Monday, March 8, 2010

Failed Beer Recipes

Every once in awhile I brew a beer that flat out sucks, not because of a process error, not because of an infection, but because I make a mistake when designing the recipe.  In general this blog has been a record of my successes as a homebrewer, but today I thought I'd take a look at a few of my "oops" batches.  A couple batches I've posted about in the past have turned out less than stellar (infected Foreign Export Stout, and First Batch of Lambic for example), but they have been the result of microbial issues not recipe design; the blame for the three batches below falls squarely on me.  Hopefully a few of you will be able to glean some information from my failures that will help you avoid the same pitfalls.

In general I've had mediocre to poor luck with "concept" beers, my Oatmeal Cookie Beer being the prime example.  My father is a big oatmeal raisin cookie fan, so back in 2006 I decided to try brewing a beer for him with similar flavors as a Christmas present.  I started with a relatively standard brown ale base and added home toasted oats, brown sugar, raisins, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and toasted walnuts (sounds good right?).  The flavor wasn't terrible (although it wasn't great either), but what really killed the drinking experience was the complete lack of head retention and the oily mouthfeel both due (I suspect) to the fat in the walnuts.  I knew something was wrong when the beer fermented without a krausen, who knew that 1 cup of ground walnuts in the mash would provide enough oil to have such an impact?  Lesson: Be careful when adding fatty ingredients to a beer.
1238 Special
One of the beers that got me into "good" beer early on was Ommegang Hennepin, the subtle ginger flavor really struck me (especially since I was into Jamaican ginger beer/ale at the time).  My friend Jason and I wanted to do something a bit more "interesting" though, and when you are first brewing that means strong.  We took a clone recipe from BYO and increased the malt/sugar/hops by 50% to make it closer in strength to a Belgian Strong Golden.  The recipe suggested 1 oz of dried ginger (we upped it to 1.25 oz), which turned out to be far too much, especially because I used ultra-potent ground ginger that I picked up at Penzeys shortly before brewday.  Farmhouse Ales suggests only .5 -1.2 g of ginger in 5 gallons of saison (I had good luck with the saison I brewed for my Cable Car clone falling those guidelines).  After choking down most of the batch I am still sensitive to the flavor of dried ginger in beer to this day.  Lesson: Don't trust any recipe, even if it is from a "reliable" source. 

Dodgy Hampshire 2.0The first all-grain batch I brewed was a English Pale Ale named Dodgy Hampshire with my second brewing partner (and my buddy since 3rd grade), Jason.  It was so good that soon he and I brewed a second version, this time adjusting our local water to match Burton-on-Trent (specifically by adding gypsum and Epsom salt to get close to 800 ppm sulfate).  Needless to say the beer came out tasting like harsh mineral/chalky flavor that made it almost undrinkable.  I still have a couple bottles and I think the minerals dropped because it is a much more balanced, drinkable beer today than it was back 4 years ago.  I had a nearly identical experience with a Westvleteren 8 clone I brewed using the water listed listed for the brewery in Brew Like a Monk (even though I reduced the bicarbonate to make it easier to work with).  Lesson:  Don't emulate a classic water profiles.

Luckily these failed batches have been few and far between, and each one has taught me a lesson about recipe design, ingredient selection, or water adjustment.  If you have a brewing FAIL you'd like to share please leave a comment letting everyone know what went wrong (and hopefully what you learned).


  1. I brewed my first high gravity beer with an all grain process, and because I like to try something new every time I decided to try partigyle brewing (mashing / sparging the grains again to make a weak beer from the later runnings). I had read about small beers before, and knew that some capping specialty grains were typical to avoid a completely insipid brew. I used a quarter pound of medium crystal and two ounces of roasted malt in a 2.5 gallon brew. Well, either the water got too hot as I tried to juggle starting a boil while running a second mash, or the small amount of roasted grain wasn't enough to acidify my water and I got a tannic beer. It's drinkable and I'm hoping some of the polyphenols drop out in the fridge, but it's certainly not a brew I will hand to a guest.

    On the upside, I now have a very clear idea of what the "astringent" beer flaw is, and will no longer confuse it with the kind of bitter/sour/whaddya call it that roasted grains can impart.

  2. I've had a gusher infection send a wonderful ESB to an early grave... it was my second batch, and I still think one of my best beers.

    I brewed a Watermelon Wheat using white wheat that tastes skunked even though it isn't... not sure if it's the white wheat or the watermelon rind I decided to add a bit of.

