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Public Enemy Number One: Autolysis

Sour milk, ripe cheese, fetid, rotten meat, gamey, B.O., eraser, burnt rubber. These are all descriptors that came up when sampling a couple beers this afternoon. What makes it worse, these were highly lauded, expensive bottles of beer. So there are a few questions out there. First, have you ever experienced autolysis in a commericall bottled beer in the last decade? Also, what might be attributed to this spoilage? 

My only experience with autolysis has come in homebrewing.  It is not a desired effect and in most homebrewing books is described as burnt rubber flavors and aromas. Many try to describe the impact of autolysis on the senses, but it really can not be put into words. The aroma will be enough to tell you to not drink this putrid swill, and even pouring this into a glass can clear a room.  If you’re brave (stupid?) enough to actually drink this vile concoction, good luck getting the flavor out of your mouth. Water, milk, bread, food, nothing seems to work.  What’s worse, the sensation sticks to your taste buds and nostrils and ruins anything with similar base properties for the remainder of the day.

My experience occurred with a “quick” homebrew that was brewed as a fridge filler.  Something went horribly wrong and the result was a case of “asshole beer” that was to be gifted to people we didn’t like.  No, we didn’t actually give any of the beers away, but I believe I still have a bottle squirreled away somewhere in the house. My roommate at the time and I both sampled this beer and the memory is still vivid despite occuring some 6 years ago.

So why did I find this in a bottle of beer purchased at a store? My tasting partner and I were in agreement that the retailer did a fair job of keeping these beers properly. Additionally, the bottles themselves weren’t that old. From the other end of the equation, these were two bottles of beer from the same brewery, but different brews.  It couldn’t have been a case of one bad batch, as both bottles seemed to have the problem. That leaves us with the area in between. Many beers make it from the European continent via container ship without these problems, and I am sure the shelves were stocked with beer that made the same voyage, so what happened?

I realize there is no way of pinpointing what actually happened with these beers. It’s possible that the first bottle was so rancid that it destroyed our palate and we condemned as guilty by association.

Still the mystery remains. This is a brewery that normally excites beer geeks, so it’s not as if this was a beer that no one expected to be any good. As an unpasteurized beer, the possibility for spoilage exists, but with reduced quantity of yeast, the chance of autolysis should decrease.

I’d like to hear what you folks think, share your experiences and theories.