Every homebrewer has days like this.
I started out to make a perfectly reasonable porter recipe. English chocolate malt, English dark crystal malt, English black malt, a little wheat malt, Chinook bittering hops and US Goldings. One packet of Lallemand ale yeast with starter. I was going to add oak cubes and some bourbon in the finishing stages. See what I mean? Nothing unusual here. A very normal sort of porter.
Except I must’ve made a kickass yeast starter. I didn’t do anything wild – some dry malt and about a quarter teaspoon yeast nutrient, and 24 hours on a stir plate. I timed the 24 hours to just about coincide with wort cooling/pitching time. I was quite pleased with myself about that.
My efficiencies are still pretty wide-spread and while I make very quaffable brews, I hesitate to say I can make a beer to style any time I want. There’s an element of uncertainty there. I compensate by planning carefully and brewing when I can pay close attention. I do not, as they say, have my system dialed in, but this time all was going smoothly.
I made a pretty fair wort, transferred it into a glass carboy and pitched the prepped yeast. I put a blow tube on for good luck, as you do, figuring for the first 24-48 hours it’s always better safe than sorry if you get vigorous fermentation. A mere air bubbler can’t always handle the pressure. I was very pleased to get this all set up by midmorning. I figured it’d be visibly fermenting before I went to bed.
Sure enough, I got a nice healthy fermentation going by afternoon. Here’s how it started out – the yellow bucket has water in it so the blowoff tube is well immersed:
See? The apparatus is tidy, the cork and carboy are nice and clean inside and out, and the fermentation blowoff (which consists of gasses, foam, and some hop fragments) is feeding into that bucket of water as it should. It’s fermentation fun, with nice big bubbles blooping up. This looked like a well-behaved primary fermentation in its first couple of days. I went on about my day, figuring I’d check in every few hours.
While I was elsewhere, here’s what actually happened:
Hilarious. Just hilarious. This is yeast having a big ol’ party.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the entire blowoff assembly, including the stopper, has been ejected into the bucket. Thick foam is running down the side of the carboy like Vesuvius burying Pompeii. The mix in the blowoff bucket, which started out with just water, now kinda looks like watery beer with a thick head. The cloth cover over the carboy is not just soaked, it’s encrusted already. (The floor is a mess.)
Once I got over the shock, I prayed that negative pressure would keep foreign yeast and bacteria out of my new beer! (Priorities) And that the stopper assembly hadn’t been off the carboy for very long.
The blowing carboy is the classic homebrewer’s tale of woe.
I took a deep breath. I sanitized and placed a new stopper assembly and cleaned off the carboy, using paper towels to wipe out the now-mucky neck. I changed out the cover cloth and moved the whole shebang a few feet so it was on a nice thick layer of newspaper, so I could mop the floor. Happily I own more than one bucket, so I got to mopping. Lo and behold, the very minute I finished cleaning the floor, the stopper blew again. So I cleaned up again. And it blew once more, thrusting the cork and tube and all right into the bucket. I plugged in a newly sanitized cork and sat myself down on the kitchen stool like Rodin’s Thinker to consider. Jeepers, but that was a vigorous fermentation. I contemplated what to do so this thing would stop blowing its cork.
I make a lot of braggots, which tend to have similarly vigorous fermentations, so I wasn’t fretting as much about infection as I might’ve been. Still, this was a bespoke beer, made for my nephew’s wedding reception, so there were little niggles of worry eating at the edges of my mind. I wasn’t going to have time to make another batch of beer if something went really badly wrong here. Clearly I had to do something to protect the wort. By this time I was getting really tired. I was about ready to find for the Sorceror’s Apprentice who must be behind this and give him a piece of my mind.
It had gotten quite late and my eyes were at half mast. My mind kept wandering to the nearby staircase leading to bed and sleep. This was a fermentation that would not be stopped, if you’ll pardon the pun.
As one does when terribly tired but with work still to do, I set my jaw and got determined. By now the bucket needed a good rinse-out, so there was some juggling with a big bowl of water to keep the blowoff end under while I got the yellow bucket cleaned up. I was extra persnickety about getting any little bits of hop leaf or other traces off anywhere they were sticking- I was a cleaning machine on automatic, and practically dozing where I stood.
I got out the duct tape.
This was my answer:
This time that blasted cork wasn’t going anywhere.
Originally I had wort up to the shoulder of the carboy. You can see how much I’ve already lost to extreme blowoff. It was well past my bedtime by now. Nonetheless, I sat myself back down on the kitchen stool and watched my crazy rig for about twenty minutes. It seemed that Little Vesuvius had done its worst, or at least that the duct tape was going to hold. The bucket was bubbling madly, which was fine, and the cork was holding position. I said a prayer to all the saints of brewing that negative pressure would protect my much-exposed wort, and stood up, easing my back and sighing with relief. I had reestablished control. Fermentation could go on undisturbed and I wouldn’t find beer foam all over my kitchen floor in the morning.
Bed. Upstairs. Everything was cleaned and in place. The duct tape should hold at least till morning. Woman over wort.
I was almost out of the kitchen when I felt a small something on my shoulder. I stopped, puzzled. I couldn’t place what I’d felt, I’d been thinking about sleep.
Then I identified it as a drop of liquid. On my shoulder. That didn’t make sense, I was indoors, it wasn’t raining. What -??
I looked around. I looked up. There It was. Wort in a beautifully feathered fan-shaped spray spread across half the kitchen ceiling. I looked around, my sleepy eyes suddenly open; wort splattered on the fridge, wort speckled on the back door, wort drops on the stove, wort sprinkled on the cabinets. Every time the stopper had been pushed out of the carboy it must’ve exploded like a garden hose. I’d been so busy worrying about the wort I hadn’t noticed where-all it was going.
Wort hardens and stains walls and ceilings if you let it dry. I’ve heard any number of stories about spackling over old wort before moving houses. My best chance to clean all this up was immediately, and never mind my sleep-deprived body. It was either that, or spackle it over before I sell the house in another twenty or thirty years.
Right. I traded my kitchen stool for the tall project ladder. I got a bowl of warm water and a clean sponge. I started at the top, sponging the long arc of spray off the ceiling. It was quite pretty, really. I worked my way down each wall. I carefully wiped every appliance, every kitchen cabinet. As tired and grumpy as I was by then, I kept reminding myself that things would’ve been much, much worse if I’d found all that wort spray in the morning. If that little drip hadn’t chanced to hit my shoulder I probably would’ve gone peacefully to sleep, with no idea what waited for me at breakfast time.
Postscript: Long live duct tape. I think I’ve found the last of the wort spray (it got in the darnedest places) and gotten it cleaned up. After about three or four days of vigorous fermentation needing the blowoff tube, I was able to take the tube off and replace it with a regular air lock. Visible fermentation quit inside a week.
The porter is ready for bottling; it’s roasty with a nice late-stage rise of bourbon in the back of the mouth. It’s dark and opaque with a moderate tan head. Miracle of miracles, there’s not a hint of infection. It’s a very plain beer, all roastiness, as porters often are. I think I got off lucky. I’m a little worried whether there’s enough yeast left to bottle condition….