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During my last small batch brew, American Wheat from Northern Brewer, I came home to find that the foam in the 1 gallon carboy had overflowed the three-piece air lock (which was a mess to clean out). I have read that if it looks like it may bubble over, one can use a hose to create an airlock using a bowl of water. However, it overflowed while I was away, and I did not see it coming. I changed out the airlock for another one that I had, and let it proceed.

1) Is there a way to avoid this? Was there possibly too much wort in the carboy?

2) What are the possible effects on fermentation process, if any?

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FWIW, this is especially likely to occur with wheat-y recipes (and even more so with a yeast like Wyeast's American Ale II); the wheat protein contributes to kräusen buildup just as much as it does to head retention. –  Ben Mosher Jun 17 at 20:01

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Headspace in the carboy is nice to avoid this, but ultimately, a blow-off tube is the answer. By switching out the airlocks, you did the right thing, and ultimately, as long as you didn't let it sit exposed for a long period of time (in the realm of 20+ minutes), the likelihood of infection isn't high. Plus, the krausen (foamy stuff that sits on top of the wort while fermenting) acts as a protective layer from bacteria. By the time the krausen dies down, the bacteria will come in contact with alcohol, lessening the chances for infection (hopefully).

Simplest way to do this, take apart a 3-piece airlock, determine the diameter of the inner tube that feeds into the bucket (I don't know the diameter off the top of my head), and get about 3-4 feet of tubing that size. Plug one end of the top of that inner plastic tube of the airlock, fill a bucket, or some form of container with sanitizer, and put the loose end in the sanitizer completely submerged. Now, if anything comes out the top, it simply goes into the container, no bucket/carboy-bombs.

EDIT: Visited the LHBS today on the way home to get my next recipe. You want half-inch (either thin or thick wall, both will work) hosing, at least 3 feet, ideally 4, for your blow off tube.

By the way, this is very common. The investment of a blow off is well worth the cost. Seeing yeast shoot out of the carboy (ideally through a blow-off tube, but any way works, albeit a bit messy without) is one of the most fascinating parts of brewing.

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I blew through two airlocks fermenting with BRY-97 before switching to a blow-off. I recommend a growler filled about 1/4 with sanitizer for the container. The guy at my LHBS was able to hook me up with a small length of rigid plastic that fit the airlock's bung and beverage tubing. –  Tom McCann Jul 11 '13 at 19:57
    
Would you need to first sanitize the blow off tube before connecting the whole thing to your carboy? That is what I heard somewhere and what I have done. –  anton2g Jul 12 '13 at 16:43
    
Seems like it would be a good idea to go, @anton2g. –  object88 Jul 12 '13 at 17:29
    
Yes, you will want to sanitize the tubing. While yeast can get up into the blow-off, at that point it is krausen yeast, and the hop oils may not be enough to protect it should any bacteria be lingering in the hose, so let it soak in sanitizer before using it. –  Scott Jul 12 '13 at 19:11

Scott's answer is correct. And I've done this as well, both on my last batch, and the previous one (in which it actually overflowed twice). The blowoff tube is the best approach; I misplaced mine, so I had to do without, and like yourself, I just changed it out and went along my way.

You could prevent this all-together by leaving more headroom in the carboy, or making a beer with a less fervent fermentation process. But what's the fun in that?

I am not expecting anything bad in my batches where this happened. Unless there was beer sitting in there for an extended amount of time, I would think it will be fine.

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Just making my first batch. Filled the first Carboy up too much. Used a racking tube through the bung and attached plastic siphone tube to that and ran it into sanitizer container. Working like a charm.

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This arrangement is commonly called a blow-off hose. –  mdma Feb 13 at 20:36

Personally I always use a blowoff for the first 48 hours (just in case). Then add bubbler after things have settled down. While your risk is minimal for infection, the critical time is between the development of the krausen and presence of alcohol.

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