Thursday, December 20, 2012

Off-Flavor, or Infection? - Diagnosing My Crappy Brown Ale



There may not be any feeling worse for a homebrewer than opening up the first bottle of a new batch and realizing: "Oh god, this beer is ****ed." Not just subpar, not just flawed, but bad. Like, say, if a demon that ate only Band-Aids farted into a bottle and sealed it.

It certainly triggers an interesting series of psychological reactions. Is the beer green, does it need more time? Was it just a bad bottle — maybe a half-fill from the very bottom of the bucket? How long can I force myself to wait before trying another bottle? So you wait another week, and try a second bottle. And it's no better. You feel crushing existential anguish. Maybe a loss of confidence. Then it occurs to you that there will be a big gap in your brewing pipeline, if the whole batch truly, irredeemably sucks. Then: you think you should brew, like, four times next weekend — both to ensure there's a variety of good stuff in your fridge, and to reassure yourself that you can brew good stuff.

Before this batch — what was meant to be a hoppy brown ale — I had been on a really good run, with some of the best beers I've ever brewed all finishing in a row. Of course it was inevitable that I'd end up with a stinker of some sort, at some point. Still, after 30 batches, it seems odd that I would produce the most horrific beer of my career now. It's not that this brown ale is partly obscured by a glaring flaw — like my DMS-riddled rye mild ale, which was still drinkable. And it's not just that my recipe was lackluster to begin with — like, say, the vanilla cinnamon porter I brewed a year ago, that was somehow both bland and weird without being nasty.

No, my brown ale is just bad, overwhelmed by phenolic, medicinal and tannic off-flavors, somehow all at the same time. Even the mouthfeel seems weird. It's gross. None of those symptoms are exactly uncommon off-flavors in beer, of course — I've even tasted them in some pro-brewed beers (usually from small start-up nanobreweries). If you're a homebrewer, you've probably experienced these flaws before, in some capacity. But what's most frustrating: I haven't the slightest idea how it happened. When I screw up, I like to know it, and learn from it, but so far as I can figure, I didn't do anything obviously wrong with this batch.

So, let's run through all the possible causes. If you think you can deduce what went wrong, please, do share your suggestions in the comments.

Crucial Background Stats:
Hoppy Brown Ale
brewed on 10.7.2012
3.25 gallons, All Grain
Mashed at 152 degrees for 75 minutes
Fermented at 64 F, let warm to 70 after 4 days
OG: 1.056
FG: 1.015
IBU: 50
ABV: 5.4%

Yeast was a new packet of Safale S-04 English yeast. Brewing water was filtered through the carbon filter I've been using (successfully) for months. Final gravity was 1.015, and oddly enough, all my hydrometer samples tasted great, with no noticeable off-flavors.

Yeast Stress - Temperature:
One of the first things any homebrewer should examine is their temp control. Just like when you do manual labor in summer, yeast will expend more energy (sweat harder, if you will) in warmer conditions. Fermenting too hot can lead to weird, estery or phenolic flavors. However, I can rule this out, since I fermented in my temperature controlled fridge at a steady 64 degrees F (slow rise to 70 after fermentation had stopped). Plus, the off-flavors weren't present while the beer was in the fermentor — I only noticed them after bottle conditioning. RULED OUT

Yeast Stress - Pitching Rate:
The second go-to explanation for funky off-flavors is poor pitching technique. If you don't use a starter or pitch the appropriate amount of healthy, active yeast, you're just asking for some flaws to pop up. However, this batch was pitched with a new packet of Safale S-04 English yeast. Considering it wasn't even a full-sized batch, nor particularly high gravity, I definitely didn't underpitch, and I didn't notice any real lag time before fermentation. HIGHLY UNLIKELY

Yeast Stress - Unhealthy Yeast: 
Similar to the above, it seems highly unlikely that I would have pitched unhealthy yeast when I was pitching a new packet of dry yeast, unless my packet was just a dud. And given the intensity of the off-flavors here, they would have had to have been seriously unhealthy yeast. Like, suffering from leprosy. HIGHLY UNLIKELY

