Even More Unwanted Foam

by Tom Lee

Yglesias isn’t the only one with foam problems. I woke up this morning to a distant whining noise. “What the hell is that?” I wondered groggily before concluding that it was probably just oil moving through the baseboard heater. A moment later I remembered that I don’t own a baseboard heater, or an oil heater, or even a slowly deflating balloon. I started awake. “My god, the beer!”

I made my second batch of homebrew beer yesterday and had placed the fermenter in the hallway outside my bedroom. This is already a bit dicey: making beer involves making beer-related smells. But the first batch’s time in the erratic thermal atmosphere of the garage led to a brew with overpowering notes of hops and banana, two great tastes that, ah, well… ahem.  An indoor attempt was in order. Besides, our neighbors make that hallways smell like pot smoke a lot of the time. This will complete the frat house aesthetic.

But this morning the hallway was on track to becoming even beerier than I’d expected. Here’s how a fermenter is supposed to work: first, envision a vertical pipe sticking out of the top of an airtight vessel. Now anthropomorphize it and imagine him (Mr. Pipe) wearing an adorable plastic helmet — a construction hardhat will do. Now envision him wearing the astronaut suit from that one Radiohead video, frozen at about the 2:10 mark — that is to say filled with water to a level in between the hat’s brim and the top of Mr. Pipe’s head.

The idea is that as the yeast cells munch away at the sugars in the wort, the CO2 they produce goes up the pipe, pushing the hat up until a bubble escapes from beneath its rim. No water goes down into the pipe, but pressure can escape. This leaves the vessel both microbiologically pristine and pleasantly unexploded.

Things can go a bit awry, however, and this morning they did. If the fermentation is proceeding with vigor it may produce a revolting foam — basically like the head on the final beer, but with more hop, yeast and precipitated protein particles — which can clog the airlock, leading to unpredictable effects. Like, say, the hardhat-equivalent doohickey shooting across the hallway, followed by a billowing worm of beer foam.

Honestly, it wasn’t too bad. The internet quickly came to the rescue, and I had this contraption rigged up within a few minutes:

airlock workaround

It’s more or less a bigger airlock, and I’m assured that as recently as 11 this morning the situation hadn’t turned into a godawful mess.  I remain cautiously optimistic.

What? Oh right, the beer. Well, as you might imagine from this being my second attempt, I’m not yet straying from the world of malt extract, and in fact am still playing by the rules of kits (I have plans for a more adventurous summertime outing). This one is a “True Brew” English IPA. It smells good! But the most remarkable thing is how different the experience was from my first foray into beermaking. That one came courtesy of HopTech, whose starter kit I purchased on the strength of their video series on how to brew. The difference in tone is startling: True Brew wants you to sanitize your equipment, sure. But they take a laid-back approach: “You know what? It’s just beer. If soused, lepromatous monks from the middle ages can make it, you can too. It’s probably going to be fine.”

HopTech, on the other hand, adopts an attitude of schizophrenic prudishness fit to rival a drunk Mormon prom date. “Aerate that wort! Yeah, aerate it gooood… Now stop! For pete’s sake, you’re going to oxidize it! Yes I know I said it was fine ten minutes ago, but I feel differently now and contamination lurks behind every corner and JEZUM CROW DID YOU PUT THAT SPOON DOWN ON THE COUNTER?! ONLY ON FOIL! ONLY ON FOIL! FOIL, FOR GOD’S SAKE!!!”

Also, their ingredient kit wasn’t packaged well enough and leaked malt syrup all over the instructions, and when I repeatedly asked them to send an electronic replacement copy they continued to correspond with me but simply never acknowledged that I’d made the request (they finally flat-out refused when I got someone on the phone). Admittedly, the equipment they sold me seems to be top-notch. But still: between the half-assed puritanism; the refusal to release documents; and the superior technical capabilities — which, in the final analysis, are a bit beside the point — they strike me as a brewing company for the Bush era, and I’m glad enough to move on.

11 responses to “Even More Unwanted Foam

  1. Nathan Williams

    Ah, the blow-off tube. It’s a sign of success that you need one, really, and you’ll know what to do in the future. It also helps to use a larger bucket, so that the foam has a lot of head space.

    Here’s to homebrew!

  2. I’ve noticed an increase in the “sanitation” obsession over the last few years. A response to too many homebrews from kits going bad perhaps?

    I’ll be spending this Saturday brewing Ferocious IPA — a Surly Furious clone picked up from Midwest Homebrowing Supply (http://www.midwestsupplies.com) in which I live a mile or two away from. The clone was created with help from folks at Surly Brewing themselves so I’m looking forward to it (does that really make it a clone?)

  3. Beer can always be a fascinating adventure. My first attempt resulting in inverting the 2-liter bottle I was fermenting a quick mead in. The instructions forgot to mention venting it.

    I shortly got a 5-gallon carbuoy for my next attempt.

  4. The twee-ness of this site has just got to stop. Come on guys. How many of you graduated from college in the last 12 months? . . . Oh, all of you? OK, well, you’re forgiven, but please, PLEASE, give us, your readers, some detachment, some spare prose.

  5. Oh, fuck off, Teddy. That spare enough for you?

  6. Yeah, I’m with Tommy on this one. Blogs are free. Go read a different one if you’re looking for more “detachment” in food blogging.

  7. verplanck colvin

    I’d be a bit concerned about putting a fermenter in the hall, does it have a consistent temperature? If you’re going for an ale, you should be between 65 – 75 deg. Farenheit.

    You can make damn fine beer from malt extracts, and don’t let people tell you differently. Especially with brews like IPAs, where the key flavor is not the malt itself. My Christmas ales (heavily spiced) were usually a big hit, even with the pros.

    I’d say that sanitation comes into play with bottling. At that point, if you don’t get the bottles sterilized right, you can get some other bacteria that will turn your bottled beer into mini-geysers when opened.

  8. I’d say True Brew has more the right idea. I’m pretty anal myself, and I’ve never had a batch go bad on me, but I’ve had friends who aren’t quite as scrupulous about sanitation, and they make pretty good beer too. I note with concern the small diameter of your blowoff tube, though. If your airlock was getting clogged, your tube could easily do the same. The solution is to use a bigger primary fermenter so that you have enough headspace for the krausen (that’s the foamy mess that forms during vigorous fermentation). The other option, which I have employed with some success on high-gravity ales, is to use a glass carboy for the primary, and have a blowoff tube with a 1.5-inch inner diameter. No way to clog that bad boy.

  9. The best reference I know for home brewing are the books by Charlie Papazian. I think he warns in the first chapter that the fermentation during the first 48 hours will be too intense for the puny fermentation cap and suggests something like you’ve rigged up here.

    @tim, I would’t dismiss the obsession with sanitation. It’s extremely easy for a batch of beer to become contaminated, especially during early stages of fermentation before the alcohol content is high enough to kill germs.

  10. @Zach: it’s not nice to disparage the small diameter of a man’s blowoff tube

  11. OK Tommy and ezraklein — sorry I was flippant. My point was stylicious not substilicious. There’s good info on this site. Stop being twee.

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