My latest brew day left me feeling a little defeated but reminds me that the reason I sometimes fail is due to my ambition to become a better brewer. If I want massive success every single attempt, I would only use the skills I already have, making the same few recipes over and over. If I aim to get better, then there will and should be projects that exceed my grasp. Failure is entirely an option, I am working on accepting that and more quickly getting to the awesome part of messing up a beer–figuring out what happened and how to do it better next time.
I had been researching and planning my latest beer recipe, an English mild, for over a month. I brewed this beer for the first time yesterday. My attempt to make this beer almost failed. That near failure is the latest in a new trend over the last year and a half. Three out of the last twelve beers were a struggle, one ending in a complete failure. The common theme, why I am becoming OK with this trend, is that I tried something new to me for the first time with each of them: my first wheat beer, my first time using a plate chiller, and my first brew with home roasted grains. I gained some hard won experience from each, new questions and topics to ponder and keep researching.
Everything started off well. The mash, the initial stage of combining cracked, malted barley with heat and water, was a bit thicker than I am used to. I have started using a new to me piece of software, BeerSmith. The water to grain ratio came from that tool rather than the online calculator I had used for previous brews. I am enjoying the new software and will talk about it more later. In short I feel it is helping to bring greater precision to my brewing. My hope is that accuracy will yield greater consistency and continuing improvements in quality.
I have made beers with similarly thick mashes before. Some were difficult like my rhubarb hefeweizen and some easier like my barley wine. I resisted the temptation to add more water in order to get a good feel for whether the advice from BeerSmith was valid. I did have some trouble running off from the mash and initially blamed that on the thickness. In retrospect, I don’t think that was the problem. Rather I think it was an early indicator of some issues with my recipe formulation.
I was able to unstick the mash by disturbing the grain bed down near the false bottom of my mash tun. Sometimes a partial vacuum can form under a false bottom, despite its design to allow wort to flow through while stopping unwanted grain husks. If the wet grains are dense or have a high degree of protein they can form a seal that then prevents any liquid flowing. I am learning that the amount of protein, which can form a gel in the mash, seems to have more impact on whether a mash gets stuck or not.
Going into the brew kettle, I should have been able to collect just over six gallons of wort. I trust BeerSmith’s calculations here in terms of how much water the grain will absorb. If I had been able to gather that much liquid, assuming the sugar content was also on target, I should have been able to conduct my boil, chill the wort and have pretty close to five gallons going into the fermenter. This batch was just under three gallons going into the fermenter.
I only had five and a half gallons to boil, another hint that I missed something in putting together my recipe. I now suspect a higher than planned protein content had something to do with it. Ordinarily, if there is too little water before the boil but plenty of sugar, then adding water is enough. My specific gravity, the measure of sugar in the wort, was below where it should have been for the full amount of liquid. Adding more water would have dropped the gravity far too low for what I wanted in the finished beer. I made the call to boil as is, preferring to have a smaller batch than to produce a beer very different from what I intended.
The low gravity reading was my second warning that I missed something in my recipe planning. At the home brew scale any number of factors can effect consistency in achieving predicted gravity for a beer. We talk about this function of skill, recipe and equipment as brew house efficiency, the ratio of potential sugar in the grains we can in practice extract in making a beer. I have my efficiency pretty well dialed in so the most likely culprit for me when there is a drop is due to variation in ingredients.
Up to this point, I was able to overcome or accept these glitches as just the kind of minor problems that pester most home brewers. The point at which the brew day truly almost failed was after the boil, when I connected by heat exchanger and tried to chill the beer. I have had trouble with this equipment before. The exchanger, specifically a plate chiller, consists of two series of connected, thin chambers. Cold water circulates through one set as hot wort counter flows through the other. When everything works, it is an incredibly effective way to cool wort fast. Rapid chilling yields any number of benefits including greater clarity, reduced chance of something unwanted infecting the beer, and of course time savings.
Despite early failure with my plate chiller, I thought I had made the necessary tweaks for it to work well. I used it for my last beer with great success. In this instance, I just couldn’t get enough pressure, even with a dedicated pump for the wort side, to get the beer moving. I thought it might have been hop debris. Maybe I turned on the chilling half of the system too soon making the wort side sluggish. I tried and tried to re-prime the wort pump to no avail. Given my last failure, I resisted the temptation to do something rash.
