When Good Beers Go Bad: The Tears and Triumphs of Failed Experiments

Feature by | Sep 2011 | Issue #56

Photo by Taylor Seidler

The night I had a gurgling vat of fermenting orange juice as a roommate, I didn’t sleep at all.

This was when I was younger and in the habit of sleeping on other people’s couches. I crashed next to the concoction, which lived in one of those apartments with four bedrooms occupied by about a dozen punk rock kids in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. One of the residents, in true ambitious do-it-yourself spirit, had decided to try to make alcohol out of a 3-gallon jug of orange juice, which he had pilfered from a local dumpster.

The brew, a fetid orange slurry, sat in a carboy in the kitchen, next to the apartment’s only unoccupied couch. It smelled foul, and the occasional bubble murmured to its surface. In a half-conscious state, I was certain it growled at me. At the time, I considered the experiment crazy, and was convinced that whoever tasted it would be lucky to only go blind.

Now that I drink craft beer, this phenomenon doesn’t seem so strange. I’ve since read about homemade orange juice wine and a prison hooch called “pruno” made from juice, ketchup and sugar. I’ve tried plenty of Fruit Lambics, and heard that Hangar 24 in Redlands, Calif., offers a wheat beer made by adding entire oranges to the batch during brewing. Though I don’t think the mastermind behind my rumbling roommate even understood the basic science or mechanics of brewing, I can’t help but wonder if he was inadvertently a pioneer craft brewer.

Experimentation is a hallmark of microbrewing. Small beer companies and craft drinkers reward innovation, and we often hear about the successes of the industry; new hops and yeast strains, innovative styles and techniques. But not every risk yields a success story, and brewers are often eager to celebrate their failures as well … failures that prove the brewer can push the envelope so vigorously, he tears it open.

Deschutes Brewing in Oregon is home to that breed of brewer, and CEO and founder Gary Fish is hardly gun-shy about putting himself out there. “We’ve got a whole warehouse full of things that we don’t know if they’ll ever see the light of day,” says Fish. “The grand failures are, I think, some of the coolest things that we do. They lead to huge leaps forward in our ability to produce the world’s finest beers.”

He’s looking forward to the company’s newest experiment: a blend of four different beers—two of its own, and two more from Hair of the Dog—aged in wood barrels. The four beers are completely different styles, including Deschutes’ The Dissident (a Flanders Oud Bruin) and Hair of the Dog’s Adam (a dessert beer made from roasted barley). Fish is optimistic that the experiment, dubbed “Conflux No. 01,” will not only be a success, but that it will open the floodgates for new creative combinations in craft beer … possibly even new styles.

For all his optimism, Fish is no stranger to disappointment, either. “When we first opened to the public in 1988, we had 10 straight batches go bad and dumped them down the drain. Our history of knowing right from wrong is an extensive one,” he says. “It hurts a lot. Back then, there were a lot of late-night conversations about what we were going to do.”

But perhaps Deschutes’ most public disappointment was its Black Butte XXII. Fish still remembers the day in 2010 when he was called into Deschutes’ lab. There was a problem with the brewery’s 22nd anniversary beer. The Imperial Porter, made with chilies, dark chocolate and orange peel, appeared fine at first—but once it was bottled, it became obvious that butterfat from the chocolate had “coagulated, forming nodules of fatty film on the beer.” The beer still tasted great, says Fish, but it looked strange, with an oily residue at the surface. It did not meet the brewery’s presentation standards.

“I was called into the lab, and all our top brewers were there, and they showed me what had happened,” Fish says. “They asked me, ‘What should we do?’ I just looked around the room and I knew. That’s hard to stomach,” Fish says of dumping barrel after barrel down the drain. “But the only thing worse than that would have been releasing it to the customers.”

The fiasco necessitated a public announcement on the brewery’s blog, where Fish suggested that the incident only proved Deschutes’ motto: “Bravely done.”

“Take this as Deschutes Brewery’s firm commitment to quality and to our customers. When you push boundaries like we do, something like this is bound to happen,” he wrote. “We promise to never back away from the line, even when the risk is great.”