Chlorine / Chlorophenols: 
Another common culprit of medicinal or plasticy off-flavors in beer is excessive levels of chlorine or chlorophenols in your water supply. While you may never notice the taste when drinking water straight from the faucet, the process of fermentation can bring out severely unpleasant flavors due to these compounds. It is always a good idea to filter your water with a good carbon filter, or at least treat it with a Campden tablet first, which disperses chlorophenols. This batch certainly tastes like chlorophenols could be the issue, yet this would make no sense — it was brewed with the same water and filtered with the same filter as all my other recent batches. (None of which taste like this). However, I've read that some towns flush their water supply with extra levels of chlorine at certain times of year — is it possible my water was so doused with chemicals that they surged through the filter just this once? Again, that seems like a weak explanation. Still, given how much this tastes like a chlorine issue, I have to consider that it might somehow be the culprit, however, unlikely. NOT LIKELY

Sanitizer / Bleach Residue:
Certain sanitizers can also bring about unpleasant off-flavors if not properly rinsed from the fermentor. If you sanitize with bleach, you probably know this. However, I use Star-San; always have. This is not an issue with Star-San and I can't imagine what chemical could have possibly gotten into this batch that would have made the outcome any different. RULED OUT

Infection - Wild Yeast:
I hate that "infection" is just a catch-all explanation for some unexplained flaw in a beer. An "infection" could be so many things, and many of them are not entirely horrible things, in the broad world of beer. For example, a Brettanomyces infection is, depending on your tastes, not that big of a deal: you'll still end up with a drinkable beer that may, in fact, turn out extremely good, just different from what you were intending. The worst downside to a Brett infection is the potential for bottle bombs if you bottled too early. Regardless, I can say with confidence that this is not the result of a Brett infection. For one, I brew with Brett as much as I brew without it, and this tastes nothing like what I've experienced in my Brett-batches. Secondly, the gravity and carbonation level has been extremely consistent even after two months in the bottle. If this were a Brett infection, I would be very, very surprised.

However, there are other types of wild yeast that can infect your batch, including some rogue Saccharomyces strains that produce qualities undesirable in beer. One notable "wild" Sacch strain is Saccharomyces diastaticus, which is known to produce nasty phenolic flavors, and apparently has significantly higher attenuation than its domesticated cousins. (Check out "Brain Sparging on Brewing" for an interesting blog entry all about this yeast.) While the consistent carbonation level in my beer suggests that any infection it picked up hasn't dropped the gravity — making the "wild yeast" explanation a less than perfect fit — I have to acknowledge that it seems more likely than most of the alternative explanatinos. And if this is Saccharomyces diastaticus or something similar at work, when did the batch pick it up? And how? My sanitation practices have not changed, but I suppose everyone gets unlucky sometimes. POSSIBLE

Infection - Bacteria:
Most times when someone diagnoses a flawed or ruined batch of beer as infected, there's little effort to specify what, specifically, that infection might have been. Whether it was wild yeast or wild bugs, that specific "what" is actually pretty significant — possibly the difference between a salvageable batch and an undrinkable one. A lactobacillus infection? Like Brett, it might create an odd beer, but not necessarily a horrible one.

I think it's worth the effort to try to pinpoint an infection exactly. This ProBrewer resource offers a list of invasive bacteria and the flavors they might cause — much more helpful, in my opinion, than resources which give you a number of symptoms or "off-flavors," and then a cause as vague as "infection." However, none of the descriptions for these bacteria sounds like what I encountered in my brown ale, bringing me back to square one. MAYBE POSSIBLE

Curse - Evil Wizard:
It is always possible that a bad beer was simply cursed by an evil wizard. While I am in the habit of offering the appropriate sacrifices both after brewing and before bottling, it is possible my rune calligraphy was sloppy, or I misaligned one of the Warding Stones. MAYBE POSSIBLE


My conclusion? Being that none of the options perfectly fits, I have to go with the one I can't quite rule out: some kind of infection, most likely from wild yeast, most likely a non-Brett strain like Saccharomyces diastaticus. It is also possible that the issue resulted from excess chlorine compounds in the beer, despite my careful filtering — or hell, who knows, maybe even a combination of chlorine and infection together. It is also entirely possible that my beer was cursed by an evil wizard. He's pulled this kind of stunt before.

