The Day I Thought My Beer Had Died

20 Apr

As a first solo brewing venture, Brew 2 was slightly ambitious. My first brew (see here for the brewing  and here for the tasting) had gone quite well, but I had been supervised during the brewing process. For my second brew, I decided to go for a stronger, darker beer. Specifically, it was to be a shot at something like Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, a multi-award winning strong beer, and one of my personal favourites. Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby is a very dark red ale, called a ‘mild’ because of low hop usage rather than as a reference to its strength, which is 6%. It has a wonderfully complex smooth, rich flavour. No pressure then.

I had a recipe for a similar ale which is supposed to brew out at 5.7%. I duly bought the ingredients and on a Thursday a couple of weeks ago, I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in. After some serious sterilizing, I brought the boiler up to a steady 66C and gradually introduced the grain to the mashing liquor. The grain bill for this brew is fairly high – 5kg of grain in 12.3 litres of liquor. Once the grain was settled in and I was sure there were no dry patches, I left it to steep for 90 minutes.

Heavy grain bill – pale and crystal malt

Once the mash time was complete, I sparged the grains with a further 12 litres of sparging liquor at 75C. Even after this, the liquid draining off from the sparge was still sweet. Now I had read that you should sparge until the liquid loses its sweetness. However, I had over 20 litres of wort now, and no room in the boiler for any more, so I returned the wort to the boiler and set it to boil.

This lovely coffee-and-cream head forms just before the boil

At the moment of first boiling, the wort produces a huge foamy head that can boil out and make a horrible sticky mess everywhere, so I stood by with a jug, and as the boil began, I frantically scooped the foam out and poured it down the sink. After a minute or so, the foaming died down and the wort settled into a nice, steady rolling boil. I continued the boil for 90 minutes, after which I passed the wort into a fermenting bin. I had lost quite a lot of liquid to evaporation during the boil, and measured 14 litres going into the bin. I topped it up with 5 litres of cold water to make it up to the 19 litres that this recipe was designed for.

All well and good so far. I clipped the lid onto the bin and left it to cool. I had a packet of highly recommended Munton’s Gervin English Ale Yeast. The instructions on the packet told me to rehydrate the yeast by soaking it in 50ml of water at 35C and half a teaspoon of sugar. I did as I was told and sure enough, the yeast foamed up pleasingly. The instructions then said to add this foam to 250ml of the wort. The wort had cooled to about 20C by this time, so I scooped 250ml out of the fermenting bin with a sterilized jug and added the yeast to it, giving it a good stir.

24 hours later, the little jug of wort sat on the kitchen unit with only the occasional feeble bubble struggling to the surface. I was perplexed, and left it for another 24 hours.

48 hours on and this yeast isn’t doing anything

Still nothing. I was wracking my brain, trying to remember what I had done so wrong as to make my wort toxic. Had I forgotten to sterilize anything? Had I forgotten to rinse anything after it had been sterilized?

It’s dead, Jim

As I struggled with my thoughts, Lady Alebagger returned from a shopping trip and handed me something she had bought for me. It was a packet of Safale S-04 yeast. I ripped the top off the packet and sprinkled it directly onto the surface of the wort in the fermenting bin. Last hope.


The following morning, the wort had a fine head of lively bubbles that developed over the next couple of days into a bizarre sculpted foamy head.


The original gravity was 1.060 and the fermentation was all done at 1.018. This works out to an ABV of 5.4%. That’s not bad.

Brew 2 is now sitting in a pressure barrel and will remain there for six weeks before I taste it.

Munton’s Gervin, left, and Safale S-04, right

So what happened with the Munton’s yeast? As I said, it came highly recommended, and Munton’s is a company with an enviable reputation. The yeast was well within the ‘use-by’ date and I followed the instructions to the letter. Is the rehydrating temperature of 35C too warm (I wouldn’t pitch yeast into wort at this temperature)? Was it just a bad batch? Will I ever try it again? Probably, but not just yet.

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Posted by on 20 April, 2012 in Home Brewing


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8 responses to “The Day I Thought My Beer Had Died

  1. Ale Evangelist

    20 April, 2012 at 12:57

    Very odd. I have no idea what could have caused that behavior in yeast. With the Munton’s, you’re basically creating a yeast starter, which SHOULD cause the yeast to multiply and provide a little army of alcohol-producing yeast to take over the rest of your wort when you pitch it. The fact that it foamed in the rehydration water means it was alive at one point, but maybe you’re right. Maybe the 35° starter was too warm. Glad you salvaged the batch!

    • Alebagger

      21 April, 2012 at 16:29

      Me too! I would have been devastated if my first solo batch proved totally unfermentable!

  2. coatesg

    20 April, 2012 at 13:10

    Don’t make starters with dried yeast! Just rehydrate the yeast in water (with no sugar!) at 25-35C for 30min and pitch into the cooled wort (or even just sprinkle on top). Starters are needed to grow more cells prior to pitching – there should be enough viable cells in a 11g pack of yeast to ferment out 19L at 1060 so no more cells are required.

    Adding 11g dry yeast to 250ml of wort will result in no growth, and depletion of nutrients that the manufacturer worked so hard to put into the cells before packaging… If you don’t have enough, add another packet…

    I have to say those Munton instructions are pretty naff.

    • Alebagger

      21 April, 2012 at 16:25

      Hi Graham,

      I think the instructions are just plain wrong. I’ll be doing as you suggest in future. The S04 worked brilliantly just thrown in dry. I’ll rehydrate next time and compare.

  3. Barl Fire

    20 April, 2012 at 19:10

    The S04 will work nicely in a Sarah Hughes. Did you use Wheeler’s recipe? Only ever brewed the extract version but some of my friends still say it’s one of the best things I’ve brewed. At some point I’ll go back and do the all grain version, has to be done!

    • Alebagger

      21 April, 2012 at 16:27

      Yes, I’m using Wheeler’s recipe. It’s been in the barrel for a little over a week now, so I’m about to have my first sip, but I won’t be getting stuck into it for another five weeks or so. I’ll be reporting back in due time on how well (or otherwise) it turns out.

  4. John Blye

    13 May, 2013 at 01:39

    I bought Wilko Gervin English Ale Yeast from Wilkinson’s and their instructions are to sprinkle on and stir. Which I did, and I had bubbles through the airlock within two hours and a bubble a second by the next morning. Clearly Munton’s have got it wrong.

  5. Alebagger

    13 May, 2013 at 10:15

    I think the simple ‘sprinkle and stir’ is the way to go. Making the starter was a waste of time, and counterproductive. Thanks for the comment.


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