When brewing experiments go bad

man holding mug of milky, light-brown liquid
Oh no! My beer thinks it’s milk!

Since this is mainly a recipe site, I end up blogging my successes but not my failures. Which is a shame, because the latter are often more interesting. And if I’m serious about being an experimental brewer, then there are no bad results, just badly designed experiments.

Which, to be clear, my “experiments” generally are, since I have way too many variables, no control, no blind tasting, etc. I’m not like those nerds at Brulosophy with their bizarre fetish for reproducible results. My goal is to keep things interesting without fucking up so badly that I have to either throw a batch out or find a use for five gallons of funky vinegar. As long as I can still drink it, I’m satisfied.

By that standard, neither of my recent failures is a total flop. The first just ended up looking really revolting, and the second is just a bit lacking in complexity.

Failure #1: Staghorn Sumac Wheat Beer

staghorn sumac tree
one of the staghorn sumac trees that I pillaged for my weird beer

I’d brewed with staghorn sumac berries before, but with old heads that had been leached out by a month or more of weather. This time I was determined to pick them in mid July, just after ripening, and make them the focus of a fruity American wheat beer. Sounds like a plan, right? The grain bill was adapted from other fruit-wheat beers I’ve made: 6 lbs white wheat malt, 5 lbs pale 2-row, 1/2 lb crystal 60L and 1/2 lb light Munich. Hops too were nothing out of the ordinary: 1/2 oz Columbus and 1/2 oz Mt. Hood at the beginning of the boil and 1/2 oz. East Kent Golding at ten minutes before the end of the boil. Safale’s US-05 was the yeast. After five days, I added 4.5 lbs of frozen and thawed staghorn sumac berries along with the water used to pasteurize it, all of which brought the total volume in the bucket up to 6.5 gallons. I thought at the time I might’ve been overdoing it just a wee bit, but I was feeling bullish.

I let it sit for close to three weeks because we were in the middle of a heat wave and the kitchen, where I do the bottling, wasn’t pleasant. The fermentation temperature never exceeded 70F, though.

When I did finally bottle it on August 6, I was dismayed to discover that it had an unsettling milky color. Yikes! It smelled OK, though, so I took a taste, and guess what? It tasted exactly as you’d suppose: like an unsuspecting wheat beer got ambushed by a fuck-ton of extremely acid, sour, but not unpleasant berries.

I Googled “homebrew milky appearance” and found several brewing forum exchanges that seemed to suggest that the problem was suspended yeast. But I couldn’t detect any yeastiness in the flavor.

Realizing that I’d have no problem drinking the stuff, I went ahead and bottled it. And you know, it’s actually a pretty refreshing drink! I even managed to talk my epicure friend L. into trying some. “Strange but drinkable” was her verdict. We talked about possible causes for the odd color other than suspended yeast, but couldn’t come up with any promising theories.  The solution, however, was obvious: drink it out of opaque mugs.

man holding large ceramic mug
The solution to weird-looking beers.

Failure #2: Root Beer Stout

I should know better than to mess with a tried-and-true formula. I’ve been brewing root-beerish stouts for close to twenty years now, but usually with lots of mugwort instead of hops, and this time I thought I’d try hops instead — just an ounce of Nugget hops at the beginning of the boil, then the roots (1/2 oz dried sassafras root bark, 1/4 oz Indian Sarsaparilla root, 1/2 oz roasted dandelion root) at the end, along with 8 bags of chamomile tea and an ounce of dried yarrow heads. I steeped for ten minutes before chilling the wort. The grain bill consisted of 8 lbs 2-row pale malt, 1 lb white wheat malt, 1 lb biscuit malt, 1 lb 60L crystal malt, 1/2 oz debittered black malt, 1/2 oz roast barley, and 1/2 lb chocolate malt. Nottingham ale yeast. Standard stuff.

And the beer turned out completely standard. Levels of bitterness and maltiness are about right, and the root beer flavors aren’t too overwhelming, it’s just kind of meh. The sort of beer that could be (and often is) sexed up with clever packaging and pawned off on the craft beer crowd as something amazing. But I’ve made much better beers in the same vein, so to me it seems sadly lacking in complexity. Was I wrong to leave out something anise-y (anise seed, star anise, fennel, or anise root)? Or was it just because I left out ALL extra root-beerish options (including licorice, vanilla, wintergreen, etc.) and expected sassafras and sarsaparilla to do all the work? I should’ve either upped my hops game or stuck to what I know.

Here too, though, there’s a simple solution. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but there’s nothing like a root beer stout float. My friend L. and I agreed that it was a perfect match with vanilla ice cream. Possibly even a better match than actual root beer, because who needs all that sugar?

mug with ice cream and beer in it beside an unstoppered bottle
Does a root beer stout float count as a cocktail or not? Should I stick a little umbrella in it?

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