Being that I never noticed any off flavors before bottling the beer — and indeed, I saved yeast from the batch without ever noticing anything off-smelling or funky about it — I'm assuming any infection that crept in probably did so at bottling. After coming to that conclusion, I immediately gave all my equipment and extra-thorough soak in OxiClean, followed by extra-thorough washings and soaks in Star-San. Hopefully it doesn't happen again — my following batch, a Belma IPA, turned out great, at least. Still, I wish I could learn more from this experience.

Having read of my woes in great detail, what do you think?




42 comments:

  1. I too recently brewed a brown ale, and it just tasted off. I too used S-04, which I rarely do. I scoured the internet forums and seemed there were a handful of people who got a "tart" almost sour ester from this yeast. I fermented +/- 1 degree of 63* - It has been in my fridge for a while and I have just left alone...going on 4-6 weeks now? I will sample it tonight and let you know if my taste impressions of it have changed. I fear my issue could just be with this yeast - you talked about health, temp, and pitching rate, but not the strain itself...possibility?

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    1. Interesting that you had such a similar experience, although my off-flavor is definitely "medicinal" and "Band-Aids," not sour at all. I hate blaming the yeast entirely, since I'm sure many many people have used S-04 without issue, but it's definitely a possibility. Honestly, I'm split 50/50 between thinking I just had a bad packet of yeast vs. picking up an infection at bottling.

      I've only brewed with S-04 once before... about a year ago I fermented a Galaxy IPA with it. Tasted fine, no off-flavors, but the attenuation was terrible; finished at 1.020 when I was expecting somewhere around 1.012. So, who knows.

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    2. As promised, checked on my brown ale last night and although it wasn't as tart, there was still too much of "funk" ester. I think I will stick to other english ale yeasts in the future. Second time I have used S-04 and second time i have not appreciated the result. Sorry to hear about problems as well.

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    3. When you say "funk," do you mean it's similar to the character you'd get from Brett, or a totally different kind of weird flavor?

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    4. I have been a homebrewer for 7 years. I've made 152 batches of ales & lagers of nearly all varieties. Most have turned out great. However, the batches that turned out bad were really bad (Terrible, unbearable medicinal "Band-Aid" off-flavors).
      I have double cleaned, sanitized, boiled, used various water sources, adjusted fermentation temperatures, etc., etc. I closely monitored everything I did and kept meticulous records to help me isolate the medicinal off flavor problem.
      I finally stepped back and looked at the data for 152 batches as a whole and the answer to me is overwhelmingly obvious. Here are the numbers:

      93 Lagers - All strains of lager yeast used (Dry & Liquid) - BAD BATCHES (1)
      19 Ales - Made with S-05 Dry Ale Yeast - BAD BATCHES (0)
      13 Ales - Made with Nottingham/Danstar Ale Yeast - BAD BATCHES (1)
      4 Ales - Made with Mr. Beer Ale Yeast (Strain??) - BAD BATCHES (0)
      23 Ales - Made with S-04 Dry Ale Yeast - BAD BATCHES (16) (All were dumped!)(What a waste!)

      I think this speaks loud and clear...Judge for yourself !
      For me, I no longer use S-04 yeast in anything.



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    5. Wow, really damning stats there; it's hard for me to look at those numbers and chalk it up to coincidence. Especially when so many others keep sharing similar experiences. Thanks for sharing that, very intriguing.

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    6. Thanks for replying...just wanted to share my experience.
      16 bad batches out of 23 with S-04 is nearly 70% failure. All of my other lagers and ales combined (2 bad batches out of 129) is only 1.50% failure, which I assume is about normal for a homebrewer.

      For the majority of the time with S-04, I detected the "medicinal" flavor in the fermenter before bottling. Occasionally, it would not show up until a few weeks after bottling. It would never improve with time and would only get worse. I was simply ready to "pull out my hair" (which isn't that abundant anyway...ha). I was even re-inoculating with other yeast strain starters in DME, hoping that would clean it up...nope...nothing doing.

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    7. That had to be maddening, though I guess at least you figured out the common element eventually. I know the exact flavor, I've since tasted it in a number of other beers from other homebrewers who used S-04. It must not happen every time, but the 'failure rate' seems to be pretty high.

