The Ultimate Homebrew Troubleshooter’s Guide

Perfection is elusive, especially when it comes to a complex art and science such as brewing.

For any brewer, from the first-timer to the seasoned pro who has planned out every minute detail of the brew day, some unexpected glitch always seems to creep into the process. Fixing the problem usually just requires a simple adjustment or two. The best things you can do to prepare yourself are to read a lot, take good notes, and exercise common sense throughout the process.

Many strange situations may be unique to your brewing system or environment. To analyze them you need to think like your beer. If that were you in that carboy, what would you need to be most clean and comfortable? Think about every hose, valve, bucket, and airlock that you might have to pass through during your infancy and adolescence. Don’t worry about your beer, just think about it (or think like it). The following troubleshooting tips will get you in the right frame of mind.

1. My fermentation is slow, stuck, or never started.

When an appliance isn’t working, you make sure it’s plugged in before you take it apart. Likewise, check a few basics first when you have a brewing problem. Your cooled wort should be in the 55° to 75° F range when you pitch the yeast, depending on the particular yeast strain. In general lager strains should be pitched into 55° to 60° F wort and ale yeast into 65° to 75° F wort. Pitching yeast into a fermenter that’s too warm or too cold can shock or kill the yeast. Also, the yeast you’re pitching should be roughly the same temperature as your cooled wort.

If you are using dried yeast, you may be rehydrating it first. Most instructions recommend rehydrating the yeast in about a cup of sterile water at 100° to 105° F. Be very careful not to rehydrate in water that’s too warm. Many times fermentation never begins because the yeast was killed when it was rehydrated.

Slowly cool the rehydrated yeast to room temperature and swirl the solution before pitching. Try moving to liquid yeasts in the form of “smack packs” or test tubes. They will always be sterile, and you will know that they are active because they bulge before you have even pitched.

It is also important to maintain a uniform temperature throughout the primary fermentation. If the fermentation becomes stuck, it may be due to a temperature drop. Just warm the fermenter up to get fermentation going again. The best idea is to put your bucket or carboy in a place that you know will stay at a fairly stable temperature for several days.

One of the most important elements to quick, normal fermentation is proper aeration of the wort. After you’ve cooled it, go ahead and splash the wort when you fill up your primary fermenter. Then shake the full fermenter strongly for a minute or two. Rest your arms and then shake it some more.

Another basic, and the most common cause of stuck fermentation, is low pitching rate (number of viable yeast cells). A dried yeast or liquid pack will probably get your wort fermenting within 12 to 24 hours. But if you take an extra day to culture the yeast into a one-pint starter, you’ll probably see fermentation in half that time. Remember, the faster your yeast gets to work, the fewer chances any bacteria will be able to gain a foothold.

If the yeast is old and dead, like some dried yeast that’s been sitting on a shelf, fermentation may never take off.

Finally, if you see fermentation activity but it seems to be taking a long time, don’t worry. Different yeast strains have different characteristics, as do different worts and worts of differing gravities. If the yeast is doing its business – no matter what the speed – leave it alone.

2. My fermentation finished too quickly.

Again, check to see that the temperature hasn’t undergone any large fluctuations. If it has dropped suddenly, the fermentation may actually be stuck rather than finished. If it has risen (above 72° F), the yeast will work much faster. Some yeast strains, particularly dried yeasts, can produce very active, rapid ferments at higher temperatures.

High pitching rates can also contribute to a quick ferment. If you’ve used a slurry, say, from your local brewpub, chances are you’re pitching many times more viable cells than you normally would be, and the fermentation will start and finish quickly. Many small breweries use high pitching rates and plan on fermentations that are complete in just two to three days. Ultimately, your beer is probably fine and you can continue with secondary fermentation or check the gravity and bottle it.

3. My siphons never seem to work properly.

Siphoning is really quite simple, and the best thing you can do for yourself if you are having trouble with it is take a bucket of water and a hose and practice for five minutes. Check out “20 Tips For Better Beer” (December ’95 BYO) for the simplest and safest way to siphon: First, take a two-inch piece of copper tubing or plastic hose that can fit like a pen cap onto the end of your siphon hose. Simply dip one end of the siphon hose into your beer. Keep the outlet end of the hose above the level of the beer and suck on the hose.

When beer starts flowing pull the pen-cap starter off, leaving the outlet of the hose perfectly sterile, and dip the hose down into the receiving bucket. Draping the hose in a U-shaped loop from the top of the beer bucket and then up to your mouth will act as a sort of valve, cutting off the flow after it dips and then rises back up to reach the level of beer in the bucket. Practice with water and you’ll be an expert.

If your siphon still doesn’t work, check for leaks. You may be working extra hard sucking in air through a hole in the tubing. Also, make sure that the siphon ultimately runs down hill. And if you’re using a large-diameter siphon, you may want to switch to one with a smaller diameter. Although wort transfers more quickly through a wide siphon, large-diameter tubes are much harder to start.

Finally, if you’re siphoning to or from a closed keg, make sure the vent is open. Otherwise, the vaccuum (or pressure, depending on which way you’re going) will stop the flow.

4. I always seem to have cidery, sour, or off-flavors in my beer.

Most likely, your beer is being contaminated somewhere along its way to your mug. There’s one exception: Cidery flavors can arise if you are using a lot of cane (table) sugar or corn sugar as part of your recipe (other than priming). These sugars were sometimes recommended in older kit recipes and will almost always make your beer taste thinner, cidery, or vinegar-like.

Remember, you should be thinking like your beer. Follow the flow through every step of the operation. If your off-flavors are due to contamination, you have to be extra careful with cleaning and sanitizing.

