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Home » Tech and Tips » Beer Guides » Thinking Big: Getting a Handle on Brewing Big Beers
Thinking Big: Getting a Handle on Brewing Big Beers
by Jonny Lieberman

Recently I was speaking with a non-brewer friend of mine about high gravity/alcohol beer. He asked me why wine seems to always fall into the 10-15% range while beer is typically 4-7% by volume. His jaw dropped when I told him about beers such as George Mahoney's Frankenale measuring an insane 27% and that Hair of the Dog makes Dave, a beer that holds the dubious high-gravity record at 29% (this is an eis fortified beer). The conversation got me thinking; why is it typically that a solid proletariat beverage like beer has 2-3 times less alcohol than a hoity-toity drink like wine? Obviously, in a given grist (or whatever you call squashed grapes--a "mush?" Fine, "must") there is more sugar available to the yeast in wine than in beer. However, it is more than that. Brewing a high-gravity beer is more difficult than brewing a "normal" sized ale or lager and much more difficult than making wine. Direct cost is an obvious factor. It requires more fermentables (grain, sugar, etc) to achieve higher alcohol levels. You need more hops and yeast, too. But it is all quite doable and the payoff, after the time and the money is spent, is much higher than any of the individual parts. Assuming you're willing to make the investment required to brew a "big" beer, then this article aims to teach you how to do it right.


What's Big?

At 5'11", 225 lbs., One foot is size twelve, the other thirteen. I've got an eighteen-inch neck. I'm a big dude. However, around certain Falcons I feel like a shrimp. The same is true with "big beers." Sure, Sierra Nevada's Celebration is fairly high in alcohol (and delicious), but at 6.8% it simply isn't "big." For this article I'm going to use 8% as the cutoff point between big and not-so-big for a couple of reasons. First, the most righteous Strong Ale Festival at Pizza Port only featured beers 8% or bigger. Additionally, in Radical Brewing’s “Big Honking Beers” chapter , Randy Mosher also makes the 8% distinction. Finally, 8% is just a nice round (and "big") number.

When most people (and I'm talking about pro and homebrewers in addition to laymen) think "big" they think Barleywine. But "big beers" are not simply limited to them. You have Russian Imperial Stouts, Old Ales, Scotch Ales (Wee Heavys), Dopplebocks (and Eisbocks), Belgian Triples and Specialty beers, an endless number of festival/special occasion beers that don't necessarily fall into any of these categories, and finally Double IPA- -the style that has come to symbolize West Coast gumption, energy, obsession and passion. There is even stratification within the styles themselves. For in- stance, Barleywines are broken into English and American versions. There are a whole slew of "big" beers out there that are ripe for contemplation, experimentation and most importantly, consumption.

Why Big?

How does an Oktoberfest differ from other Späten beers? What sets Bigfoot apart from Sierra Nevada's other products? Why are most of Stone's seasonal releases over 8%? Why did monks brew themselves Dopplebocks when they had to fast for Advent or Lent? Historically, and right on through to the present, special beers brewed to mark special occasions were "big." If we look at the English tradition of parti-gyle brewing we see that while the second and sometimes third runnings of the mash became the normal everyday drinking beers, the precious first runnings were greedily horded away until the birth of a child or a wedding or a King was crowned or the King was beheaded--any excuse to declare the day special and break out that delicious strong beer. When talking about this article, Drew the President mentioned;

The historical beers of yore were stronger than today's beers with higher OGs and FGs, but they also needed to provide nutrition. Beers got weaker as the demands for alert workers rose during the industrial revolution and governments implemented taxes on malt and alcohol content. Combine that with the fact that it's more profitable to get someone to drink 6 units of your product in a sitting as opposed to one or two, and you have a compelling economic argument for the breweries as well.

And a true treat these big beers are. Very recently I pulled a Barleywine out that has been aging for close to two-years. My long time brewing-partner Nick Salerno and I drank it back-to-back with four other beers, all of which appear in BeerAdvocate.com's top 50. While I won't go so far as to say ours was "better", we sure enjoyed it a hell of a lot more.