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    8. Even now with all my proof, it is hard for me to attribute it to the S-04 alone, it really doesn't make sense. I still feel that it's use in combination with other factor(s) are causing it since I did have 7 GREAT batches with S-04. The only problem is that the "other factor(s)" aren't a problem when I use any other yeast. So for me, the best solution was to stop using S-04. Thanks again for your replies and interest...I really appreciate it!

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    9. I agree that there must be other factors. Certainly not every beer I've had with S-04 was bad, I've also tasted some very good ones. The mystery remains what those other factors could be: temperature, water chemistry, pure luck?

      Thank you for sharing!

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  2. I think you should dub it "Gollum".

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  3. Well, according to Sam, Gollum was a "stinker". Besides, he's vile, disgusting, and foul.

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  4. You mentioned you sanitize with StarSan, do you frequently clean your equipment with PBW or some other type of cleaner? I ran into a spout of "infections" earlier this year as I was getting lazy with my PBW cleanings and using strictly StarSan which wasn't cutting it. Its best to use both on a regular basis to minimize your risk of infections.

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    1. Excellent point. I do make a habit of PBW-soaking all my equipment every couple months. I suspect that if I did get an infection here, it was because my siphoning hose was overdue for a soak and I didn't hit it soon enough. As soon as I tasted this batch, the first thing I did was an extra long soak in PBW and thorough cleaning.

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  5. S-04. I've used it in 3 beers and they're the only batches I've poured down the drain. I have the exact same flaws, including a thin, soda like mouthfeel. Horrible.

    I tried a friend's ESB that used S-04 that was pretty good, but he kept his fermenting fridge at 60 the whole time.

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    1. Very interesting. I suspect I won't be using S-04 again anytime soon.

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  6. I brewed a Vanilla porter that I have had great success with using Wyeast 1084 but this time I decided to add a packet of S-40 to up the complexity of the fermentation. I had a great beer on bottling day but eight weeks later the beer still is not fully carbed, has some strange flavors, and almost all the vanilla flavor is non-existent despite using mostly the same recipe I always have. will not be using S-40 again either.

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  7. I brewed a porter a couple years ago that picked up an infection strikingly similar to yours. I questioned at the time whether dark beers end up with something normally unfermentable to saccharomyces cerevisiae but easily fermented by something else. Like your beer and the one mentioned by Shegogue Brew, it didn't get sour, just really funky in a medicinal/phenolic way.

    My guess on your beer is wild yeast infection. They tend to be responsible for those nasty band aid flavors. It's highly common of wild yeast of all sorts. It probably won't get better over time. I've never had a wild yeast infection (and I've had a few) that got better with time. They always get worse. Could be bacterial, some bacteria will produce phenolic compounds without acidity.

    It's not as hard to develop an infection as you think and if it's found a safe harbor it's going to keep popping up until you eradicate it. Some long oxyclean soaks followed by star-san soaks will usually do the trick.

    It is possible you got a bad batch of S-04, you could email safale and inquire if there have been any reports.

    It's slightly possible it's a water issue but I'd think you would know your water suddenly started to taste of chlorine. It's possible your filter is defective or expired. It's possible your muni water supply went a little crazy with the chlorine/chloramine if you've had a sudden, major change in weather that has either added a lot of water to the reservoirs or you've had a really long period of drought. However, you usually only see the chlorine/chloramine adjustments during warm months when bacteria are more likely to bloom. Again, I'd think you would taste that much of a difference in the water and you would certainly smell it in your shower.

    The other reason I'd rule out the water is based on beer taste. I find infection-created phenols are band-aid tasting, while chlorophenols are strongly medicinal or home cleaning supply tasting, like letting aspirin dissolve in your mouth with a swig of lysol.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to write all this out, Eighth. Lot of good points in here.

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  8. I would venture to guess that since all hydrometer samples displayed no evidence of off-flavors that the problem originated at bottling. My last batch was plagued with bottling issues and a similar band-aid flavor which fouled what had been a wonderful dry-hopped stout. But as a consolation prize, I dismantled my brew setup down to the washer and cleaned some brew build-up that won't help my beer flavor.


