When To Dump A Beer

This started out as a post about applying historic techniques to modern recipes. I was going to apply some of the lessons learned from my research on the classic American homebrewing techniques (1, 2, 3) and see how that played out in a tried and true recipe, but things went a little south, I was stubborn, and ended up paying the ultimate price: a drain pour.

The Recipe

The recipe was a house favorite, Mosaic Wit. It looks a bit like this

Mosaic Wit

OG : 1.044
FG : 1.011
ABV : 4.3%
IBU : 16
SRM : 2

Grist
  • 50% Pilsner Malt
  • 40% Flaked Wheat
  • 10% Flaked Oats
Bittering
  • Mosaic to 8IBUs @ 30mins
  • Mosaic to 4IBUs @ 10mins
  • Mosaic to 4IBUs @ 1min
Adjuncts (Given as a percentage of total grist weight)
  • 0.825% Fresh Orange Zest @ 10mins
  • 0.400% Indian Coriander @ 10mins
  • 0.050% Grains of Paradise @ 10mins
  • 0.050% Chamomile @ 5mins
Yeast

Wyeast 3944 (Belgian Witbier) or
White Labs WLP400 (Belgian Wit I)

Mash Schedule
  • 20mins @ 120F (~49C)
  • 60mins @ 152F (~66.7C)
  • Boil for 90mins
Fermentation Schedule
  • Chill to 70F (~20C) before pitching
  • Allow temperature to free rise to 74F (~23.3C). Hold this temperature until fermentation is complete.
  • Carbonate to 2.4-2.6 vol of CO2.

Seems pretty basic, right?

What Went Wrong

One of the take aways from the classic American homebrewing series was that homebrewers tended to add the grist and boil the mash. This seems odd at first, but then it struck me that they didn't really have large propane burners that would heat the pot up in 30 minutes as we have today. They were doing large batches over smallish open fires, so the temperature rise would have been very gentle, certainly not more than 1˚F/min. Effectively, it would be a continuously ramping step mash. Wheat bran has a higher than you'd expect diastatic power, so it would have plenty of time in the amylase ranges to convert the starch to sugar before the ramping took it out of range. Since there was some time in the acid rest range, you'd have a pH drop sufficient to prevent high tannin extraction during the boil, much in the same way decoction works. When you think about it, this is a rather clever one pot solution for making beer at home. I was really intrigued, but not really willing to fully commit to it yet, so I thought I'd give a go at using this method with just the unmalted portion of the grist, then add the boiled grist to a standard mash with the malted grain. I'd mash the malted grain in for the first rest and use the boiled portion to raise the mash temp up to the second rest. So, I replaced 1lbs of the flaked wheat with wheat bran and went to work.

I decided to do this step in a large stock pot in the kitchen to make things a bit easier. I brought it up from room temperature to boiling over the course of 3 hours stirring it regularly to keep it from getting stuck to the bottom and scorching. As you can see, it had the consistency of thin oatmeal. I allow it to boil for 20 minutes while stirring continuously. I wasn't entirely sure what I was looking for, so I called it good here. I turned the heat down to the lowest setting, went outside to mash in the malted grains, and get ready for the first rest. I come back inside after what couldn't have been more than 5 minutes and my runny oatmeal has turned to solid paste. I have no idea how this happened so rapidly or how it happened at all considering it was watery just a few minutes ago. I started to stir and realized that not only has the mass solidified, it's scorched on the bottom. Many expletives have now been uttered. I turn the heat off, put the pot in the oven, and turn it to the keep warm setting. I ride out the first rest and start adding the unmalted grain mixture to the main mash, careful to try not to scrape any of the darker scorched grains from the bottom. I actually come in a few degrees high for the second rest, which is amazing considering that I lost grain to burnination. The rest of the brew day goes smoothly and I manage to split the batch for half Wit, half sour beer.

How Did It Turn Out?

Fermentation was great (as shown in the cover photo). I bottled up the Wit and let it sit for 2 weeks before trying my first one. When the day arrived, I chilled a bottle for 48 hours before serving. When the magic moment arrived, I poured a glass and it looked great. Nice head retention, perfect cloudy yellow, aroma seemed good ... I had nailed another one. I tasted it and it was everything you'd want a Wit to be, light, a little tart, hints of spice, and a particularly creamy mouthfeel that I can't even rightfully describe ... followed by the flavor of ash tray. Oh no. I took another sip to confirm it. It certainly seemed that the scorching that I so carefully tried to leave in the stockpot had made its way into the bottle. It's funny when things like this happen to a brewer. You immediately go into the five stages of grief. I was definitely in Denial. "Oh it's just a bottle infection. I'm sure the other bottles are fine." "I bet that'll clean up with a little aging." A week later when I tried another bottle, I moved into Anger. It wasn't gone. It wasn't a bottle infection. It's not aging out. I think the Bargaining was short lived and I went straight to Depression. "I am the worst homebrewer in the world". "I am a sham." Other horrible things were said and thought. All the while I held out some glimmer of hope that somehow this would fix itself. Finally about two weeks ago, I reached Acceptance and I knew what I must do; send my shame down the drain.

When To Dump

This brings us up to the topic of the post: when should you dump and move on? I disagree with the brewers out there that say "never dump a beer". Maybe it's hubris or ignorance, but there are several conditions in which it's simply not worth it to try and save a beer. Here are a few instances (in my opinion) when it's time to dump a beer without further debate:

  • Mold - Mold is one thing you should never play around with. If you see any evidence of green or black mold in your beer, dump it immediately. Basically, any other color than white could induce an allergic reaction or produce mycotoxins which could make you extremely sick. Even white mold could possibly make you sick, but more often than not, you could gently rack from underneath and probably save the beer. When in doubt about what kind of mold you're dealing with, dump it.