Step Number One: Grain Bill

Any sucker can add a few pounds of rice-extract to a pale ale recipe and call it a barleywine. And for many brewers--me included--this is how we first approached the style. While the results can be good, just as often they can be wanting, leaving the brewer and his audience disappointed and potentially turned off to the style, or worse, homebrew altogether. To brew a "big" beer right, it is obviously going to require more thought than just upping the gravity. Let's look at one of my favorite styles first, Russian Imperial Stouts. For now, we'll assume that this type of beer is an amped-up version of the more common Foreign or Export Stout with an assumed gravity of 1.065. Therefore the original grain bill might be:

  • 10.5 lbs. of British 2-Row
  • 1 lbs. of Crystal 60
  • 0.50 lbs. of Chocolate Malt
  • 1 lbs. of Roasted Barley

Just upping the gravity to achieve a healthy 1.110 (7 more lbs. of base malt) would do several things. First, the beer's color would be greatly affected. Instead of the inky black most of us expect in our stouts, the resulting beer would be dark brown and if held to the light your Russian Imperial would look red. I know because the last one I brewed looked this way. That beer had only a pound of Roasted Barley and a pound of Chocolate Malt with an OG of 1.145 after a three-hour boil. The beer can hardly be described as black. Even weirder is that the small beer we pulled has an SRM of about 8 or 9. This is India Pale Ale territory and we had intended it to be a stout! So, as the amount of base malt increases, you need to take into account that the percentage of specialty grains will plummet.

Blindly doubling all the grains isn't the solution, either. Two pounds of Roasted Barley, while not "crazy," is really too much roast flavor in a 1.110 brew. Especially when you take into account that as your Imperial Stout ages, all flavors will mellow except the phenols. Smoke and Roast flavors linger longer than hops and malts. Doubling was the route I chose to go when I designed the first Blackwine, third place winner at last year's State Fair. I just doubled the grist of my favorite stout recipe. The judge's only critique: "Too phenolic." 10 pounds of 120 Lovibond plus grain does that to a beer. As Kent Fletcher said upon tasting, "Hey, this is actually pretty good. [Pause] Too phenolic."

The solution is the middle road. Yes, you will need to up the amount of specialty grains, but just doubling the amount is not the way. All of this holds true for other "big" beers, not just Russian Imperial Stouts. As an example, doubling the grain bill of a typical American Pale Ale to create a Barleywine, might add up to 4 lbs. of Crystal Malt in a five-gallon batch--not a mouth watering proposition. Adjusting the grain bill based on percentages guided by your nose and experience is a better way to go. For the Blackwine recipe, I would rework it thusly:

  • 18 lbs. of British 2-Row
  • 1 lbs. of Crystal 60
  • 1 lbs. of Chocolate Malt
  • 1.5 lbs. of Roasted Barley

The Chocolate Malt and Roasted Barley maintain basically the same percentage of the grist--11.5% in the Foreign Export vs. 11.7% in the Imperial. The color darkens up a touch, probably how it should be. Please do not think I am trying to tell you that beers, especially "big" beers need to be brewed to style. I am not a style-phile and I think my own creations bare this point out well. In fact, I think because so few "big" beers are produced that there is no type or class of beer riper for pushing the envelope and constant experimentation.

Recently, I have reverted the way I formulate my "big" recipes--let sugar do the work for you. The Byron Burch School of Brewing that I cut my teeth on taught that rice extract was a great way to boost the gravity of a beer. It is a cheap and easy way to boost the alcohol without having too much of an effect on the finished beer's flavor. Because of the rice extract’s fermentability the body might be thinned a bit, but less so than with table sugar. For close to a decade this is how I formulated recipes for my "bigs." However, as eating the same thing for lunch everyday is no fun, neither is drinking the same beer for breakfast. So, I changed my tack.

At first it was only more malt so as to be a "serious" all grain brewer, but that grew dull quickly. In Radical Brewing Mosher lists over ten different sugars he's brewed with. The floodgates really opened on our Anchor trip when Russian River's Vinnie C. explained that two of my favorite commercial beers, both Pliny the Elder and Younger, were brewed with corn syrup accounting for 7% of the grist.

