Killer Beer: Bottle Bombs

Posted by Darryl | Educate Me, Experimenting, Fruit Beer, Homebrew | Posted on September 23rd, 2011

Bottle Bombs. I had heard of them, but I hadn’t actually ever spoken to someone that had experienced the batch-ruining — and as I found out, potentially life threatening — event first hand. A few people I have gotten to speak with and several articles online gave second-hand accounts, but the closest anyone I had spoken had come to the experience was a clogged bubbler/airlock causing the lid to pop of a bucket or the airlock to pop out of a carboy; a condition that left most of the beer and it’s containment vessel fully in tact. With a bottle bomb, you’re not as lucky.

Awhile back I made my best batch yet: Apricot/Honey Wheat beer. I was making a wheat by request (personally, not my favorite style) and decided to experiment and throw into the secondary some dried apricots that I had preserved in honey. Friends and family made the finished result disappear quick, so I decided to intentionally try another fruit flavored wheat.

I live close to The Strawberry Capitol Of The World, so a strawberry wheat came to mind immediately. My problem was trying to figure out how much strawberry and honey to add. When I made the Apricot/Honey Wheat it was easy; I just opened the 2 or 3 jars of canned apricots I had on hand and poured them into the carboy. But how much fruit was that? How much honey? Plus, I needed to make sure that the strawberries and honey were sanitized/pasteurized. (The apricots and honey had been taken care of in the canning process.)

Considering the size of the jars I used to can the apricots, I decided to go with 4 pounds of fresh strawberries and a quart of honey. I figured that more than less couldn’t hurt and the yeast would just take longer to consume it. I put the strawberries in the slow cooker and brought the temperature up to 160°F for about 15 minutes. The honey I wasn’t as concerned about, but just to be safe I heated it up double-boiler style for about 30 minutes. I let it all cool, then added them both to a carboy that would be used as a tertiary. I then added the beer; after it had been in the primary for 11 days and the secondary for 19 days. Now the waiting began and after 5 weeks in the tertiary the bubbling had (visually) stopped. I began taking specific gravity readings every couple of days. It was now 6 weeks in the tertiary and seeing that there was no change in SG I felt it was time to bottle…finally!!

Figuring out how much sugar to add for bottling didn’t give me pause for concern. When I bottled the Apricot/Honey Wheat I simply used the amount of brewers sugar the recipe called for; 0.75 cup. I didn’t see any reason to change that, so into the bottling bucket it went followed by the beer, then into the bottles and all was well.

Wait, that’s not what happened. The strawberries refused to cooperate as I transferred the beer into the bottling bucket. Large chunks of strawberry were getting sucked up and transferred along with the beer. Trying to reduce the amount of debris, I quickly cleaned and sanitized the carboy I had just emptied then transferred from the bottling bucket back into the carboy. This only slightly reduced the solids getting moved about and I realized that it would take an excessive number of transfers to get the chunks removed. I had to take drastic measures.

Not having a filtering system, I went into my supplies and got some cheesecloth. The chunks of strawberry were large enough that I knew the cheesecloth would catch it, but I needed a way to pass the beer through my makeshift filter. I decided to sanitize a colander, place the (sanitized) cheesecloth into it, and just run the beer through it as it passed into the bottling bucket. The only concern I had was that the colander had to sit at the top of the bucket, which caused the beer to splash as it hit the bottom of the bucket. Was I introducing (too much) oxygen into the mix? (I’m beginning to suspect this may have been a big contributor.)

With beer now free of debris, into the bottles it all went…and the weapons were now fully armed.

Although temperatures here had been somewhat mild, a late-summer heat wave came upon us. I don’t have central air conditioning in my house, nor a temperature controlled refrigerator or freezer large enough to support bottle conditioning, so I decided to put the bottles in my bedroom where I have a window AC unit. If the day got too hot I would simply cool my room so that I wouldn’t have to be concerned about the bottles. This actually worked well, and I don’t think the bottles every got above 78°F; a temperature I’ve previously seen bottles get to during conditioning.

The batch had produced a total of 39 bottles. Some large, some small. With 39, 36 of them were placed in cases. But 3 were placed on my dresser, where I could look at them proudly and in anticipation. It would be one of these three that would be first to lash out at me.

