Did I ruin my homebrew?

Did I ruin my homebrew? If you are asking yourself this question you are venturing where almost every homebrewer before you has gone. It is a common concern, but one that you shouldn’t worry too strongly about. As the great Charlie Papazain stated, “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Home Brew.” We all have questions when we are learning new things and it is nice for someone to tell you that making beer is somewhat of a forgiving hobby. See below for some details of the most common questions new brewers often have and help you determine if you might have ruined your first batch of homebrewed beer.

Visual Fermentation Issues

  • Why is there no fermentation activity? - There are many vessels in which a brewer can use to fermenter their beer. I am a big fan of ones that are clear. I like to see what is going on; however, this can lead to much self-guessing from a new brewer. As a general rule of thumb it can take 24 to 72 hours for visible signs of fermentation to show up. Every fermentation is different. What happened last time may not happen the next time.
    • Why isn’t the airlock bubbling? The airlock bubbles as a result of gas pressure building up and forcing air out of the fermenter. This can happen when the yeast consumes the sugars in the wort and expel carbon dioxide. The airlock can also bubble if the temperature rises (the gas and air begin to expand).
    • Why does it look like nothing has happened? The yeast goes through a series of stages and the first stage is reproduction. The yeast cells start to grow through a process called budding (one cell divides into another). It can take hours or up to a few days for the yeast to grow to the amount necessary to ferment the rest of your beer.
  • Why is the krausen not falling? - The foamy cream-like batter that bubbles to the top of your fermenter is called krausen. It is a visible sign of fermentation and is perfectly normal in fermentations. Usually at the end of fermentation the krausen flocculates, or falls, to the bottom of the fermenter and the beer above becomes more and more clear. Occasionally the krausen will not fall (sometimes even after 3 weeks). The best way to determine if the beer is ready for packaging is to take two hydrometer samples three days apart. If the reading is the same, then the beer is done!
  • What is the junk floating in the fermenter? - Often when I look into my fermenter during active fermentation it looks as if the liquid is being constantly stirred and contains what looks like a bunch of minced onion. The “minced onion” is most likely proteins which will ultimately fall to the bottom with the yeast at the end of fermentation. This is nothing to worry about and at least for me, adds to the excitement that is fermentation.
  • What is the junk coming out of the fermenter? - Above we touched on the the junk floating in the fermenter and krausen. Occasionally during a very active fermentation all of this junk will be too much for the size of your fermenter. It has nowhere to go but out! People will often have questions on if they ruined their beer because they removed the airlock to clean it and although possible, it’s very unlikely. At this point you have so much active yeast it is going to be difficult for wild airborne bacteria to cause a problem.

Sensory Issues

  • Why does my homebrew smells like rotten eggs? - This smell is more prevalent when using lager yeast and it is caused by hydrogen sulfide. The smell will dissipate over time. Make sure you wait for fermentation to finish before casting judgement and let the beer lager (cold condition) for the smell to subside.
  • Why does my beer taste bad when flat? - I sample the beer from my hydrometer almost every batch and it always amazes me how the beer tastes very different when it is warm and flat versus cold and carbonated. Although it is possible to notice a problem at this stage it is best to wait until the beer is carbonated to determine if there are any issues. My second beer tasted horrible for three weeks in the bottle, and then it magically was transformed!
  • Why is my beer hazy? Beer can be hazy for many reasons and the most common is from chill haze. Chill haze is usually caused by not cooling the wort quickly enough after boiling; the proteins don’t coagulate and dropout which causes a hazy beer. Another reason is that there is still a bit of yeast in suspension. Some yeasts, like those in wheat beers, don’t drop out quickly and will cause the beer to be hazy. Give the beer time in cold storage and you will notice it getting clearer.

Process Issues

  • What will happen since I forgot to add…? - A lot of times we get too caught up in the minute details. My first batch I forgot to add the second addition of hops at 30 minutes left in the boil. I added them at five minutes left. I’m sure it altered my beer (less bitterness and more hop flavor) but in the end it wasn’t a major problem. If you forgot to add yeast, you may have a problem, but you can always add that within a few days and be okay. Keep going with your process and see how things turn out! You can always make sure you catch this step on the next batch
  • I just opened my first bottle of beer and it is flat. What should I do? - If you bottled your beer it can take three weeks or more for the bottles to become carbonated. It is also important that your bottles have been in a somewhat stable environment at 70 degrees or so to allow for full carbonation. If you find out your beer is flat, move it out of the fridge and back to a warm location for another few weeks to allow it to carbonate.

So there you have it. As you can see a little education and a lot of relaxation and you will be enjoying your homebrew worry-free in no time!