Inspired, the gloves came off and I brewed a clone of Lagunitas Brown Shugga' . Instead of brown sugar (the bland supermarket variety is really just white sugar dyed with molasses), I used a pound each of Muscavado, Demerara and Piloncillo, all of which are available at any Whole Foods. Not to brag, but I much prefer mine to the original. The clone tastes as if a half-dozen Carmellos were tossed into the boil. I've also had good luck with Turbonado. I am itching to try another of Mosher's tricks; cooking down dry malt extract with a little water. The benefit here is that you get honest to goodness melanoidins from the malt that other sugars just can't provide. See? There are plenty of new interesting ways to go "big".

Step Number Two: Hops

I don't have too terribly much to say concerning hops, because when you get right down to it, hops are a matter of personal taste. Take Stone's Ruination, a beer that by my own definition falls short of being "big" by three tenths of a point. I think it tastes like hippie mouthwash. I once drank a bomber on an empty stomach and aside from making my gums hurt, it made me nauseous. To me it is a totally unbalanced beer. I'm sure Jim Moorman uses Ruination as sparge water. To be fair to Moorman, most of my big beers have IBUs well above 100. My two Blackwines were 134.4 and 140.4, respectively. In theory all that bitterness (and flavor and aroma) is balanced out by a strong malt backbone and alcohol. Of course human ability to detect bitterness stops at around 100 IBU. Fal Allen and Dick Cantrell in their book Barley Wine give what I have found to be the best advice on hops vis-à-vis "big" beers:

First, a high-gravity brew will have lower efficiency of hop utilization than a lower-gravity brew. Also the components that produce hop aroma and flavor are the first things to go as beer ages. Iso-alpha-acid, the bittering component, also decreases with age. As far as overall flavor is concerned, we have observed that highly hopped beers tend to age better than less hopped beers for the first two to four years. After this time the less hopped beers, perhaps initially balanced to be less dependent on hop character, seem to fare better as the highly hopped beers begin to swing out of balance.

The Barleywine that Nick Salerno and I enjoyed earlier is close to two years old and had a total IBU of 25 (it was intended as a Barley Champagne). Proving that in brewing there are no absolutes! More to the point, hops are just plain mysterious little buggers and even after a lifetime of experimentation, most brewers will leave this world still searching for the perfect hop formulation. Or they could just open a bottle of Bigfoot and die happy. The point about higher gravity worts achieving poorer hop utilization is absolutely true and must be taken into consideration when devising recipes. The solubility of alpha acids in wort is not linear with respect to the amount of hops added. Doubling your bittering hops will not double your hop bitterness. This is true in all beers, and especially true in big beers. As Mosher points out:

Utilization rates of 35% may be easily achieved (1.5 hour boil, 1.040 wort) with normal strength beers, but this drops to 27% with a 1.090 wort, and goes down to just 22% at 1.110.

There are a couple of things/tricks to get more bitterness. Mosher mentions a 90-minute boil and I think it is key for all "big" beers. However, my Barley Champagne was only a 45-minute boil. Most texts agree that boiling your hops for more than 90 minutes is a bad idea. Not only will they become quite harsh at that point (and not the "good" kind of harsh, either), but the iso-alphaacids will be converted into a compound called humulinic, which isn't bitter, thereby defeating the entire purpose. Partial boils also result in poor hop utilization. A given volume of wort can absorb a limited quantity of iso-alpha-acid. Taking that a step further, larger worts are going to utilize bittering hops better. Scale is the reason why microbrewers get better utilization than homebrewers; not technique. If you are looking to move up from your seven-gallon aluminum turkey fryer to a half-barrel converted keg, this is the perfect justification to spend the money.