2:00 am. I’m sound asleep in my bed when I’m suddenly woken up by a huge BANG! At first I had no idea what had happen and thought maybe someone was breaking in. As I got up from my bed to get my burglar-deterent-tool I noticed a dark piece of something about 2″ long on the floor in front of me. In my just-woken-up state of mind I thought my dog had left a present on the floor. But looking over at her I saw that she had not exploded, so I took a closer look. It looked like a piece of glass, but that would mean…

Looking up at my dresser I saw 2 bottles sitting there…in a puddle of beer. Where was the 3rd? I turned on the light and realized what had happened: the legend of bottle bombs were true, and they were coming for me. The pressure had gotten to that one bottle and it EXPLODED!

Please understand that I’m not using the word exploded lightly. This wasn’t a simple case of the cap popping off. In fact, I found that the cap was firmly in place (once I found that piece of the debris). Shards of glass were spread across the room, including right next to my pillow, a good 12 feet away from the explosion. I’ve included a couple/few pictures for your review. Needless to say (I’m going to say it anyway) that if once of those shards had impacted my head as I slept, or if the bottle exploded as I was walking past it as I was getting out of the shower, I don’t know if I’d be writing this now.

I still had 38 armed bombs sitting in my room. Since it was 2 in the morning though I was reluctant to start moving them all. Besides, <denial> maybe it was a fluke and it was just that one bottle </denial>. I took the two that were on my dresser, put them in the closet behind the cases of the others, picked up the shards I could find, and went back to bed.

The next morning around 11:00 I was downstairs telling my daughter about my middle of the night adventure, explaining to her some of the science of CO2 formation, pressure, and how containers eventually give in to excessive pressure. (My firefighter training about BLEVEs came to mind.) A few minutes later we heard a blast from upstairs, and I knew that the one that blew wasn’t a fluke.

Now I was truly scared. I needed to get them out of my room, but what if one went off as I was moving them. I knew that gloves and safety glasses were a minimum necessity, but what about the rest of me? I went for the overkill and decided to don my heaviest motorcycle jacket (with kevlar lining), my spare helmet, and my old riding gloves. Not only did I feel safe, but they were all waterproof as well.

I moved the 3 cases next to the kitchen sink, using a heavy metal pot to move the 2 remaining bottles and protect from flying glass if they blew. (The one I heard was in once of the cases.) As I went up to get the last case, another bottle blew next to the sink. It seemed they were all ready to go.

With all my gear still on I start gently opening bottles in the sink. Every so slightly I opened the cap, allowing the pressure to cause 3/4 or more of the bottle to release foam into the sink. One of the bottles I must have popped open a little too much: the cap went flying and beer and foam ended up on the ceiling for a 4 foot radius. With no further explosions I had safely disarmed them all, and my 5 gallons of Strawberry Wheat were now reduced to less than 1. I didn’t “dump” any out of the bottles, I simply opened them. Sigh. And it had tasted so good.

A bottle after pressure relieved

How much liquid I could recover

My biggest take-away from this experience is that I need to bottle condition while the bottles are safely tucked away in cases. Also, the cases should be somewhere where if liquid does spill from them it’s easy to clean-up. (Should be fun explaining that strain on my bedroom carpet to the landlord.) I also think my filtration trick unnecessarily added too much oxygen to the beer before the bottling.

Will I try again? Absolutely! I started doing this because it meant making cheap beer. Now I’m doing it because I like the beer I’m making, because I like experimenting along the way, the science of it all, and so many other reasons. What am I going to do with the remains of the Strawberry/Honey Wheat? Stay tuned… I’ll let you know.

Since my event, I’ve spoken to other that apparently had experienced a bottle bomb of their own. It would seem that unless you’ve had one, you don’t get to actually talk to someone else that has either. (I hope I’m not breaking some secret code by posting this.)

As a side note, when I was transferring to the tertiary the strawberries and honey took up a bit more space than anticipated and couldn’t fit it all into the carboy. I grabbed a few large bottles and simply filled them. Since I like to experiment, I just added a few drops of honey into the bottles instead of priming sugar. These bottles sat for over a month before I opened one, and enjoyed a tasty wizen. Though carbonation was a bit low, it was still enough for me to think about my next “experiment”.

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