  • Gushers - If you open a beer and get a gusher, consider yourself on notice. If you open two and they gush, it's time to get rid of it. Gushing is not the same as overcarbonation. There is no solution for gushers. Gushing is either caused by infection or by extreme sedimentation which causes rapid nucleation. You're not going to fix either of these issues, so why bother unless you're just looking to prank people opening up your beers.

  • Skunking - When UV light strikes iso-alpha acids in your beer, it triggers a degradation into 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol. This is the same chemical that comes out of the business end of a skunk. I'm not sure if we really need to spend a lot of time on why it's not an attractive option to drink this.

  • Heavy phenolics - A thing I've seen in brewing lore that will supposedly age away are excessive phenolics that are typically described as medicinal, band aid, or rubbery. You know what happens when you age a beer that tastes a little medicinal at bottling? It tastes really medicinal after a few years. Unless you have a thing for sucking on band aids, do not pass go, do not collect $200, go straight to the drain.

  • Oxidation - This is the one time where you might fail at beer, but it could be revived as something else. If you taste wet cardboard, you might be able to cook with it or turn it into malt vinegar. Beer brats, chili, beer cheese soup, beer battered anything ... the options are numerous, except for the option to drink it straight up. Malty styles tend to work better than hoppy styles for most culinary purposes.

  • You Don't Like It - The most overlooked and obvious case. Perhaps you realized that you didn't like that experimental new hop or that the yeast strain you used just isn't your bag. Why would you force yourself to drink multiple gallons (or liters as the case may be) of something you don't love? Unless you happen to be a sadist, get rid of it and try again. Think of it as a learning experience on the path to find beer you do love, rather than losing a batch. Yes, you can replace the word "drain" with "quasi-alcoholic friend(s) that will drink anything", but the point is to get rid of it ASAP and brew again.

When Not To Dump

Just as there are cases where you shouldn't waste your time, there are plenty of flaws that will age out. I think the prevalence of these flaws, especially in the early phases of a brewer's experience, gives rise to the idea that "no beer is a dumper". Time doesn't cure all wounds, but it will generally cure these:

  • Stalled Fermentations - Haven't quite reached your expected FG yet? Give it time! Swirl the carboy a bit. Place the fermenter in a bit warmer environment. Pitch another yeast if you must. I can't recall a stalled fermentation that didn't eventually work itself out given enough time, yeast, and nutrients.

  • Acetaldehyde - If your beer tends to taste of green apple or raw pumpkin, you have acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is an intermediate product in fermentation and if you're tasting it, chances are your beer isn't done fermenting. Leave it alone and it should clean up.

  • Diacetyl - Does your beer taste like movie theater buttered popcorn? You have diacetyl. Like acetaldehyde, diacetyl is a common intermediate product in fermentation. However, diacetyl could be an indication of bacterial infection. Raise the fermentation temperature a few degrees for a couple of days to encourage the yeast to take the diacetyl back up. If the butter doesn't decrease or you find it increasing, it's time to pitch that batch.

  • Sulphur - Another bi-product of fermentation that you can recover from. Time will usually allow sulfur to off gas out of your beer, but if you find that it doesn't (or you're really impatient) you can try bubbling CO2 through your beer to scrub it or run the beer through clean, shiny copper tubing. Copper will react with the sulfur and pull it out of solution.

  • Green beer - Green beer is hard to describe to a new brewer, but old brewers know exactly what I'm talking about. Green beer is beer that hasn't yet fully reached peak maturity. It could be anything, including minor notes of any of the flaws mentioned above, but overall, it's the sense that the beer is unbalanced. You know how a soup or chili tastes better the next day? The flavors meld together and it just tastes better. That's the difference between green beer and beer that's ready to drink. If you find any of your unbalanced elements increase instead of pulling together, go through the list above and try to determine what steps you might need to take next.

  • Bottle shock - So you got to the end of fermentation, your beer tastes great, you get it into bottles, wait a few while ... and what happened? It's kind of "meh". You probably are experiencing what I call bottle shock. There's a bunch of things that are going on once you bottle. You're stirring up some yeast and solids that had precipitated to the bottom of the fermenter back in solution when you rack and that ends up in the bottle. You're kicking off metabolic action from yeast by giving them more to feed on (priming sugar). You're messing around with the pH of the beer by producing carbonic acid (the dissolved CO2). All these things will mess with the flavor of the beer. Think of it Green Beer 2 : Mediocrity Strikes Back! Give it some time to fully carb, settle out, and meld together.

Lessons Learned

Several things were learned from this experience. First is the slow, continuously ramping mash schedule seemed to actually work. Instead of my average FG of 1.044, I hit 1.052. That is quite an increase of efficiency. It would also seem that the wheat bran does indeed have some degree of diastatic power. I tasted the boiled grains as I added them to the main mash in attempt to avoid burnt flavor (ha!) and I found it to be a touch sweet. No measurements were taken due to the frantic nature of the operation, but it definitely has encouraged me to do a few more experiments. Most importantly it reminded me that no brewer is infallible. There will be batches that don't turn out as you think they might and you should accept it, learn from it, and move on. Life is too short for bad beer!


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