One technique I've had great success with in all beers, including the "big" guys, is First Wort Hopping (FWH). A German technique, abandoned commercially, is now being embraced by a growing number of homebrewers. Little is known scientifically about what is happening in your kettle while the First Wort Hops are in play. Common sense would indicate that they provide more bitterness than the bittering hops since they are in the boil longer. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. First Wort Hops have a greater effect on the finished beer's hop flavor than its bitterness. FWHs do provide some bittering. Remember alpha-acids must be boiled in order to isomerize, so something is happening to the alpha- acids at lower temperatures that, to my knowledge, no one has accounted for yet. My prediction? In the next few years we will start to see talk of timed FWH additions. Meaning that hops introduced at 160 Fahrenheit will do something different than FWHs added at 180 or 195. Experiment and prove me wrong (or right). Since you should be scumming (skimming) the protein coagulates out of your near-boiling beer anyhow, most of the FWH vegetable matter will get removed at this point. Those hops have already done their duty. Also worth goofing around with is Mash Hops (MH), where hops are added right into the mash tun. While probably more of a statement of purpose than anything really cost-effective, Nick and I brewed a 1.090 beer with only Mash Hops (2 ounces of Nugget if memory serves) that has held up for five months and counting. As far as flavor hops, aroma hops, hop backing, dry hopping and randallization goes, listen to your heart.

Step Number Three: The Yeast

To me, this is the single most important part of the "big" beer process. To paraphrase Drew, you are going to need a metric ass-load of yeast to properly ferment a "big" beer. Before I go any further I need to say that there is a good reason why MB's article on yeast culturing is the one of the most accessed pages on the Falcons website. Simply put, it is the very best resource I have seen concerning yeast propagation and pitching rates. Her article discuses many other yeast-related topics as well, like storage and cultivation, but those are beyond the scope of this article. [Editor’s Note: The article can be found at http://www.maltosefalcons.com/tech/MB_Raines_Guide_to_Yeast_Culturing.php]

In addition to lots and lots of yeast, "bigs" need more yeast fussing and maintenance than "normals." "Big" beers are going to be stressed out far more by highgravity worts than by more modest ones. First of all, there is more work to be done by the little guys. Second of all, as alcohol rates climb, Sacchraromyces dies. As a brewer, you need to come up with a plan of attack to get your yeasts to properly attenuate (a chronic problem with "big" beers) and also to ferment without flooding your precious (and expensive) beer with ugly, sometimes nasty off-flavors.

Yeast 1: Getting The Yeast You Need

Fact: Even a smack-pack of Wyeast (and their claimed 100 billion yeast cell count) is still under-pitching your wort by a lot. And I'm talking about average, everyday drinking beers. For a "normal" beer (1.040) you want 10 million viable cells per milliliter. That equates to 200 billion cells in a 5-gallon batch. Obviously with a "big" beer you are going to need significantly more. Figure double at least. And that's just for ales. For "big" lagers you are looking at basically a trillion cells in a 10-gallon batch. Obviously, a starter (or two) is in called for. MB states that for "normal" gravity beers a starter gravity of 1.040 is best. For high-gravity brews, 1.060 is optimal. Resist the urge to make even higher gravity worts for your "big" beer starters for this will have the opposite effect of what you think. By pitching your yeast culture into such a high gravity environment, you are producing exactly the effects you are hoping to avoid in the actual beer. Lots of stressed out and dead-drunk cells. I learned this not only through second-hand accounts, but like a fool I decided that a 1.120 beer needed a 1.120 starter. The result? About 58% AA and besides the residual sweetness, it had a very unpleasant higher-alcohols bite to it. Fusels and who knows what else. While you will probably be able to get away with a single-stage starter for smaller beers, a stepped up starter is an absolute must for the "big" boys. I can hear many of you moaning already before this article is even posted, but truth be told it is not that big a deal. Sure, it takes a bit of time and planning, but if you start your starter by smacking-the-pack on Thursday morning, you will be able to pitch the yeast by Saturday afternoon. I've gotten my starter production times down to under an hour. Truth be told, you will be better off if you can get the starter going by Wednesday, that way you can "crash" the yeast (putting it in the fridge to get the yeast out of suspension so you can then decant off the spent starter liquid) for about 24-hours starting Friday evening. Again, yes, it is a time investment, but please don't tell me that you have something better to do than brew; I won't believe you.

