Saturday, January 31, 2009

Disaster, AKA How Not To Brew Beer

Hello everyone!

I've calmed down a little. I'm starting to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that life does indeed go on. But I didn't feel that way less than 24 hours ago. Yesterday evening turned out to be one of the most horrific, disastrous evenings of my entire life. And while I may be able to move on and continue with my life, the scars will always be there. I will never forget.

It started innocently enough. In fact, things were going quite well until the incident. I had invited over my brother, Matt, and the two of us set out to brew a batch of "Blackbeard Oatmeal Stout" beer, using ingredients that we had picked the day before. I'm far from an expert home brewer--as you will soon see--but this recipe looked straightforward and simple enough, so I wasn't worried. Maybe I should have been.

We gathered our supplies and went to work. It started out surprisingly smoothly. We placed 1/4 pound of Dark Crystal Malt, 1/4 pound of Chocolate Malt, 1/4 pound of Roasted Barley, and 1/2 pound of Flaked Oatmeal in two quarts of water that was carefully heated to 165 degrees, and we steeped the grains for 20 minutes, just like the recipe directed us. For you novices, malt is a grain (in this case, barley) that is put in water to begin germination and then immediately dried in an oven. This brings out the sugars, which can then be drawn from the grain through steeping, and the resulting "tea" can eventually be converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. Here's what our batch looked like:

The steeping of these grains creates the basis of the beer or ale, which is called wort. Wort is essentially beer before it gets fermented. It's very sugary and sticky, and it has no alcohol yet.

After the steeping was completed, we poured the remaining liquid into the enormous five gallon boiling pot, straining out the grains. We left the spent grains in the strainer and poured another two quarts of water, this time heated to 170 degrees, over the grains and into the boiling pot, again following the directions carefully. This step is called sparging. Basically, the point is to get as many sugars out of the grains as possible. More sugars = more flavor and more potential alcohol.

Next, we added 6 1/2 pounds of Dark Malt Extract and 1 pound of Dry Dark Malt Extract to the wort. Malt extract is basically a concentrated version of the stuff we made on the stove. It's very sticky and gooey with a consistency like molasses or honey. The dry malt extract was powdery, and this was the first time I'd ever used the dry kind. We then added enough water to make about 3 gallons total, and brought the whole concoction to a boil. Both types of malt extracts dissolved easily enough, as they were supposed to, and everything was going as planned. Once the wort started to boil, we added 1 1/4 ounce of Perle Hops, which were in a small, meshed baggie, and let the whole thing boil for an hour. Among other benefits, hops give beer its unique, bitter flavor to balance out the sweetness of the grains. Despite the assertions of the assclowns at Keystone, bitter beer is not at all a bad thing. Also, practically every beer comes in a "specially-lined can." It's all just a clever marketing ploy to keep you from thinking about how crappy their beer is.

Anyway, since there isn't much to do during the hour-long boil, we sat down with Cathy and had some dinner, and we pretty much just hung out and made small-talk the whole time. Things were going exceptionally well, a little too well.

Just before the hour was up, we cleaned and sanitized the carboy. The carboy is a big, five gallon glass bottle in which the fermenting takes place. Sanitizing is the worst aspect of brewing in my opinion, but it has to be done. If there's any bacteria or anything weird in the carboy, the beer could end up tasting weird, or it could even end up going bad or not fermenting properly. So everything the beer comes in contact with after the boil has to be sanitized. Before and during the boil are not such a big deal since the boiling kills any bacteria in the mix.

Once the hour of boiling was finished, it was time to pour the wort into the carboy and wait for it to cool enough to add the yeast. We positioned the carboy on the floor, and Matt stood there carefully holding the funnel while I poured the wort. Amazingly enough, I managed to pour all 3 gallons (which was actually probably closer to 2 gallons after boiling for an hour) into the carboy without spilling a drop.

And then it happened.

