Should I Dump It?

One of the most-asked questions on homebrewing forums is, “Should I dump it?” And, we’ve all likely been there. Something seems wrong with a batch and you are starting to fear that the worst has happened. With experience, you can learn which warning signs point to real trouble and which do not. For new brewers, however, unusual aromas, sights, or flavors can cause a panic. Here is a quick rundown of situations that lead brewers to ask this question, and what they should do.

Unusual Smells

Sometimes a brewer will smell the effluent from his or her airlock and begin to worry. Most times, there is nothing to worry about. Different yeast strains produce different byproducts during fermentation. Likewise, the aroma of the gases being expelled from the airlock changes over the course of fermentation. In addition, different fermentation conditions can also yield different aromas from the same yeast strain. (In particular, high fermentation temperatures can bring about some worrisome odors.) Importantly, aromas emanating from your airlock are not necessarily aromas that will be present in your finished beer. For example, lager beers are notorious for producing lots of sulfur during fermentation, even when the final beer ends up very clean.

Never dump a batch a beer batch based on what you smell coming from your airlock. Although it is possible that some problems could be detected this way, there are so many different possible aromas produced during fermentation that you could never be confident that what you detect is problematic.

Strange Looks

The great thing about glass carboys is that you can watch your beer fermentation in action. The drawback is that you can watch your beer fermentation in action — and draw some unwarranted conclusions. Different yeast strains look very different in action. Some make the beer uniformly cloudy. Others clump and churn in the fermenting beer. Some form a lot of kräusen. Others don’t. And — as with aromas — fermentation conditions can alter the appearance of the yeast. So don’t read too much into “funny looking” fermentation. 

One thing in particular that makes brewers worry is a film or layer of some type on top of a beer late in fermentation. In sour beer fermentations, souring microorganisms may form a pellicle. As such, a brewer who spies a mystery mass atop his beer may start to worry if it is contaminated. (And remember, beer can be contaminated, but it is never “infected.”)

Although worrisome, a film on top of a beer is not a foolproof sign that something is wrong. Some yeast strains, under some circumstances, remain atop the beer after the fermentation is mostly finished. If you see something that looks unusual, your best bet is to move the beer to a new vessel, assuming fermentation is complete. Bottle the beer or keg it, or even just move it to a secondary fermenter. In many cases, the mass on top of your beer will have been nothing to worry about. And if it was, sometimes racking the beer away from the contaminant can minimize the problem.

Off Flavors When Green

Sometimes a beer that gets racked to a brewer’s bottling bucket or keg doesn’t taste quite right. There are several possible reasons for this. Green beer fresh out of the fermenter — warm and uncarbonated — does not taste as your finished beer will. Green beer may contain yeast byproducts that will age out after the beer is bottled or kegged. And often, the beer can contain enough suspended yeast to yield an unpleasant flavor. It is possible to detect strongly contaminated beer when it is packaged, but you should always give the beer some time to condition before passing final judgment on it.

Conditioned Beer

Once your beer is packaged, carbonated, and conditioned is when you should make the decision. And, you essentially have two questions to ask. First, is the beer drinkable now? And of not, will it become drinkable later? The beer may not be what you hoped for, but you will have to make the decision regarding whether to drink it or dump it.

If your beer is actually contaminated, it is only going to get worse. If it’s passable, you can drink at least some of it before it becomes unacceptable. If not, dump it. If the beer doesn’t taste contaminated but is simply “rough around the edges,” there may be some hope. But, there’s a Catch-22.

Beer is a food product. And, like most foods, it has an expiration date. Specifically, beer goes stale over time. If you think a beer may improve with time, you’re faced with the fact that it had better improve quickly enough to reach palatability before it stales. If you have a batch that you’re hoping will “mellow out,” put a date on the bottles and set a date regarding when you will make a decision.

The homebrewing hobby is full of anecdotes about beers that were substandard but aged into being at least drinkable. Often, these are stronger beers with a little more aging potential. I believe the initial problem in most of these cases is not pitching enough yeast. If you pitch an adequate amount of yeast, your beer should condition and be in peak condition in a short amount of time. (What constitutes a short amount of time depends on whether the beer is an ale or a lager and other variables.) If you underpitch, and your yeast struggles, your green beer can be loaded with unpleasant fermentation byproducts. In that case, extended aging may help. However, moving forward you should raise an adequate amount of yeast to pitch. If you really want to go to the wall with a beer, give it a shot at aging. Otherwise, realize that everyone makes mistakes. Dump it and move on.

With experience, new brewers will learn what a fermentation looks like, smells like, and what green beer tastes like. Until then, remember that you should never make the decision to dump a batch until it is packaged, carbonated, and had a fair amount of time to condition. Then, the decision is up to you.

 

If you enjoy Beer & Wine Journal, please consider supporting us by purchasing one of my books, which include “Home Brew Recipe Bible,” by Chris Colby (2016, Page Street Publishing) and “Methods of Modern Homebrewing,” by Chris Colby (2017, Page Street Publishing). Both are available online though Amazon (linked) and Barnes and Noble. You can also find the nearest independent bookseller that carries them through Indiebound. You can also support this website through the donation button. Thank you. 

Comments

  1. Herb Meowing says:

    Time will heal all beers
    Except for those it doesn’t.
    Brewing Saturday.

    Your best beer ever
    It may not be but it’s beer
    Better brews ahead.


    -HoMeBRew HiaKu

Speak Your Mind

*