While it’s impossible to make generalizations, I would wager good money that every one of us, at some point, gets a hankering to brew something strong. Aside from the entertainment value that comes with serving your friends a 12 percent ABV barley bomb, imperial stouts, barleywines, and Belgian strong ales make excellent gifts and can improve with age if done right.
But if you’ve ever attempted high-gravity brewing, you may already know that it has its challenges. Here are three common problems that can affect big beer and some suggestions for how to overcome them and make high-gravity brewing your own.
Extract brewers don’t need to worry about efficiency: As long as the right amount of extract goes into the correct total volume, you’re all but guaranteed to hit your original gravity. But because large grain bills require lots of mash water, all-grain brewers may find that their systems aren’t so efficient. More mash water means less sparge water, which means valuable malt sugars are left behind in the grain bed.
The solution? Plan for lower efficiency from the get-go and have a backup plan in place in case you don’t hit your numbers.
- Set the bar low. When formulating your recipe, assume a lower total efficiency than you normally would. If you typically achieve 75 percent efficiency on normal beers, assume you’ll get 70 percent for high-gravity beers. The bigger the beer, the lower the efficiency.
- Cheat. Keep some light dried malt extract (DME) on hand in case you don’t reach the intended original gravity. Then you can simply add enough DME to top up your wort to the desired strength.
- Burn, baby burn. If you have time and don’t mind using a little extra fuel, you can always conduct a longer sparge to pick up more of the malt sugars and then boil the wort down to the target volume. This method is especially well-suited to styles such as wee heavy, where some kettle caramelization is desirable.
Wort with a high original gravity will almost certainly turn into beer with a correspondingly high final gravity. But 1.020 and 1.030 are miles apart on your palate, and insufficient attenuation will do your imperial stout no favors. Attenuation depends on yeast strain, yeast health, and wort composition, so try one of the following.
- Keep it simple. Replace a portion of the malt sugars with a simple sugar such as dextrose (corn sugar). These are 100 percent fermentable and can help dry out what would be an otherwise syrupy sweet beer.
- Oxygenate like you mean it. Give your yeast a fighting chance by aggressively oxygenating the wort at pitching time. This is the time to break out the pure oxygen and diffusion stone.
- Throw a powerful pitch. This almost goes without saying, but big beers call for big pitches. Make a huge starter or harvest yeast from another batch to ensure you have enough cells.
- Switch strains. Sometimes all you need is to choose another yeast strain. Different strains have different attenuation levels and tolerances for alcohol. Many British strains are notorious for giving up early, while saison strains could ferment a small house.
- Spring for the bubbly. Champagne yeast can sometimes unstick a stuck fermentation because it’s designed to ferment dry and work well in the presence of alcohol. If your primary strain doesn’t finish the job, toss in a packet or two of champagne yeast, and it may pick up where the ale or lager yeast left off.
- Funk it up. If all else fails, toss in some _Brettanomyces, _wait a few months, and tell everyone you made a wild beer.
Little to No Carbonation
Low carbonation is incredibly frustrating because you’ve already spent so much time and effort nurturing your high-gravity creation. If you find that high alcohol beers don’t quite pop as they ought to, then it’s likely that there simply isn’t enough healthy yeast remaining in suspension to finish the job. Here are some tricks to get you feeling the fizz.
- Open, dose, cap, repeat. To revive a beer that’s already bottled, open one bottle at a time and add a small amount of dry yeast. The amount of yeast is inconsequential because there are lots of cells in each grain of dry yeast, and the carbonation level is determined by the amount of sugar, not the amount of yeast.
- Take out insurance. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet bottled your high-octane ale but know from past experience that carbonation is a challenge, use bottling as an opportunity to include some insurance. Add a packet of dry yeast to the bottling bucket along with the priming sugar, wait 15 minutes, and gently stir (but don’t splash) before filling the bottles. That little bit of extra yeast is probably all you need to ensure that you’ll have well-carbonated bottles.
With a little patience, brewing a high gravity beer can be a real joy. As with all other aspects of the hobby, you simply need to experiment and find out what works best for your process.