Troubleshooting Brew Day: The Top 3 Brew Day Disasters and What To Do About Them
Brew Day is always a good day, even if it doesn’t always go exactly as planned. Like the old adage says, a bad day brewing is better than a good day at work, and it’s true! This week we are going to talk about 3 of the biggest brew day disasters and how to keep your cool and save your beer!
A stuck sparge is probably the most common disaster, and can happen to every homebrew system, be it a stainless steel pot or keg or a cooler mash tun. The most common reason is a high percentage of un-hulled grain, like wheat or rye. It’s very important to add rice hulls liberally when using high percentages of these malts so that you have a grain bed to set when you go to drain all of that hard won wort into your boil kettle. If this is the reason that your sparge is stuck, it may be an easier fix than you think.
Rice hulls can be added at any point during the mash. If your wheat beer recipe kit gets stuck during the vorlauf, just mix some in! Add them in a half of a pound at a time and mix them into your mash completely with your mash paddle. Check your flow by doing another vorlauf, and keep adding them until you can vorlauf completely, then move on to sparge like normal. This will work no matter what you’re using as a mash tun.
Another common cause that we see quite a bit is using a pump to vorlauf. When the pump is on full blast, it can pull too much wort too fast and compact the grain bed to the point where the wort can’t move through it at all. The key here is slow and steady. Dial the flow back with a ball valve on the ‘OUT’ side of your pump enough so that you are still pulling wort through the grain bed, but not so much that it compacts everything. Before you do this, you’ll need to grab your mash paddle and mix your mash again. Dial your pump down and start your vorlauf over.
Another common cause is straight up brewing equipment failure. Either the tube connecting your false bottom to your ball valve is crimped, or enough grain somehow made it through your false bottom, screen or manifold and plugged everything up. This is probably the worst case scenario, and is usually a nightmare, but don’t worry! It’s time to pour a beer and get to it!
Before you can figure out what happened, you need to get the grain out of there. Hopefully you have a big grain bag on hand, because you’ll need it! If you don’t have another vessel big enough to pour your mash in, you’ll have to repurpose your brew kettle for a minute. Take your grain bag and spread it over your kettle, then pour your entire mash into it so that you can get a good look at what’s going on in the mash tun. Hopefully, it’s as simple as your dip tube getting hit when you doughed in, and you can simply clean it out, re-attach it and get back to brew day. If it’s a total equipment failure, you will probably have to put the entire bag of grain back into your mash tun to finish the sparge, which isn’t so bad. I usually put the entire grain bag back into the mash tun anyway, just because it’s easier and works well as a grain screen. From here, the sparge is back on, and brew day is saved!
Missing Your Numbers
Missing your numbers sucks! If you’re within a few points, it’s not usually a big deal, but if you’re super low or super high, it can change the entire beer and ruin the delicate balance of hop bitterness, body and alcohol content. There are a few easy ways to combat this.
First and foremost is preparation. If you have a refractometer, this is way easier because you can check your sugar levels throughout the boil and know beforehand if you are going to miss your numbers. It’s a simple calculation to figure out your pre-boil gravity, and you can check out the long hand version in this article, courtesy of BYO Magazine, or use one of the free available online calculators.
If your numbers are too low at the end of the boil, it’s easy enough to add in some Dry Malt Extract before you cool, and it’s an easy calculation. 1 pound of DME in 1 gallon of water gives you 45 gravity points, or 1.045. If you divide 45 by your actual volume of wort in the boil, you’ll know how many points you will get per pound, and you can easily calculate how much you need to get back up to the gravity that you’re trying to hit. For example:
45 / 6.25 gallons = 7.2 gravity points per pound of DME added.
So, if you’re 9 points low on your gravity and you have 6.25 gallons of wort in the kettle, you’ll want to add 1.25 lbs of DME (9 points / 7.2 points per pound = 1.25 lbs). This will fix your gravity right up, and you can move forward.
