Brew Day From Hell

Yesterday we finished the brew day straight out of hell. We set out to brew a doppelbock to drink in the fall/winter. Little did we know, the 4 hour planned brew day was going to take over 7 hours. To give some of the following text some context, we brew on a 3-vessel HERMS system in our basement. We have 2 pumps, one for water, one for wort. Three wort hoses, MLT to pump, pump to HERMS coil, HERMS coil to sparge arm. Sparge arm is connected to the MLT lid and is made of a bunch of small CPVC pipe glued together with food safe pipe glue. Pipes have small holes drilled throughout for an even distribution of liquid over the mash. I don’t consider us to be novice brewers and we’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past. However, I did not expect to make so many in one brew day. Hopefully you can laugh at our misfortune and learn from one of the worst days we’ve had all year. Without further adieu, our brew day from hell:

Picked up the RO water from the pet shop. They usually fill the buckets up to the top but this time they were a gallon short on each bucket. Wound up paying for the extra that should have been there. Shame on me for not checking. Instead of 12 gallons, I got 10 and had to top up our HLT with tap water which really screwed with my water chemistry calculations.

I hooked up my hoses and turned on my pumps to recirculate the HLT and MLT to let my water get to strike temp. I proceeded to go upstairs in a panic to figure out what the hell to do with my water chemistry. Once I returned, happy with the new additions, I found the MLT sparge arm on the table, not in the MLT, spewing water in all directions, soaking the floor, walls, and table. I lost a gallon of RO in the MLT and had to top up from the HLT. My pH was going to rise if I added diluted RO/tap water since the tap water is fairly alkaline. Luckily the grain I was adding is fairly acidic but the chemistry is all fucked again.

Ok, now that the water fiasco is done with, I can mill my grains. I’m weighing out all my grain and I’m half a lb short on Vienna. No big deal though since I can sub it with half a lb of Munich (which was also in the grain bill). Minor inconvenience but it added insult to injury.

I’m 45 min through my mash, stirring every 5 minutes and monitoring temp to make sure I’m hitting all the rests. Suddenly the pump starts sucking in grain. It sucked in so much that the mash just seemed like water with 3 or 4 lbs of grain mixed in. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what was going on. I started with the sparge arm since the hose going to it was rock solid, indicating built up pressure. I prodded all the holes in the sparge arm and even disassembled a small piece. Still no flow. After massaging every hose for several minutes, I proceeded to beat the lid of my MLT/sparge arm violently against the top of the MLT in a fit of frustration until all the little pieces of glued CPVC broke off into the mash tun. Well, that worked. The large opening in my sparge arm was not ideal but we got flow…

…for about 2 minutes. I spent the next half hour trying to figure out how to get compressed grain out of my hoses. At this point I had all pumps off, the element off, and the mash sitting in the mid 150s. Blowing through the hoses didn’t work so I hooked them up to the sparge water pump in hopes some fresh water can push it out. Nope that didn’t work either. It actually compressed the grain even more. The hoses were solid like a rock. At that point, my brew partner and partner in life, Sarah, got home from work. We hooked up both pumps in series with new hoses and at the output hooked up the suspect hose and turned on both pumps. Success. Like an explosive shit, dirty brown and chunky grain water sprayed so hard into the bin we were trying to contain it all in that most of it wound up on the floor surrounding it. One hose down, 2 to go. The next 2 didn’t come out so easily. I had to milk them like udders and probe the inside of the hose with our thermometer. After what felt like an eternity, we got them both clean.

Ok, I think we can stop mashing. I’m tired, covered in grain, and stickier than the floors of a Nickelodeon studio. We hooked up the hoses to the pump and MLT and prepared to vorlauf. Gave the mash a good stir and switched on the pump. WHAT THE FUCK WAS I THINKING? Clogged. Again. All 3 hoses. Fuck. At this point Sarah had suggested there may be something wrong with the false bottom. Why had we not thought of that before? We dumped the entire mash (grain and CPVC) into a kettle. Lo and behold, the hose connecting the false bottom to the bulkhead fitting was disconnected. Re-connected and poured the mash back into the cooler. Kettle rinsed off. Of course none of this went smoothly and we wound up with more hot wort and grain on the floor/my hands. I can feel you LODO brewers squirming in your seats.

