Homebrew Rescue Mission: Saving Private Wort

True to my New Year resolution, I actually got off of my butt and brewed a beer this weekend.  It was the Bell’s Two Hearted clone I picked up from Northern Brewer in April of last year.  That’s right – this kit has been sitting around for almost nine months.  While that’s probably not a big deal for the specialty grains and the extract syrup, the smack pack of Wyeast yeast is another story. 

I put the yeast package in the fridge right when it arrived at my house last spring, but I’m not sure that was enough to preserve it for the better part of the year.  The first hint of trouble came when I smacked it Saturday and it only mildly inflated.  In the past, my smack packs have blossomed much more robustly.  But I read that this strain, American Ale Yeast, can be a slow starter, so I figured it would perk up after a bit.  Besides, the propane tank was filled, everything was scrubbed and I had the time set aside – I was brewing, dammit!

The brewing was fun if not a bit chilly, with my four year old daughter and Daisy the wonderpoodle serving as my brew buddies.  It reminded me how much fun cooking up a beer can be (it’s like camping without the, you know, camping) and everything went well.  I love brewing in the winter because I can just throw my beer into a snowbank to crash it, which is exactly what I did this weekend.

Once the brew was aerated and in the carboy, I went to put in the yeast, only to discover that the smack pack hadn’t really grown at all.  Uh oh.  I pitched the yeast anyway, hoping they’d get going in the wort, but as they streamed into the carboy I got the sense that I was looking at a cavalcade of tiny corpses.  This was confirmed over the next 36 hours as the airlock remained unmoved and the top of the beer looked as placid as the dead sea.

This called for a rescue mission.  I needed American Ale Yeast, and I needed it fast.  I reached out to my friends at Manor House Brewing to ask if they knew where I could get some, and they pointed me to the only home brew supply shop in Northern New Jersey – Corrado’s.

I’ve heard of this place before, but it’s out of the way and outside of my comfort zone.  I much prefer getting stuff off of the Internet, but Northern Brewer wanted an obscene amount of money to overnight the yeast.  So I bit the bullet and made a side trip on the way to work today.

Corrado’s gets a bad wrap for having a limited selection and gouging on prices, but I have to say I really enjoyed my first trip to a homebrew shop and had to stop myself from loading up on more than a vial of yeast.  I did pick up some American Oak staves which I’ll use for my next brew, an Imperial Stout I’m going to age with Four Roses Small Batch whiskey, but that was it and I managed to get out of there for around $13.  I’m sure I’ll be back, and when I return the damage will be much more than that.

So the only thing that stands between me and a stillborn beer is a vial of White Labs California Ale Yeast.  I’ll be pitching it tonight, after letting it warm for six hours and shaking my carboy for a bit to re-aerate the contents.  I’ll keep you posted on the developments, which I hope include lots of bubbles and burbles.

Please chime in with any other tips you have for saving this batch – I’ll take all the help I can get.  Also, let me know if you think my Centennial hops are going to suck, seeing as they weren’t refrigerated and sat in my dining room for nine months.





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Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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21 Comments on “Homebrew Rescue Mission: Saving Private Wort”

  1. rich
    January 17, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Starters are an easy way to really improve your homebrew, you will get much faster starts to fermentation and often better ferments because you are pitching not only more yeast but much more active yeast. You will also know if your yeast is any good before you brew and will only waist a starter rather then a whole batch if its no good.

    • January 17, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

      Thanks, Rich. I usually use Wyeast smack packs, which are a pouch of yeast with starter food built in. You smack the pouch to release the food and the pouch swells as the yeast feast. Previously the pouch has swelled wonderfully within a couple of hours of smacking and the fermentation was terrific from the get go.

      This time it didn’t swell much at all, probably because it was too old. Unfortunately, the wheels were already turning on the brew day, so I hoped for the best, which was stupid.

      In the future, I’ll probably continue to use smack packs, but I’ll make sure they’re responding before moving ahead with the brew.

  2. ray larkin
    January 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    One vial of yeast is not really enough to ensure the best flavor profile, while it will get the job done, the amount of yeast needed for a job depends on the gravity of the wort. Make a stir plate, with minor tools and knowledge,( available on line) you can be a yeast master… or something!@

    • January 17, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

      My OG measure 1.072 or thereabouts. I’ll see what I can do about getting the yeast revved up before I dump it in…

  3. January 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    Kudos for brewing and for stick-to-it-iveness to see the job through. concerning the hops….they may have lost a bit of their fresh luster, but I bet their ok. Lambs intentionally utilize old and non-refrigerated hops. Mmmm…centennial.

    • January 17, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

      The hops sure smelled pretty good, enough to where I didn’t even think of the freshness issue while brewing. It was this morning when I saw them in the fridge at the brew supply shop that I thought about it. By then it was about 9 months too late. 🙂

  4. January 17, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    Rich and you are both kinda right when it comes to starters (IMHO of course); if your yeast is within the use by date, then by all means, a smack pack is going to do the job perfectly well for a 5-6 gallon batch of reasonably gravitied beer. Usually with anything under 1.080 I have found one smack pack & no starter to be perfectly adequate.