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  9. I think S05 S04 Yeast gives this flavor. I clean every batch with PBW and then sanitize with Iodine. I have made 10 great beers. Now the last two I made with S04 and S05 yeast have developed a sour chemical bandaid off flavor to them but all other characteristics are in specification and no evidence of bacteria or other contaminations. The off taste comes in after 10 days in the bottle. The SG was right and the alcohol is right. I believe it is the yeast and if you have good sense of taste you will pick up on it and not be happy. I have waited out a porter now for almost 2 years and the off flavor subsided after a 17 month fermentation at 68deg temperature followed by 4 weeks in the refrigerator at 38. pleasantly surprised the yeast has turned the corner so save the bottles do not dump you just have to wait. I think it is a fast fermenter yeast that has great action in the for the first 10 days. But that is a show the real job is slowly done with this yeast if you like to taste the beer vs gulping it down be patient.

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    1. Wow, 2 years! That's a lot of patience. I needed to use the bottles for other things that didn't taste awful, so I ended up dumping the batch after two months or something. It's certainly interesting to hear that yours ended up turning the corner though!

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  10. Sounds frustrating, but a good post! Very useful to anybody wanting to learn more about off flavors.

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    1. Thanks! It definitely sucks a lot having an undrinkable batch, so the best you can do is think of it as a learning opportunity.

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  11. Just brewed a pumpkin ale with S-04, fermented at 72f in primary ( yeah i know its high). Tried a bottle after 3 weeks of bottle conditioning and it tastes like salty band aids. It didnt taste like this when i bottled. Tried another this weekend (4 weeks) and it still has a plasticy band aid taste.

    I have fermented this high of temp with US-05 with no issues, I blame the yeast.

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  12. Have you had this flavor crop up since? I've had this happen to me on something like 8 of my last 10 batches. It appears to varying degrees from a hint in the backround to you can taste it when you take a whiff. I've tried different yeasts (a few wyeast strains, Mutons, Coopers, S-04, US-05, T-58, Belle Saison, Nottingham) different water, replaced all bottles and bottling/brewing/fermenting equipment. I've pretty much given up on making beer at home at this point. Oddly enough meads and ciders made on the same equipment, bottled in the same bottles and with far less attention on sanitation come out just fine every time.

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    1. I can't say that I have. I have become very sensitive to it, to the point where I would say I have waking nightmares of thinking I taste the flavor in some random food I'm eating... only to have that sensory illusion immediately disappear. It's pretty crazy how much I hated that flavor. And to be honest, after all this time, I still can't decide if I think the cause was an infection or something else.

      That sounds brutal man, I'm very sorry to hear it. I wish I had some good ideas about what could possibly be causing it, but I've never heard of an off flavor that pervasive after taking all the counter-measures that you did. Just to throw out some random thoughts, maybe your sanitizer is somehow expired, and not working? It's weird that it wouldn't occur with mead or cider, though. Are others tasting it to the same degree you are? It could be that you're also extremely sensitive to that particular off flavor.

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  13. I have been brewing for 12 years and have experienced this off-flavor in the keg as well as in the bottle. It seems to appear post-fermentation because i taste the samples when I check gravity. I use Oxi-clean to soak and starsan to rinse/sanitize and i drain and bottle on the starsan foam. I don't purge my bottles or kegs with CO2 but i take care in filling not to splash or introduce oxygen. I use Nottingham dry yeast with continued success after many years of obsessing over liquid strains and culturing. I am not a chemists so i have no professional explanation for this phenomenon but it is down right frustrating. My most recent batch was also a spiced pumpkin ale and just prior to bottling it tasted so good i could have drunk a gallon straight from the fermenter. Now, a week and a half later, i want to dump all 47 bottles down the drain, i can't tolerate this horrific taste in my mouth. I can smell it after the initial pour, i can taste it in every sip and it even comes back up when i belch. It feels metallic on the tongue like sucking on pennies, smells plastic like, and has a medicinal or mechanical oily taste. i was walking through the parking garage at work today and smelled an odor similar to what my beer tastes like, carbon monoxide! If anyone has a clue as to where this off flavor originates and how to combat it please let us know. thanks

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    1. Interesting, but I always thought carbon monoxide was supposed to be odorless and tasteless? Maybe I'm thinking of something else. Check out the one comment newly posted toward the top of the thread, he breaks down all his batches ever brewed and which ones had this bad off-flavor, and it's pretty staggering how many of those were brewed with S-04.

