Averting Disaster

Learning from mistakes

Remember that mishaps are inevitable, the only thing we can ever do is plan our response to them. By thinking ahead and understanding what can happen (and importantly learning from others), we can be better prepared to prevent as many debacles as possible. 

But overall, please remember — don’t fear the mistake. The mistake is where you learn! Just don’t touch the hot stove — that’s a lesson we all should have already learned in childhood.

Boil Disasters 

The Dreaded Boilover: This one happens to us both, still . . . repeatedly. (OK, maybe only for Drew.) All it takes is a moment of inattention, an enthusiastic goose of the burner, or a forgotten pot lid, a rapid delivery of a hop charge. Next thing you know, foam goes everywhere, slides down and burns on the side of the kettle, stovetop, and floor. The end result is always mildly embarrassing — possibly inefficient due to wort loss — and a major pain to clean.

Because there are a number of causes it’s impossible to specify a single solution, but the root cause is always the same — too much energy stored in the wort that rapidly exits the kettle.

Sub-Problem: Volumetric overload — whether from an aggressive sparge or an ambitious recipe versus kettle size, if you don’t provide enough room in the kettle, you’re just asking for a boilover. There are valid reasons to work with too much wort — like making a monster beer with a long sparge and boil.

Solution: You’re going to need a bigger pot or maybe a second stockpot — if you really must boil a too-large volume of wort, invest in a bigger pot. If for some reason you can’t get a bigger vessel (like it’s an all-in-one system, you’re only being this out of your mind this one time, etc.), invest in a separate stockpot. You can boil some of the wort separately and add it back in when you get more headspace.

Alternatively, go for a long simmer — your “boil timer” only gets wired with a hard stop once you add the hops. Simmer gently until you’ve reached your safe volume goals and then go to a boil and add your hops.

Remember that mishaps are inevitable, the only thing we can ever do is plan our response to them.

Sub-Problem: The boil is too vigorous — you don’t have to run your brew day like Tim Taylor and Tool Time, but sometimes the heat is just too much and things get messy in a hurry.

Solution: Back off the heat and make sure your boil pot is open/ventilated. Particularly with today’s more powerful gas and electric burners, it’s very easy to miss the sweet spot of “get to a boil in a hurry” and “slowly climb to temperature” since it requires a diligent eye on the kettle (and we all know that a watched pot never boils). 

On one of Drew’s old burners, he made a “maintain boil” mark on the regulator to know where to back off to. Doing this saves gas and cleanup, as long as you pay attention. A good valve/regulator to control the gas flow can be very helpful. Even on today’s electric systems, you can easily overheat/scorch the wort.  Remember, the difference between “sufficiently rolling boil” and “energetic, watch your fingers, boil” isn’t very large!

Sub-Problem: The wort foams and foams and foams — depending on your malt choices, you may get a spectacular amount of protein formation that can cause impressively stacking bubbles that climb out of the kettle or build a cap across the wort that can trap heat and create an eruption. We’ve noticed this particularly with some craft and heritage malts or when certain adjuncts are utilized. 

Solution: Use silicone anti-foam drops to reduce the foaming aspect. If chemistry isn’t your thing, then vigorously skim the boil until the foam recedes. Or borrow a trick from the pros: Bring your wort to a boil, shut off the heat for a minute to stop the boil and then bring back to a boil. Repeat this trick a few times to break up the protein that’s causing you fuss.

Sub-Problem: The hops make a volcano — it’s go time! The clock matters when the hops splash down and you’re excited to get that first big whiff of hoppy goodness – in go the pellets – out goes the wort (and some of the pellets making your IBU calculations screwy). 

Solution: As before, back off the heat when adding your first kettle hops or add prior to reaching a boil. Easy as pie. If you’re still worried, slowly add the hops – a few seconds more or less in the boil won’t make a huge difference.

Finally, we recommend keeping a spray bottle with water in it on hand to spray your foam and cool things off. Also, your big metal spoon? It’s a great heat sink and can put a quick stop to the problem as well. 

Fermentation Disasters

Cracked Vessels: Glass’s danger is well established in the lore of homebrewing. We’ve both stopped using it except in rare cases. Whether with an inopportune “perfect” tap on a hard surface or in Drew’s case, a bolt falling from a chest freezer top, glass is just a disaster waiting to happen.

Solution: Don’t use it. Use plastic or steel, please! If you must use glass, yoga mats are a cheap solution to hard surfaces and keep your hands dry. Milk crates provide some cushion and containment. And for the love of Gambrinus, don’t rely on those carboy handles that go around the bottleneck! Two dry hands on the glass at all times.

a caution sign; yellow triangle with exclamation mark in the center
Brewing has plenty of pitfalls, but a few tips can make it that much more enjoyable. Photo courtesy of

Killed My Yeast, Shipping Version: With summer in full swing, liquid yeast packs sitting in the back of a sweltering delivery van happens. “I think my yeast is dead.” Or maybe you have an old pack that you were waiting to use. In both cases, you can avert disaster with a bit of work.

Solution: Avoid shipping yeast during hot months — buy local if you can or plan your shipment so that the yeast spends minimal time on a hot deck. If you do discover that your liquid yeast is half cooked — make a starter and give it a chance. Yeast is a lot hardier than we tend to give it credit for. Start small to ensure growth and then grow the starter with additional wort. And keep spare dry yeast on hand.

Killed My Yeast, Pitching Version: Don’t commit yeast homicide by adding them to wort that’s too hot!

