FailBrew: Diary of a Bad, Bad Beer

I thought it might be fun – for you, not for me – to take a look at the long, strange tale of a beer I made recently which has caused me no end of trouble.


You sir, are a dick.

It was July, and a friend had issued invitations to her getaway weekend celebrating her 30th birthday. I’m… older, but really value the friendship we have, so I happily accepted. She asked if I’d be interested in brewing a beer for the occasion, and off I went.

I picked up a kit for Brewer’s Best English Pale Ale. As I mentioned in another post, my small, cramped kitchen and electric (not gas) stove make all grain brewing unrealistic in my house, so I stick to extract and partial mash and – usually – make some pretty great beer with it.

My friend Sirkka joined for the brewing of what we named “English as a Second Language Pale Ale,” which swapped out the Fuggle hops for Cascade and added two pounds of honey with 15 minutes left on the boil. (While we brewed, we drank Magic Hat’s summer mixed pack – great stuff. You know, by the way.)

Oh, how I would come to regret that honey.

The fermentation kicked off normally but never quite died down. After a couple of weeks, I transferred ESL to secondary and dry hopped it on  Willamette. I figured the agitation and oxygen would give it a little boost and finish it off. I was wrong. Activity in the airlock continued. Weeks passed.

My friend’s getaway was scheduled for the second weekend in September, and as September neared I realized I was in trouble with her beer. I assumed the problem was the honey, which can take a really long time to ferment fully, so with a couple of weeks to go, I decided to take extreme measures. I pitched a packet of Montrachet wine yeasts into the carboy with a B-vitamin to pep everything up, then crossed my fingers that in the next 48 hours, 72 at the most, ESL Pale would finally die.

But ESL Pale did not die. Airlock activity picked up, then dropped off again, but ever so slowly it continued bubbling.

With a little over a week to go, I put my cooler\mash tun on a chair, put the carboy in, and filled the cooler with ice. Over and over and over again. I cold crashed it for three days, then bottled it without priming sugar. Since I knew (or suspected strongly) that it was still fermenting a bit, I had to check the bottles for carbonation. Each morning, I’d open one bottle and then cap it again. In the evening, the same with another.

I thought it would carb rapidly and on its own, risking bottle bombs to have a nice fizzy beer for my friend’s birthday trip.

But of course, ESL Pale didn’t care what I thought. It stayed flat, with an overly dry flavor and a syrupy mouthfeel.

A few days after returning from the trip, I opened a bottle. A slight hiss, but basically no carbonation. Beyond frustrated now, I googled for sugar-to-bottle ratios and weighed out a requisite amount, then boiled it into a 1:1 mixture with water.  I uncapped the entire batch, all 30-some bottles, and used a giant syringe (minus needle) to inject 3CCs into each one. Then I recapped them, packed them onto a shelf, cursed the day I started brewing, and went about my business.

Last night, maybe ten days after the syringe craziness, I opened a bottle to see if anything had changed. When I poured it – more roughly than I usually would – it built a small but promising head of foam on it, which quickly dissipated. The flavor is still drier than I’d like. It still tastes like some idiot threw wine yeast and B vitamins into a perfectly good beer, but that’s mellowed, and there’s definitely a good kick to it, maybe in the 7% range (based on my highly scientific, “Would I feel comfortable driving a car 15 minutes after drinking this beer” test. The answer: No.)

So that’s the story of English as a Second Language Pale, a beer that required far too much manipulation and will end up being okay, I think, but never great. If there hadn’t been a clock on it, it might still be sitting in secondary, bubbling once a day, and I wouldn’t care. I like to let a beer sit until it’s well and truly done, and then let it sit a while longer. I’m certain that most of the problems in the world are caused by people being motivated by the wrong things, so I’ve decided that laziness can be a virtue in its own right. Since most people object to the glorification of laziness, I just tell them that my beers are “aged on lees.”

