The Solvent in the Glass: 5 Mistakes of a Homebrew Disaster

Homebrew Drain Cleaner
Homebrew Drain Cleaner. The weizenbock homebrew was a failure. It was so solventy, it wasn’t even worth dumping on the compost heap. The should’ve-been-beer just got dumped in the sink. On the plus side, at least the drains got cleared.

Weizenbock, I Hardly Knew You

In 2007, I took up homebrewing. In 2013, after dozens of successful (or at least drinkable) homebrews, I threw out my first batch. But as I watched 5 gallons of should-have-been beer disappear down the kitchen drain, tears on my face from failure and solventy fumes, I learned my lesson.

Five lessons, in fact.

So today, here is the cautionary tale of a homebrew gone wrong, along with the lessons learned so this never, ever, bloody EVER happens to me again—and hopefully never happens to you.

How It All Went Wrong

I confess. It was my own damn fault. And I knew it.

That brew day in May, I had high hopes. This batch of weizenbock homebrew should have been magnificent. The brew day went well. The yeast took a couple of days to kick into gear, but once they did, strong fermentation lasted for weeks.

But.

May had given way to June, and with June came things like summer, trips, and being outside. The weizenbock was now ready to be bottled… but maybe that could happen tomorrow.

Funnily enough, tomorrow never came. The next day did, and so did the day after that, but never did the day dawn on that just-out-of-reach, never-quite-fit-the-schedule tomorrow.

A warm June gave way to a hot July and a hotter August, and still the weizenbock sat in the kitchen. By the time the August was tipping past its midpoint, after many days of temperatures in the 90s, I finally got around to bottling. After spending an hour or two sanitizing bottling equipment and dozens of bottles, I gently moved the big glass carboy of beer from the kitchen floor to the kitchen counter.

I pulled off the airlock, inserted the special tube that draws out a sample of beer, and poured a wee tasting glass of weizenbock.

Or, rather, paint thinner.

Would-be Weizenbock.
Would-be Weizenbock.

One sniff alerted me that all was not right in brewland. The beer never even got properly tasted; it stung my lips, reeked of a neglected garage and got spit into the sink.

The weizenbock was ruined. Irrevocably, not even-worth-pouring-on-the-compost ruined.

On the plus side, at least pouring it down the kitchen sink would keep the drain clear.

It was a sad day in the St. Clair kitchen. A lost beer, the end result of summer heat and steady procrastination. But as I reflected on the loss, I learned. I realized I had made 5 crucial mistakes, and I also thought of ways to make sure they wouldn’t happen again.

Mistake #1: Failing to think ahead

A batch of homebrew is a process that happens far beyond brew day. When getting ready to brew, think ahead to when the beer will be ready to bottle or keg. Are you going to be out of town for a while? Is something coming up that’s going to prevent your homebrew from bubbling to the top of the to-do list? Adjust brew day accordingly.

We had all these things going against us, especially when it came to trips out of town. If I’d thought ahead more comprehensively, I either wouldn’t have brewed the weizenbock until fall, or I would have done a better job of bottling sooner.

Lesson Learned: Think beyond brew day and adjust schedule accordingly.

Mistake #2: Not setting a date for bottling day

Brewing can be done on a strict schedule, or it can be done pretty laissez-faire. I trend toward the it’s-ready-when-it’s-bloody-ready approach, which usually works fine.

However, there’s a reason I don’t brew and bottle in the summer: the heat isn’t good for fermenting beer. During May the weather was lovely. However, I should have balanced making sure fermentation ran its full course, with making sure I also marked a must-bottle-by date.

Lesson Learned: Once you know when your homebrew is ready to be bottled or kegged, set a date, put it in your calendar, and damn well stick to it. Otherwise, it can far too easily keep getting put off, and put off, and put off—and then solvent.

Mistake #3: Trying to brew and bottle two batches at once.

I had grand plans:

  1. Brew a kolsch for summer enjoyment/
  2. Brew a weizenbock both to enjoy an occasional bigger beer over the summer, plus this stronger wheat beer would make a fine fall sipper.

The kolsch went fine (and has been damn tasty) and was bottled promptly. But it’s as if I’d lost all my bottling fizz, and I kept letting our summer activities prevent me from making time to bottle the weizenbock. (Well, summer activities, plus being a parent and running my own business.)

If I had brewed one batch at a time, I don’t think this would have been a problem.

Lesson Learned: Brew and bottle one batch at a time.

Mistake #4: Letting bottling day extend into summer

I like summer to be a brewing break, so I work really hard to plan my brews so I’m not brewing or bottling during the summer months. Summer is a good time for other activities, such as enjoying being outside without three layers of clothing.

Plus, summer’s higher temperatures mean it’s a good time to not worry about brewing under warmer conditions that make spoilage more likely.

Granted, if you have temperature control equipment for your brewing this is less of a concern, but I find it far simpler to just not brew during summer. (And no, we don’t have air conditioning in our home; living in Western Oregon, it’s rare that there’s a day where it’s really needed or desired.)

Without temperature controls, you are subject to the seasons. In our situation, higher summer temperatures kicked the yeast into a high gear, creating solvent-like higher alcohols that spoiled the weizenbock for human consumption.

Lesson Learned: Any homebrew in primary fermentation must be bottled before hotter ambient temperatures kick in.

Mistake #5: Prepping bottling gear and washing bottles before testing beer

You know what really sucked? It wasn’t just that the weizenbock had gone bad. It was that I had gathered, washed and sanitized all the bottling gear, prepared my priming sugar, AND had washed and sanitized about 3 dozen 22-oz. bottles.

Of course, that’s standard procedure. The problem is that I did all this BEFORE smelling and taste-testing the homebrew. Had I checked the batch first, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.

The only thing I can say in my defense? In all our years of brewing, we’d never had a problem with a batch.

Lesson Learned: Smell and taste beer before preparing bottling gear.

Brewing Closure

After the weizenbock homebrew failure, I was definitely bummed. Dumping a batch wasn’t just homebrew wasted, it was money down the drain. Our homebrew stores were running low, and August was too warm to brew. While tidying the garage one morning, one of my three carboys broke. September was probably fine for brewing, but I was in the midst of writing a new novella and had other projects going.

Come the end of October, though, I was ready. There was time. There was the right weather. And I had to get back on my brewing horse. So as I type this, a dry stout Guinness clone is going fermentation gangbusters in the carboy.

The weizenbock’s bottling day may have become drain clearing day, but into every homebrewer’s life a bad batch may fall. After years of brewing, I had mine.

But that’s just one batch. And that one failed batch taught me lots about how I can keep improving my brewing, so (hopefully) it doesn’t happen again.

Photos: http://flic.kr/p/h63wBo and http://flic.kr/p/h62P56

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