How I Froze My Beer and Brought It Back to Life

by Karl | Last Updated: May 16, 2011

Stuck fermentation.

These 2 works strike fear into the heart of any homebrewer, and most of us that have been brewing for a while have had it happen.

Your beer is bubbling along just fine and then all of a sudden it comes to a crashing halt before the final gravity is reached. The cause is usually technical – underpitching the yeast or low alcohol tolerance, for example. But this time the culprit was something large and clumsy – me.

You see, I’m picky about temperature control and use a chest freezer combined with an external thermostat to make sure my temps are spot on. The problem is that when I recently brewed a Dunkelweizen, my thermostat was in use by my new kegerator and the second thermostat hadn’t arrived.

I had to make sure that my beer didn’t get too warm when fermentation took off, so when the beer started to heat up I turned on the chest freezer without a thermostat and planned to cut it off once the temperature had been stabilized.

Bad idea.

I fell asleep while watching a movie with my girlfriend and woke up at 3am in a panic. She thought the house was on fire. Worse – I nearly froze my beer. And it’s not an Eisbock.

The thermometer on the carboy read 32°F. Ice had started to form and the once vigorous bubbling in the airlock had ceased (because it was frozen). My yeast was in a deep sleep or possibly dead.

I was upset, but trying to see the silver lining I thought it was a good opportunity for a learning experience. I tried different techniques to see what would bring my beer back to life.

Things I tried to restart my fermentation

The Dunkeweizen was stuck at 1.020, which at 64% attenuation was well above where it should have finished. Here’s what I tried:

Raised the temperature
Obviously the first thing I did was unplug the chest freezer and raise the temperature. I also swirled the carboy to get the yeast back into suspension. After a few days at 70°F I checked the gravity and it was still at 1.020.

Failed.

Pitched new yeast
For an upcoming homebrew, I needed a 1.5L yeast starter. Instead, I made a 2L starter and when it was very active I pitched 500ml into the Dunkelweizen. A few days later I checked the gravity and it was still stuck at 1.020.

Failed.

Racked onto yeast cake
This was my last resort. I kegged my American Wheat, then transferred the Dunkelweizen on the yeast cake. I wasn’t a big fan of this option because I don’t like adding unwashed yeast to a beer, but you know what they say about desperate times…

“Glug, glug, glug”

That’s the sound of the airlock bubbling a day later. A krausen formed on top of the beer, and when I checked the gravity a few days later sure enough, it had dropped to 1.014 and then stayed there. It had 71% attenuation which was good enough for me.

So there you have it. A trial and error approach to fixing a stuck fermentation. Any advice on other things I should have tried? What have you had luck with?

Inside the Academy I teach the members how to avoid these situations in the first place by selecting the right yeast strain, pitching enough yeast, aerating, etc.

But none of these things matter when a big dummy falls asleep and freezes his yeast ; )

Lead marketer, brewer, dad, and husband. Pretty much an all-round awesome guy.