Bacteria are on everything in the home brewery. A good cleaning with warm water, mild detergent, and a non-abrasive sponge will clean off the majority of the microorganisms. Make sure to thoroughly clean all your equipment before and after you use it! All equipment should be regularly inspected for stains, organic deposits, and scratches, all of which will harbor bacteria. Don’t forget to take apart and clean and sanitize spigots, valves, airlocks, hydrometers, thermometers, and anything else that might contact your sterile wort. Don’t take any chances: clean everything. Then sanitize.

5. The carbonation levels in my bottles are always different: too much, too little, or flat.

First, make sure you have established a standard priming procedure. You should always use corn sugar, not table (cane) sugar. A total of 3/4 cup per five-gallon batch is the recommended amount. Boil the sugar with about two cups of water to sterilize it, add it to your bottling bucket first, and then siphon the beer on top of it. Then gently stir the beer to thoroughly mix the sugar.

If different bottles within the same batch have different carbon dioxide levels, the problem may be that the priming solution isn’t distributed evenly throughout the batch. Perhaps you made your solution properly and mixed it in well, but the problem perisists. If so, you probably haven’t properly cleaned or rinsed some of the bottles. Excessive amounts of cleaner or sanitizer can leave a residue in the bottle that can inhibit fermentation. Make sure all of the bottles are clean, with no deposits, and soak them in a diluted sterilizing solution that you don’t need to rinse.

Be sure that you have stored the bottles at the proper temperature and that no large temperature fluctuations have occurred during conditioning. Give the beer enough time. A batch that tastes almost flat after a week or even two may be okay after a little more storage time.

If all the bottles are overcarbonated or gushing, you may have added too much priming sugar. It’s normal to lose some volume during racking and fermentation. If the change is significant (one-quarter gallon or more), you should compensate by adjusting the amount of priming sugar you use.

If you did everything right and still have gushers, the problem may be bacterial contamination. Review your cleaning and sanitizing procedures.

6. The fill levels in my bottles are always different.

There is a simple way to ensure that all of your bottles will always have the correct, and the same, amount of head space. You should be using a bottle filler or hose that reaches to the bottom of the bottle. The hose will always displace the same amount of liquid from bottle to bottle. Generally, if you allow the bottle to fill so that the level of liquid is all the way up to the lip of the bottle, when you remove the filler there will be exactly an inch and a half of head space in each bottle. Be sure to watch the level of the liquid, not the foam, if any. A little experimentation with your own equipment will help you gauge the proper fill using this displacement method.

There probably isn’t a huge amount of difference in carbonation between one-half inch and two inches of head space. But more headspace (more air left in the bottle) can lead to faster oxidation. And uniform fill levels look more professional in your refrigerator.

7. My beer has no head.

The problem may not be with your beer. A dirty or greasy glass, oily fingers, and lip balm or lipstick will kill a beer’s head immediately. Then check bottles and equipment for sanitizer residue.

Next, assuming you have enough CO2 but no head retention, you may want to think about your recipe. Proteins are the primary contributors to a good head, so beers with a proportion (around 10 percent) of a higher-protein malt such as wheat or rye will generally have a better, longer-lasting head. Flaked oats and flaked barley have long been employed in stouts to improve the creamy, thick texture of the head. All-malt beers have plenty of foam proteins. However, if you’re using adjuncts such as sugar, honey, or rice, expect less foam.

Alternatively, many ingredients such as coffee, chocolate, and tea, and many herbs and spices such as mint are very oily and will kill a head instantly. Try using them in small proportions and with a little of the high-protein malts to boost the head’s staying power.

8. I finished boiling and cooling my wort but forgot to add the hops.

Try making a “hop tea” and adding it to your fermenter. Just add one-half pound of dry malt extract to two quarts of water and bring to a boil. Add the normal amount of bittering hops and boil them for an hour, or add double the amount and boil for 20 to 30 minutes to save time. Cover the pan, cool it for about 15 minutes in a cold-water bath, sanitize a strainer and funnel, and strain the liquid into your wort. Give the (cooled) wort a good shake to mix the hop tea in, and you should have a beer with a normal amount of bitterness.

For aroma you can try dry hopping after primary fermentation has finished or in the secondary.

Hop extracts are also now available to the homebrewer. Using a CO2 extraction process, manufacturers are able to provide pure, liquid iso-alpha acids (the active bittering ingredient produced by boiling hops) that can be added directly to the fermenter at any stage to produce a calculated amount of bitterness. Extracted oils and late-hop essences can also be added directly in liquid form in lieu of dry or late kettle hop additions.

9. I bottled all my beer and forgot to add priming sugar

Your best bet is to sanitize a bottle opener, open the bottles one by one, and add a level one-quarter teaspoon of corn sugar to each bottle. Then use a fresh, sanitized cap to reseal. Don’t pour the bottles back into a bottling bucket as this will oxidize and stale your fresh brew.

If all else fails, you can always blend the flat beer with some properly carbonated beer and enjoy it anyway.

10. My beer is always cloudy.

If the beer tastes fine, don’t worry too much about it. There are a number of steps you can take in the brewing process itself to leave as much haze-causing material behind in the brewpot as possible (see “Three Easy Steps to Crystal Clear Beer,” January ’96 BYO).

Perhaps the best thing you can do for your cloudy beer is employ a secondary fermentation with cold conditioning if possible. Just transfer the beer into a sanitized glass carboy after primary fermentation has subsided, and let it sit for at least a few days at fermentation temperature. Knock the temperature down to 35° or 40° F for a few days after that. Most of the yeast and other matter will settle out, leaving clear beer at bottling time. Likewise, a month of storage in your fridge should clarify any bottled beer.

If you experience persistent cloudiness, your beer may be contaminated. You should be able to taste and smell the contamination, too. Be very particular about your cleaning regimen.

Issue: May 1996