Food Failures: Beer Home Brew Is your wort too hot? Have wild yeast taken over your brew? Are you experiencing bottle bomb? Home brewing beer is a combination of art and science. Chris Cuzme from 508 GastroBrewery discusses common pitfalls of home brewing and tips to perfect your process.

Food Failures: Beer Home Brew

Food Failures: Beer Home Brew

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Is your wort too hot? Have wild yeast taken over your brew? Are you experiencing bottle bomb? Home brewing beer is a combination of art and science. Chris Cuzme from 508 GastroBrewery discusses common pitfalls of home brewing and tips to perfect your process.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.


FLATOW: Football season is here. Yeah, and of course that means pizza, wings and beer. Lots of people brew their own beer, and it just became legal in all 50 states. So now you can brew your heart out. How about a nice living room lager or a pantry-style pilsner? As any home brewmeister will tell you many times, brewing can go bust, literally, when your ales fail, when good brews go bad. We call it a food failure, and that's the name of a new series we're kicking off this week, no pun intended.

What can go wrong with your homebrew and why? If you're a home brewer, you have any questions, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Are you having failures in your brewery? We'll talk about it now with Chris Cuzme. He is the brewer at 508 GastroBrewery here in New York, and co-host of the...

CHRIS CUZME: "Fuhmentaboudit!" Hey, ferment about it over here.

FLATOW: "Fuhmentaboudit!"



CUZME: Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: You brought in a whole bunch of different brews here.

CUZME: I did. I've got four beers here. Two of them are made from some of my favorite home brewers around. A couple named Hayley and Stephen, Stephen Durley and Hayley Stephens - I mean, Hayley Jensen. They are very creative, really wonky people and make incredible beer. Two of them I made at 508 GastroBrewery but the principles are the same (unintelligible).

FLATOW: What is - how is beer made? What is going on when you make beer?

CUZME: Beer is easy. If you can make oatmeal, you can make beer. Basically what we're doing is we're making a giant oatmeal. We're taking these grains and we're throwing them into a pot of water with a - with hot water. This water is hot.

FLATOW: Right.

CUZME: And the water is called liqueur at this point, but it's the only time it's ever called liqueur because once it hits the grains and convert these sugars or these starches over to sugar, then it becomes what we call wort. And it's this viscous sugar water that we've gotten from the grain. We separate the solids from the liquid. We send that liquid - or we send the liquid over to a boil kettle. We boil it, and this is where we introduce hops.

And the reason we introduce hops is to provide bitterness, to act as a preserving agent, and also to get flavor and aroma. So you typically add hops three different times during that boil. Then we introduce our fourth ingredient, which is yeast. If we were to introduce yeast immediately after the boil, the yeast would die because it would be too hot for the yeast to survive. So we have to cool that wort as fast as we can, and then introduce it to yeast at roughly 65 degrees depending whether you're making a lag or ale, and then let it ferment and let it do its thing.

FLATOW: How long does that take?

CUZME: It depends on the beer on how long it takes to be good and - so there are two kinds of beers. Aside from my general answer, which is, you know, there are two kinds of beer, good beer and the other kind. I think it's the same thing, what Duke Ellington said about music, you know, there are two kinds.

FLATOW: Right.

CUZME: But scientifically, for SCIENCE FRIDAY...


CUZME: ...there are actually only two kinds of beer, and that's ales and lagers. Now, that comes down to the kind of yeast that you're using. Ales take - or ales ferment between 65 and 75 degrees generally, and lagers ferment between 55 and 65. Lager means to cold store, so lagers take longer than ales. But you can, as a home brewer, have a drinkable ale in two weeks...

FLATOW: And what's the main failure...

CUZME: ...which is really fast. The main failure...

FLATOW: ...amateur beer makers...

CUZME: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: ...or even professionals...

CUZME: Well, I think we should not scare anybody. It is really, really easy to make beer, you know...


CUZME: long as your practices are sound. And what I mean by that, the main failures, the most common problems come down to infections and sanitization. I mean if you - there are a couple of books that we all started with as home brewers. One of them is by the godfather, Charlie Papazian. He's got this book called "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing." Great book but his philosophy is, like, relax, have a home brew. It's cool, and it's true, it's easy. You're going to make a good beer generally.

But there's this other book that I started with, the handbook by Dave Miller. And he's like, be scared, be very scared. There's bugs all around you and it's going to ruin your beer. And so I brew on the defensive, but that means sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. Clean, clean, clean. Sanitize, clean again and sanitize.

