The Bread Crumb Trail: From Dorée Forte to Christmas Presence and Beyond

Posted on 01.22.08 5:30PM under Brewing, Stories, Troubleshooting

Hansel and GretelI finally figured out something. It took me a while. Well maybe I could be wrong, but here’s a theory. Actually, here are several of them. This is a long one, a journey of self-discovery for the author. A revealing look into the practices of one brewer, and where they seemed to go wrong. It also talks about the future in a bright way, a plan to redeem myself, and become the sanitary uninfected brewer I always meant to be and once was. This highly clean fellow still appears from time to time, but his face is starting to be less regular, and it’s time to change that. This is the bread crumb trail of decay that started with a very bad batch, and caused a few slightly bad batches. But it all stops now.

In the summer, I made a Duvel clone, and I named it Dorée Forte. I got incredible efficiency on the mash and ended up with a very high OG. The recipe called for adding corn sugar upon transfer to secondary, so I did. For some reason. Even though the beer was already stronger than Duvel, I guess I got greedy. I think I was also sloppy. I don’t exactly recall, but I feel there’s a strong chance that I just added plain corn sugar, not boiled for 15 minutes or anything like that. But I can’t be sure.

That beer never finished. It ended up at 11.3% ABV, but showed tons of residual sweetness. It included 2.50 lbs of corn sugar. It used the phenolic WLP570 yeast. It showed tons of phenol. Beyond the normal clovey notes from a Belgian yeast, this thing had some sort of very dry astringent taste. I never could figure out just what it was. This beer also never conditioned in the bottles. That is to say it was always flat.

Then I later made Christmas Presence Holiday Ale. It was a great recipe, based off the St. Arnold Christmas Ale, but boosted to 8+% ABV. It came out at 8.8% ABV, and had a strange smoky flavor. An unintended phenol, since I used US-05 neutral dry yeast. Beto, my BJCP friend, also found a band-aid phenol in the finish. Conclusion is a likely infection. Lost much sleep wondering where the infection came from. What did I do?

Finally, during another sleepless pondering of flaws in my brewing technique, I came up with a possible idea.

The Dorée Forte acquired an infection, probably from the untreated corn sugar. This was stuck in the plastic bucket of a fermenter I used for that beer. Then perhaps that bucket went out of rotation as I slowed down brewing while waiting for Dorée Forte and other big beers to condition. Finally, the bucket was used again for Christmas Presence. Vigorous fermentation got all parts of the fermenter touched by the beer. The infection could have been picked up there, and shows in the flavor of Christmas Presence, but a little less severely, since Christmas Presence is darker and hoppy.

Now I have Big Slick 2 IIPA, with a slight pukey aroma. This is likely caused by Butyric Acid. This doesn’t have any apparent link with smoky or band-aid phenols, but they’re all infections. I seem to have infection problems somewhere along the way.

Then I found another a-ha moment. Pre Cut Ale With Fir was off a bit at bottling, but it had quite a low FG, and I think it was just very dry. But now, when sampled from the bottle, it is sour. Fortunately, the sour complements the dry piney flavor, filling in a missing area of taste. Unfortunately, lactic acid infections are not the kinds of things that you want to pass on to all your future beers. I decided to replace all bottling equipment.

Taking apart the bottling bucket, just for fun, since I was getting rid of it, I found black crap buildup in the spigot assembly. I guess you’re supposed to take those things apart and clean in there. Oops. Never did that. Buying the replacement stuff, I also determined I should be popping out the rubber grommets in the fermenter lids and cleaning in there. Got home, did that, found a black ring forever embedded into the plastic of the fermenter lid. Crap – another infection site for all my beers.

So here’s an alternate theory for the infection of Xmas Presence and suspected infection of Big Slick 2. Grommets. Christmas Presence had a very vigorous fermentation – I had to replace the airlock with a makeshift blowoff tube. I thought this quickly assembled blowoff tube was the problem – inadequately sanitized or something. But it could have been the bugs living in the grommet in the lid, where the krausening yeast definitely made contact.
Big Slick 2 also had a vigorous fermentation. I started with a properly sanitized blowoff right away, but I could see at bottling that the yeast had reached the lid at some point during fermentation. So it made some contact with a nasty grommet germ hideout, too.

But there’s another possibility for what could have infected Pre Cut and Big Slick 2. The immersion chiller. I made Big Slick 2 and Pre Cut in the same session, partigyle style. Boiling four gallons of wort on a side burner of a natural gas grill that is now using propane as fuel is a slow process. As such, both worts were done at about the same time. For these two batches, I didn’t boil the immersion chiller as I normally would. I simply soaked it in StarSan for a few minutes. But the immersion chiller has some nooks and crannies that could be hiding nasties, too.

But there’s one more thing. The strainer I use for removing trub from the wort before sending it to the fermenter. It is plastic with a metal mesh. I can’t boil it, so it might be housing more bugs that are trying to hurt my beer.

Finally, there’s one more thing I thought of. Rehydrating yeast with filtered tap water that has not been boiled to sanitize. There could be unknown denizens of micro-world in there, waiting to wreak havoc on the pure clean beer flavor of my creations.

