Zeniths and Nadirs

Zeniths and Nadirs

tl;dr – A description of a prize-winning Doppelbock recipe and of a disastrous mistake in yeast handling


Fairly often, people ask me how long I’ve been brewing. It’s a good chitchat question among homebrewers; a guaranteed point of commonality, a subject that can almost always be explored at length, and a good way of opening up aspects of our lives without seeming intrusive. As someone for whom social intercourse is not necessarily a natural or fluent process, it’s a good question to have in ones proverbial quiver. Normally, I say that I brewed a couple of kits, mostly for the cheap booze, back in the prehistory of uni, but I’ve only been taking it seriously for about two years. I know this because Monday 5th November will mark two years since my first meeting of London Amateur Brewers. It was deciding to go along to that meeting that marked the beginning of ‘taking it seriously’ and it was joining the club that marked the start of an exponential (if erratic) improvement in the quality of the beer I was brewing.

Although I say this a lot, it occurred to me that I wasn’t actually sure if it was even true… my memory these days, never brilliant at the best of times, is functionally decrepit, and now exclusively exists external to my own head: in pictures, emails, notes and documents. In fact, since my chances of finding a physical document in my house is no better than conjuring up an accurate memory, it is, for practical purposes, external to my own city, and largely resides in the cloud. Ask me where I lived in 2010 and I’d have to go back through old Amazon orders to find out where my stuff was being delivered back then. When that solar flare wipes out all the electronics, it’s going to be like Memento in here.

Turns out I’ve been brewing sporadically for longing than I thought… I’ve found pictures from 2012 that look very much like bottles of elderflower wine, and articles saved to Evernote about partial mashing. I remember none of this.

Since my brewing is a mystery, even to me, I thought it might be useful (for myself, if no one else) to write a little about my most successful brews so far, and my most disastrous (also ‘so far’, if we’re being honest). It’s interesting to note that the high and low point of my brewing in the last couple of years have both come in the last couple of months. Worryingly, this suggest that it’s the next couple of months that will show which is the blip…



My best performing beer in terms of competition success was, without a doubt, a Doppelbock which won 2nd overall at the London and South East Craft Brewing Competition and won me this gorgeous conical fermenter from BrewBuilder.

Beta included for scale…

Doppelbock is a strong, rich, malty lager brewed to a high gravity. Originally, the yeast would have attenuated poorly, leaving behind a lot of malt sugar, which reputedly sustained monks on their Lenten fasts. Nowadays, yeasts chew through a lot more of the available sugar, which results in a fairly high ABV.

I’m a big fan of Munich malt, so I stuffed this recipe full of it, along with some Cystal malt and a touch of chocolate malt for colour adjustment. I even did a decoction mash, which may have just been putting a melanoidin hat on a malty hat. Briefly, a decoction is a type of mash where portions of the grain are removed, boiled, and added back to the mash, the idea being that the extra toasting, roasting or slight burning of the grains improves the malt flavour. The value of decoctions is disputed, but what’s clear is how much extra work they are. Personally, I don’t have a basis of comparison to say for definite that decoction improves the flavour of the beer… however, I do feel that most of my best beers have been ones that I decocted. Of course, there’s lots of other explanations for this and the evidence certainly isn’t enough for me to do a decoction every time, or even often, but I rather like doing it; there’s a certain meditative quality to the stirring, a pleasing connection to tradition, an almost occult sensation of doing something out of the ordinary.

For whatever reason, this recipe turned out exceptionally malty, but it certainly wasn’t without it’s tribulations. This brew was a stress from beginning to end, and an object lesson in Relaxing, Not Worrying and Having A Homebrew. Nowhere at all did I hit any of my predicted numbers. My original gravity was 15 points higher than estimated, and the final gravity was 10 points higher. Fearing I’d got a stuck ferment, I tried a number of increasingly unsubtle methods to restart it: rousing the yeast, warming it up, adding champagne yeast. By the time I’d stopped fretting over it and sampling all the time, there was barely enough left to fill the competition bottles. Ironically, as my best performing beer, it’s one I was able to personally enjoy the least.

