When Good Beer (Homebrew) Goes Bad

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Grain stocks ready

Fresh hops

Sunday morning, the sun was shining and it’s was a beautiful day…for a brew. I had been on a family walk and shipped the missus and her mini-me off for a bit of shopping, got the young fella occupied on some craft work, and I was ready to brew.

I was pretty  pumped about the brew, my Summer Session Ale that I was re-brewing after I turned the last one into an accidental hop bomb by not using the correct alpha acids calculation with my hops.

Side note: Alpha acids are very important in the production of beer. The hop flowers have resin glands that contain these acids and they are the source of the bitterness for brewing beer. The alpha acids are only released at higher temperatures, which is why they are used in the boil, and will provide more bitterness the longer that they are immersed in the liquid. Hops used at the end of the brew will also have alpha acids, but because they are used once the heat has gone from the boil, they are used to provide aroma to the beer.

Back to my excitement for the day…I was also excited to brew because it was the first time I was trialling my new Brew-O-Chill™ ice water re-circulating wort chiller. I decided to build this system to allow me to save some time and therefore be able to brew on school nights. Chilling wort (the name given to the liquid before it becomes beer) is a necessary, but time consuming, step in the brew process. Dropping 20 litres of boiling wort to 20-25°C by way of pumping tap water through a immersion chiller is not only time consuming, but a serious waste of water.

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The day started off really well, I had my trusty helpers (Ebony and Mabel pictured here ) in the shed with me and I had my usual 90’s grunge rock playlist cranking on the beer themed iPod dock. My trusty recipe that had been tweaked by some online friends on Aussie Home Brewer had me brimming with confidence that I would be brewing something great…look out Mountain Goat and Stone & Wood, there’s a new quaffable Summer Ale on the block, and its from Green Shed Brewing.

The vorlauf process

2015-10-31 004As wafts of malty goodness from my mash tun (pic on left) filled the shed, and made my son want to leave (he hates the smell), I was dreaming of Summer Days on my deck with a Green Shed Summer Ale in hand.

There is something that is so pleasing about drinking a beer that you know you have crafted with your own two hands, especially one that makes you want to go back for a second one!

It was a great day  in the brewery, the wort smelled great and tasted even better (nice and sweet) as I performed the ‘vorlauf’ (above right).

Side Note: Vorlauf is the process of clarifying the wort before you transfer it all out of the mash tun and into the kettle. All you do it draw of 1 – 2 litres into a jug and carefully pour it back over the top of the mash (don’t stir up the grains) to ensure that there are no blockages or bits of grain escaping. The mash tun has a false bottom in it, with small holes to allow the liquid to pass through but not grains…but sometimes the grains escape and this helps clear them out.

The wort transferred into the kettle without a problem, the boil went well and all the hop additions went just as planned. Then it was time to chill the beer down…that’s when things went a bit pear shaped!

When you brew, you need to chill the beer down to approximately 20-25°C to allow you to pitch your yeast to start the alcohol creation process. If your beer is too hot, you fry the yeast and the sugars don’t get fermented into alcohol. It’s best to complete this chilling process quickly so as to avoid contamination of your beer and get the process finished so you put your feet up and enjoy an end of workday beer!

There are heaps of different methods that home brewers use to complete this step of cooling, including ice baths, immersion chillers, counterflow chillers and even the “no chill method” – some work better than others. I came up with this idea after doing some research and this was my first attempt with the new gear. The idea is pretty simple, but I have drawn a very technical illustration below to help explain it!

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So the bit on the left is a 60 litre beer cooler filled with cold water and beer/coke can ice blocks – as demonstrated here by my assistant brewer, Will. In the bottom of the chiller sits a pond pump connected to a hose that is then connected to a stainless steel coil immersion chiller that sits in the kettle. The idea is that the pump sucks in ice cold water sends it through the coil and cools the wort, and then recirculates it back into the beer chiller to be cooled and pumped around again. Genius, right?

Here is what I learned:

  1. Trying to pump water through approximately 10 metres of hose/tubing with a pond pump is not easy, especially when the pump is also approximately 1m below its target.
  2. When your new system fails and you switch back to the previous system (garden hose to immersion chiller and back out and into collection bins) carefully check all of your connections, especially if you have used a low quality garden hose and fittings to connect to the immersion chiller. The connections can leak, or even worse, slip off the end of the immersion chiller when you lift it up and fill your kettle full of water!
  3. When your connections do break, you need to be able to multi task…swear your head off as you hold a freely flowing garden hose in your hand, run to your garage door to get it outside so as not to flood the garage, and scream for your assistant brewer to run to the tap and turn it off.
  4. When you are a slow learner (as I am), you must be ready to repeat step 3 at least twice, when your “on the fly” fix it jobs fail and tap water begins to infiltrate your precious wort that you spent the last 2 hours cultivating!
  5. Swearing your head off tends to scare the dogs, children, wife and neighbours.
  6. Flooding your shed is really easy with this method!

2015-10-31 0212015-10-31 019Picture on the left shows the manual modification I had to make on the fly and move the pump and water above the kettle so that the pump could get some water flowing. The one on the right is after the clean-up…there was water every where, my stress was high and the swear jar was full of money!!

After all of the issues I had, I went back the original method of connecting the garden hose to the coil and turning it on…it took a little longer in the end, but it eventually chilled down so that I could pitch my yeast.

However, there was one last issue I had to deal with…how much water did I actually add to my wort, and had it diluted my beer down to something that I could not salvage? Four hours of brewing, faced with having wasted my entire afternoon if too much water had gotten in, I was nervous as I put the hydrometer in the test tube. The reading was spot on, the Beer Gods were smiling upon me this sunny Sunday afternoon…woohoo!

What this day of drama now called for was a “reflection beer”…a beer to sit and sip while I had a think about what I could do better next time. For this beer I chose my last brew, a beer that was loosely based on the Little Creatures Rogers Ale…a hybrid English/American Amber Ale that tips the scales at 3.5%. I know 3.5% is low, but it’s a session ale and I have young kids…don’t judge me!

The verdict: You should have seen the smile on my face as this is how the beer poured into my glass. A slightly hazy deep golden colour with an off white head that laced down the glass! A malty/toffee aroma with some caramel sweetness and a mild bitterness finishing nice and clean.

It was a fantastic finish to a bit of a stressful brew day and I couldn’t have been happier. I jumped into all grain brewing with gusto, but not real idea of how steep the learning curve was going to be! 15 brews in to my home brewing career, finally I had brewed a beer that I was truly proud of, and would actually pay money for!

Cheers to great beers!

1 comment
Stu - November 9, 2015

Great read, Chris. Nothing like a plumbing issue for things to get out of hand!

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