FLATOW: You mean if there - bacteria can contaminate the process?

CUZME: Correct. Yes.

FLATOW: And what happens when that happens?

CUZME: When that happens, you get a bunch of off flavors that are just not pleasurable and your beer won't keep well, and that - well, it depends. I mean if you're - people deliberately inoculated their beers with bacterias to achieve different flavors. And so I have two beers here, actually, that are examples of that. But it is not what you intended. And as a brewer you want control over what's your final product, otherwise how are you going to, you know...

FLATOW: You mean there are people who actually leave the beer out in the open to get natural...

CUZME: Absolutely.

FLATOW: You know, that sounds like Michael Pollan when he talks about baking bread...


FLATOW: Instead of putting store-bought yeast in it, he lets it sit out there.

CUZME: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: That's sort of the same thing that you're talking...

CUZME: Absolutely. I mean, you can - we've been - we haven't been fermenting; things have been fermenting for, you know, since the beginning of their existence.

FLATOW: Right.

CUZME: I mean there's lactobacillus and there's just bacteria, and there's funky stuff everywhere. You're probably fermenting right now.


FLATOW: I'm fermenting.

CUZME: You've got to sanitize...

FLATOW: All right. I have two little cups of beer that you've poured. What am I looking at here, these two?

CUZME: So both of those are really light in alcohol. The clear one is kind of the - or the lighter one, the soft white one is the one I kind of want to talk about today...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

CUZME: ...because we're talking about sour things. And in a brewery, one problem with sour notes or with these bacteria is they are one-tenth of the size or smaller than the size of the typical yeast cells that we deal with as a brewer. And they can hide out in any crevice, any crack anywhere in the brewery and come out at random times and totally ruin your beer. So as a home brewer, you want to separate your equipment. I mean, as a pro brewer, you probably want to really separate your equipment or not do it at all.

FLATOW: I see.

CUZME: But I actually - I did do this at 508, this beer that you have right there.

FLATOW: Right.

CUZME: But the way I did it was to do a kettle-soured beer. That is a style of beer called a gose. It's an old style - old German-style beer.

FLATOW: Wow. Yeah.

CUZME: It's really sour, salt - and it uses a salt.

FLATOW: I've never taste anything like it.

CUZME: It's crazy. It's a lot of fun. I brewed that with a friend of mine named John Moxie(ph) from (unintelligible). We did a kettle sour. We let lactobacillus get into the kettle and then we boiled after we got to the sourness that we wanted. So the lactobacillus lived and died right there in the kettle. And then we fermented it. So none of that lactobacillus got into the rest of my brewery, and that was a - it's a really fun technique.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It is - it has like an interesting aftertaste.

CUZME: Yeah.

FLATOW: It hangs around for a while.

CUZME: That's the salinity because - so that's an old - there's salt in that. And actually, that one has Pacific Ocean seawater that I brought back from a sailing trip.


FLATOW: So you could put anything you want?

CUZME: There are no rules, man. It's - yeah.


FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. People have questions. Let's go to Philip in Ames, Iowa. Hi, Philip.

PHILIP: Hey. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

PHILIP: I enjoy the talk about salt and seawater...


PHILIP: ...and how it basically contributes to the whole methodology of brewing beer. And I'm just concerned about people that - if they can put - if they can fit a five-gallon carboy into their like home dishwasher, it's fine. But they have to be concerned about - making sure they clean it out well enough that they can, I mean nobody is going to have an autoclave in their living room.

FLATOW: Correct.

PHILIP: And - but there is some concern about once you get that thing capped, you have to take care of it. And it's not just going to the grocery store and buying a beer, you have to know what you're doing. And I'm just wondering about - because buddies of mine are like - this is like 20 years ago, we made beers and we had access to an autoclave, and we took old 16-ounce Narragansett bottles and autoclaved them. And we capped them and made great beer. But I wonder about technology...

FLATOW: People can't do that now. Yeah. Is there a danger, if you cannot thoroughly sterilize the stuff like he was talking about in an autoclave?

CUZME: Well, you should be able to. I mean, if you rinse it out really well enough with hot water and then use - actually, there's powdered brewing wash that you get at any home brew store. But also there's OxiClean. You can use a concentration of OxiClean that will really, really get out, you know, all the stuff, even like all the beer crud in old bottles that you can - and then you can reuse those bottles. He was talking about, you know, you really have to take care of it when it goes, so other problems - Ira, you were asking about, you know, what can go wrong.