Alright, this nightmare should be over. We expect a mash efficiency hit but the rest of the brew day should go rather smoothly. Or so we thought. We hooked up the hoses to the pump, gave the mash a stir (CPVC and all), and turned on the pump. Success. No problems. Ten minutes later and we are pumping wort into the kettle while pumping sparge water into the MLT. We noticed the mash formed craters and tunnels, presumably due to the CPVC pipes. Great, more mash efficiency hits since we can’t rinse our grain properly. That said, our wort was a beautiful color and crystal clear.

While fiddling with my phone and trying to take my first break since getting home, the kettle managed to fill up half a gallon past our intended volume before I noticed. We had to boil for 90 minutes to get to our high gravity and dark color for the doppelbock but this extra half gallon meant we needed to boil for a half hour longer. With the extra long “mash”, this was turning into a very long brew day. I took the gravity reading with my handy refractometer. Ouch. Ten points below what we needed, even with the extra boil time accounted for. Mash efficiency was at 65% when we accounted for 80% initially.

Luckily nothing had gone wrong during the 2 hour boil. I spent the first hour killing the time with cleaning the MLT, wiping the floors, converting some pin lock kegs to ball lock kegs, and playing a bit of rocket league to relieve the stress. Hop additions and whirlfloc all added according to plan. Once the boil was finished, I noticed we were short on wort by a little over a quarter of a gallon. Not a big deal but at this point it felt like death by a thousand cuts.

I hooked up our inlet and outlet hoses to the immersion wort chiller that had been sanitizing in the boiling wort. Turned on the water at the sink and then went over to the chiller to open the valve. As soon as I opened the valve I was instantly sprayed with high pressure boiling hot water. Braving through the scorching hot lava I managed to shut the valve. I Tightened the suspect hose fitting on the outlet of the chiller with some clamps and flipped the valve open again. I then proceeded to yell in a steamy hot fury as I was, once again, sprayed with boiling water. OK, keep calm. It’s almost over. Just gotta figure out the source of the leak. Unscrewed the hose and found the O-ring in the fitting to be missing. Luckily I had a mini chiller nearby with the same fitting attached. Stole the O-ring off the mini chiller and re-attached it to the suspect fitting. Hose connected, valve on, everything works. The rest of the brew day went as planned. I wound up undershooting my OG by a single point which was a great shock to me. The brew day started at 4PM and I finished up at 11. The fermentor was filled and put into the fridge to cool down to pitching temp. Since this was a lager, I had to chill it overnight. I did not bother cleaning the kettle, the pump, or the hoses. That was going to be a task left for future me.

The next morning I had to wake up early for work. After about 5 hours of terrible sleep, I get up, get ready, and go downstairs to feed the cat and check up on the wort. As I was going down, I missed a step, rolled my ankle, and fell on my ass. Completely done with this fucking week, I limped over to check on the wort. Great, we’re at pitching temp. That means I can pitch all 4L of starter wort to our fermentor. At least that’s what my groggy and pissed off brain was thinking at the time. What I should have done was stuffed the starter wort into a fridge the day before and decanted FOUR FUCKING LITERS OF DME WORT before pitching the yeast. Well, we now have a gallon extra in our fermentor, diluting the taste and gravity down by about 8 points. To make things worse, the wort is almost at the top of the fermentor so I poured a generous amount of ferm-cap into the wort. I spent the rest of the day limping, drinking coffee, writing this stupid post, and worrying about the explosion that might be happening in our fridge. Now I have to find time in the week to glue the sparge arm back together, buy new hose fittings, clean the table, the kettle, the 5L flask, and the potential mess in the fermentation fridge.

So to all of you that have had similar bad days: don’t let things like this discourage you from brewing. Laugh it off, have a homebrew, and remember you are making some great tasting beer. Pray to the brewing gods, don’t forget to gjærkauk, and relax. Cheers! Also fuck AB Inbev.

4 thoughts on “Brew Day From Hell

  1. Oh man, I have some bad brew days myself but never this bad. Glad you stuck it out and finished the batch and did not just pitch the whole thing out of frustration. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

    • Thanks Jeff! There was no way I was going to dump that after so much work. Beer is fermenting away and smells incredibly good. I may not make it till the fall to put it on tap.

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