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Homebrew: Dealing With Common Problems

Updated on September 15, 2014
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

A Beer, Wine, Cider or Mead Makers FAQ

No matter how careful you are when producing your own alcohol, be it beer wine or mead, you will eventually run into a problem. Your fermentation will stall out, you'll have off flavours, or a host of other problems. This is not a time to panic, there are things you can do to salvage your batch.

image courtesy of sxc.hu

Stuck Fermentation

Probably the single most common issue with brewing your own alcohol is stuck fermentation. This is when everything's going fine and suddenly the fermentation process just stops.

First thing you have to ask yourself is, "Is the fermentation process finished?" In other words has the yeast died out naturally due to lack of sugars or too high alcohol content. You can find this out by taking Specific Gravity readings before you pitch your yeast, and frequently throughout the fermentation process. If the alcohol content is still low, and the sugar content still high then you've got yourself a stuck fermentation. Keep calm, this can be dealt with. Lets start by examining the cause of your stuck fermentation.

1. Temperature

Yeast is a hearty organism, but like all organisms they have specific heat tolerances and it is best to know the heat/cold tolerance of your yeast. If fermentation vessel is too warm or cold there is no reason to panic, simply move the fermentation bucket (carboy) to a location with a more ideal temperature. The great thing about yeast is except in extreme circumstances temperature variances don't kill the yeast but send it into a hybernation mode, so once the carboy is at the right temperature the yeast will reactivate and start happily fermenting away once again.

Sanitation
Sanitation

2. Sanitation

If your sanitation technique is poor and you aren't careful you can end up killing the yeast and spoiling the batch. If this is the case, sorry there is not much you can do, pour it out. But make sure it is sanitation that is your problem first.

3. Re-hydrating Technique

When re-hydrating your yeast you can accidentally kill the yeast. While in its dehydrated state yeast is at its most vulnerable. Follow the instructions for re-hydration as close as possible or use a starter. If you have killed your yeast, no need to concern yourself, just pitch in another batch of yeast, you can't over yeast wine, beer, mead, or any other fermented drink, the dead yeast from last time will actually just end up as yeast nutrient, often dead yeast hulls are sold as yeast nutrient, so all you have done is provided just a little bit of a better environment for your fermentation.

4. Yest Type

Different yeasts have different properties, it is important to know the basic properties of the yeast strain you are using so you know for sure if your yeast is just naturally done. If you used a low alcohol tolerant yeast and still are unhappy with the percentage of alcohol you can always pitch a hearty yeast into the mix. Using different yeasts isn't going to cause a problem.

5. Chemical Make up of the Must/Wort

Must is the name for the mixture of your brew before you ferment if you are making a wine or mead, in beer its called wort.

The chemical make up of your must or wort is extremely important, yeast has very specific needs, and if you aren't meeting them then the yeast will go into hibernation mode and stop producing alcohol. High levels of acid, or not enough nutrients can cause a stuck fermentation, as can not enough sugar. If you suspect its a chemical problem then you just need to balance it out. Adding nutrients, neutralizing some of the acid content, or adding sugar could fix your batch up nicely and get your yeast back into happy fermentation.

6. CO2 Levels

If there is too much CO2 in the fermentation bucket or carboy then your yeast will also stop producing alcohol. Luckily this one is easy to fix, you simply need to add oxygen to your brew. You do this one of two ways, vigorously stirring or racking. Racking is the process of pouring your brew from one vessel to the next, often brewers/vintners will rack midway through the fermentation into a secondary fermentation vessel when siphoning from one container to the next you want the hose up high in the secondary container so the liquid splashes a lot making lots of bubbles, this adds oxygen to the mixture and should start the fermentation back up again.

WARNING: If you are racking a finished brew into an aging carboy make sure there is as little splashing as possible. Oxygen during fermentation is good (to a point) but during aging you want as little contact with oxygen as possible.

Off Flavours

One of the other common problems is flavours in your beer, wine or mead, that just aren't right. There are things you can do about this as well. The easiest solution is just aging, which simply put is just leaving it alone and hoping that the flavours mingle better and off notes fade out. Red wines, and almost all meads improve with age, most reds are best drunk 10-16 months after bottling, most meads can safely be aged two years or even more. White wines and beers are a little more immediate and don't age well, both are best drunk young so aging is not a solution.

If aging doesn't work and you still are not a fan of the flavour unfortunately there isn't all that much you can do to save the batch. At this point considering using it for cooking, or if its not even good enough for that turn it into vinegar. Vinegar is just a fermented beverage that was given certain bacterial cultures that turns alcohol into acid and thus wine/beer/mead into vinegar. Red wine and malt (beer) vinegar but you can make white wine vinegar, mead vinegar, fruit wine vinegar, etc. basically any fermented beverage can be turned into vinegar.

TURNING WINE INTO VINEGAR

To turn wine, or any fermented beverage, into vinegar simply get a bottle of raw apple cider vinegar (or any raw vinegar) and at the bottom will be a growth of sorts. That growth is mother of vinegar, the culture that creates vinegar. Poor the vinegar into another vessel and get the mother of vinegar out of the bottle and put in in your brew. Put the airlock back on and wait about two months. You will have your own home made vinegar.

Too Much Yeast

How much yeast is to much? I am not really sure why this question pops up again and again, I've been asked it in various forms, but the most common is what happens if i put to much yeast in?

In short, there is no such thing as too much yeast. Basically you put in yeast and the yeast produces alcohol, but it also propagates, in other words creates more yeast. Putting in too much yeast is kind of a moot point. You'd only be putting in too much yeast if you have so much that there isn't room for the yeast to grow, but trust me that would be a lot of yeast and very expensive.

Overly Vigorous Fermentation

Believe it or not this can be a problem. Doesn't sound like a bad one to have at first blush, but ask my fiancee who witnessed a strawberry chocolate geyser explode all over our kitchen.

When yeast is extremely productive the rapid growth rate in yeast can cause the must to swell up the neck of the carboy and if there is stuff in your brew such as fruit it could block the airlock, pressure then builds until it explodes, the fresh intake of oxygen also encourages even faster fermentation and it just keeps going. It will stop.... eventually.

Unfortunately the only thing you can do about this is clean up the mess, re-sanitize the airlock and take precautions such as moving the fermentation carboy to a location where if it blows its not going to wreck anything.

© 2012 Jeff Johnston

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    • profile image

      dream1983 4 years ago

      Excellent lens, nicely done! Squidlike

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 5 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @HhaosThorngage: making your own alcohol is infinitely rewarding and takes so little effort. You start the brew and walk away for a few weeks. Then bottle, age if necessary, and enjoy. Its mostly a passive process.

    • HhaosThorngage profile image

      HhaosThorngage 5 years ago

      Amazing this is something I've been wanting to try for a long time, an old family friend makes homemade Blackberry Brandy every year and I was thinking about seeing if I couldn't make my own! Great lens, Cheers Mate!

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 5 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @johnshade lm: Possibly... If you post what happened I might be able to help you out with where you went wrong.

    • johnshade lm profile image

      johnshade lm 5 years ago

      Great lens! I had a horrible time when I tried homebrewing, think I must have used the wrong yeast