I re-configured my hoses to remove the plate chiller and get a whirlpool going. One of my friends who was assisting worked to try to flush out the plate chiller. The whirlpool is supposed to help gather any debris and other by-products naturally found floating in the beer at this stage to make it easier to draw off clear wort. My thought was maybe this would help with the chiller, lowering the amount of whatever was gumming it up. After finishing the whirlpool and re-connecting the chiller, no luck.
Again, I had to fight a rising panic to resist doing something rash. Every moment after the boil increases the risk of something getting into all that lovely sugar in the pre-beer, gobbling it up and ruining it. After some thought and discussion with the friends helping me out that day, I settled on a quick re-configuration of the cooling rig. I put my old immersion chiller into the kettle and just used that to get the wort down to a temperature where yeast could safely be added. That worked well enough that I am optimistic the resulting half batch of beer will turn out worth trying and maybe even sharing.
So what was clogging the chiller if not hop debris? The friend who helped clear the chiller for the second attempt to use it describe gelatinous blobs coming out of the wort-side outlet. In any given beer, you should expect to see a certain amount of protein. Part of why we boil beer is to get that protein to coagulate so it clumps together and falls out of the beer. This is called the hot break, for most kinds of beer it is a key step to getting good clarity in the end result. What she described sounded exactly like that coagulated protein was getting into the chiller in unusually large quantities.
My mild recipe is pretty similar to other English recipes I have made. I have never had a problem with protein with any of those beers so why this one? What had I done differently from those other beers? I had made included one experimental aspect, something I never tried before and now strongly suspect is the culprit.
Part of this recipe involved roasting some of the base malt in my oven. The idea was to approximate historical style malts that you really can’t buy any more. I assumed that all this would do was alter the flavor and color contribution of those malts. The only possible problem I found in my research was a reduction in diastatic power. Diastatic power, or DP, is the ability of the enzymes in a malt to convert the starch which yeast cannot easily eat into sugars which they can. Usually when a grain bill includes some malts with less DP, the base malts have more than enough extra DP to make sure all the starch converts. I thought this was the only potential problem with oven roasting so I used an easy to figure proportion, one that happened to be more than a third of the grain bill. I had no reason at the time to suspect this would be a problem.
As near as I can figure, roasting in an oven must affect the amount of protein in the malt. Maybe some thermal and mechanical action breaks the starch down in a different way producing more protein than the malt had to begin with. I know certain varieties of commercial malt have more protein as a result of higher temperature or longer durations while kilning. To a degree and in the right proportions in the beer, this is generally desirable. It can help with body and head formation and retention. The commercial process is quite a bit different than just placing a bunch of already malted barley in a hot oven for a little while.
If I had used far less of these home modified malts, the additional protein probably would have been fine. As it is, the stuck mash was very likely due to higher protein content. The lower than expected gravity between the mash and the boil definitely indicates that much of the starch in these grains was no longer available to be converted into sugar regardless of overall diastatic power.
You can see evidence of that in the picture accompanying this post. The egg drop soup appearance of the beer is protein in suspension. Within twenty minutes, most of it had settled out, testament to how much was in there, so much it just couldn’t remain free floating in the beer.
I always getting very frustrated and self critical when a brew starts to go south. I brew both as a social outlet and for the enjoyment of my hobby. I want every brew to go smoothly in front of my friends. When asked, my friends say they don’t mind a tough brew day. The fact that they keep coming back is pretty good evidence of that. One couple has been present for all three of the days that failed or almost failed. I am pretty sure they will be here for another brew day regardless. These more difficult brew days are teaching me, as Charlie Papazian says, to relax, don’t worry, and have a home brew. Panicking leads to what happened with the dubbel, ill considered fixes that just make things worse.
Each failure also has taught me something about the craft. Maybe I could have learned those lessons by reading rather than doing. I read a lot about brewing, more it seems with each passing day. Part of the problem is that there is so much to learn it is hard to know where to start or to look next. Lately it feels like in pursuing my ambition I am exploring areas of my hobby that aren’t easily covered by a book or article. The failures aren’t basic technique I have found on a do and do not list but rather the result of several very different variables acting on concert.
Thinking about it that way, how I am pushing my abilities, helps me feel better. It is natural that I should fail, from time to time, as a consequence of my ambition to elevate my skill. What I should feel good about is how I have managed to figure out why I failed or almost failed each time. Even more so when I am able to use that knowledge to try again the next time with success. Here’s to the next brew day!