Epic homebrewing fail
June 18, 2014 9:38 AM   Subscribe

I've got a very weak and too tart berry beer in primary/secondary. I'd like to avoid tossing it, but as it stands, this stuff is not drinkable. Can you help me fix it?

I made a series of dumb mistakes in my first ever batch of beer. It's a light ale from a kit. Here is what I did:

1. Added way too much water, although I didn't realize this until later. Starting gravity was 1.02. Probably added an extra 6 or 8 litres.
2. Noticed that it didn't seem to ferment. No krausen. I, kept it in primary for two weeks.
3. Finally realized my error. Tested gravity, turns out there was some fermentation giving it a 2% alcohol content. Tasted it, noted it was horribly weak.
4. Asked homebrewing store person what I might do to add some flavor. He suggested berries.
5. I racked to secondary and added about 3 lbs of mixed berries, about a 1/3 package brewer's yeast and about 3/4 cup of dextrose. Krausen formed, airlock bubbled.

It's been a week and a half since I racked to secondary and made those last additions (you could kind of say that it's in primary/secondary given the new yeast pitched). I tasted it last night. The concoction is quite tart, definitely not sweet enough, and still not flavorful enough. Can it be saved - can I still come out with something that's drinkable at least by forgiving friends and family? How? I don't know what the hell I'm doing...
posted by kitcat to Food & Drink (19 answers total)
What was the original recipe? I'd consider adding a significant amount of malt extract (and maybe more yeast, depending on if you currently have fermentation going), and maybe even dry hopping. But knowing what is actually in the fermenter now (and what should have been) would help in giving recommendations.

Relax, don't worry, have a [quality craft beer because you don't have any homebrew yet].
posted by sparklemotion at 9:51 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your beer really is super tart, you may have introduced some kind of bug from the berries (although people do this all the time without trouble, there's a chance, if you didn't sterilize them in some way).

Assuming, though, that's not the case, I'd think about getting some malt extract (dry or liquid) and adding maybe 20 points worth to your beer (which is to say, if the dry extract is labeled at 40ppg, and you've got 6 gallons of beer, you want 20 points * 6 gallons / 40 ppg = 3lbs of dry extract). Dissolve it in just-enough warm water and add it to the fermenter. This will bring your "starting" gravity to about 1.040 plus your 6oz or so of dextrose and whatever the berries added.

Then just let it sit... a good long time (beware of blowoff). And in the meantime, get yourself a nylon bag to put over the end of your racking cane when you try to rack it off the berries.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:54 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

It was this kit. So...I really don't quite know what's in it. There was a liquid wort to add but no dry hops.
posted by kitcat at 9:58 AM on June 18, 2014

I think the tartness is just 'unsweetened berry' tartness, not contamination. I hope. I boiled the berries (which were purchased frozen). I know that's not recommended for flavor or clarity, but whatever.
posted by kitcat at 10:02 AM on June 18, 2014

In all honesty I would toss it and try again. "Pre-Boiled Wort" sounds bad enough, I can't imagine adding three pounds of frozen berries would change anything for the better. This was your first beer? Consider it a learning experience. I'd try again, and make a classic simple ale as described in Palmer's How to Brew or countless other brewing books. But buy separate high-quality ingredients, make a standard 5 gallon batch, and focus on following the recipe while keeping everything clean.

And stay away from the brewing shop dude that suggested berries, that just sounds awful.
posted by gyusan at 10:33 AM on June 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

I also vote for pitching it and starting over. If it were too boozy, time might sort it out but I don't think a thin brew will improve much and trying to add stuff could be throwing good money after bad.

Try again with something simple and try to get your volumes right, you'll feel a lot better about the hobby once you produce something you can be proud of rather than "drinkable at least by forgiving friends and family".
posted by ghharr at 11:05 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Add some brettanomyces. It will make a refreshing sour funky low-alcohol beer. Give it time to age.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:21 AM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm going to go against the grain (heh) here. I had a batch of cyser that was terrible 6 months in. I didn't need the bottles at the time, and stuck them in the back of the basement. 2 years later I needed the bottles and started pouring them down the sink when I decided to taste one. It was fantastic. Of course, by then I only had 3 bottles left, I'd just poured 2 cases away...

Especially with fruity fermentables sometimes just leaving them alone works out. If you've got enough bottles and space go ahead and try it. If not, then agree, throw it away.
posted by Runes at 11:26 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm also going to vote for tossing it.... I've never heard anything good about those pre-boiled kits.

Get an extract kit from a reputable homebrew store -- order from (the awesome) Northern Brewer if you don't have anything local. It's not necessary to buy all the ingredients separately, but you do want to buy a kit from a place that stocks good ingredients and has high turnover (for freshness).

Follow the How to Brew method. I promise you you'll enjoy it more than waiting and hoping that this batch works out.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:29 AM on June 18, 2014

I'm worried that the terseness of my suggestion might result in its being lost in the shuffle. Adding brettanomyces is a more advanced brewing move, but it's not super difficult, and you can make some really delicious lemonade out of this brewing lemon.

