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.

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