I heard a sound that I had never heard before. It was somewhat like a dull, popping sound, almost like when a champagne bottle's cork pops off, but deeper and more dull sounding. It was immediately followed by a "glug, glug, glug" sound, and I watched a thick, heavy, dark brown liquid rapidly gushing out of the bottom of the carboy, spreading across the kitchen floor. I realized right away what had happened. I was supposed to put some water in the glass carboy before pouring in the wort. You remember the wort, right? The liquid I boiled on the stove for an hour? The liquid that I had let cool for all of maybe three minutes before pouring it into the glass container?

While the carboy's glass is very thick, even it can't handle the nearly-boiling wort, particularly since we had sanitized it with cool water just a few minutes prior. Here's the thing: I was supposed to put a gallon or so of cool water in the carboy or directly into the wort in the boiling pan before pouring it into the carboy. I forgot this step. It was a very, very, very crucial step, and I forgot.

I screwed up royally.

I thought of all this as I watched the wort spill all over the kitchen floor. And for the first few seconds, I actually thought, "No problem, we can still make this work!" But that only lasted a couple seconds before reality set in. I stood there realizing that three hours of work--not to mention about $80 worth of carboy and ingredients--had just gone down the drain. Except the wort hadn't really gone down the drain; it had gone all over the floor. And I stood there like a jackass holding an empty boiling pot while Cathy and Matt scrambled to gather every towel we owned to try to soak up 2-3 gallons of the sticky, gooey mess.

It went everywhere. Fortunately, we own a lot of towels for some reason. We soaked up what we could, and the we used every towel in the house, including the two outside in the cat's box. We then immediately washed the them in the washing machine, and there was enough to fill two loads. At one point, Cathy discovered that there was more wort behind the stove. So I moved the stove, which was surprisingly easy to do, and we found some back-up towels to get as much as we could of what was left. It's a good thing that there was more linoleum underneath, or the disaster would have been even more disastrous.

Believe it or not, this was taken after most of the wort was soaked up. I apologize for not having more photos, but we were fairly busy at the time!

So then we spent the next hour or so with our crappy Swiffer (that we realized after we bought it only works with Swiffer brand cleaning fluid and Swiffer brand cleaning pads) unsuccessfully trying to clean up the sticky layer the wort left on the floor. After several Swiffer sessions, we took my brother home, and what a great Friday night he had! We then went to Rite Aid--where my shoes made a sticky sound on the floor when I walked--and picked up a mop and some Pine Sol. I mopped everything twice with the Pine Sol, including under the stove, and things were still sticky when we walked on it this morning, so we had to mop yet again. There are cracks in the corner behind the stove that are probably now sealed with malt extract. I bet the ants are going to have a field day this summer.

Here's what's left of my carboy:

This photo was taken this evening. Notice how shiny our floor is now!

I spent the rest of last night drinking Black Butte Porter and generally feeling like an idiot. I do feel somewhat better now, however. I'm done wandering around the house absentmindedly saying, "That sucks!" If there's a bright side to all this, the area behind and under our stove is probably cleaner than it has been in decades. And of course, I will never again make the mistake of pouring boiling hot wort into a carboy without first diluting it.

As far as the Oatmeal Stout goes, I ain't no quitter! I'm going to try again next weekend. Stay tuned.


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Anonymous Greg said...

Damn, that sucks. I can't even think of a good analogy to show how much it sucks. You're the blogonaut so you come up with something. Oh well, no one was hurt (physically at least) and you will probably remember that missed step for the rest of your life. Lesson learned.

11:03 AM, February 01, 2009  
Blogger Rob said...

Hello Greg!

Blogonaut? More like Blagojevich!


11:50 AM, February 01, 2009  
Blogger Nate said...


I weep for your loss :(



12:36 PM, February 02, 2009  
Blogger Rob said...

Hello Nate!

It just means that the next batch will taste that much better!


3:08 PM, February 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said... - [url=]wiki[/url]

9:05 AM, April 18, 2013  
Anonymous said...

You're real lucky you didn't hurt yourself!!

Get safe and grab a Carboy Cover from

They make managing your carboy a breeze and if you happen to drop it, the canvas will keep sharp glass contained.

The All-in-One Carboy Cover

10:11 AM, March 04, 2014  

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