On The Virtue of Knowing When to Give Up

I have had some batches go badly. This is the story of one of those batches.

I was making a mild, which is a low alcohol British style traditionally served at cellar temperature with very low carbonation, usually on cask. It's a delicate beer and deceptively simple. I foolishly thought I could make one without thinking the process through with the specific needs of that beer in mind. It was a super low gravity beer. We're talking an estimated original gravity of 1.039. The potential Alcohol by Volume (ABV) maxed out at 3.85%. The entire grain bill for the 5 gallon batch was 7.25 lbs. 

There are 2 major camps when it comes to sparging (separating your wort from the grains in the mash); the fly spargers in one corner and the batch spargers in the other. Both have their own benefits and I've heard really knowledgeable brewers swear by one or the other.

Fly sparging is adding hot water to the top off your mash as you lauter never letting the liquid on top to get to below an inch above of the grain bed. Batch sparging is exactly how it sounds. It is draining the mash entirely, adding another volume of water at a specific temperature (usually 168F-170F) letting it sit for a short period of time (usually 10 minutes) and running off the wort from the mash again adding it to your previously collected wort.

Now, here was the issue with my mild. When you fly sparge, you're essentially rinsing the grains from the top down and pulling out any remaining sugars. Which is great. You want your mash to be as efficient as possible. But, all runoffs start higher and gradually decreases the longer you sparge. There reaches a point where there are no more extractable sugars. At that point, you begin to pull tannins from the grains and husks. Tannins lead to astringency.

I took it to my LHBS bottle swap because I knew something was wrong, I just couldn't put my finger on it. I passed it around to several people before finally getting to the root cause. Someone picked out the flavor as astringency and then we walked through my process for this particular beer. We were able to surmise that the gravity of the wort towards the end of the lauter was likely much too low and those tannins extracted were the cause of the beer's inherent flaw. Now that I had a way to improve the next mild I brew, the choice to abandon the beer and dump the keg out was a no-brainer.

So when I thoughtlessly fly sparged a mild, it was astringent before I had even pitched the yeast. It was hard to tell when I tasted the wort but, in hindsight, it was readily apparent all throughout fermentation.

I posted a photo of the keg being emptied into my bathtub to one of the homebrew pages I'm a member of on Facebook. There were some online who said I should fill some growlers with it and give to friends who don't know anything about beer. Friends, let me tell you, life is too short to drink bad beer. Sharing a bad beer to an undereducated beer drinker is anathema to creating the next craft beer enthusiast. A bad beer will only reinforce a detractor's perception that homebrew is gross and craft beer is only something to be "dissected" and "fussed over".

Today's newer craft brewers have a responsibility to the pioneers of the industry who came before them to make great beer. I think the same can be said for the homebrewer. We need to exceed the expectations of the uninitiated. In doing so, we will create converts. The best compliment a brewer can receive is, "I don't even like beer, and I love this." Go into the act of sharing your beer with the intention to blow people's minds, no less.

So back to the beer. The only thing to do in a situation like this is to release that pressure valve or crack those caps and dump. And it's not a sad occasion as some online friends suggested. It was an opportunity to learn. I will never be the brewer I want to be if I don't give myself permission to fail and to acknowledge that failure honestly.

So what did I learn? I learned that fly sparging on my system with a beer that has such a low original gravity doesn't achieve the kind of beer I want to make for that style. The next time I brew a mild, I'm going to try mashing with the entire volume of water I need for the wort save for the amount I need to perform my mash out. I think that will help me avoid the issues I encountered on my first try. The kicker is that we're just guessing.  It's quite possible that it is something completely different about my process that caused that off-flavor. The best thing to do in a situation like this is to isolate one thing at a time and learn from the next batch. I'll let you know how that brew day goes.