Monday, January 31, 2011

A "What Now?" Nut Brown Update

Just a check-in to report on the status of the Imperial Nut Brown ale that should have been racked to the secondary fermenter yesterday.

There's basically no update. But there's a lot of general confusion.

The ale had been bubbling up a storm until sometime on Saturday when, as expected, it slowed to less than one bubble in the airlock per minute (scientific, no?). Yesterday, Michael and I got all ready for the transfer from Fermenter 1 to Fermenter 2. Excitement was in the air.

Until we took our gravity reading. It was too high. For this recipe, the gravity should be around 1.011 - 1.015. Ours was at 1.021. The alcohol by volume should be 7.75-8.25%. Ours sat defiantly at 6.8%. It's still a respectable alcohol level, but not enough for us to declare this brew an unqualified success.

Thinking that there may be a difference between the gravity reading we got by pulling a sample from the bottom of the fermenter and the one we might get by taking a sample from the top, we took another reading to see what was what.

Um, yeah....same stupid reading. (At least now we know top or bottom doesn't make a difference when you're talking samples. Useful info, I guess.)

Much flurrying occurred at this point as we checked every resource at our disposal to see what could be wrong. Books, Internet, prayer, tarot reading, runes, star charts....we consulted it all.

Here's what we found out:
  • The new wisdom seems to be that it's a good idea to let beer (especially "big" beers) sit in the primary fermenter longer than I've ever done before. I usually transfer to the secondary after a week. Everybody now is saying two weeks is better. Okay, I guess. Maybe in the next week something magical will happen (some kind of sneaky, super-secret fermentation) and drop the gravity another .006. Except there doesn't appear to be anything going on in that fermenter. It looks pretty boring in there. So, I'm skeptical there's any magic (secret or not) awaiting us.
  • If our fermentation is indeed "stuck," it could be that our yeast is dead. That can happen with higher alcohol beers, as high alcohol environments can be toxic to yeast. Although, if 6.8% alcohol is toxic to the yeast in our fermenter, I'm fully prepared to proclaim this yeast "The Wimpiest Yeast Ever." It's supposed to be functional in environments that are up to 10% ABV, so I'm not convinced our alcohol level is the problem.
  • One way to get yeast unstuck (in theory anyway) is to "swirl" the fermenter. Just to shake things up a bit and wake up the sleepy yeast. I don't know if any of you ever tried to "swirl" a 1 1/2-foot tall plastic bucket full of 5 gallons of liquid, but let me tell you that this is not an easy feat. Michael gave it the old college try, though....and I'm so very sorry I didn't video it.
So now we have our freshly swirled fermenter sitting in the kitchen where we can just stare at it, waiting for something to happen. So far, there's nothing of interest to report.

We need to take another gravity reading today or tomorrow to see if there's any change. If there is, then I feel better. It means the fermentation isn't done, but the yeast is still doing its thing (although it's doing it invisibly), and I just need to settle down.

If there's no change, that's another story. It may mean fermentation is really done, and it's just time to rack to the secondary and call it good. It also means that the target ABV for this recipe isn't correct and it's time to find a different recipe. Or adjust our expectations.

Or, it may mean the fermentation isn't done but our yeast is shot. In that case, we just need to add more yeast. It means more waiting, but I can deal with that.

Here's the thing, though: In one of the 495 calculations and tests we've done over the lifespan of this beer, we've determined that we have an "apparent attenuation" of about 71%. Which means that our yeast has consumed 71% of the available sugars in the beer. Sounds great, right? It would be fantastic if our alcohol levels were where they should be. The problem (according to our research...again, the star charts, etc.) is that an attenuation of 75% is about the best you're gonna get. There are just some sugars that aren't edible to the yeast (called "non-fermentables"). Which means that we could dump more yeast in there and have it Do. Absolutely. Nothing. Because there's no food available for the yeast to eat. (I guess they could just swim around to pass the time, but that's not really what they're there for.) I guess in that case, we just bottle the stuff, call it a 6.8% ABV beer and be done with it.

It is, after all, just beer.

But it's all the "maybe"s, "I don't know"s, and perplexed shrugging going on around here that is the most frustrating. And all those star charts take up a lot of the much-lacking counterspace, yo.

The good news is that this beer tastes GOOD. Even warm and flat (which is how it should be at this point), it's still darn yummy.

I'll be back with an update after the next reading. And we'll go from there.

UPDATE: Shame on me for doubting the stars. Or the stuff we read on the Internet. Whichever.

The gravity reading tonight was 1.019. Fermentation ain't over, y'all. The house ruling? Let 'er sit until the weekend. And in the meantime? Chill. Out.

Oh, and in the name of all that's holy...stop opening the fermenter.

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