Old Faithful: The Saga of JR 11/27

I hate to jinx myself by saying it, but I’ve been pretty lucky as a brewer. Since I started brewing three years ago, I’ve been happy with almost every beer I’ve made. Even my first few all-extract batches were pleasing enough; granted, I had no idea how much better my beers could be. But I learned from every mistake and obsessed over details, and consequently, I can honestly say that almost every beer I’ve made has been better than the one before it.

Except for one.

It was November 2010, and I was partial mash brewing for nearly the last time (I switched to all-grain brewing in January 2011). The recipe was a juniper rye ale kit from Austin Homebrew Supply, and I had chosen it as my holiday beer for that year. I conducted the stovetop mini-mash with zeal, anticipating the adoring looks I’d get from family and friends as I proudly poured gleaming bronze ale into their eager glasses. I inhaled deeply as I crushed the juniper berries in a mortar and pestle, imagining what that piney, herbaceous scent would add to the aromas of Christmas dinners filling the air in the homes of my loved ones.

The brew session went spectacularly, as did fermentation. I bottled on November 27, christened the batch number JR 11/27, and poured the first taste eleven days before Christmas. It was okay – in need of some aging, but promising.

Sleeping beast.

But when the holiday arrived, disaster struck. The first bottle I opened foamed over. Yes, we smelled juniper, but were distracted by the geyser of beer spilling out all over my hands and the floor. I tried another, and another, with the same results. I realized with horror that JR 11/27  was one of those beers homebrewers dread making: a “gusher”, overcarbonated in the bottle by an unknown infection.

Once the fizz settled enough to pour, all the yeast sediment had been kicked up from the bottom of the bottle and poured out into the glass in huge chunks. Particles hung in suspension in the glass, pale against the dark amber beer, looking thick and jellylike. I tried pouring through sieves, coffee filters, even paper towels; all that did was break the sediment up into tinier particles that made it look like a glass of some odious brown first aid gel.

People drank it, politely, but no one asked for more. I couldn’t blame them. It was nasty looking and didn’t taste like anything. Presumably the infection that caused the gusher fermented the beer too thin, taking out all the body and flavor. But I didn’t give up on it. In the weeks to come, I chilled and drank bottle after bottle, stubbornly rejecting the obvious like some crippled but libidinous salmon struggling upstream towards spawntopia. It never improved.

A few months later, with twelve bottles left, I decided to accept JR 11/27’s fate. But, unable to bring myself to dump the remaining bottles down the drain, I hid them in the back of the Harry Potter closet and forgot about them. Perhaps time really did heal all things, and someday they’d be worth drinking.

This weekend, about a year later, I chilled one and tasted it. I quickly noticed what hadn’t changed.

Cue a thousand homebrewers out there saying, "Yeah, I could've told you that."

After two minutes of gushing, I was able to pour the remaining eight ounces into a glass. The color was a deep, dark copper, but chunky with suspended sediment and still very unattractive.

... but strangely photogenic.

The head dissipated quickly after pouring. The aroma was quite pleasant: tart, cider vinegar and dark fruit (raisin, black cherry, currant) with a hint of Grape Nuts. The vinegar notes suggest that an acetobacter infection was the cause of my gusher. There’s no discernible juniper aroma.

The flavor is better than it was a year ago, but exceedingly dry. It starts out rich and vinous, but quickly fades into a harsh, vinegary zing. If I concentrate after swallowing, I can almost detect an earthy mustiness lingering on my palate. Mouthfeel is practically nonexistent: it’s thin, but not refreshing.

Overall, JR 11/27 has gotten to a point where it’s drinkable, but barely. I certainly won’t serve it to any but my most adventurous friends (and maybe only with a blindfold). But if time hasn’t healed the beer itself, it’s changed my reaction to it. With sour beers being en vogue in craft brewing, this beer with its wild acetobacter isn’t quite the debacle today that it seemed like last year. I won’t reach for it next time I’m thirsty, but I’ll drink another to see how it changes.

I’ll also take a cue from those brewing sour beers, and try blending JR 11/27 with something else. On its own, it’s harsh. But blended with something maltier and more full-bodied, it may bring some complexity to an otherwise boring beer. I can think of a few bottles I have on hand that might benefit from its more “unique” characteristics.

So it seems I’ve learned something that will make me a better brewer, and surprisingly, a better writer. I didn’t get what I wanted out of one of my creations; and yes, that sucks. But with time and an open mind, I reacquainted myself with it on its own terms, and thought of a way to make it work. No one wants to scrap something they’ve created, be it a beer, a book or a batch of brownies. So appreciating one’s creation for what it is – not what it was supposed to be – is a valuable lesson for any creative person.

Of course I’ll do what’s necessary to avoid the unexpected in the future, like being even more careful about sanitation. But when the unexpected occurs, it’s good to remember that something interesting may come out of it – and that there may be something worth saving, even in our disappointments.

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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

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