Lessons Learned: The Imperial Stout Mash From Hell

20150809_192902This past Sunday I brewed an imperial stout (might be more of an imperial brown ale or porter, but more on that later), a style that I hadn’t brewed before using my new Ss InfuSsion mash tun (mistake #1 – my over-ambition)…Before recounting what went wrong, I must note that because I deviated from my usual mashing processes from the start I can place no blame on Ss Brewing Technologies for the struggles that ensued following my mashing in…In order to best describe the sequence of events that took place during the “hellish mash” and my subsequent recovery attempts, most of which took place in a state of panic and worn patience; I’ve decided to list them in bullet points and then share the lessons that I learned from this brew day in the same format.

The “Hellish Mash”:

  • Due to my new Ss InfuSsion mash tun having a false bottom I decided that I’d give underletting a try, but immediately it caused my mash tun’s thermometer to read over 10 degrees too high. After lots of stirring I added what ended up being too much cold water because the temperature just wouldn’t stabilized (it kept dropping).
  • At the start of my state of panic I added about a quart of boiling water and it hardly brought up my mash temperature. After doing so I took a reading with my usual digital thermometer and it read 7-8 degreesF lower than the mash tun’s thermometer, which in turn increased my panic.
  • I then made two more unsuccessful attempts at raising the mash temperature by bringing a gallon of runnings up to a boil and adding them back into the mash tun.
  • Enter mistake #2…While all of my mash tun thermometer struggles were ensuing I failed to take spot checks with my digital thermometer in order to check if the top half of the mash was at a reasonable mash temperature.
  • Enter mistake #3…After 90 minutes of mashing I vorlaufed and ran off my first runnings. With a first runnings gravity of 1.090 I knew I was in for a low preboil gravity…Soon after I started collecting my runnings I saw that the temperature on my mash tun thermometer went to 156F, a temperature that I could have mashed at.  However, instead of pouring some or all of my runnings back into the mash I got impatient and proceeded with my mash out and sparge.
  • After collecting my 7.2 gallons for a planned 100 minute boil I took a gravity reading and was further panicked or should I say dismayed when my refractometer read 1.075 from 22 lbs of grain. I then deduced that this was probably the worst mash efficiency that I’ve gotten since I began brewing more consistently 2 years ago.
  • In order to recover as many lost gravity points as possible I decided to add an additional 1.5 pounds of dry malt extract (DME) on top of the pound that I had already planned on using as part of my original recipe. With a new preboil gravity of 1.090 (my target was 1.098) I proceeded with the boil.
  • After 20 minutes or so I saw that my stove burner wasn’t on high so I raised it and added 10 minutes to the boil i.e. it became a 110 minute boil.
  • At the end of my boil my refractometer was giving me problems so I decided to use my hydrometer to take my original gravity reading and as you can see in the picture above it and it read 1.103. After calming down I decided that I needed to accept my missing my target OG by 11 points and focus on managing the beer’s fermentation etc…Possible mistake #4: I probably could have boiled for 10-20 minutes longer or reduced some runnings in my older kettle in order to further concentrate the wort.

Lessons learned:

  • Do NOT test out new brewing equipment by brewing a high gravity beer.
  • When testing out new equipment follow your time tested brewing processes instead of jumping at the opportunity to try new ones (techniques and processes).
  • Try your best to stay focused and utilize your brewing knowledge when things go wrong. Descending into panic mode will only make your problem/s harder to solve.
  • As per mistake #3, if an opportunity arises to fix a problem, try your best to avoid becoming impatient and take the opportunity/ies to make the necessary adjustments.
  • When brewing high gravity beers do not try new brewing techniques or processes unless absolutely necessary. The basics of high gravity brewing are hard enough to manage on brew day already.
  • Lastly, if possible, make sure to RDWHAHB during brew day to keep yourself calm and collected.

Follow up/s to brew day:

After transferring the wort to its 6 gallon Better Bottle carboy (5.25 gallons). I put it in my fermentation fridge with a blow off tube and cold crashed my 2.25 liter starter containing 2 smack packs of Wyeast 1028 London Ale over night. The next morning (Monday) I decanted off some of the starter wort and as usual didn’t decant enough and my carboy was in turn filled too high. When I returned from work  that night fermentation was off to a strong start, but I didn’t have to clean up a mess. To my surprise I woke up this (Tuesday) morning to a big mess and after cleaning it up I added more Fermcap to the wort/beer, emptied and refilled the blow off jar (keeping it half full with StarSan solution), and lowered the fermentation temperature range from 64-66F to 62-64F. Lastly, I wrote this blog post during my lunch hour at work all while worrying that I’m going to get home and have to clean up yet another mess.

Note: I plan on editing together the little bit of footage that I filmed with my phone during brew day and including it with more updates on this and other beers of mine in this week’s Homebrew Wednesday video / blog post. Cheers!

All feedback on this post is welcome…Feel free to comment below.



About Barry W

Israel (formerly NJ) based sourdough baker and fermentation enthusiasts sharing his baking, fermenting, cooking, and brewing adventures on thebrewedpalate.com.
This entry was posted in Homebrewing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lessons Learned: The Imperial Stout Mash From Hell

  1. Matt Smith says:

    love your blog by the way. It still boggles my mind however that people are satisfied with cleaning up fermentation messes. Get a bigger fermentation vessel dudes.

  2. Pingback: HIBC Brewer’s Log: Where do I stand in terms of brewing my favorite beer styles? |

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