This beer sounds like EXACTLY the sort that would turn out positively delicious brewed with brett.

Any advanced brewer (there are lots of forums online) can help you with details, and your homebrew shop can help you score some (though it's a bit too subtle and advanced a move for you to follow the advice of an employee there unless it's a very experienced brewer who does lots of brewing with brett).
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:11 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, I found this NYT article about brettanomyces, and it sure sounds interesting. I'm considering it. I'm just too stubborn to simply toss my brew if there's the slightest hope it could come out...drinkable.
posted by kitcat at 3:18 PM on June 18, 2014

I am obsessed with Brett beers (although I've never tried to brew one). I agree that it is a great last-ditch effort to rescue this beer.

You can also just bottle it and let it sit. Sometimes things just get better with age.

My only concern is that the quality of the original materiel may be so poor that nothing will save the beer.

Get an extract kit from a reputable homebrew store -- order from (the awesome) Northern Brewer if you don't have anything local.
Totally agree for future batches.
posted by jeoc at 4:14 PM on June 18, 2014

My only concern is that the quality of the original materiel may be so poor that nothing will save the beer.

He's got fruitiness. He's got water. He's got enough ABV for a session beer. Add bretty funk and he'll have a wonderful summer refresher.

Just let it sit a while. That's critical. Brett needs time to work its magic
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:20 PM on June 18, 2014

I vote toss it. Brew an amber with easy to follow instructions. Let us never speak of berry beer again.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:38 PM on June 18, 2014

For Pete's sake, if this is your first attempt at brewing just cut your losses and try again.

Adding lambic yeast to try and salvage a berry-addition attempt at salvaging some pre-made kit swill (pardon the hyperbole) is pointless. It's like you tried to make a cake but wound up with hardtack, and you try to turn it back into a cake with jam and yogurt. It ain't gonna be cake, regardless of how much someone likes yogurt and jam.
posted by gyusan at 4:46 PM on June 18, 2014

Disagree with all of the people saying to toss it. I had the same thing happen with a hard lemonade - too tart, not very strong.

I added a few cups of white sugar, let it ferment, and then repeated until the yeast ate up enough alcohol to die (5-6% APV if you're using basic brewers yeast). Make sure fermentation has stopped for a week and the yeast are really dead (or you'll get an exploding surprise), then add sugar to taste and bottle.

If you don't have many bottles, you can bottle in whatever, 2-liters work fine for example.

You can either make trashcan punch at will, or stuff it in the back of the basement for a couple of years and it will be tasty. Taste every 6 months or so.
posted by zug at 5:57 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would just make a nice concentrated wort from liquid malt extract and some new hops and add it into the batch. Something like 3 pounds of light malt extract along with 2 oz of cascade hops with a liter of water. You'll just bring it to a biol add in the hops and let it boil for half an hour. Cool the mixture and add into your current batch. It will bring enough sugars to ferment to 5% or so and cost maybe $10. The tartness of the berries will help the flavor and you should definitely let it sit for quite a while to mellow and mingle and will probably end up with quite a nice beer.
posted by koolkat at 1:39 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kitcat, as a new brewer this discussion might seem a little overwhelming. I'm hoping that the lesson you learn here is not "brewing is hard", but that you've triggered one of the more interesting questions you can ask a community of brewers, namely "how would you change/fix this batch?". That's a question that will generate many many answers because everyone's personal style develops over the course of practice. Just as there are many ways to skin a cat, there are many ways to mix fermentables with yeast to make brew. I've had brews made by master brewers that I consider undrinkable, and I'm sure people have been too kind to say my bottles tasted like crap to them :-).
My best suggestion would be to find a local brew club. Virtually every brewer I know loves to introduce new people to the craft. Ask if you can observe someone making a batch, etc. I see that you're in Edmonton, I found this group on the web.

Welcome to the community.
posted by Runes at 6:46 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Personally I'm not convinced the brew-shop guy gave you good advice; if it had been my beer to fix I would have added more malt (for example) and possibly hops (simmer in 2 cups water, add the strong bitter tea). Fruit is hard to work with, because the yeast will eat ALL the sugars, and no matter what the fruit tasted like going in, the residual flavor after it ferments will just be "sour". One thing I've learned from brewing is that beer mistakes are often nowhere near as bad as I think they are, especially when you give them time. Leave it in bottles for a couple of weeks, then taste one, and keep tasting every 3-4 weeks for the next 6 months. It will get better over time. Also, it might not be great straight out of the bottle, experiment with what tastes good along with it - maybe this is the perfect beer to mix with sweet lemonade for a shandy, maybe it goes well with cherry juice, maybe it makes good micheladas; maybe all you need to do is add a shot of simple syrup after you pour it into a glass to offset the sourness, and garnish it with some fresh berries.

I would advocate against throwing this out; just bottle it. I'd also advocate against having any high hopes of it being an easy beer to love; get it into bottles soon, and immediately start again with a different kit, so you can make a batch of beer you can easily enjoy and share with your friends.
posted by aimedwander at 7:22 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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