Those who’ve been following the progress of my latest hobby – brewing beer – may be interested to know how my first unsupervised batch turned out. Eish… what a learning curve! Only about one third of the batch (or about a dozen 500 ml bottles) ended up drinkable – the rest, I’m sad to say, ended up gurgling down the drain.
As mentioned in my previous post, everything had seemingly gone well, but only time would tell if the batch would be quaffable or not. Little did I know at the time, but my variable results would have me scratching my head for weeks as I worked out exactly what had gone wrong.
Here’s what happened: After leaving the now-bottled beer for three weeks to condition (and carbonate), I enthusiastically grabbed a pint and, while heading to get a glass, popped the cap. All hell broke loose! I have never experienced a liquid – not even a violently shaken Coke – foam so violently in my life. Beer spewed everywhere; covering the ceiling, running down the kitchen cupboard doors. And the floor ended up one huge sticky puddle. Cursing, I had no choice but to mop everything up – not exactly the kind of domestic activity one enjoys performing on a week night. Actually, make that never!
Once my initial frustration had passed, my brain went into overdrive. What had gone wrong? Had I picked up some wild yeast carried in the wind while bottling? Hadn’t I sanitised the bottles properly? Thumbing through the trouble shooting section of John Palmer’s informative book, How To Brew, I read his advice on over carbonation: “Refrigerate the bottles, and drink them while there is still some flavour left.” I was also terrified I’d come home from work one day, only to find exploded bottles and another sticky mess to deal with, so I did just that.
Now in exploratory mode, and everything nicely cooled down to inhibit carbonation – I tentatively cracked open another one. To my surprise it was as flat as pure apple juice and, while it tasted like beer, because it wasn’t carbonated at all it had a really lousy feel in the mouth. The only sensible option was to pour it down the drain. Now I was completely stumped. “How could I have such variable results?” I wondered.
There I was, sitting with just over three dozen bottles and not knowing which ones were safe to open or not. My only solution was to carefully prise each one open to see what could be salvaged. Being chicken, I roped PM’s intern, Cathryn Golby, in on the action. Apart from providing much-needed moral support (including help me drink what was salvageable), her job was be to photograph what I was up to.
Although the beers were ice cold, the over carbonated bottles still required careful handling. Just cracking the cap’s seal had foam pouring through the miniscule 1 mm gap at an astounding rate. Fortunately, although cloudy because the excessive carbonation had stirred up all the sediment at the bottom of the bottle, it still tasted good. So, once each one had settled down (leaving about half the bottle left), we downed them with gusto.
It was only while busy guzzling what remained of the fourth that I finally worked out what had gone wrong. Because my fermenter bucket has only a small screw cap opening at the top, I hadn’t managed to mix the sugar solution (needed to carbonate the beer once bottled) evenly throughout the batch. In many ways, realising this was a relief; at least I now knew that I had got most the process right and, most importantly, I hadn’t picked up an infection due to slack sanitation practices.
I’m nowhere near disheartened. Before this week’s over, I’ll be heading back to the BeerLab to purchase another fermenter with a large bucket-sized lid (that allows one to carefully drizzle the sugar solution over the entire surface area and gently stir it evenly in) and pick up fresh ingredients. This time around I have every intention of downing the entire batch.