Monday, June 10, 2013

The Horrors of Homebrewing

Glass or Plastic?

I love homebrewing, and like many homebrewers, my "hobby" often borders on "obsession." When my schedule allows it, it is not uncommon for me to brew as often as once or twice a week, and I total about 180 gallons a year. If you think that sounds like a lot, on the spectrum of homebrew enthusiasts, it really isn't: I have a friend who brews upwards of 500 gallons a year.

As with any culinary adventure, some batches are phenomenal experiences and yield the most amazing beer. Others result in such a failed experiment that I just dump it all down the drain. And yet others are such an awful experience that it makes me question why I do this at all…

I have had three notable misadventures. Two of them (one involving a bottle miscue and the other the keg from hell) I will save for a later post. My most recent debacle, though, I feel is worth mentioning because it addresses an issue that every homebrewer faces: to ferment in glass or plastic.

I hate plastic. I don't use plastic for anything, and I use glass for food storage and cooking as often as possible. Thus, when I began homebrewing three years ago, I had every intention of buying a glass carboy.

At the time, however, all of the sales staff at Modern Homebrew in Cambridge, MA strongly dissuaded me from buying glass, encouraging me instead to invest in plastic buckets and plastic "Better Bottle" carboys. They reasoned that plastic was not only less expensive, but also less apt to break or crack.

Knowing absolutely nothing at the time, I heeded their advice and began doing my brewing exclusively in plastic. But I always felt weird about it: I really wanted to ferment in glass.

About a year ago, a friend lent me his glass carboy, and I started to use this glass carboy more and more often. If I had the glass available, I would use it. Besides, regardless of how well I cleaned them, my plastic buckets always smelled like the previous batch's hops. Glass, on the other hand, never held onto residual odors. (I should mention: I never found any flavor differences in the finished beer fermented in plastic versus beer fermented in glass.)

Then it happened.

I had had a long night at work, getting home around 12:30am. As I am brushing my teeth, I start smelling beer. This was curious to me, as I had no open bottles and hadn't drunk any beer at my home for the last few days.

I did, however, have three beers fermenting: my Maple Tripel and Patersbier were both in my brew fridge (the former in a plastic bucket, the later in a one gallon glass jug), and a DIPA dry hopping at room temp in my dining room in a glass carboy.

I stepped out of the bathroom and looked at the DIPA: I had wrapped the carboy in a towel to prevent light penetration, and that towel was soaked with beer.

At this point, the beer had already been dry hopping for about a week. But there was no mistaking what I was seeing: the carboy had a crack.

As there wasn't a pool or puddle of beer on the floor, I assumed it must be a small crack somewhere in the carboy that, over the past week, had slowly been leaking beer. I lifted up the towel to see if I could find the crack. The carboy looked OK, though it was clear I had lost about a half gallon of beer.

I decided to take the towel completely off (it was fastened with safety pins) to get a better look, and as I did so, my knee lightly bumped the side of the carboy. What happened next seemed to play out in a dreadful slow motion…

The base of the carboy stayed exactly where it was, but the entire top of the carboy slid off to one side, and immediately I had a beer tsunami: five gallons of beer gushing out of the carboy onto my floor (and all over my feet and slippers!)

Panicked, I watched all the beer and fresh Newport hop flowers flow across my floor, toothbrush hanging out of my mouth. I should add that I rent an older house, and the floor is slanted, so that all the beer wound up flowing towards the wall underneath all the furniture of my office space (power cords!!!)

I am completely bamboozled as to how this ever happened, but basically, it looked as though someone had taken an industrial glass cutter and cut off the entire base of the carboy. The only thing I can surmise is that it must have been handled too roughly in the recent past, and that there was a hairline crack in the carboy when I racked the beer. Perhaps the pressure of five gallons of liquid was too much for it and it expanded. I don't know. It's all rather odd to me.

The pain of losing this beer was immense. Yes, it was two hours of cleanup and my house reeked of stale beer for about a week. But I had invested so much energy into this beer: I really had high hopes for it. And, it was brewed with all Newport hops from Rhode Island. I suppose the only nice things about this was that for the first thirty minutes after the spill, the entire house smelled like a pine forest. Unfortunately, the entire house smelled like a dirty dive bar for the next ten days!

I did take away one valuable lesson, though: I am going to invest in more Better Bottle plastic carboys.



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