Some may call it patience, but I’ve come to believe that the secret to great home brewing is really just simple neglect.

Stone 16th Anniversary Ale


Wow, this one continues to knock my socks off. So much going on with this beer. The hops package is Amarillo and Calypso… more on that in a bit. The grain bill includes a healthy dose of rye but not enough to classify this double IPA as a Rye Ale. The adjuncts include lemon verbena and lemon oil. This is a fragrant, smooth citrus explosion with a sweet body and a 10% ABV burn. Calypso is undeniably my favorite hops. With a fruity pear and apple bouquet, it brings the unique fragrance to this beer and a smooth fruity first taste. The Amarillo seems to pair well with the slight rye bitterness and brings a bit of a grapefruit zing to balance the Calypso fruit. The finish is appropriately bitter, clearing the palate for your next sip. Served with a medium rare ribeye and grilled squash, the beer held up well but did not overpower the savory beef flavor.

Bell’s Oarsman Ale

Saturday night’s alright for… well, working, in my case. But at 9 I closed out of my worky work and I’m going to do some housey things while Matt Smith puts a bowtie on the Doctor.


Hello! I saw this in the Sour section at Ale Yeah! yesterday and had to pick it up. I’ve really taken a notice of Bell’s beers lately, and I’ve also wanted to expand my understanding of sours.

You see, last weekend I shared a meal and a few (too many) drinks with Spyke and her wife over at the Brick Store Pub, and experienced some Jolly Pumpkin brett beer. Brettanomyces is one of those sideways yeasts that brewers tend to use sparingly, but I’ve always appreciated a little “brett funk.”

I haven’t had a lot of Jolly Pumpkin and haven’t loved what I’ve had, but whatever this beer was, it was like a liquid hatef—. It tasted like they’d crammed an orange into a gym sock after it had been through a marathon or three, then dipped the swollen citrus rotsweat of it all into a cup of coffee.

I couldn’t stop drinking it. Seriously. So I’ve had funktastic beers on my mind.

That’s a lot of throat clearing to get to the Oarsman.

Ignore everything above. This is nothing like it – not even a brett beer. Just a very sessionable (4%), light bodied, brightly colored sipper with lots of grape and lemon. Every third sip or so I get a nice bready aftertaste. The whole thing is quite pleasant. It’s definitely carbonated – it’s unpasteurized and bottle conditioned with a noticeable sediment at the bottom – but the foam lasted about five seconds and there wasn’t much to start with.

I’ve had some sours that have been surprisingly sweet, almost approaching Kool-Aid levels of grossness (sorry if that’s your thing). This isn’t. It’s tart and zesty, but the components come together to imply sweetness in the middle. It’s a good, grown up beer, a really smart approach to the style.

And that’s a relief, because I’m not really sure what I would do if I’d found that Jolly Pumpkin brett thing. Stare at it with a hateful lust? Pour it into a glass while I criticize the bottle for the shortcomings I find? Marry it just so I can divorce it bitterly later?

But the Bell’s Oarsman – now that’s a beer I can enjoy liking.

Green Flash West Coast IPA


A pretty solid yet typical IPA that carries a strong grapefruit bitterness in the finish. This beer is using Simcoe, Cascade, Centennial and Columbus hops. I suspect the bitter finish is from the Simcoe and maybe the Centennial while the nose lends itself more to the Cascade. This coppery dark amber beer is only slightly sweet, about 7% ABV and has a lot going on in the hops department. A good drinker on a hot summer’s day, but expect it to wreck your palate. You will want to pair your food accordingly. Served with Gran Marnier Pâté and a jalapeño cheese, I found it to overwhelm the subtle citrus notes of the pâté but accent the spicy cheese nicely.

Finally, Friday night

After a long week of writing and coding and writing and coding, sipping on a Bell’s Two Hearted while I pull together some of the last minute details about v1.0 of this website is not the worst thing ever.


