Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Proud Moments In Brewing: The Mystery of The Beer That Wouldn't Bottle

Why was this so hard to accomplish?

In brewing beer, there's always opportunity to feel like an idiot — especially in brewing, where there seems to be no end to things that can go wrong. Perhaps those among you who have a greater knowledge of practical science will spot my mistake immediately. Everything you need to know to solve it is mentioned in this post. So let's see: can you solve the riddle of The Beer That Wouldn't Bottle faster than I did?

First, here's a quick rundown on bottling beer — it'd be hard to solve the Mystery without understanding the Process.When you bottle beer, you're doing two things: getting it out of the fermenter and into bottles (a nice convenient format for serving beer) and carbonating the beer in the bottle, because beer is carbonated. Simple, right? A bottling wand — much like the tool of magicians — goes into the spigot of the bottling bucket, and is rigged to dispense liquid when something is pressed up against it (ie, the inside bottom of a bottle) but will seal shut when there's nothing against it, to prevent dripping. It's all very convenient. Except for when the bottling wand mysteriously won't dispense beer.

About a week ago, I was trying to bottle a five gallon batch of beer. Everything was ready: the priming sugar was in the beer, the beer was in the bottling bucket, the bottles were in the sanitizing solution, and so on. Any time you are doing anything where the beer is being moved or otherwise exposed to outside environments, you want to take great care that nothing touches the beer which might infect it. I always try to put a lid on the bottling bucket so the beer isn't totally exposed to open air. This time, I even put an airlock filled with sanitizer in the bucket lid so that nothing could get in. I got my first bottle filled. Then my second, slowly. Very, very slowly. No matter how hard I jammed the bottle up against the bottling wand, the beer was not coming out. I jammed and I jammed and I jammed, yet I couldn't get any more than a trickle. I rocked the bucket back and forth, just in case it somehow had gotten clogged. I tried a different bottle. No dice. The beer refused to come out. So I figured: okay, my bottling wand is broken. It happens to the best of us.

I was stuck with five gallons of beer in my bottling bucket with nowhere to go, but that's not necessarily a disaster. I already had it sealed up, so it wasn't much more likely to get infected than at any other point in the process. Sure, I had already added some sugar for bottle priming, but that would only increase the ABV marginally, and I could always add new priming sugar later on. So I figured I had no choice but to let it sit until I bought a new bottling wand later in the week, when I could make a trip to the homebrew store.

So four days later, I finally got to the homebrew store, where I bought two new bottling wands (needed an extra / separate one for bottling sour stuff, anyway.) The next day, I was ready to go. I boiled up some priming sugar and stirred it in carefully. Put the bucket lid back on, complete with the airlock full of sanitizer. Taking no chances, since the beer had already been sitting for an extra five days. Then I got to it. Filled up the first bottle fine. Filled up the second, and holy hell, what do you know? The flow of beer slows to a trickle and stops.

I couldn't believe it. What were the chances that two bottling wands in a row had the exact same issue? Impossible; it couldn't be that. The beer was still coming through the spigot and the wand, just very, very slowly. I took the wand off to fill right from the spigot — which you don't want to do, because it splashes and thus possibly oxidizes the beer — and the result was the same: a slow, insignificant trickle of liquid. But if there was nothing in there except liquid, what could possible be jamming it?

I was very, very annoyed at this point.

"Maybe there's a bug stuck in there," my girlfriend offered, and while this could have been a plausible explanation, I doubted there was any physical object blocking the flow. For one, the inside opening of the spigot is about the size of a quarter, so that would have to be a very large bug. And second, I had already tried rocking the bucket back and forth multiple times, to dislodge any such mystery object. It made absolutely no difference. I even briefly considered that the yeast had settled out into a thick cake and blocked it up somehow, but quickly ruled that out as being completely absurd and not how yeast works.

I spent another ten minutes in angry disbelief, angrily shoving the bottle up against the wand, angrily rocking the bucket back and forth, angrily staring in helpless anger. My last ditch effort to fix the Beer That Wouldn't Bottle was going to be opening it back up and sticking my long brewing spoon in there to pry around — who knows, maybe there was a giant bug blocking it? Then, just as I was about to pry the lid off, it hit me. I knew what I had done. And I felt like an idiot.

So what about you, Astute Reader? Have you solved the Mystery of the Beer That Wouldn't Bottle?

The answer is "vacuums."

More specifically, "creating a" vacuum. Even more specifically, if you have a bucket full of liquid and wish for that liquid to leave the bucket, you have to replace it with something, since the government outlawed vacuums in the late 60's in the landmark case of Nature vs. Vacuum. Air is a convenient thing that's just sitting around that you can use to fill up the bucket in lieu of beer, but since I had the bottling bucket completely sealed off — remember the airlock that, this time, I decided to fill with sanitizer? — air was locked out. Nothing gets in, nothing goes out.

I cracked the lid, pulled out the airlock, and there it was. The beer flowed. If you figured this out immediately, feel free to make fun of me in the comments. I will tell myself that I'm not a complete idiot, as this wasn't the most immediately obvious problem I could have encountered. I wasn't expecting to have to deal with Science.

But then again, Science is always happening when you least expect it.





2 comments:

  1. you are really dumb. were you more or less angry than when you could not figure out how to siphon the beer?

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  2. I won't say that you were dumb because everybody makes mistakes. I did enjoy finding out about the landmark case of Nature vs. Vacuum. My biggest thing is that I would have thought that the worst that would happen in this case is that the vacuum would have sucked the fluid from the airlock into the bucket.

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