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  14. Same thing happened with my brown ale! However, I think I know happened.

    I was using a plastic conical fermenter that I previously only used for cider. I'm sure there was cider residue. I also scrubbed it in the past, so I'm not ruling out possible infections from that.

    Temperature: During fermentation the temperature rose to near 80F which could have made a big impact.

    Bottle infection: I try to be as thorough as possible when sanitizing, but there's a chance that I missed a spot and the bottle got infected.

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    1. Looks like you now have a handle on your problem and I hope that solves it for you. Trying to "troubleshoot" something like that is bewildering.
      I am the one that posted near the top of the thread on November 29, 2013. Like you, I thought I had a contamination/sanitation problem. I'm not sure if you used S-04 but, in my case, over several years, I poured out 16 batches of ales made with S-04. I am now convinced the S-04 was the problem.
      I've made over 150 batches with all kinds of yeast. I don't do anything differently as far as cleaning and sanitizing from one batch to another. I use the same water, same equipment, same fermenters, make sure appropriate fermentation temperatures are used, etc., etc. The only thing different is the yeast and in my case, the problem was the S-04.
      I hope this might in some way be helpful.
      Good luck with your future batches!

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  15. Chalk one up for s04. I got here after my research on a pervasive supertart / leathery/astringent flavour of my partial mash ipa done with that yeast after 2 wk in bottle. Reminds me of tart kaki (in italian is caco , don't know the name of that orange, soft and juicy fruit in english).

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  16. I wanted to add that I have had problems with s04 and also us-05. Indeed, these soda like sourness twangs that will not go away. It seems to have shown up in the bottle and I know there is no sanitation problems. I have switched to liquid yeast

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  17. Does anyone know if this probelm occurs with wlp002 as well? Or is it only with the dry version of the yeast US04? I'm planning a string of batches that use wlp002, but will find an alternate if needed.

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  18. Thanks for all the posts here, I think I can now relax on an obsessive compulsive sanitisation regime. I too have been getting the odd batch of vile metallic pervasive chlorine like flavor in some of my brews, while others have turned out great. I had a taste of new batch of red ale last night and it's back again, still have memories of it today.
    I was asking myself the same questions as in the original post, and looking back, all the bad batches used s04! I haven't had this problem with any other yeast, so there you go, s04, never again.

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  19. Just brewed up 2 different stouts, pitched 2 packets of s-04 in each, fermented at 65 and they both have that horrible fruity sour flavor. I hate this yeast and am swearing off of it.
    (I work at a home brew supply store and definitely had the freshest yeast available.)

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  20. Three thoughts:

    1. I agree with everyone that S-04 is an odd yeast. I used it in a brown a few years back and it was very phenolic. That being said, I was new at the time and probably fermented too hot (~70-71). Might just be a temperamental strain.

    2. How did you bottle? I've often found that bacteria colonies like to take up residence in the nooks and crannies of the spigot I use—even after I wash and sanitize it when I'm done bottling. I almost didn't take it apart to clean it before bottling my last batch (it looked clean, so I was just going to run a bunch of StarSan through it), but talked myself into the extra effort and discovered some nasty gunk wedged high up in the valve (where my StarSan likely wouldn't reach). Tenacious little bastards.

    3. I've never had it happen, but some people say that your "house bugs" (the particular melange of bacteria where you brew) can become resistant to your go-to sanitizer over time. Maybe switch it up every other batch?

    Anyway, good luck (and good article)!

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  21. Could this be a sparging or PH problem? I have had a couple batches with this issue and I both times I did pay the level of attention that I normally do as I was entertaining a group. My primary concerns were overheated sparge water in one (talking and not paying attention) and the other winging my water adjustment from a source I hadn't used before based solely on tasting it. In a darker beer pushing the PH too low becomes easier in you aren't properly monitoring it. Anyway, just a couple extra guesses.

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    1. "did" = "didn't pay the level of attention"

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  22. i keep getting this off moldy taste in my beer is there anyway i can get rid of it without throwing out the beer

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  23. My first batch ever made with S_04. It tasted great at first, but not carbonated. The larger bottles that received more sugar for the ounces of beer (used 2 drops) turned out okay. I think it may be this yeast gets tired and gives a sour taste.

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