FLATOW: Right.

CUZME: I had a - I bought a home brewery kit for a friend of mine and everything went great, and then we got to bottling time. At bottling time we didn't talk about that part at the end of the process. We're talking about carbonation, how do you carbonate your beer. Most home brewers prime it with sugar. Basically at this point all the yeast has kind of fermented itself out and created a yeast cake on the bottom. But there's still some yeast left in suspension. And if you excite that yeast a little bit, it will start producing CO2 and you want to cap it off in a bottle or a keg and it'll absorb that CO2.

But if you prime it with too much sugar, then you'll have exploding bottles all over the place. Or if you have it stored in a temperature that's higher than it wants to be or not appropriate with the amount of sugar that you put in, then you're going to have exploding bottles.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's get some more calls in here. John in Pasco, Washington. Hi, John.

JOHN: Hello.

FLATOW: Hey there.

JOHN: I'm enjoying your show.

FLATOW: Thank you.

JOHN: I'm an avid home brewer. I've been doing so for 20 years. I have a very sophisticated, conical, stainless system. I'm a Heliarc welder so I know how to do all those things.

CUZME: I'm very jealous right now.

JOHN: And I have a question about getting more hop aroma into my beers. And I usually let them sit in the cone for 28 days and dry hop them in the cone for the last seven of that. And then I usually prime them with dextrose to about, well, two volumes of CO2, and I just can't get those bold hop aromas that I try to do. And I've added - I've tried adding every amount of hop.

FLATOW: All right, John, let's get - we're running out of time. Let's see if I can get an answer from Chris...

CUZME: OK. Yeah. I would say that if you use one - how many times have you been dry hopping?

FLATOW: Oh, he's gone.

CUZME: OK. I would dry hop more than once. I mean, if you're going to keep it in there for 28 days, I would dry hop more than once, and I would have it - do it for like three days at a time and get it out there. The reason you only want to do it for three days at a time, I mean you can talk to a lot of different brewers and they'll give you different answers here. And I'm relatively new to the dry hopping game, but I've been having fun and success with what I've put up in that.


CUZME: Leave it in there for a short amount of time and do it over and over again.

FLATOW: Now, we've had chemistry geeks on here and physics geeks on here; we've never had a brewing geek...


FLATOW: ...calling up on these very geeky questions. But there are lot of brewers, right? There a lot of...

CUZME: There are lot of brewers and...

FLATOW: Do they understand what they're doing, chemistry-wise and, you know, what's going on inside the brewery?

CUZME: As a home brewer, you don't have to know everything that's going on scientifically. You just have to know that it's going to work and trust that your sanitation measures are - that sanitization is key.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you keep saying that over and over again.

CUZME: It's the most important thing, that and fermentation temperatures so that you're not, you know, having exploding bottles or yeast is getting too excited or - that's the only thing. But you can get in there, the information is out there, a lot of different podcasts for that. There's a lot of information on inter-webs. And there's a lot of - join your local home brew club. That's one of the biggest thing. If you don't have a local home brew club, start one.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking with Chris Cuzme, brewer at 508 GastroBrewery and co-host of a podcast called...

CUZME: "Fuhmentaboudit!"

FLATOW: You say it so well.


FLATOW: It's not in Brooklyn, is it?

CUZME: It is in Brooklyn.

FLATOW: Of course...

CUZME: Every Monday, 7:00 p.m.

FLATOW: Seven p.m., "Fuhmentaboudit!"

CUZME: Yeah.

FLATOW: That's how we...

CUZME: With Mary Izett.

FLATOW: There you go. Let's go and get some more calls in if we can. Keeva(ph) in Cincinnati, Hi, Keeva.


CUZME: Hi, Keeva.


FLATOW: Go ahead.

KEEVA: So I have a question about, like, someone who's not even like touched a home brew kit at all. I've been wanting to start, but is it OK to just go with one of those, like, box, like brew-your-own-beer kits? Or is it just better just to buy all the individual things you need? And I have another question. I really like IPAs, like a lot. Like should I start out making one of those? Or should I do just something basic?

FLATOW: All right.

CUZME: No. If you like IPAs, do something you like. You know the flavor that you're going for. And yes, it's OK to get a box kit and do that. If I were to start home brewing today versus, you know, when I started in 2001, I would take the approach of Brew in a Bag. And my girlfriend Mary Izett hit me to that, the co-host of...