Karl’s Universal Liberator

Recipe Details

Batch Size Boil Time IBU SRM Est. OG Est. FG ABV
25 L 90 min 18.4 IBUs 26.7 EBC 1.084 1.026 7.6 %
Actuals 1.099 1.035 8.5 %

Style Details

Name Cat. OG Range FG Range IBU SRM Carb ABV
Doppelbock 9 A 1.072 - 1.112 1.016 - 1.024 16 - 26 11.8 - 49.3 2.4 - 3 7 - 10 %


Name Amount %
Munich (Dingemans) 9 kg 79.3
Pilsner (Weyermann) 2 kg 17.62
Caramel/Crystal Malt - 60L 300 g 2.64
Chocolate Malt 50 g 0.44


Name Amount Time Use Form Alpha %
Hallertauer Mittelfrueh 20 g 60 min First Wort Pellet 4
Hallertauer Mittelfrueh 40 g 90 min Boil Pellet 4


Name Lab Attenuation Temperature
Hella Bock (2487) Wyeast 72% 9°C - 13°C


Step Temperature Time
Acid rest 35°C 20 min
Protein 55°C 20 min
Saccharification 63°C 20 min
Saccharification 69°C 40 min
Mash out 75°C 10 min


Step Time Temperature
Primary 2 days 15°C
Secondary 14 days 10°C
Tertiary 3 days 0°C
Aging 30 days 0°C


14/01/17 - Stuck fermentation - added 5g Laffort F33
16/01/17 - No change, nor in FFT (taken on 14/01 w/ large dose laffort f33) - Transferred to clean fermenter to rouse yeast.
26/01/17 - No change in FG - cold crashed, fined with 1tsp and kegged at 1°



The low point of my recent brewing is actually rather embarrassing. I studied a fair amount of microbiology at university and I’d considered my culturing, propagation, and axenic technique to be rather good. Sufficient, at least, to avoid paying seven quid a go to buy new yeast for each brew. Why should you buy yeast more than once, I reasoned, it just grows. It’s like buying fresh rosemary every time you need it, the stuff grows like nobody’s business. My plan was, each time I bought or otherwise came across a new yeast, to harvest some from a starter, mix it with glycerine and freeze it, thus providing me with a bank of yeast from which to grow up pitchable amounts of yeast whenever necessary.

As a plan, this isn’t a bad plan. I know of many people doing something similar or identical with scant problems. It’s a plan that is not without risk, however. Freezing yeast in small enough quantities that it doesn’t overtake the whole freezer necessitates sequentially pitching the yeast into larger and larger volumes of fresh wort before you have usable amounts and each pitch risks introducing a contaminant. This is, unfortunately, what I suspect must have happened.

I’d had an idea to brew each of the Czech beers in the BJCP guidelines, starting off with the palest and weakest, the desítka or 3A Czech Pale Lager, as they catchily have it. Unfortunately, that beer slowly developed a harsh, burnt, ashy phenolic taste. In retrospect, it must have come from some contamination in the yeast, but I’d have put it down to some fermentation issue were it not for my second major mistake. My cunning plan had been to use each beer to grow up a huge yeast pitch for the next, putting the fresh wort on to the previous yeast slurry, and moving up in strength and colour from the stronger pale dvanáctka, to the amber coloured polotmavé, to the dark tmavé. Inevitably enough (and painfully, needlessly slowly), each in turn developed the same harsh, undrinkable flaw until there was nothing to do but pour 80 litres, and weeks of work, down the toilet.

Not good beer, but still painful to see it go.

If the lesson of the highlight was ‘Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew’, the lesson of the lowlight is, perhaps, not to get ahead of myself. Fairly early on in my brewing (after I’d moved on from an element in a plastic bucket but before I’d got a halfway reproducible mash) I read with great interest about Low Dissolved Oxygen brewing and decided that this was definitely something I was going to do… it put me back months, needlessly complicating a process I didn’t yet fully understand. While, often, it will turn out that you can in fact run without walking, these are examples where a degree of circumspection would have stood me in immensely good stead.

I say ‘lesson’, though… I’m definitely going to end up doing it again.

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