    I just brewed a Rye Wit that I fully believe will be a catastrophic failure, although I half thought it might be before I brewed it and just wanted to see.

  3. My first wassail was beautiful, base recipe was a british old ale I started it 8 months ahead of time. Right out of the primary it tasted like winner, I made infused a bottle of vodka with a variety of spices and managed to make that drinkable by itself without anything too predominant. Early test with an eye dropper and a sample tasted great. Then I added spruce essence to try to emulate Anchor Holiday Ale and turned the entire batch into green foamed Pinesol. *shudder*

  4. This is a great post! Way to open up the kimono, Mike.

    My most effed up beer recently was the smoked RIS, which I followed John Palmer's water spreadsheet on the water additions, leading me to add massive amounts of chalk and baking soda to reach the recommended Residual Alkalinity. It tastes kind of like soy sauce at the end. Maybe it will pull together at a later date, it's only a couple of months old at this point.

  5. I tried making a split batch of stout with lemon peel in one gallon and orange peel in the other. It's strongly reminiscent of furniture polish. :-(

  6. I had some friends that wanted to see how to brew, so I picked a Saison recipe and we were all going to brew together and add some home grown hops to make it a bit more of our own. I spent a long time in promash tweaking the Chicago water into Flanders water. It to a lot salts. The brew went into the primary tasting great, bottled it with a good taste. After it had carbonated, it tasted like feet soaking in Epsom salts. For the record I have never tasted feet soaking in epsom salts.

  7. Oh my first batch of lager went badly, but this was because I didn't get the memo that there really is a severe tempeture gradient inside and outside a beer. I thought the tempeture was much lower than it was because I didn't get the probe into the middle of the stack, I just IR gunned the carboy.

    But there's an even older beer which went much, much worse. I tried to clone sam adams back in the day and not having the mysterious "grains of paradise" (which I now know is basically pepper and mint), I decided apples might be good in the beer. I sliced up a bag of apples, tossed them in there and forgot about the mess for two weeks.

    After two weeks, I opened the fermenter, and there was an awesome layer of fur on top. Figuring this was natural, I scooped the fur into the trash and bottled the rest.

    Two more weeks pass and... OH GOD IT TASTES LIKE CARDBOARD. I ended up letting it sit behind the sofa for a month and that taste was replaced by rampant gushing and fruityness. Still, being one of my first batches, I couldn't bear to toss it. I put them in the fridge and they calmed down in another month. Still being a stubborn jerk I choked these down, but it was never beer.

    Weirdly enough one of them ended up in the bottom of the fridge, so when we were cleaning it out to move out of the apartment to the house, I found it. Figuring "what the hell", I opened it. Now, something magical happened. This beer was about three years old at this point, and the fruityness has turned into a wonderful boquet, and the cardboard had turned into some kind of funk.

    I wouldn't call it good - it's not a good funk, but being a much more experienced drinker I thought it was a vast improvement. I almost wish I could do it all again.

  8. I bred my first spiced beer, a witbier. I put in so much orange zest the thing tasted like orangina. I brewed it for my girlfriend who won't even drink it. I made it palattable with a bit of lactic addition, but I've brewed a lot of much, much better beers. I need to learn a light hand with spices.

  9. Glad to have been there for two out of three of these epic FAILS.

    All things considered, I think our first attempts were mighty fine showings. Compared to some of the 'first tries' I've tasted, Old Chalky Hampshire and Gingerpocalypse were veritable rockstars.

    And the lessons learned speak for themselves. Cheers to MANY more failures, and equally as much knowledge gained.

    ...Gingerpocalypse ain't a bad name for a v2.0, eh?

  10. Do you have any bottles of Ginger left? I could have sworn I did, but I must have opened the last one a year or so back. I still have a couple Dodgy Hampshire 2.0. I couldn't believe Mat still had some of the "historic" beers from 4 years back.

  11. It's interesting that you post this now since I'm in the process of designing a recipe for a stout with coconut in it and I'm still wondering how to impart the coconut flavor without impacting head retention. I'm thinking along the lines of adding toasted coconut at knockout and maybe a little extra carapils to counteract.

  12. I finished my last Ginger over Thanksgiving I think? It had definitely mellowed a bit, but was still pretty offensive.

    You know who might have some CRAZY old stuff? Eric - in that basement fridge of his down in Dartmouth. I'm seeing him next week, so I'll bug him about that. I can't even IMAGINE what he's got in there. Probably everything from '05-'07.

