in order to shorten the brew day. My new brew kettle has a 2250 watt heating element, well above what me electric range top can manage. Watching the thermometer fitted onto the kettle was pretty amazing. It took about a third the time even when using two of the burners on the range.

The quicker, more vigorous boil should improve the quality of the beer in addition to shortening the day. A good boil will better drive off a lot of compounds that might produce off flavors and improve utilization of hops. Boiling more quickly should reduce any darkening of lighters beers. Last year I branched out from a few recipes for darker beers to try may hand at some lighter styles.

I am fortunate to have successfully made a lot of beers. Being successful far more often than not perhaps makes me take this for granted. I definitely feel my failures more keenly. When I do fail, especially as badly as I did yesterday, I need to remember that they teach me far more than success. The experience of failing followed by figuring out what went wrong sticks with me far longer than the incremental tweaks I might cement on each successful brew day.

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