This is the second half of the article I posted on Friday.
In the first half of this article, I said that home brewers should not preemptively dump a batch of beer because something looked or smelled amiss during fermentation. This is especially true if you have little experience with a particular yeast strain. There are numerous ways you could be fooled into thinking that something has gone wrong, when in fact everything is fine. But what if the beer tastes bad?
Something Tastes Suspicious
If you think something might be wrong with your beer, you may rush to sample it in order to confirm or deny your suspicions. However, be aware that tasting your beer before it is fully fermented, conditioned, and carbonated may mislead you.
Actively fermenting beer tastes awful. Likewise, immediately following fermentation, a beer may still have yeast in suspension or green beer characters that will not be present in the final beer. In addition, lack of carbonation affects the flavor of your beer more than you might think. Although it can be hard to wait, put off sampling until you can taste a sample that has a reasonable shot at being representative of the finished beer. (If you have a lot of experience tasting green beer brewed with a specific yeast strain, you can jump the gun a bit on this.)
With some ale strains, the beer is fully conditioned (or nearly so) as soon as fermentation is complete. With other ale strains, the beer may need a few days (and occasionally longer) to condition properly. Lagers require relative long conditioning times for the yeast to clean up the green beer characters generated in fermentation.
If you have given the beer enough time to condition and carbonate, and something tastes off, you have a couple choices. If you feel the beer is undrinkable, then dump it. Sometimes a beer will improve with age, but if a beer is flat out undrinkable to start with, it’s not likely to improve enough to be worth it.
If the beer is drinkable, but has a specific fault you can identify, read up on that fault and see if there’s a possibility it might improve. If your beer has a hint of diacetyl, some added time storing the beer warm might help. On the other hand, if it’s sour, it will likely continue to get more sour. In the first case, waiting is the the best option. In the second, drinking it quickly — before the problem gets worse — is the best solution.
If your beer should be ready to go but is still “rough around the edges” (not quite right, in a way that’s hard to pinpoint), let it age for a little longer. Often, a “rough” beer can age into something decent.
From my experience judging homebrews, I think that the most likely culprit in the case of flat out undrinkable beers is contamination. In the case of beers that aren’t obviously contaminated, but are not as appealing as they could be (without without exhibiting any glaringly obvious faults), the fault usually lies in the fermentation. And the problem in fermentation is usually an inadequate yeast pitch. If you expend the effort to pitch an adequate amount of yeast, almost all of your beers will condition quickly and have a shot at being good or great. Most of the time, pitching an adequate amount of yeast and running a good fermentation will ensure that ales condition quickly and are ready to serve shortly after fermentation is finished. For example, many brewpubs have a 7-day grain to glass schedule. Strong ales frequently take a little longer to condition, even if pitched adequately. And lagers, by their nature, will always take longer. Although time can sometimes heal a mildly “off” beer, it will never go from “off” to good. At best, it will go from “off” to passable
Something Went Wrong on Brew Day
Many times a brewer will know or suspect he has done something wrong on brewday. He may wonder if he should preemptively dump the batch and start over. For example, maybe he dropped something that wasn’t sanitized into the wort. (And perhaps additionally he reached into the bucket to retrieve it.) Alternately, one or more other things may have gone wrong on brew day. The list of possible things that could go wrong on brewday is endless. In many cases, brewers will understand the likely consequences of their mistake. For example, if you forgot one of your hop additions, your beer will be less hoppy.
In a case in which you are unsure of what the consequences are, or there is a chance that things will turn out OK, don’t dump the batch. Even if you do drop something that hasn’t been sanitized into your wort, there is a chance that the beer will not obviously be excessively contaminated. (At a minimum, it might be fine if you drink it as soon as it’s ready.) Try to think of the best case scenario, worst case scenario, and the most likely scenario when trying to predict the result of a mistake on brewday. Unless the best case scenario is that the beer is ruined, don’t dump it.
Homebrewing takes a lot of effort, and it is disappointing when something seems awry with a batch. However, letting the batch finish fermentation and condition properly only costs you time, for the most part. Unless you are certain the batch is ruined and you need to free up the fermenter space, give the beer time.