But the thing is I made a perfectly infection-free beer or three between all these problem batches. Using the same basic procedures and equipment. I think that could rule out the strainer. It was used on all batches, definitely. But at the same time, the strainer used to live in the kitchen, and got dishwasher treatment frequently. Now it lives in the basement or garage with the brewing stuff, and is not as pampered. Simple fix: wash the strainer in the dishwasher the night before brew day. Then there’s the chiller, which I have always boiled it for 15 minutes except for Pre Cut and Big Slick 2. Simple fix: boil chiller, no matter what. The tap water for rehydrating yeast could vary from day to day, so that could be a problem. Simple fix: don’t rehydrate yeast. Just sprinkle it on there – that seems to be the consensus. To quote a forum, “rehydrating yeast has gone the way of the mash-out.” That is, it has been determined pointless by the empirical data gathered by home brewers across the country. Now the lids could be a problem – I don’t know of a vigorously fermented batch that contacted the lid that came out great, except for early batches back when all the equipment was newer. Simple fix: replace all lids and always remove and clean the grommets. While on the subject, clean the bottling spigot every time, too. I am left with an unknown – how many of my fermenting buckets are infected and should not be used? It is safest to assume that they all are, but it might be wasteful to assume so. Another simply annoying solution: buy more buckets. I only really need two, since that’s all that could fit in my fermenting fridge. So I only need one more. I can accept that. Finally, back to the origin – the damn unprepared corn sugar. Why the hell would I do that? Did I even do that? I know I did something like that at some point down there in the basement while Dorée Forte was down there. An embarrassing solution: don’t be an idiot, be sanitary.

There’s one final thing I noticed the other day bottling Big Slick 2. My StarSan solution was all cloudy. It was actually just slightly cloudy; it was hard to tell until I had it in a measuring cup. But they say that cloudy StarSan means it isn’t being fully effective, if it is working at all. I made a new solution up for the bottling. But how long has it been ineffective? Once I switched from One-Step to StarSan, I quickly got into the habit of reusing StarSan several times per mixing, since it doesn’t require warm water to be effective, it seemed so alluring. But I gotta make sure to check for cloudiness before using it. Maybe even make a whole new batch up each time. I wonder if using water from my garden hose faucet is a problem. The hose faucet has such a high flow rate; I can fill the bucket in less than a minute. From the tap in the kitchen, it takes forever to fill it. More variables and potential issues.

Oh yeah, and what about flameout hops additions? I just hold them in un-sanitized containers prior to dropping them into the wort. I wonder if that’s a contamination risk.

Now that I see all the problems I could fix, I need to fix them. Most of them are easy – new equipment, and a bit more attention to detail. But some are less obvious.

For my own benefit, a recap:

  1. Disassemble and clean the bottling spigot after every use
  2. Disassemble and clean the fermenting bucket lids after every use
  3. Make sure StarSan solution is clear, and not cloudy before use. Consider fresh mixture for each brew session
  4. Run strainer through dish washer the night before brew day to optimize sanitation
  5. Always boil that immersion chiller
  6. Use sanitized containers to hold any hops additions to be added with fewer than 15 minutes left in the boil
  7. Don’t rehydrate yeast – just sprinkle it into the wort when the time comes
  8. Don’t reuse any old fermenting buckets – get all new ones
  9. Never skimp on sanitation. It’s better to wait an extra fifteen minutes, and even boil for that extra time than skimp on sanitizing anything.

Reviewing my list, it looks like I got a bit complacent in my procedures. I need to maintain vigilance against infectious bugs. I recommend you to do the same. It really is important; I have the off-flavors to prove it.

Read Comments

  1. Posted by BobbyO on 01.22.08 11:28 PM

    As someone who has been practicing home canning for 20+ years, I wholeheartedly agree that you can’t be too clean with anything. All it took for me was one batch of strawberry jam that went bad for me to re-examine all of my tools and techniques. The single thing that made everything really easy for me was replacing all of my plastic equipment with stainless steel. You can scrub and boil the hell out of stainless. Before I can anything, all of my equipment is surgically clean.

    A few other comments:

    1. Don’t worry about your hose spigot. The water there is the same as what you get in your kitchen sink. But if your kitchen faucet is flowing slowly, try cleaning out the aerator. Mine clogs up periodically with sediment from my well. Or just replace the damn thing; they only cost a couple of bucks.

    2. In addition to canning things like jellies, relishes, and tomatoes, I also make pickles at home. The fermentation process for this is caused by naturally occurring lactobacteria that are indigenous to my house. You may be dealing with some kind of opportunistic flora that are interfering or competing with your yeast. I’m not sure how you could verify this hypothesis, or, for that matter, if you could do anything about it anyway. Just one more thing to worry about.

  2. Posted by Keith Brainard on 01.23.08 8:15 AM

    Some of the beer transferring equipment needs to be flexible, like a siphon hose. A stainless fermenter costs hundreds of dollars. But I like the idea of being able to boil everything sanitary.

    I think the coolest thing about your post is that you’re making spontaneously fermented pickles – the lambic of cucumbers!

    I feel better about the hose spigot – it is also a lot closer to my “brewhouse”, thus a lot easier to draw water from there.