Solution: Don’t drink during the brew day and pay attention to your temperatures. Check your chiller apparatus and check your wort temperatures before you transfer anything. 

If you’ve pitched your yeast at temperatures above 110 °F (43 °C), time to start over because you’ve probably destroyed your poor defenseless fungal friends. If you’ve pitched below that, then work to get your wort chilled as fast as possible and still get ready to pitch dry yeast, if necessary.

Too Hot or Too Cold: Homebrewers go through a funny inflection point — at one point throwing your bucket of beer into an unused bathroom or closet is good enough, then suddenly you need temperature control with freezers, dual-stage controllers, glycol systems, thermowells, and the like. But throughout it all — we get questions from people worried about their beer getting too hot or too cold. 

Solution: Better temperature control, naturally, but also embracing a sense of wonderment and letting go is handy. Just like above with the dead yeast — yeast are hardy organisms. They will survive most of the stupidity we can throw at them. They will still make beer. OK, but what about quality impacts? Depends on the timing of your mistake. Your window of major flavor impacts comes during the first 72 hours post-pitch while the yeast are reproducing and ramping up. 

If your beer becomes too warm during this period, you will probably notice the extra fusel alcohol giving your beer a lovely solventy aroma. If you’re post 72 hours, you’ll probably be fine, not perfect, but fine enough to have drinkable beer. 

If your beer becomes too cold during fermentation, the most obvious impact will be a stalled fermentation. Warm the beer up, give the yeast a swirl and watch to see if fermentation restarts in a day. If not, hit it with some dried yeast. (You may be noticing a trend here.)

Yeast Vesuvius: An old rite of passage for homebrewers is the unexpectedly vigorous ferment ending with spray-painted ceilings as clogged 3-piece airlocks turn into impromptu spray guns. 

With modern yeast health and higher gravities, take a moment and really consider how you ferment your beer. Airlocks are beloved by homebrewers, but you see blow offs and open fermentation all the time in the pros just to deal with any aggressive yeast.

Solution: Use a blowoff tube — they’re easy to make and it’s fun watching yeast crawl into a jar of sanitizer and not onto your ceiling. If you’re feeling brave, try doing open fermentation with just a cap of sanitized foil as your airlock — bacteria don’t crawl and climb! (Note: you might want to have the fermenter in something to catch the effluvia.)

Packaging/Service Disasters

Bottles Didn’t Carbonate the Way They Should Have: It’s a disappointment when you go to crack a bottle and there’s no satisfying “pffft” or they spray beer all over! What went wrong?

Sub-Problem: No fizz. 

Solution: Assuming that you didn’t forget your sugar (it happens), there’s a few things to check. One, did you give the beer enough time to carbonate, in a “warm” place? Shocking how often that turns out not to be the case. Let the bottles sit for a patient two weeks in an ale fermentation-temperature (66–72 °F/19–21 °C) space and see if the bubbles come alive. If not, you may consider redosing the beer with sugar and yeast (crack each bottle, squirt a tiny amount in and recap), but we’d probably take the loss and move on.

Two, check that your caps are actually well seated. If you can twist them at all, they’re not properly capped. Check your capper in that case and see if you can’t crimp the seal a bit more.

Sub-Problem: Too much fizz.

Solution: If instead, your beer is gushing, chill the bottles to ice cold and then crack them open. Allow the beer to outgas for 10 minutes (covered) and then re-cap. Either that or enjoy some really cold suds!

Sub-Problem: Mixed fizz. 

Solution: You didn’t get your sugar evenly distributed in the bottles. Check how you dosed the sugar and make sure to give a thorough mixing. For this batch, follow the advice above.

My Keg Ran Dry and I Didn’t Drink It: This eventually happens to every brewer who kegs their beer. You’re looking forward to that first taste of suds but something happened after the beer was tapped. The beer poured out of the keg but not into your glass. The stories of fridges/freezers/floors awash in a coveted beer are legion. What’s a poor brewer to do?

Solution: Inevitably, the cause of the mysteriously empty keg (assuming you don’t have feral raccoons or teenagers — kinda the same) is a leak somewhere in the liquid side. Somewhere between the outpost and the tap faucet you’re losing liquid. Check every connection to make sure they’re tight. Make sure any faucet you have closes tight (make sure there’s no mold in there that can allow a drip) and check your keg gaskets! A loose gasket or post can cause a leak.

But the easiest insurance, albeit somewhat boring, is to untap your kegs when you’re not drinking from them! Even then check that the liquid post is properly seated and closed. 

My CO2 Disappeared: If it’s not the liquid, it’s the gas. You go to pour from the keg and, <sad trumpet noises>, no beer pours out. You check the tank, the valve is open, the regulator is open, gas is hooked up, but the tank is empty.

Solution: Like the liquid side of the equation, but more invisibly insidious, gas leaks are caused by the same types of gaps. Use a soapy solution (Star San works great here) and spray every connection between the tank and the keg(s). Don’t forget to check the gas post itself as that’s notorious! Tighten things up, check your gaskets and yes, disconnect the gas at the end of the night, checking that the gas post isn’t leaking.

For emergency service needs (aka you don’t have a second tank on hand and need beer now) — Drew keeps one of the “bicycle tire” style CO2 injectors and a couple of CO2 cartridges on hand. They aren’t a substitute for a full tank, but they’ll keep you dispensing beer for a while.

Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of things that can go wrong for our intrepid fellow homebrewers, but never fear — keep calm and have a beer!

Issue: September 2023