Monday, December 5, 2016

Star-crossed ale

Well, it had to happen eventually: my first brewing mishap.

Few things are more sad than throwing out a batch of homebrew. A death in the family, of course, or the 2016 election results, say. Thankfully I am not dealing with the former, though I am going to need significantly more beer around to cope with the latter. This batch of psudo-beer, however, went to the worms....

Back in mid-September, my lady friends and I got together to whip up our second-ever all-grain beer: a rhubarb saison. With a fancy Belgian yeast and many pounds of freshly milled grains from 3 Stars, a few pounds of rhubarb from my landlady's garden, and a homemade mashtun inherited from my pal Bobby, we were all set for brewing greatness. With successful batches of pumpkin saison, belgian dark ale, persimmon red ale, scotch ale, and even an all-grain vanilla porter under our belts, we had no reason to expect anything other than delicious results. As recommended by the dude at the 3 Stars shop, I'd even read a homebrewing book cover to cover -- The Joy of Homebrewing, in case you're interested  -- prior to brew day. After a fairly organized brew session that Sunday afternoon, things were smelling good and looking good that first evening as the carboy bubbled away in my kitchen. However, as we were transferring the wort into the fermenter, I had noticed we had barely 3.5 gallons of wort, so I boiled a few more gallons (you never know what's in DC tap water) on the stove. It wasn't nearly cool enough even 3 hours later to add to the carboy, so I left it til the morning -- covered to prevent contamination, of course.

But maybe it wasn't sterile any more, I worried the next morning, so I boiled it again. By lunchtime, the doubly boiled supplemental water was cool enough to pour in, bringing our brew up to the five gallon mark. And then... no more bubbling. I waited another 24 hours. Still no sign of activity. A panicked search through my homebrew book yielded this advice:

WHAT?! You don't just drop this into a little bullet point tucked away in the middle of a chapter! THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN BOLD FONT AND UNDERLINED!!

Maybe the lesson learned here is that I shouldn't have been so greedy for a full five gallons of rhubarb ale. Or maybe it's that I need to be a better note-taker, should have marked that very important point while reading. I teach whole lessons on following directions, for heaven's sake! I shook my fist at the heavens, and then at the carboy, but there was still no bubbling.

A week or so later, my friend Jessica sent me an article on when to dump a batch of homebrew gone amiss. The long and short of it is: pretty much never, unless it tastes bad. Well, it didn't taste like much. We added more yeast -- this one not as fancy, but perfectly acceptable -- a few days later, but in retrospect I think I might have accidentally sanitized the yeast when trying out a new sanitizing solution on the funnel we poured it through. (Was this beer star-crossed from the beginning, I wonder?) More than 24 hours later, still no activity. Did I kill the yeast again? Or, one of my brewing companions suggested, was it possible that maybe we hadn't gotten sufficient sugars from the grain using the mashtun during the initial steeping so there was nothing for the yeast to break down? The measurements we took suggested there was practically no alcohol in there. Hmm. Maybe it needed more time?

Finally, now more than two months later, our moment of truth arrived as the Ladies Sunday Brewing Club gathered to start working on our first batch of hard cider. (That is a WHOLE other tale, with its own misadventures, for another day. It is still bubbling away... at the moment, at least.) We decanted some of the maybe-rhubarb-beer-maybe-not from the carboy and tasted it. I believe the resounding assessment confirmed my suspicion that we'd accidentally made artisanal Bud Light, which in the homebrewing world is tantamount to a felony. (Or if it isn't, it should be.) We looked up how we could use our five gallons of not-beer. No, not this article, this one. After reading about beer-based home distilling (a no-go if it's bad tasting beer to begin with) and culinary uses (I couldn't imagine using 5 GALLONS to braise poultry or make mustard), we stumbled upon the fact that beer provides an excellent boost for microbial activity in the garden. And... done!

R.I.P., Rhubarb Saison. My garden thanks you, even if my fragile homebrewing ego does not.

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