If you’ve found us before we’re all the way live, thanks for stopping by. We’re nearly there.

I see an IPA in my future

I just ordered this from Austin Homebrew Supply:

  • 8# 2-row
  • 2# Munich
  • 1# Red Wheat
  • 1# Carastan (.5# for the recipe)
  • 1# Flaked Barley
  • 2 oz Calypso hops
  • 2 oz Cascade hops
  • 1 oz Nelson Sauvin hops
  • 2 oz “Magic Hop Dust” (they sell 1 oz scrapings from the bottom of their hops box. I believe once upon a time my friends and I would have referred to this as “shake,” about a different plant.)

They were out of Centennial, but that’ll go into the boil somewhere. 1 oz of Calypso and the Nelson are for dry hopping, maybe with a touch of lemon peel and coriander in secondary.

I’m so excited.

The All Thumbs Transfer

That dark brown guy there is All Thumbs, an IPA style that was our first all grain brew. The hops pack was Falconer’s Flight for bittering, Calypso for aroma, and today we’ve racked it onto Nelson Sauvin to dry hop.

Initial verdict – more bitter than we were expecting, but the Nelson will help that. A very drinkable beer, all in all. Can’t wait to get it into bottles in a couple of weeks!


Scary Monsters Black IPA

I know that there are rules to determine style types: a given quantity of this, plus that, plus that other, with a dash of these hops, and bang, you’ve got an Elephantine Porterhouse. Or whatever.

I don’t know those rules, and I’m not so concerned about them. As much as I’m a brewer, it’s much more significant to me that I’m a drinker of beer. I love certain flavor combinations and certain mouthfeels and certain amounts of carbonation… These are the things I strive for, and I don’t usually consult textbooks in my pursuit of those.

So I don’t know exactly what Scary Monsters is, but the flavor profile, lightness of body (surprising, given the color), and the way it drinks have led me to call it a Black IPA. Maybe that’s even right.

1. It’s partial mash, so bring about two or two and a half gallons of water to about 155 degrees, and in a steeping bag, place:

  • 8 oz Crushed Caramel Malt
  • 9 oz Chocolate Malt
  • 8 oz Toasted Barley

2. Steep them in your 150-160 degree water for 40 minutes. It’s a lot of grain, so it’s a long soak.

3. After about 40 minutes, lift out your steeping bag and gently encourage as much water as possible as possible to drip into your kettle.

4. Bring your kettle to a boil, and add 6.6 pounds of Muntons Light Malt Extract.

5. Hops pack:

  • 1 oz Willamette – 60 min
  • 1 oz Cascade – 20 min
  • 1 oz Centennial – 5 min

6. Pretty sure I used Nottingham yeast, but any good ale yeast will do.

7. When primary fermentation completes, rack onto 1 oz Willamette for two weeks to dry hop.

Oh, and if your setup is prone to blow offs during primary, you might look into making a blow off tube. Scary Monsters redecorated my kitchen and I had quite a bit of cleaning to do the next morning. Like, mopping. It was intense. That beer earned its name.


Unemployment Insurance Belgian Tripel

This is an extract brew that I made ahead of a job loss in August 2010. It’s a huge, sweet beer that got seven or eight people hammered in May of 2011 when I brought it a friend’s college graduation. We all went to high school together, and watching our friend walk across the stage almost twenty years later – yeah, it was awesome to have something really special to contribute to such a great day.

Here’s the recipe:

9# Briess DME Pilsen

3# Briess DME Sparkling Amber

1# Belgian Candy Sugar

(13# fermentables total)


2oz Hallertau 60 min

1oz Syrian 20 min

1oz Saaz 5 min

No notes on yeast, but it was probably a dry yeast, definitely an ale yeast. My notes say that the boil time was more like 90 minutes than 60. I recall having a hard time getting the DME powders to dissolve.

I don’t think I ever put it into secondary. I think it sat in primary for about six months, then went into bottles, then went into bellies.