Another common method of adjusting gravity up is doing a longer boil. While you can boil down your wort to bump your gravity up, this will also change your bitterness because whatever hops you’ve already added will continue to isomerize as long as you boil. So if you added 2 ounces of hops at 60 minutes, but end up boiling for 90 or 120 minutes, you’ll have a distinctly more bitter beer than you planned for. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something to consider if you decide to go this route.
Let’s say you had insane efficiency or mis-calculated your water, and when you check your gravity, it’s way too high. Your 5% pale ale just turned into a 7.5% IPA! While this isn’t necessarily bad, maybe you were really trying to hit that summer sipper beer kit. With a little more math, this is also a pretty easy fix by just adding more water. One big thing to remember when adding city water, however, is that it has to boil long enough to boil off the chlorine, so if you can catch the high gravity before the end of the boil, at least 15 minutes, but a half an hour is better, then your finished product will be better. You can also use distilled or RO water, since it won’t need the extra boil time.
The math for this is easy. First, take your actual volume and gravity. Multiply your actual volume by the difference between your actual gravity and your target gravity, then divide that by your target gravity. Long hand, it looks like this:
(Actual Volume * (Actual Gravity - Target Gravity)) / Target Gravity = Water Needed
So, in a numbers example, let’s say my pale ale is 1.074 when I really want 1.056. I will need to add 1.74 gallons of water. Here’s how it looks in math form.
Step 1: (5.4 gallons * (74-56)) / 56
Step 2: (5.4 *18) / 56
Step 3: 97.2 / 56 = 1.74
This equation will work in liters or ounces as well, I just find gallons to be an easier measurement to work with. However you want to calculate it, your beer is saved! You may find that you have extra if you had a crazy high efficiency, so take the extra and play around with it!
There are tons of different things that can happen to your yeast before brew day. What may be the most common is forgetting to put liquid yeast in the fridge until brew day. If it just gets left out, it’s not a huge calamity as long as it’s at room temperature, but if it gets frozen, well, that’s a whole different story.
According to Imperial Yeast and the extensive lab testing they’ve done on their strains, being frozen and then slowly thawed out decreases viability by 20-30%. Although that’s not as bad as you would think, you’ll have to put it on a starter to prop your yeast back up to a reasonable colony. Using the same equation for other yeast purveyors, you would be looking at a severe underpitch, and ultimately the potential for off flavors in your finished beer isn’t worth the risk. Now, this isn’t to say it won’t work, because it usually will, but pitching a healthy yeast colony is paramount to making the best beer you can.
The best ‘fix’ to this type of calamity comes in the form of dry yeast. I always like to have backup strains from Lallemand and Safale on hand and ready for emergencies. While they don’t have the strain variety of Imperial Yeast, White Labs or Wyeast, they do have most of the best basic strains for every beer style, and it’s worth having some backup on hand in case the worst happens.
Take the frozen liquid yeast and let it thaw in the fridge. When it’s all thawed out, take it and throw it in a starter for your next batch. The process is much the same if your yeast was left out outside of room temperature. Pitch your favorite backup dry yeast strain, then throw it in a starter to prop it back up. Unless it was left on your dash in the middle of summer for eight hours, you should have plenty of viable cells to build up the colony to a healthy pitch.
If you are experiencing yeast troubles during fermentation, such as not seeing signs of fermentation within a reasonable amount of time, don’t forget to take a gravity reading before you do anything. Sometimes, especially if the yeast are underpitched, it can take them longer to get started and make the cells they need to ferment your beer. Some strains can just take longer to get moving, so you shouldn’t panic too much until you’ve taken a gravity reading to ensure that nothing is happening.
If disaster does strike your brew day, try not to lose your cool and remember that this is homebrewing, and it’s fun! I’ve had many brew day disasters, from those listed above to running out of fuel to breaking the fermentor as I’m transferring the beer into it! All of these trials serve to make us better brewers, and we can learn a lot about our process, our brewing equipment, and even make something by accident that is better than what we were trying to make! In the words of the great Charlie Papazian, relax, don’t worry, and have a homebrew!
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