    That said, with a pack that doesn’t swell, you’re probably best on boiling up a pint of water and throwing in 1/2 a cup of DME to make a starter – save yourself the drama of having to repitch. You’ll probably have plenty of live yeasties that just need a wake up call, and a starter is a great way to make sure they’re all good before you throw ’em in 🙂

    • January 17, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

      Sound right on the money. I just realized that I don’t have the DME (or syrup for that matter) to do a starter, and my beer is under 1.080, so I’m just going to pith my new vial of yeast in and hope for the best. It should be okay, and I don’t want any nasties taking over the wort while I mess around with vials I don’t have.

      But all the input here has been educational and I leaned a big lesson this batch – make sure your yeast is happy before you brew.

      • January 17, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

        If you look, the Wyeast smack pack advises starters for brews over 1.070. Of course, yeast type can be a factor that is a matter of dependence. I’ve had success pitching way under the theoretical pitch rates (Papazian and talks and about this very subject in his book…I highly recommend you getting “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing).

        Basically the reasons related to pitch rates typically deal in gravity and the nature of increased viscosity and its inability to allow air uptake (and, by the way, hop utilization) as it goes up. You may have success by under-pitching but I agree with Rich and Ray on the matter of pitch rates. Of course, over-pitching can create negative aspects (like yeast bite) in a brew as well. So, the right pitch rates are an important issue, especially if you are brewing a lager (typically 2 to 4 times ale rates).

        Quite a bit of abstraction to get to this point; I think you’ll be okay on this batch and are right that there are plenty of lessons to be learned. However, I think you are light-years ahead of the learning curve because of the great community you have here. Issues like this are exactly why we started our blog. I didn’t personally have this type of community on which to draw when I started out. You are well on your way and I can’t help but quote Charlie Papazian on this one, “relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew”.

        Just my 25 cents.

        • January 18, 2011 at 9:27 am #

          Thanks for the insights Mike, and you’re right – it’s awesome to have so much support and good info available, even if I have to admit to being an Idiot to get it!

  5. Mark S.
    January 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Most of this post is Greek to me, but from what I understand, instead of making a “double-hopped” beer you now forging new ground in the rare “double-yeasted” category?


    Good luck!

    • January 18, 2011 at 9:27 am #

      Yes, it’ll be all the hotness in a year – just watch!!

  6. January 18, 2011 at 9:10 am #

    Pitching more yeast and staying patient should work, Funny. I brewed for the first time in forever this weekend. I brewed my Big Black Bitter, a black IPA dedicated to the 80’s math-core band Big Black. It nearly blew the airlock off despite fermenting 5 gallons in a 6.5 gallon carboy. It should be pretty good. I plan to dry-hop twice, using four different varieties of hops.

    Anyway, good luck with your batch. I assume you’ll report back with updates.

    • January 18, 2011 at 9:23 am #

      Thanks, Zac. Yes, I will report back. Right now it’s 13 hours after the second pitch, and not a lot is happening. I just moved the carboy to a warmer place, hopefully that will help, as the new yeast vial said temps above 70 degrees work best for early fermentation. We shall see.

      • January 18, 2011 at 9:45 am #

        Patience. Yeah, temperature can have an effect. My batches always start off slow. Then, I take them out of the beer closet/cellar where the temperature is nearly five degrees cooler than the rest of the house. That’s when things take off. Give it a day or two. It will happen.

        • January 18, 2011 at 9:57 am #

          I need patience, as not much is happening. I thik the heat will make a difference. Also the fact that it now smells like fermenting beer is comforting. We shall see…

      • Gordon
        January 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

        Careful not to get it too hot! That WLP001 (and the Wyeast equivelent #1056) will ferment just fine anywhere between 60 and 70. Despite what the vial says about low 70s, 70 degrees is pretty much the upper limit for anything that isn’t belgian (there are saison strains out there that do just fine at 90!). If you don’t have one of those aquarium sticky thermometers on your carboy, get one- they’re cheap and pretty accurate in my experience.

        Another piece of advice: rather than going to the hassle of making a starter out of a liquid yeast, you can use a single packet of dry yeast. The cell count is about twice as high as a smack pack, and the cost is less than half. The disadvantage is the low number of strains available, but SA-05 is a direct replacement for Wy#1056 or WLP001.

        • Don
          January 18, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

          This is good advice for my brother Gordon. He keeps his house at about 85 degrees in the winter. Next time I go there I’m packing shorts amd sandles and wearing them all day at his place.

        • January 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

          Good advice. I’ve had great luck with smack packs, this was was just a little too geriatric I think. My wife is a research scientist, so perhaps I should have her take over the “teast whisperer” duties. I’m sure she could do well. She could probably even harvest yeast from beers we have in the fridge. The Yeast Pirate!! Arg!! I like it!

          I’ll be sure not to cook the beer too much. I had it in the coolest spot in the hose and it was a little chilly to the touch. I’m just trying to get it up to room temp so the little buggers are too cold to eat and make sweet, sweet yeast love.


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