FLATOW: Brew in a Bag.

CUZME: Brew in a Bag. It's like Shake 'n Bake. It's awesome. So when we make beer, we have (unintelligible) we have three vessels. We have the hot liquor tank where we get the water hot. We've got our mash tun where we mix all that grain together and make our oatmeal per se. And then we have our boil kettle. With a Brew in a Bag method, you have the boil kettle and then you get your hot water hot in your boil kettle, and then you throw a mesh bag in there. It's a strainer kind of thing. So basically we're making a giant tea and...

KEEVA: (Unintelligible)

CUZME: Yeah. It's great. And she's - my girlfriend, she made ours, so we have - it fits our kettle perfectly. And then, you know, when you're done with that mash, an hour of that oatmeal, and all the starch is converted to sugar, you just lit that bag up and you're ready to boil right there. It saves time, it saves equipment, it's fun and it makes great, great beer.

FLATOW: Well, Keeva...

KEEVA: What's the first thing that someone should know, like the very first thing before you go into like brewing beer, like...

CUZME: Sanitize, clean, clean, sanitize.

FLATOW: Clean, clean, sanitize, clean.

CUZME: Clean, clean, clean, again, sanitize.

FLATOW: The three most important things in beer brewing, sanitize, sanitize, sanitize.


KEEVA: Yeah. Yeah. I can - I work with bread so that's - I can keep up with that, yeah.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

CUZME: No. I mean, it's fun. And that I think the most important thing is that there are no rules. If you work for bread - with bread and you're a cook and you imagine a flavor, you can probably get that flavor in beer.

FLATOW: All right, Keeva. Good luck to you.

KEEVA: Great. Thanks.

FLATOW: If you wanted to make a beer for Thanksgiving now, is it too early, too late? Can you get a beer done by Thanksgiving?

CUZME: No, we're good. By Thanksgiving. Absolutely.


CUZME: Absolutely.

FLATOW: And I understand from reading that patience is key here. That's how you can have that bottle bomb blow up on you if you're not patient.

CUZME: Yes. Well, yeah, I mean, yeah.


CUZME: If you're like - it doesn't really work like that. If you want your beer carbonated really fast, you wouldn't, oh, just put more sugar into your bottle, then you definitely have the bottle bombs no matter what.

FLATOW: If you bottle it too soon without...


FLATOW: That's what I'm talking about.

CUZME: Well, so yes. Absolutely. Yes. Good call.

FLATOW: What's happening there with your bottle?

CUZME: So there's too much yeast left in suspension. The sugar, or the yeast has not eaten enough of the sugars. They still got work to do before it's ready to start carbonating. And if you're not going to kill the yeast by really cold crashing it, getting the yeast out of there or by putting potassium sorbate and really killing the yeast, then you're going to have too much excitement.

FLATOW: How do you get fruity tastes in beers? Can you just put pieces of fruit in there, pumpkin or orange or anything?

CUZME: Well, you can certainly do actual fruit in beer, no problem. But there are also, you know, there are lot of different fruity esters that come along with different yeast strains. So if you want to - and you can also manipulate your yeast strains by fermenting at different temperatures in order to get these different flavors. So a lot of American (unintelligible) can get very citrusy if you ferment a little bit higher than they're used to. You can get pepper notes and all sorts of fun stuff from saisons - using a saison yeast. I mean, these are the variables that come in.

FLATOW: Now, you hear all these commercials on TV for the regular brewers. They have all these specials, cold brewing, all kinds of stuff.

CUZME: Oh yeah.

FLATOW: You don't need any of that stuff, all those techniques.

CUZME: Yeah, these fancy words. You know, beer is beer and it's love.


CUZME: What you need is love. Everybody glass needs love.

FLATOW: I can't think of a better way to end this segment.


FLATOW: Every glass needs love. Thank you very much, Chris.

CUZME: Thank you.

FLATOW: Chris Cuzme is the brewer at 508 GastroBrewery here in New York and co-host of your podcast...

CUZME: "Fuhmentaboudit!"

FLATOW: And that can be heard when?

CUZME: On Heritage Radio Network on Monday nights, 7:00 p.m. We talk about fermenting everything, not just beer. So, you know, (unintelligible) fermented sodas...

FLATOW: Cabbage.

CUZME: Yes. Absolutely. We did cabbage just two weeks ago.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much.

CUZME: Cheers.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.