Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Just when you think you have it all figured out....

I was feeling pretty good. On the heels of my imperial stout advancing to the final round of the National Homebrew Competition, I won a medal at the New England Regional Homebrew competition with my Olde North Shore Ale and an Honorable Mention for Fredward Wit. 

For a beer that was three months old to medal at the largest competition in New England is pretty good.

Those were the only two competitions I had entered all year. Advancing at NHC was always a goal, but entering NERHBC was a bit of a lark. The two beers I entered were brewed for an event in July, not a competition in October. This year at Jamboree, Mike Shea from our club cleaned up with five medals. Ray Pickup, who is planning to open Rockport Brewing, was also at jamboree encouraging everyone else in the club to enter more beers next year.

A friend of mine who is a professional brewer also entered the competition at jamboree. I may be way off here, but I had the sense he was on pins and needles hoping his beer would win. It is also possible I was projecting what my feelings own would have been if I had entries. Deep down in places I don't talk about at parties, I am hyper-competitive. More accurately I hate losing. It rook me years to learn how to deal with failure. It probably took me longer than most well-adjusted adults.

Anyway, being around competitive people including another industry professional motivated me to enter the largest homebrew competition in New England. After entering two big competitions and winning two medals I was starting to feel pretty good about myself.

The next competition was Ales over ALS. While not a BJCP competition, I do want to win Ales over ALS after a couple near-misses. I brewed a wet hop IPA with my homegrown Chinook. It was a way to bring a one-of-a-kind beer to the event, and have a story for attendees at the event who aren't brewers or craft beer nerds.

The first time I tapped the keg was at the event. I got lemon and a some astringency in the finish. With over a pound of wet hops in a five gallon batch I expected some citrus and even some chlorophenols from all of that hop material in the kettle.

The attendees liked it enough, but two of the judges absolutely destroyed it. Both complained of acetaldehyde. The most common flavor descriptors for acetaldehyde are green apple like what is found in low levels in Budweiser and Bud Light,. The other common descriptors are raw pumpkin or pumpkin guts.

I was incredulous. Firstly, I didn't think the beer was problematic. If it was, I should have known better and caught it myself. Secondly my ego was bruised to have my beer torn to shreds by people I know and generally respect.  By the time I received my scoresheets I had already started breaking down. I went so far as to reconnect the keg and taste the beer again. I concluded that the judges probably were right. That meant I had been pouring problematic beer for four hours. Great.

All that was left was to figure out what went wrong. Acetaldehyde can be caused by fermentation problems. The original yeast I pitched never quite took off and I had to pitch dry yeast. Maybe the sluggish fermentation caused the acetaldehyde normally produced during fermentation not to be processed by the yeast. Acedaldehyde can also be caused by bacteria. The oxidation of acedaldehyde can also create acetic acid. That would explain the lemon that I was getting.

A couple weeks after brewing the wet hop beer, I brewed eight one-gallon batches for a Muntons sales meeting. I brewed the beers to showcase our malts as well as some of our competitors malts in a finished beer. I fermented in eight brand new one-gallon growlers. Each beer was over-pitched with half a sachet of dry yeast. Fermentation in all eight vessels was vigorous enough that it should have cleaned up any chemical byproducts during fermentation.  ALL EIGHT of those batches were acetaldehyde-bombs. Not only did I waste two days brewing and one day bottling those batches, I now have to fill that time at our meeting where we would have been tasting those beers.

If that wasn't enough, Jennie found a pellicle growing on a brown ale that was my most-recent batch.  A different beer, in a different vesel, with a different infection made it crystal clear I had a sanitation problem. I have been using an acid-based sanitizer Star San for years. Either something changed in the water supply in terms of alkalinity or mineral contact that is affecting the effectiveness of the Star San, or my Star San is just old.

After dumping 13 gallons of beer, I took every piece of equipment that touched beer recently, hoses, siphons, carboys, growlers, and sanitized it all the old-fashioned way: with bleach! Excuse me while I cry into a commercial beer.

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