  13. Never used coconut. The issue with fat is that it can deflate just about any head known to beer. You might have better luck adding the coconut to cold beer since the fat might stay solid. I really enjoyed Maui's Coconut Porter, so I'll be interested to hear if you get it to work.

  14. On fatty ingredients: I recently made a pecan brown ale with 8 oz of pecans. For using ingredients such as this it's generally recommended that you crush them, roast them, and then store in a paper bag for a period of time to allow the oils to seep out. I imagine this might help reduce the oils in coconut as well.

    In addition, I used wheat and other specialty grains known to have a head-building effect. The beer looks normal to appearances, including a head. The pecan flavor is present, but subtle.

  15. I haven't tried it yet but I thought about a coconut milk stout or bacon raichbier that I would then chill close to freezing and see how much fat would congeal on the surface that could be skimmed off. See article below on fat washing

  16. During a day of brewing/drinking beer I also made an applewein and thought it might be a good idea to dispose of leftover hops in the cider. Bad idea. I ended up adding a ton of citric acid to mask the flavor and I now have a very-very tart cider that looks and tastes like Tang but the hop flavor/aroma is gone. It was a bad idea, and a bad fix but it is now drinkable. My gluten free girlfriend finds it delicious but I get heart burn just thinking about it. Lesson? Don't hop cider.

  17. Good post.

    I'm surprised by the walnut thing though. I brewed a Coconut Milk Stout with 2 lbs of coconut in it and have had no issues with head retention. Are walnuts substantially oiler than coconuts?

    Ray Grace - Perhaps this will be helpful with your coconut stout you're planning

    I just added the coconut at flamout and have had no problems with head retention. the only thing that I don't like at this point is that the coconut was nice upon bottling but as it carbonated the coconut is slowly fading and turning into a more hazelnut like flavor. Definitely still tasty, just different than what I was aiming for.

  18. Just a couple of comments about your oatmeal cookie beer.

    First, I've never used any 'fatty' stuff in my homebrews, so I have no personal experience, but I seem to recall that there is a beer style in Italy which is made from chestnuts. However, I don't know how they would compare with the oil content of walnuts.

    Second, you might find it interesting to view this video which -- about 60% of the way thru -- discusses the Brooklyn Brewery's recipe simulating oatmeal cookies --

    Always enjoy reading the emails I receive from you, although I think this might be the first comment that I'm posting.

    Just racked two 5-gallon batches to secondary and plan to brew again on Sunday. :-)


    Bill Velek

  19. According to the internet: 100g of chestnuts contain 2.7g fat, walnuts contain 65.21 g. No surprise walnuts aren't a popular choice in beer.

    Thanks for the Brooklyn link. I recently had that beer, and it was good, but it wasn't particularly oatmeal cookie-like.

  20. I tried to make a "licorice bullet" beer once...

    I used about 30ml of licorice extract and a stack of chocolate malt on a base of an Irish stout (from a can).

    It just ended up tasting like wine. The concept was good... but the execution terrible. Too many flavours!

  21. Interesting. Thank you for the great information as I try to brew my own beer myself.

  22. My worst FAIL involved our club's bourbon barrel barleywine project started in 2006 and now a living solera of barleywine that needs topping off from time to time. I brewed up a nice 10 gal batch of bw, and hit all the numbers. Tasted great. When racking into kegs, I came to the top of the keg pretty quickly and had to grab some bottles to fill. Turns out to fill 4-5 more wine bottles. Somewhere I managed to miscalculate the volume, but hit the gravity, and it tasted great, so I figured I must have made a "good" mistake... Until my fellow brewer tasted it before going into the barrel. Good thing. It smelled and tasted like old sink water after washing dishes!

    Turns out, I used Starsan in the first keg, then racked it to the second. And in the process I forgot to dump it from the second keg before racking all that beautiful beer onto it. The 2 gal of Starsan has a weird effect on 3 gal of beer. I haven't lived that one down...

    Thanks for sharing. We all make mistakes, it's what we do after them that determine their worth.

  23. My first attempt at all grain was a recipe I dreamed up that was suppposed to be like a stout without the bitterness. Brew day went exceptionally well, and the beer even tasted good at bottling time. My impatience got the best of me and I opened a bottle after 1 week. It tasted like a lacquer thinner spiked with alcohol. Every week for about 5 weeks I would open a bottle, taste it and then dump it. Then I forgot about it for about a month. When I came back to it a month later, it was delicious!! Unfortunately, there wasn't much left by that time! Looking back, I think I used way to much chocolate malt. Lesssons learned: craft your recipes carefully and be patient.