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Table Talk: Five gallons of cider hit the floor

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Posted on December 22, 2011 | Blog Category:
By Andrew Stein



Pictured above is a glass carboy with a handle around the neck, just like the volatile combination referenced in this post. Photo from Flickr user stuttermonkey.

As a homebrewer of beer and cider, the thought of a glass carboy — full of fermentables — breaking had once or twice crept into the corner of my mind. But I’ve always ushered it away, preferring not to think of that nightmarish scenario.

Last month, however, the unthinkable happened: One of my five-gallon, glass carboys full of two-week-old, half-fermented cider broke in two when I picked it up by the neck handle. Fortunately, no one was hurt during the debacle, and my guest room now smells faintly of sweet cider intermingling with a strain of Belgian saison yeast.

Here’s how the whole shebang went down:

I bought five gallons of unpasteurized cider from Cornwall’s Windfall Orchards, as part of a local cider-brewing club. When I introduced the Belgian saison yeast to the equation, the cider came to a beautiful krausen — a foamy, yeast-filled head that protects the fermenting process from outside bacteria. After five days the krausen settled, and the cider continued to bubble, fermenting at a healthy pace for about the next week.

When I first pitched the yeast, I began soaking oak chips in bourbon, which I had planned to add when siphoning the cider from the primary fermenter (the carboy used in the first week or two of fermentation) to the secondary fermenter (the carboy used in the secondary stage of fermentation). The reason cider, or beer for that matter, is siphoned (called racking in brewerspeak) is that it gets the cider off of the dead yeast cells and other sediment at the bottom of the carboy, allowing for a cleaner, clearer and — some say — more alcoholic final product. After a week or two, much of the sediment had settled to the the massive glass receptacle.

So here I was, one month ago: ready to siphon the cider into the secondary fermenter and leave the crud behind.

I sterilized the secondary and the equipment used for siphoning (a plastic tube and racking cane). I put the bourbon-soaked oak chips on the counter and headed to my closet, where I put this particular batch to ferment. I picked up the 50-pound carboy full of cider by the handle, which was attached around the neck — a popular tool used by many a homebrewer. The heavy jug of fermentables swung slightly back into my closet and out into the room, hovering six inches above the ground.

I took one step, and “CRASH!”

The carboy separated in half, sending a sea of sticky, yeasty, half-fermented cider rushing out onto the carpeted floor of my apartment.

“I’ll have to call you back, Mom,” said my fiancee into the phone, as she sidestepped around little waves of cider rolling into the hallway.

You can imagine what happened next.

First, the expletives: “Sh*$, D@M^, F!(K,”etc.

Then, the freak-out began: “Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!”

Then, the freak-out subsided: “Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!”

Finally, the cleanup started. It took days, so I’ll speed it up for you: Broken carboy tossed in dumpster, rugs absorbed mess, broken glass meticulously picked up, floor dried after one week, vacuum applied to floor and, last but not least, secret weapon engaged — the Woolite Rug Stick.

A quick note on the rug stick — it’s amazing. If you slept in my guest room, not that I’m passing out invitations, you wouldn’t notice a thing.

So at the end of this whole escapade, I was left to ponder: “What happened?”

After a lot of introspective analysis (less on the introspection, more on the analysis) and discussion with fellow homebrewers, I’ve come up with two possible theories to explain why the carboy broke.

First, it’s possible that the carboy got dinged. It's decades old and is a hand-me-downed hand-me-down, so the glass could’ve been compromised at some point over the past 30-40 years. But I’m not convinced. I used the carboy more than a handful of times, and a week prior to this incident, I moved the carboy to my closet without a problem.

What I think cracked my carboy was the neck handle that homebrewers around the world have used for decades. A friend with years of brewing experience told me such handles are known to punish carboys (don't let your mind waver here, follow me now). I began to scour the web, looking for forlorn brewers with broken dreams like mine.

What did I find? Dozens of examples of those little handles shattering carboys. One poor character, for instance, was carrying a 6.5-gallon carboy down his stairs when “CRASH!” — Oktoberfest all over his basement.

On several forums, brewers recommended a simple device called The Brew Hauler, used for — wait for it — hauling brew. But perhaps even better than this gizmo is an old-fashioned milk crate. It protects the glass on the bottom and sides, it's cheaper if you get it at the right place, it puts force on the carboy from the bottom rather than from the top and it eases the task of carrying a full 5-gallon carboy.

Don't be the victim of a broken carboy — use protection. Use a milk crate.

Side note: Plastic buckets and carboys are another option for homebrewers and they’re far less susceptible to breaking than glass carboys. But I’m not willing to switch over. This stubborn homebrewer loves watching the fermentation process through the glass, and after drinking out of plastic for almost two straight years in China, I’m not dying to do it anytime soon. Plastics definitely influence the flavor of liquids, particularly when they’re stored in plastic for an extended period of time.

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