It may sound like a marketing spin, but many of the craft beer industry’s most cutting-edge brewers revel in their mistakes. For some, the failed experiment is akin to a cool scar; it proves you don’t fear danger. Plus, it makes for a great story to tell fellow craft enthusiasts over a pint. “It’s sometimes fun to laugh at yourself and find out what went wrong,” says Fish. “This is a learning experience for us, and for our consumers as well.”

At Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire, Mich., a favorite horror story is the “lounge beer” that the company’s head brewer Tony Hansen once tried to develop. According to general manager Bryan Banfield, to create a flavor that conjured the leather armchair mood of cigar smoke and expensive liquor, Hansen used real tobacco in the barrel.

“It turns out that tobacco is poison, basically,” he says. “It tasted more like cigarettes and booze than bourbon and cigars.” Eventually, he says, they found some Asian teas that mimicked the smoky flavor he was looking for. “It wasn’t one we were in love with, even when we got it right,” he says. “We released it at a few festivals.”

Brett Joyce, president of Rogue Ales, likes to tell the one about the garlic beer his company tried to make in honor of the North Plains Garlic Festival in Oregon. “To say it was disgusting is an insult to disgusting beers,” he says. “Somehow, hops and garlic don’t go together. You think you’re going to find something really special and fun, but it’s trial and error. It’s an art.”

But perhaps Rogue’s craziest experiment yet was brewing with yeast made from brewmaster John Maier’s beard. “We’ve had the same brewmaster for 22 years, and he’s had the same beard for 30 years,” says Joyce, adding that it seemed like a natural progression to take trimmings from the brewer’s facial hair and have a yeast strain custom-developed from its bacteria. They brewed one small, unsuccessful batch.

“It did not taste good. You know those funky farmhouse yeasts? This took funky to a dangerous extreme,” says Joyce. He says it didn’t taste like a person, just “off-flavor and kind of infected.” He adds: “It was not positive. When you’re in this business and you’re creative and experimental, you have to understand that this sort of thing is going to happen. I think it’s part of the fun of being a brewer,” he says.

But Joyce doesn’t regret experimenting, and says you have to try in order to succeed. Other attempts that seemed just as crazy have been extremely successful, like Rogue’s Chipotle Ale, a malty amber with real peppers in it. “Whenever you try something that’s that exotic or that out there, you think, ‘We’re either going to look real smart or real dumb.’ You never know,” Joyce says. “You just have to have the willingness to try.”

The cost of the mistakes often immediately repay themselves, with the knowledge of how to proceed. When Ryan Sentz first tried to brew a chocolate/peanut butter beer at the Funky Buddha Lounge and Brewery in Boca Raton, Fla., the batch yielded a foul-smelling sludge that his partner at the time dubbed “hobo poop.” Sentz, unwilling to admit defeat, drank a pint of it before he conceded the experiment was a wash. “It stunk horribly, and it tasted terrible,” says Sentz. “We got nothing out of that other than the knowledge that we could never try it that way again.”

As with Deschutes’ chocolate beer, the culprit was fat, which congealed during fermentation. After the first attempt, Sentz tried to remove the fat from deli peanut butter by hand. He repeatedly dumped the oil from the jar, let it sit and collect, and dumped it out again. That didn’t work, either. He also tried dehydrated peanut butter in powder form.

“I tried a million different methods before I got it right,” he says. “When we finally did, I was so happy with it, I thought about what else I could do. Once we got the peanuts down, we got the peanut butter and jelly on the first try.”

The brewery had already had success with some fruit beers, and having finally mastered peanut butter, they nailed their “No Crusts” peanut butter and jelly beer. “The first time we smelled it, we actually started laughing,” Sentz says. “You have an idea of what it should smell like and taste like, and this was dead-on.”

At Buddha, the size of the brewery helps. Sentz only brews for his bar, and makes about a barrel and a half per batch. He estimates the company makes about 200 batches annually, and aims to try a new recipe once a week. “I don’t know if this is brewers’ A.D.D. or what,” he says.

