Bitter Bummer: My First Homebrew Failure?

After successfully brewing my first three batches of beer using pre-made kits, I wanted to make my fourth batch from scratch using a recipe from one of my homebrewing books. Because this was my first time making beer on my own, I decided to make something simple and cheap. I eventually settled on a recipe for Ordinary Bitter, a light English style. After finding a recipe to try, I scaled it down for my fermenter (around two gallons), ordered the ingredients online, and got ready to brew. Thankfully, the brew day went by without any major issues. However, when I went to measure the original gravity (sugar content) of the finished wort, I discovered a big problem.

Ordinary Bitter is not a very strong style of beer. It typically has around 3-4% alcohol per volume and is not heavily hopped. Like many English styles, it is not highly carbonated. For my bitter, I was aiming for an original gravity of around 1.034, which would give me around 3.3% ABV in the completed beer. However, when I measured the gravity, it was a pathetic 1.030, which meant there was a good chance that my ABV would be less than 3%! In retrospect, it seems like I accidently diluted the wort too much when I added water after the boil. After measuring the gravity, I added a little more malt extract, but stupidly did not think to take another reading. Fearing contamination, I promptly pitched the yeast and capped the fermenter.

In the four weeks from brewing to full beer maturation, I was genuinely concerned and anxious about the batch. The primary fermentation went by incredibly fast — finishing within only 24 hours of adding the yeast (usually it takes 3-4 days). This was likely due to warm temperatures overexciting the yeast. Fortunately, this may have actually improved the flavor of the beer, since it is possible that more esters were produced by the yeast (ok for this style, not ok for many others). While the beer was conditioning for the limited amount of carbonation it would have, I would pick up bottles once or twice a day and worriedly gaze at the semi-transparent liquid inside. A week before conditioning was finished, my anxiety overwhelmed me and I popped open one of the unfinished bottles and poured it into a glass.

It’s not very exciting to look at either

The liquid inside was warm, flat, and relatively flavorless. It seemed like my worst fears had come true. It seemed pretty obvious that this beer would be disappointing, even once fully carbonated and chilled. Once the four week brewing process was complete and the beer was done, I was not very eager to try it. But I opened up a bottle anyway and took a couple sips.

The beer was still not great, but somehow better than I expected (I’d been preparing for the worst, after all). Sure, it was pretty bland and watery with little carbonation or hop aroma, but it still had a little bit of character to it. I think the English ale yeast esters may have helped a bit. Overall, it was a so-so beer — in the words of my dear wife, at least it still has more flavor than macro-brew beer (sigh). After tasting it, I read some comments online about this style that claim that it is not supposed to have much flavor, so maybe I didn’t fail that much after all.

Despite my love of English-style beer, I don’t think I will be brewing another bitter anytime soon. If I do, I will likely brew a stronger Best Bitter or Extra Special Bitter. My next beer will be a highly-hopped American IPA, since it seems like my friends really enjoyed the single-hop one I brewed before. As for this batch, at least it is highly drinkable (as people say), and so I should at least be able to finish it off relatively quickly.

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