Salvaging Your Nasty Homemade Brew

BYOB by | Apr 2007 | Issue #4
Illustration by Evan B. Harris

Utter horror crosses your face as your tongue retreats from the gruesome homebrew sample you’ve just supped. “Well,” you think, “that’s forty bucks and hours of work down the drain! Where’s that six-pack of local craft brau to ease the pain?”

Put down the bottle of Micro Joe’s Amber Ale and fret not, for happily, and sadly, I have been in your shoes. Judging by the “Greatest Failure” thread on, many others have as well. No matter if your flaw flows from an infection, poor technique or a bad recipe, there’s a way to improve your beer.

Start out by paying close attention to the batch’s aroma and flavor before bottling or kegging. Acting prior to packaging gives you the most options. Consider the problem: Is it a sourness? A medicinal, burning aroma? Is the flavor too hoppy or the body too astringent? Once you’ve zoned in on your flaw, think about what will conceal the defect. Bold flavors, big aromas and filtration/concentration techniques are at your disposal.

A friend once poured me a pint of a wonderfully scented and balanced Apricot Blonde Ale. After garnering praise, she revealed that the fine glass of suds was a Kolsch with a dimethyl sulfide (DMS), cooked-corn aroma. To conceal it, she took a pint of beer and added a measured dose of apricot extract. Her rule is that fruit can always help a distressed brewer.

Extracts are just one way of adding fruit flavor. Additional aging time and pounds of fresh or frozen fruit can add the natural punch of acid and esters needed to distract the palate, without being cloying or chemical.

Liqueur and syrups
If you need additional sweetness to balance a harsh character, look no further than the liqueur aisle at the store. Flavors ranging from fruits, coffee, chocolate and more are waiting to add character. A fifth of cheap raspberry schnapps transformed a harsh, bitter Chocolate Porter into a smooth, rich and desirable Chocolate Raspberry Porter. For seven bucks and a three-minute shake of the keg, an award-winning beer was born.

Flavored syrups aren’t just for jazzing up your morning joe. Similar to the liqueur treatment, a number of flavors are available to conjure a pleasing beer (Mint Stout?) in the glass. And try making your own syrups with spices and herbs for a natural spike.

A good dose of aromatic hops can pull the nose and taste buds away from a beer’s issue. The classic technique of dry-hopping with 1-5 ounces of hops in the secondary for 1–2 weeks adds a fresh, grassy, floral hop aroma. If bagged, you can even do this in the keg, leaving the hops in until the keg is empty.

If you need more hop bitterness, boiling a small quantity of hop tea can boost the bite. Use a clean, high-alpha bittering hop like Warrior for best results.

Sometimes you goof and your Stout isn’t dark enough, or your red is a toxic-looking copper. Weyermann makes a natural beer colorant, Sinamar, which in small doses adds red tones, and will make beer inky black in larger doses. Homemade Sinamar is easily whipped up by soaking crushed carafa or chocolate malt in cold water for a few hours. This is how the Schwarzbier brewers get their Black Lagers. Short of diluting or blending, however, beers that are too dark are stuck.

Filtering’s negative stigma is unfortunate since it can pull your beer from the brink. Canister filters for keg setups strip the excess load of yeast and protein that can overload the taste, texture and brilliance of your brew. If you have more time and patience, classical fining agents may be your savior. The standard arsenal includes gelatin, isinglass, Polyclar and bentonite clay. After a little preparation, just add the fining agent of choice to the carboy and allow the haze to settle.

Lost during the “ice” beer fad of the early ’90s was a solid technique for filtering and concentrating flavor. The macros take their beer down to the point of freezing, letting small ice crystals form, trapping yeast, protein and other undesirables. Transferring the beer off the ice results in a clearer, cleaner product. Pushing further and freezing it for 24 hours makes a beer slushy. Racking off the resulting Slurpee makes a smooth, malty and strongly concentrated beer. In Germany, this produces the lethal Eisbock beer.

Blending is the nuclear option for patient brewers with a problem child. Big brewers blend multiple batches for quality and consistency. Our goal is the same. When you formulate a beer to blend, emphasize the quality lacking in your original brew. If that hop monster’s bite is absurdly unpleasant, brew a second, hoppy beer with larger quantities of chewy malts, like Munich. Not enough hop bite? Consider a large dose of bittering hops or a hop addition of Chinook. Bonus points come from gaining 10 gallons of great beer from a lousy, five-gallon batch.

Take to heart Julia Child’s advice; remember, you’re alone in the brewery. Short of a tannic overload, a phenolic disaster or a baby diaper in the fermentor, flaws are correctable. And no one has to be the wiser come tasting time.