Learning From Mistakes

Paths to better brew days ahead

For evolutionary safety, the human brain is geared to recording and re-running events with a “negative outcome” in the hopes of preventing them from happening again and ensuring the continuation 

of our lines . . . well at least in theory. For that reason, too, our brains overestimate the chances of something bad happening. In other words, our brains are primitive, spongy disaster calculators with a panic button roughly the size of Manhattan. 

Disasters are inevitable — it’s why the brain works the way it does. The key to managing a disaster during your brew day (or after) is recognizing what can befall you and calmly, deftly handle it.

Drew’s day job is all about predicting and preventing massive system failures in the “cloud” (ooooh, fancy, right?). The best way to deal with a disaster is to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place and taking proactive, preventative measures. During a brew day this means both Denny and Drew practice one very no-fun rule — no drinking until you’re “done.” 

In this case, “done” is very much in the eye of the beer holder. For Drew that means no beer until the boil is going, the chiller is clean, the fermenter is sanitized, etc. (also Drew tends to brew during the work week, which puts a damper on drinking). For Denny, “done” usually translates to “the beer is in the fermenter, things are clean and I can see my favorite chair.”

We know, we know — “But I must sacrifice beer to the beer gods lest they be angry and ruin my batch!” You do you — we just know that our incident rate of forgotten hop additions, open valves, cracked carboys, etc., dropped when we stopped swilling during our brew sessions. Having said that, there are certainly times when a brew session party is a lovely thing, in which case, it’s about the party and shared company and not the brew itself. 

By and large, most of the incidents come down to inattentiveness.

We put out a call to folks — “what are your biggest brew day disasters?” (and we’d still love to hear even more of them! – [email protected]). By and large, most of the incidents come down to inattentiveness. Let’s walk through a few of the major mistakes that brewers make:

Ingredient/Recipe Mishaps

What can possibly go wrong with your ingredients? Just wait!

The Mystery Bag: You go to the homebrew shop, you pick out your grains and dump them into the store’s brown paper bags (or equivalent), bring them home, because you’ve got a brew day scheduled! Then life happens and that bag sits on a shelf long enough that you actually forget what’s in the bag. 

Or maybe you’re like us and you maintain a small collection of grains and hops for use in spur of the moment brewing and also in the spur of the moment forget to break out that Sharpie to aid your memory. 

Solution: As with many things in life, you can make your future life much easier! Take a split second and make sure the random bag of goodies is labeled. Otherwise, you can always make a “mystery beer” when you get enough random goods piled up!

Too Much of a Good Thing: This is admittedly the sort of thing that impacts newer brewers more often, but it still comes around to bite experienced brewers in the palate from time to time. We get a little too excited about a new ingredient or too focused on a numerical impact and don’t stop to consider the ramifications of our ingredient choices. Whether it’s a few too many chili peppers in your chili beer or something less fiery like Drew’s insistence on using 33% brown malt in a traditional porter that created something undrinkable, we get it. 

Solution: Learn your ingredients and their impacts before you commit to large-scale usage. In Drew’s brown malt mistake, that came from not knowing how different modern brown malt is from the stuff of the old porter guidelines of “1⁄3 amber, 1⁄3 pale, 1⁄3 brown malt.” 

This is why we usually advocate for taking the approach of making big flavor additions as late in the game and as adjustable as possible (e.g., adding things just prior to packaging instead of trying to nail a spice addition in the kettle). 

Remember, with all things flavor – it’s easy to add more, and usually impossible to take it out.

Killed My Yeast: Now that summer is in full swing here in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re sure to see more stories of yeast packs going through hot sunny days in the back of a sweltering delivery van. “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 liquid yeast packs — 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. Make a small starter, ensure you have growth and then grow the starter with additional wort. And keep extra dry yeast sachets on hand in case that liquid yeast pack took a permanent vacation.

Brew day Mishaps

The brew day can be a whirl of confusion and chaos if you’re not prepared. Here are some of the ones that we always see.

labeled storage bins with beer, wine, and cheese making equipment
Keeping your brewing supplies organized can prevent a lot of frustration on brew day. Photo by Bob Peak

Missing Stuff: It never fails – “where’s my hydrometer? Where’s the transfer hose? Where’s a spare gasket?” We’ve been there more than once — and we’ll include half empty propane tanks in this mess. Nothing can stop your brew day with more assured speed than not having the right tool when needed. Maybe you loaned it out? Maybe you misplaced it? Maybe it migrated from the brewhouse to the house-house when the door needed fixing.  

Solution: We’re both big proponents of pre-gaming your brew day. No, we don’t mean drinking a couple of cheap beers ahead of time, we mean pre-staging and running the brew day in your head and making sure everything is where it needs to be. 

Like the Sharpie and your ingredients notes, take a few minutes to organize and inventory your tools needed for your brew day before you hit the play button. Put tools back in the toolbox and ensure other items are put away in the right area, etc. A little pre-work saves a lot of hassle. 

Have a dedicated brew house toolbox that contains the wrenches, screwdrivers, pipe cutters, etc. that you want in the brewery. Never let those tools wander away. Since they’re occasional light use tools, they don’t need to be the most expensive high-quality bits of kit.

Melting Floors and Other Acts of Destruction: This was the one that made Drew snort when he read the comment, but yes, someone used a propane burner over a linoleum flooring and plasticky substances tend to melt when exposed to lots of heat and this was no exception and a fairly expensive lesson to learn. (See also people cracking ceramic cooktops, etc.)  

Open flame is just one of the many dangerous things we encounter while brewing. Electric rigs always carry a shock risk. Water retains a ton of heat energy and is one of the most destructive forces on the planet and glass is very sharp and fragile. 

Solution: Be mindful. Again, with a pre-gaming plan. Before you start heating anything, look around, think about what can go wrong — what could catch fire, where water can flow, how electrical cords can get frayed or damaged.  How can I protect the area I’m working in? And for the love of Pete, keep a fire extinguisher handy!

For the longest time, Drew used an old powerful drill that threw sparks to drive his mill. The thing was a beast, but he finally got rid of it when he stopped and actually applied his brain cells to the equation of “sparks, milled grain powder, oxygen.” 

Forgot the <Blank>: Brewing is a fairly standardized process with lots of little variations, but recipes and brew days all read the same. It’s very easy to get complacent and flat out forget something you intended to do. What was that mash step and hop regimen? Did I put the Whirlfloc in?

Denny famously once made a German Pils, got all the way through the boil, chilled the beer and turned to look and see all of his hops weighed out and waiting to go into the boil. Despite doing the smart thing (having the hops pre-staged), he still somehow managed to completely skip all of his hop additions. So he sighed, added a gallon of water back to the wort and boiled the wort — again — this time with the hops. 

Solution: Denny had the right idea — even in this day of computerized recipes and timers, you can still completely mess up. Have a printed version of your brew day procedures and check things off! (Or use an old-fashioned notebook like Denny.) Get your water salts and hops and other additions into staged cups. If pilots and surgeons can use checklists to make sure you don’t fall out of the sky or that you don’t lose the wrong limb, you can use one to make sure your beer gets all the right process steps and ingredients.

Open Valves and Spitting Chillers: Remember, hot liquids burn! We have legions of stories from brewers getting scalded with hot liquid when they start a pump or turn a valve. Immersion chillers also add fun because they’ll usually spit leftover water out of the coil when you drop them in the boil. 

Solution: Know your water/gas path before you turn any valve/pump. We both use the “trace it with your finger method.” Sure, you may look goofy doing it, but it beats wort in your shoe! Also, before starting to fill vessels, double check to make sure all valves are closed that need to be.

Issue: July-August 2023