The Ultimate Troubleshooter’s Guide, Part 2

11. All my beers taste stale or oxidized or get stale quickly.

After primary fermentation is complete, you should be very careful not to introduce any oxygen into the beer. This means never pouring it and siphoning very gently with no splashing.

If you are not already, you should try using a bottle filler for bottling. Bottle fillers allow beer to flow gently to the bottom of the bottle, decreasing spillage and mess. After filling each
bottle you should be resting a sanitized cap on top to keep any organisms from falling into your beer.

Instead of capping, set the bottles aside for 15 or 20 minutes while you finish bottling and cleaning. Usually there is a small amount of CO2 left in the beer from the fermentation, especially if the beer was cold conditioned. During that 15-minute rest, the remaining CO2 will begin to come out of solution, purging the head space of air. The caps may begin to do a little dance. If you cap now, your beer should be fine for quite a while.

Be aware of your storage conditions as well. Heat and light will cause beer flavor to break down much more quickly. Use brown bottles, and keep your beer in a consistently cool, dark place.

12. My airlock always foams over or gets clogged with gunk.

If you have high-gravity worts, warm fermentations, or very active yeast, you’re going to have a lot of blowoff from the fermenter. Do what the commercial breweries do and attach a blowoff tube instead of an airlock when you start fermentation.

Put one end of a sanitized hose in the hole of the rubber stopper where the airlock would go, and put the other end of the hose into a container half filled with clean water. You’ve just created an airlock, but excess foam can now blow all the way through the tube and into the water if it needs to. But be careful. Blowoff tubes can clog! Check yours often to make sure the hose is clear and the outlet end is bubbling through the water properly. If you are using glass and the tube becomes clogged, dangerous pressure can build up quickly. As a safety valve, rest the stopper loosely in the mouth of the carboy. Once fermentation slows, replace the blow-off tube with an airlock.

13. My hydrometer seems useless, and I worry about contaminating my beer when taking readings.

The hydrometer can become your best friend, especially when you are brewing your own recipes and targeting traditional styles. But for the beginner, especially if you are using kits, it can be a distraction more than anything else. So you may not wish to use it. Definitely don’t risk contaminating your beer to take a hydrometer reading. If you are brewing from a kit, the instructions will specify the original gravity, and taking a hydrometer reading usually won’t provide new information.

Unlike during the prohibition days of exploding bottles, we now have excellent all-malt brewing products and good yeast. If you listen to and watch your beer, you should be able to gauge its fermentation progress. Under normal circumstances an ale should be finished completely in seven days. If you’re not sure, give it more time. It’s dangerous to bottle beer that’s still fermenting.

If you want to take a reading, devise a way to take a sanitary sample of the wort before fermentation. Then record it. Don’t mess with it again until your senses have told you that fermentation is finished and you are ready to rack to secondary or bottle. Take a sample as you are racking. It should confirm your good judgment that the beer is ready.

14. Rinsing my equipment with tap water or adding cold water to the fermenter seems contrary to good sanitation techniques.

They both are. Quit rinsing! Tap water (even the hottest tap water) contains bacteria. Use the proper dilution of sanitizer; you don’t need to rinse. Iodophor is used every day in restaurants as a sanitizer. It’s good because it kills bacteria quickly, and you can see it and therefore know it’s working. One tablespoon of iodophor in five gallons of cool water will sanitize fermenters and equipment with 10 minutes of exposure time. Just pour it out, shake off the excess, and use the equipment.

Iodophor is more expensive than household bleach, which is also a very effective sanitizer. Use one tablespoon per gallon of room temperature water for 10 to 20 minutes. At this dilution you don’t need to rinse, but chlorine may lead to medicinal flavors, so you may want to drip dry or rinse with pre-boiled water.

If you are adding cold water to your fermenter and want to be safe, sterilize the water first. Buy a few one-gallon plastic jugs. Boil either tap or bottled water at least 15 minutes and cover. Sanitize the jugs by filling them with a diluted sanitizing solution, and then fill them with the boiled water. Chill overnight.

15. How do I sanitize post-fermentation additions such as dry hops or fruit extracts?

After fermentation is complete your beer, now alcoholic and low in pH, presents a much less hospitable environment to bacteria. Therefore, don’t worry as much about contamination, especially if your beer will be stored properly and consumed fairly quickly.

