Saturday, April 2, 2011

Krausen Blow-outs and Stuck Carboy Stoppers: Averting a Brewing Disaster

I woke up this morning to what sounded like explosive diarrhea.

For a split second my brain did the half-dazed scramble through every conceivable cause of the sound until it hit what I knew was the correct analysis: the beer.  I had a blow-out.

You may have remembered (ages ago, it seems) that I mentioned that Chef Reiton had taken up brewing.  And I've been meaning to write about this brewing for a long time because it has become a serious part of our lives.  So much so that we have named ourselves.  We are the one-and-only Shirley Street Brewhouse.

ANYWAY.  I seriously digress.  So, the beer woke me up.  This beer, a wit beer, similar to Hoegaarden, is an all-grain single infusion brew.  What the HELL does that mean, you ask? (I know, I know.  I was there once, too...)  Well, it's really a very abbreviated way of describing the process of making the beer.

In a nutshell (and I'm really going to dumb this down—no offense meant), beer wort (the liquid that will become the beer once hops and yeast are added and it has fermented) can be made two ways: the "quick" way by adding extracts to water or the "old-fashioned way" by heating grains in water (how this wit beer was done).  So the first term above, "all grain," tells you that this beer wort was made directly from grain, not an extract.  In this case, we used 9 lbs. of malted barley, flaked wheat and oats, to be exact, to make the grain mash.

The second term, "single infusion," essentially refers to how many times the temperature of the grain mash is raised by adding hot water before it is lautered and sparged (steeped like a tea and then rinsed and drained) to create the wort.

After the wort is made, it is boiled and hops are added.  This wonderful liquid is then placed in a carboy where it is introduced to its delightful companion: yeast.  These two partners, for varying periods of time (depending on the type of beer you are making), will sit in the dark and make wonderful noises together, sometimes loud and boisterous, sometimes soft and slow.  These noises are the carbon dioxide gas they create together being forced out of the carboy through an airlock so the whole damn thing doesn't explode and make your house smell like a frat hall.

These are the noises that woke me this morning.  Only I shouldn't have been hearing spraying sounds.  I should have been hearing belching, bubbling sounds.  Peeking into the dark box that covered the carboy, I saw a mess: krausen (pronounced KROY-sen, with a good German gutteral 'r'!), a foam created by the fermentation process (, had risen up through the airlock and was dripping down over the carboy.  I knew from previous experience that this was not good.  You want air out, not krausen.

A quick text to Chef Reiton had him calling back with directives in 2 minutes flat.  Our best remedy was to remove the airlock and its rubber stopper and replace them with a dense foam stopper and a blow-off hose.  I mixed up a batch of sanitizer and sanitized the stopper, hose, and blow-off jar.  Knowing that oxygen is a serious enemy of beer, I wanted to do the next step quickly: I inserted the blow-off hose into the foam stopper, carefully removed the old stopper and the airlock, and quickly (my often mistake) thrust the new stopper and hose into the carboy neck.

Aaaaaand—I thrust too hard.

The stopper, slippery from the sanitizing solution, slid too far and slipped almost completely down into the neck of the carboy.  A string of expletives flew from my lips.  I wanted to just leave it since I knew I had an airtight fit, but Chef Reiton explained that it was best to remove the stopper now while the stopper was still wet; otherwise it would essentially get glued into the neck and be very difficult to remove later.  He asked if I was able to remove the hose and slip my pinky down through the stopper hole and pull it out.  I easily pulled the hose out of the stopper, but my pinky was too short.  I couldn't latch around the bottom of the stopper to get leverage to remove it.  I decided to just put the hose back in the stopper hole--and in the process shoved the stopper even further down into the neck.

Poor Chef Reiton heard another string of expletives.  Actually, it was just one expletive repeated in a string.  I was about to ruin his beer due to well-intentioned carelessness--classic me.  He calmly asked if I could use a screwdriver to hook around the stopper to pull it out.  I ran down to the basement to his brewing toolbag and grabbed a screwdriver.  And that's when I saw it: some weird-looking tool that looked like a heavy flattened fishhook on a handle.  I grabbed it, too, ran to the sanitizing bucket, swished them both in sanitizer, ran upstairs, shoved the hooky-looking tool into the hole, and pulled.  POP! Out came the stopper, quicker than you could repeat my previous string of expletives.

Oh, thank you, baby Jesus! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I quickly resanitized the stopper and hose end in the blow-off jar, placed the free end of the hose in the jar of sanitizing solution, and very, VERY carefully pushed the stopper into the carboy neck once again.  Bubbles immediately began to burp through the hose.  Oh, wonderful, wonderful tool! I wanted to kiss it, but I didn't know what it was.  Chef Reiton told me it was a beer faucet wrenchI highly recommend one for the removal of stuck carboy blow-off stoppers!

As I sit here and write, I can hear our beer bubbling away.  It's such a pleasant sound—especially knowing what disaster I almost caused but averted!

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