As it turned out, the title of my last post was all too appropriate. Brew day today could simply not have been a bigger nightmare.

My first problem was, like nearly all brew days unfortunately, a late start. I didn’t really get started until 3pm which was about 2 hours later than ideal.

My second problem was encountered upon opening my mash/lauter tun after pulling it up from the basement: it was covered in mold – disgusting. I had to scrub it out and then rinsed everything in a solution of water and bleach (only 1oz bleach per gallon water, so hopefully that was actually strong enough to kill the mold… I may need to do more cleaning with a more potent solution).

One thing actually went quite right: I hit my mash temperature almost perfectly. I think I just got lucky… I was going for 155 and hit 154. It was still around 154 after one hour per my handy thermometer calibrator, so it may have actually hit around 155 and just cooled off by one degree.

The third problem was something I should have realized beforehand. It wasn’t necessarily a problem – just a complication. My lauter tun only holds 10 gallons. The total mash+sparge volume would be around 12.5 gallons. The reason was twofold: this beer featured a lot more grain than usual so there would be more water lost in spent grains, and this beer would undergo a 90 minute boil, which means I need to start with more to compensate for more of it boiling off. The long boil is due to the extensive use of continental pilsner malt (about five pounds) – which needs a long boil to boil off DMS precursors. So I would have to do a double batch sparge (i.e. fill the lauter tun to 10 gallons, sparge, and then add more hot water, and sparge more)

The fourth problem would be the ultimate issue, overshadowing (and foreshadowing) the rest of my evening: a stuck mash. Bad. Really bad. I had not even collected a quart or two of wort by the time it stopped flowing. Usually I have to restrain the valve on the lauter tun to insure a slow flow, but even with the valve wide open it trickled and ultimately stopped. I was worried about this possibility due to the use of pumpkin (nearly six pounds of roasted [caramelized] pumpkin flesh). To mitigate this issue I had added 1/2 pound of rice hulls to the mash. Rice hulls help to form a filter bed, much like barley husks. When only barley is used, the husks alone provide a sufficient filter bed. But when large quantities of wheat, rye, or other starches (like pumpkin) are used, rice hulls are a handy additive to prevent a stuck mash. Apparently they didn’t do their job.

Now here’s where things started getting really messy. After fighting the mash for a while – stirring it up heavily and digging the brewspoon into the bottom of the grain bed to stir it up and jar it loose – I gave up and decided to transfer the mash to the kettle (the only vessel in the house big enough to hold all ten gallons of it). After doing this by hand, two quarts at a time, using a two-quart Pyrex measuring cup, I added my remaining 1/2 pound of rice hulls. I stirred them up, hoping they would resolve my stuck mash, and then transferred it again by hand – this time back into the lauter tun.

Problem number five: another stuck mash. At first the extra rice hulls seemed to work. The wort flowed. But the flow slowly decelerated and eventually came to a stop after only collecting about 2.5 gallons of wort.

I tried the same trick again, but this time I had no more rice hulls to add. I simply transferred to the kettle and back. I saved the 2.5 gallons of wort collected so far in another, smaller brewpot. But the goddess of brewing had turned a frown on me…

At this point, things were looking grim. I could not get any more wort. I even tried vigorously stirring up the wort and manipulating the grain bed with the brewspoon – with the valve open. I had decided I cared a little less about how clean the resulting wort would be. I just wanted to get on with it. It still wouldn’t work. I was being spurned by that cruel goddess.

Problem number six (or potential problem at least): efficiency. A full 7.25 gallons of wort was supposed to have a gravity of 1.048. I assumed only 60% efficiency – less than the typical which is 68-70%. I assumed the pumpkin would provide less gravity per pound than would the barley (15 points per pound per gallon – vs. 37.5 points per pound per gallon for the base malt). But I think the real situation was even worse – either worse than 60% efficiency or way less than 15 points per pound per gallon for the pumpkin. The 2.5 gallon “first runnings” had a disappointing specific gravity of only 1.059. Considering I’ve read that you typically get 2/3 of the total gravity out of the beer using the first 1/2 of sparge water, this should have been a little thicker I think (although it’s hard to tell – I think I was expecting closer to 1.070, but I don’t have hard scientific data to support that expectation – I don’t even think I have sufficient knowledge/formulas to calculate the proper gravity at this point).

My last ditch attempt to get this beer brewing was desperate indeed. I got out my old mini-mash setup: a nylon grain bag and a metal colander. I tried to suspend the colander on the lip of the brewpot and pour the mash through it. This resulted in a spectacular failure: the colander was too small to safely hang on the lip of the new, bigger brewpot. It fell into the beer, ruining it with grain husks and rice hulls. And splashing sticky crud on every surface of the kitchen at the same time.

At this point in time, I had been fighting this batch for over four hours. It was nearly 8pm. I should usually be finished at this point – or at least cooling the wort by now, preparing to pitch yeast.

My wife was great help throughout – she offered assistance through most of this frustrating process. But it was to no avail. The kitchen was an appalling mess (even though we had already performed significant clean-up twice after the previous missteps). I had nearly thrown my back out – from lifting a full ten-gallon cooler up onto the counter not once but three times. And I had lost four hours of my life. Actually, I wish I had simply lost these hours. Instead I found four of the most infuriating and maddening hours of my adult life.

I gave up. I cried, “uncle!” to that wicked goddess of brewing, cursing her under every breath I drew. Probably over forty dollars worth of ingredients down the tube. Completely wasted. I might as well have withdrawn a pair of Andrew Jacksons and tossed them in my fireplace. And let’s not forget four frustrating hours of my life, also down the tube.

I was livid. Perhaps livid does not adequately describe my mood. It was all I could do to restrain from destroying something. If I did not have a wife and kid, my psyche’s id would have taken over in a most childish and destructive display of rage. But, thinking of my family and knowing that I had already scared Will enough (he could tell I was upset for a good bit of the evening as I tried to make things work – ultimately in vain), I remained calm. Mostly. Only a few muted curse words. And then I poured everything out into the backyard, washed and rinsed all of the equipment, and went to pour myself a beer. I resisted the urge to pour an entire pitcher – and the urge to pour an ounce of Crown Royal into the mug…

Blogging, it seems, can be a form of therapy. The ability to describe the evening – to reflect on it (in horror) and then formulate the words that might, hopefully, do it justice – is therapeutic unto itself. Knowing that someone will read it (okay – I don’t actually know that – but I have a feeling at least of one of my friends will peruse through it) helps, too – as if you, the reader, are my silent psycho-analyst.

My nightmare is over. I still have a starter of lager yeast in the fridge downstairs – nearly 300 billion little organisms, anxiously awaiting whatever sweet nectar I ultimately give them. I also have an entire other batch of ingredients down there – for the English Bitter that I will be brewing next weekend.

Who knows – perhaps there is still time for a holiday ale this year – if I brew it next weekend and postpone the bitter until December 6th
This time it will definitely not have any cursed pumpkin.

I now I bid thee farewell. I’ll let you have one last look at my vision of Christmas for this year. That vision has been dismantled through my miserable evening, but it was pretty – dare I say beautiful – while it lasted:

Hump's Holiday Ale 2008 - almost...