Most small breweries that dry hop their beers simply throw the hop plugs, pellets, or leaves in a hop bag or nylon stocking and drop them in the fermenter. Some brewers throw their hop bags in the microwave. This may make them feel better but probably does nothing about potential bacteria. Likewise, you could boil or microwave fruit extracts, but this would probably diminish or completely obliterate their flavor. Use clean hands, spoons, and hop bags, and don’t worry about it.

16. I seem to lose too much wort volume from the kettle to the fermenter.

Wort does seem to disappear, doesn’t it? The losses mostly come from evaporation. Depending on the length and vigor of the boil, you can lose a gallon or even two during a standard boil. You will always lose about a half gallon in trub and sediment. And if you don’t watch for the boilover, you will lose even more.

If you are using a converted keg or kettle with a bottom drain, you can try adding a small stainless or brass elbow curving to the bottom of the kettle to access more wort, but be careful you don’t run the unwanted trub off into the fermenter.

You can always top up your fermenter, if you wish, with boiled, cooled water. If you are worried about contamination, top up the secondary or even the bottling bucket. Remember that topping off your batch will lower the gravity and lighten the color.

17. My beer lacks body.

Proteins that come from malt give your beer its body and mouthfeel. If your brewing process is eliminating lots of proteins through long protein rests, boiling times, or filtering, for example, then you may have beer that tastes thin or light.

Try using some high-protein malt such as wheat or rye, and try using dextrin malts. They provide unfermentable sugars and will make your beer feel fuller in your mouth. If you are brewing from a kit, there is probably just a low amount of malt in the recipe, and you need to add a little more malt extract. You can also try steeping crystal and/or dextrin malts in the kettle as you bring your brewing water to a boil. For all-grain brewers a high mash temperature (155° to 160° F) will produce fuller-bodied beers.

18. My beer tastes harsh or grainy

It may just be overly bitter. Check your hopping rate, and figure the bitterness units. Does the number seem right for the style? If you are mashing, check that your sparge temperature is not much higher than 170° F.

You may want to begin recirculating the first runnings until your runoff is fairly clear. If lots of husk material makes it into your kettle, you will get some harsh graininess from boiling it.

If you are using a grain steeping bag, try resting at 150° F for a few minutes to make the sugars and starches soluble, then removing the bag.

19. I’m getting very low extract (gravity) from my all-grain mashes.

Every system is different and will have a different degree of efficiency. Make sure that your false bottom is efficient and covers as much area as possible. Your lauters should be taking at least 45 minutes. Don’t run off too quickly; you’ll leave lots of sugars behind.

You should maintain a couple of inches of water above the grain bed at all times, and make sure that the mash tun is closed, if possible, so you don’t lose too much heat during the sparge. Remember that the temperature of the sparge water will be decreasing as it flows down through the bed, and you may not be rinsing enough sugars from the mash. Raising the sparge water temperature a bit should immediately improve your yield.

Maintaining batch-to-batch consistency in your lautering process with temperatures and procedures is important for getting a feel for your system’s efficiency and will aid in planning recipes and targeting gravities in future batches.

If your process is consistent and you still have poor yields, check your milling. Coarsely milled malt will always have poorer yield than finely milled malt — although malt that’s too fine makes lautering difficult.

20. My mash temperature comes out wrong, and adding hot water doesn’t help much.

Again, every system is different, but there are a few things you can do to make your life easier. Try preheating the mash tun with very hot water.

Obviously, if the mash tun and false bottom are cold, you will lose more heat when you begin the mash than you expect. Try to maintain a closed system. Add the grains, then let the strike water run through a hose into the mash tun rather than pouring it in. You’ll maintain a lot more heat in a closed system.

A thick mash holds heat best. The thinner the mash is, the more hot water you’ll need to add to raise the temperature. Begin with a thick mash and add a small amount (start with a quart or so) of boiling water to raise the temperature of the mash a few degrees. Make sure that your mash tun has a tight-fitting lid.

Also, if the malt isn’t a consistent temperature when you begin brewing, hitting target temperatures can be hard. This is solved by allowing the grain to come to room temperature prior to use.

Issue: June 1996