For larger companies, the risk is greater. Fish says that dumping the entire batch of Black Butte XXII cost the company approximately $250,000.

Will Meyers, head brewer at Cambridge Brewing Company in Massachusetts, recently dumped his first batch, but not, he says, because it didn’t taste right. The driving factor behind the difficult decision was … real estate. “We don’t have a lot of room. Our space is so tight in the beer cellar,” he says.

He’d made the batch on a whim, using wort from barley malt and gruit, and mixing it with a Brettanomyces yeast culture they’d used in a just-emptied vat of the brewery’s Reckoning beer, an American Wild Ale. He let it sit in cask barrels for two years. “It fermented out just fine,” says Meyers. “But the flavors never came together, and it was just a weird disjointed little beer.”

He thinks it still could have come around, given enough time, because of the advantages of aging beer in cask barrels. The process offers more variables than stainless steel, because barrels are porous; they breathe during a long-term oxidation process. But he couldn’t allow the beer the time it needed to possibly develop into something drinkable.

“By tasting it, I decided I knew it was probably never going to come around,” he says. “Mechanically, it was quite simple, but emotionally it was an ego blow.”

Yet, the experience is universal. Most homebrewers have dumped a batch for one reason or another and chalked it up to the learning process. For the next generation of brewers, these tales of botched batches are comforting.

“If you look at other craft breweries, they are experimenting all the time. They do some wacky stuff, and some of it you only see once,” says Jonathan Baker, co-owner and head of marketing at Monday Night Brewing, which officially released its first two beers last month. The company was started by a scrappy group of young homebrewers in Atlanta, who spent the long road to official release heralding their arrival on the internet. They launched a website in 2006, and among the many pages on the blog is a list of beers that consumers will and won’t see; there is a special section for “failed experiments.”

Among the brewery’s most spectacular failures is its Christmastime “Swaddling Ale.” Hoping to make the beer taste like spruce, but unable to find the appropriate flavor extracts in Atlanta, the brewers snuck around the gardening section of a home improvement store, sneaking clippings from various conifers to cook in the wort. When they finally found some spruce extract, one brewer added an ounce of it to the 5-gallon batch just before bottling. According to Monday Night’s website, the result tasted like “the bastard child of a spruce tree and a can of Pine-Sol.”

Why announce their failures so publicly? “We didn’t want to sell ourselves as some slick company that can do no wrong,” Baker says of the decision. “Craft drinkers are savvy, and they know good beer takes a lot of time to perfect. We want them to know we can recognize bad and have fun with bad.”

The brewery quickly gave up on its Swaddling Ale, letting the one staffer who enjoyed its taste drink the whole batch. But the Eye Patch Ale, a crisp, light IPA, went through 25 iterations before the head brewer deemed it complete, according to Baker. “We have a very anal-retentive recipe guy. He’s always saying, ‘It’s good, but it’s not quite there,’” Baker says. “It took us almost five years to get these recipes right.”

But failed experiments are just as important as the end result of a carefully crafted, successful recipe, according to Baker, who adds, “You have a greater chance of getting closer to right the first time as you gain more experience.”

He and his compatriots look to popular experimental breweries for inspiration. “You see how successful they’ve been. They have a loyal fan base that’s willing to try new things,” he says. “The craft beer drinker is unique in that they’re always looking for new things. It’s exciting to see innovation being rewarded, and risk being rewarded.”

Especially in the craft industry, brewers can take risks because the craft brewing culture is so curious. When Deschutes didn’t release the XXII, many fans were disappointed, despite news of the sludge on top. Short’s brought the lounge beer on the festival circuit because it catered to the sophistication of the audience there.

Craft beer drinkers, like brewers, want to be challenged. From Chipotle Ale to peanut butter and jelly beer, we never know what will pleasantly surprise us, and the true craft beer drinker will try anything once. Anything, except maybe for fermented orange juice.