Recently, a customer was in the shop buying beer making supplies. He had mentioned that he was relatively new to the hobby and was a little worried that he would ruin his beer from doing something wrong. After 20 years of teaching people how to brew, this is a very common fear among new brewers. I reassured him that he has nothing to be worried about and the chances of doing something to really mess up a batch of beer are pretty small. However, this conversation sparked one of the most memorable brewing disasters of my brewing career and an illustration of the fact that we should not fear the possibility of making a bad beer.
This story takes place around 1996 when my college buddies and I decided to make the strongest, darkest and richest-tasting imperial stout that we could. Now this was at the beginning of my life as a brewer and I certainly did not have the skills or wisdom that are acquired over time. Looking back now, it is easy to see all the critical errors that resulted in what was to come. However, I would not have changed a single thing…
The goal was to make 12 gallons of ultra-high-gravity Imperial Stout. The recipe included everything except for finesse. It was loaded with as much malt extract, grain and sugars that we could assemble. I can still visualize the giant hotel stock pot that we borrowed from one of our buddy’s parents. The caldron of boiling wort covered all 4 burners of the stove and the churning liquid inside was as thick as engine oil.
After a long brew day, we cool down the sweet, viscous wort and fill up two carboys with about 12 gallons of inky black liquid. As most brewers know, brew days always tend to go longer than planned and work into the early hours of the morning. The yeast is pitched and the carboys are wrapped up with blankets in the middle of the kitchen floor for the magic to begin. Before going to bed, I check on the beer and gently pull up the blanket on the exposed glass of the carboy like a parent tucking in a sleeping child. I remember the sense of pride and accomplishment I had having marked one more notch on my belt towards being an accomplished brewer.
It was not more than a few hours into the morning that I was startled from my sleep with a booming canon sound. My synapses had never fired so quickly from a sleeping state as they did that moment and I jumped out of bed to check on the beer.
I turned on the light to reveal the two carboys exactly where I left them but the entire kitchen was completely splattered with black, sticky wort with an explosive pattern that demonstrated it’s eruptive force. Nothing within a 12ft radius was spared from the mess including the floors, cabinets, appliances and everything in between. Even the ceiling was dripping with stout as I stood there in amazement and defeat. The only glimmer of hope at this point was the little bit of wort left behind in the carboys still vigorously fermenting. It was obviously a rookie mistake that caused the imperial eruption (which was just one of many novice mistakes). Whether it was due to a lack of sleep or a lack of wisdom, I put a few ounces of whole hops in the carboys for additional hop character. The wet, thick mass of hop flowers floated to the top of the carboys and plugged the openings until the pressure simultaneously blew out the hop plugs like a double barrel shotgun onto the ceiling.
Once you’ve had a brew day that went so badly that you had to mop the ceiling, you tend to pay a little more attention to the details. The remaining beer was salvaged and we ended up bottling about 3 or 4 gallons of our 12 gallon batch. There was a lot of brewer’s pride riding on those bottles. After weeks of waiting for the bottled beer to carbonate, we decided it was time to taste the result of this brewing catastrophe. We were seated all around the table with bottle opener and glasses in hand. The room was quiet with anticipation as I pried off the cap. The bottle opened with a lifeless performance and without the faintest ‘pssst’ of carbonation. It was a little blow to my brewer’s ego but there was still hope. The ultimate test will be in how this tastes. Each participant is poured a small sample of liquid which looks so thick it resembles molasses in a glass. We simultaneously sip as we look into each other’s eyes ready to celebrate. However, instead of celebrating, our spirits are broken with the awful taste of wretched, bitter, flat beer. "Oh well"...says my buddy in an attempt to make me feel better, "at least this will give us a good story to tell". We didn’t have much hope for the beer at that point but we figured that we would put it back in the closet with the chance that it might eventually carbonate and become tolerable. We continued on our brewing adventures and just kept learning from our mistakes along the way. We brewed a lot of beer in that college house while making plenty of mistakes but also some pretty great beers.
Months later, we stumbled on our stash of aging imperial stout and decide to give it a try to see if there has been any improvement. Once again, we gather at the table like pirates about to open a treasure chest to discover their rewards. The tasting ceremony begins as the bottle opener is nestled in position. I pause just long enough to build the suspense that the occasion deserved. As I pry the top off, a faintly audible ‘pssst’ emerges from the bottle. It’s alive! Each person receives a couple of ounces of a beautiful, mysterious liquid that has a fine layer of creamy dark foam on top. We bring the glasses to our lips with hesitant optimism and taste. We simultaneously erupt in joy upon discovering that our swill has aged into the best beer we have ever tasted and, undoubtedly, the best beer ever made since the dawn of man. What once was a bitter, thick liquid that smelled like paint thinner, became a luscious, silky-smooth, complex beer with notes of coffee, chocolate and licorice. The transformation was amazing and we carefully rationed the bottles of this very special brew and enjoyed it only on special occasions. Each time we drank it, we told the story of our inexperience and celebrated our accomplishment until the very last bottle was emptied and every drop was fully savored.
The memories and stories we share of those events all these years later bring me such happiness. As I explained to the customer in my shop who was worried about reining a batch of beer, there really is no such thing as failing when making beer. In fact, the occasional blunder is likely to be your most educational learning experience and one of your best opportunities to improve. The greatest improvements in my beer quality and brewing ability only occurred after doing something wrong. With more practice, there were also more mistakes. However, I never allowed any mistake to go to waste. Each mistake taught me important lessons and paid back exponentially in my development as a brewer. I have learned in life that the fear of messing up is not a very good reason for avoiding it it. Sure...you might screw it up. But you can’t do anything in life without that risk. If we only do the things that we feel comfortable with, we will never discover the things that we are good at, that bring us joy or give us prosperity. In my opinion, we don’t really improve on the things we do if we avoid the things we fear. In my experience, when I learn a new craft, it enhances my understanding or skills in other areas of my life.
So, as I told that customer, “don’t be afraid to dive right in and embrace those mistakes”. I’m not sure if that calmed his nerves about making beer or if he picked up on my hidden life lesson, but that’s okay...professional brewing therapy like this takes time.
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