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Too much water, not enough sugar?

Sorry in advance for the long post. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of my questions:

  1. If I steep/boil with more water (but the same about of malt) than is called for in a recipe, am I likely to end up with a watered-down (tasteless and/or low-alcohol) brew?

  2. Is there anything I can do mid-fermentation to boost the gravity?

Here’s the background:

I brewed a batch of brown ale last week, based on the “Elbro Nerkte” recipe from Complete Joy of Homebrewing:

6.60 lbs. dark plain malt extract
0.50 lb. crystal malt
0.25 lb. black patent malt
2.0 oz. Fuggles hops (boiling)
0.5 oz. Cascade hops (finishing)

The only variation I made on Papazian’s recipe is that I did a full boil instead of partial boil. His recipe calls for the grains to be steeped in 1.5 gallons of water for 30 minutes, and then topping it off to 2 gallons for the boil, and then adding 3 gallons to the fermenter. He says the the beer has a quick maturation, and will likely be ready for bottling “within 5 to 6 days and drinkability within another 7 days.”

I opted to steep the grains in 6 gallons of water, to which I then added my extract and hops for the boil. I have found in the past that I can lose up to a gallon in evaporation during the boil, so I figured this would leave me with a five-gallon batch in the fermenter. Well, I ended up with just about 6 gallons in the fermenter. I figured this wouldn’t be a problem, but the amount of grain already seemed small to me, and I was worried there wouldn’t be enough fermentable sugars for my yeast to feed on.

My OG reading was 1.040, which is quite a bit lower than the estimate in the recipe (1.046-1.050), but I relaxed, tried not to worry, and had a homebrew. The lag time was longer than I was expecting (at least 10 hours), which I chalked up to the temperature (I’m just realizing that the kitchen is the coldest part of my house), but I never got the vigorous, overflowing krausen that I was expecting based on reviews of this recipe.

So then yesterday (5 days after brew day) I took a hydrometer reading, which read 1.020. Today’s reading is the same, which would seem to indicate that the fermentation is complete. If this is ends up being the final gravity, that indicates an ABV of 2.62%! That’s barely a session ale; I was expecting at least 5%! The sample tasted OK, but it certainly didn’t seem very strong.

So, did I screw this up by using too much water? And is there anything I can do to rescue this from turning out weaksauce?

Since you had 6 gal. instead of 5, your OG is just about right. You could have boiled more, which boils off the water but not the sugars, to get your OG where it should be. AAMOF, I always boil to OG, not time or even volume. I’d rather have the beer I intended, no matter what t he volume is. The other thing I’ll mention is that for best results you should steep in about the same amount of water you’d use for mashing…probably around 2 qt. for every lb. of grain. That will help avoid the possibility of tannin extraction from too high a pH. The grain will pull the water pH into the right range, but if you have too much water the grain doesn’t have enough buffering power. As to your apparent FG, 2 points…5 days is way too short a time to decide. Give it another 5 days to a week…be patient. Also, dark extract can have a lot of unfermentable sugars in it, so it’s possible that you’re about done.

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