As far as the actual starter process goes, I basically use the Falcons Method. The one thing I have stopped doing is the torch over the open container. The idea behind the torch is that it will destroy any falling air-borne bacteria that might float down into your starter vessel. Why did I stop using it? I aerate my starters with pure O2 and oxygen and open flames just don't mix. Personally I'd rather risk a starter infection (and subsequently a ruined batch of beer) than blowing my head off. And since Nick and I are seriously considering renaming our brewery, "Village Idiots De-Invent the Wheel," I hope you find my reasoning sound. Of course if you've seen the condition of my kitchen, please forgive me... If you don't use O2 and an air-stone, shame on you, but feel free to break out the torch. Freaks out the squares, for sure. For a "big" beer the starter process is this.

  • Mix ½ cup dry malt extract (DME) with 3 cups water and 1/8 tsp of Superfood in a saucepan and boil for 15 minutes. 1/3 cup of DME yields a 1.040 wort. ½ cup gives you 1.060.
  • While starter liquid is boiling fill a 2-quart growler with sanitizer and water. Let sit for the requisite five-minutes and drain. I love no-rinse sanitizer.
  • Prepare an ice-bath in the sink.
  • When the fifteen minutes are up, use a funnel to transfer the hot wort into the growler. Slowly, submerge the growler into the ice-bath. I seriously recommend letting it cool on its own for a minute or two before dunking it. There are few worse feelings in the world than seeing your pristine starter medium slowly leak into your sink as if a shark attack just occurred because you shocked your growler and the bottom cracked off. I've had this happen twice, and it sucks.
  • Once the liquid has cooled--figure thirty minutes in the ice-bath--stick in your air-stone. I hope I don't need to mention that you have sanitized your air-stone prior to this step. Hit the wort with about ten seconds of O2. I cover the top with tin foil while this is taking place.
  • Pitch the yeast. Replace the cap on the growler. Shake the living hell out of it. Remove the lid and cover with tin foil. DO NOT use an airlock, cause they suck. Tin foil is friend.
  • If you can afford it, place the starter on a magnetic stir plate. MB documents that a stir plate will yield about 8 times the yeast volume as simply aerating your wort. Admittedly, I don't own a stir plate. Yet. A) new ones are too expensive and B) I hate ebay. However, my next big beer related purchase will be a stir plate. If you don't have a plate, just shake the hell out of your starter every time you look at it. This keeps the yeast in suspension. But be careful because liquid will leak out of the tin foil and bugs just love that sweet, sweet wort.

The following night you are going to want to "step up" your starter. You are basically doubling the volume so you will need 1 cup of DME in six cups of water and 1.4 tsp of Superfood and a gallon size growler. Everything else is the same except that it will take a bit longer to cool. All you have to do is pour the old starter into the new one. If you are making a truly massive beer (>1.120) and you feel the need to step your starter up again, feel free. Just double the ingredients. The only catch is that you are going to have to either split the starter up into two containers or use a carboy. Which seems a little silly.

Of course all of this starter fuss can be totally avoided if you really plan ahead and brew a "propagation batch" the week before. There are some of us (I'm pleading the Fifth) who view "normal" beers as nothing more than a way to generate enough yeast to see that our "big" beers achieve a successful fermentation. Lets look at a Falcons-related commercial example. Hopefully, all of you have tried AleSmith's most excellent Horny Devil. It's their take on a Belgian Triple and to me at least, is much tastier than any commercially available actual Belgian Triples. Sacrilege, I know. I just love the stuff. More importantly for our purposes, at 11% abv, it is frighteningly quaffable. Drinking with a few friends a couple weekends ago, we had finished off two 750mls in the time it took my friend's wife to pick up some take-out sushi. And a bottle of AleSmith's Grand Cru, too. Frightening. For some time now I have seen on the AleSmith website info about a beer called Little Devil which is a smaller version of big brother Horny (about 6%) but is only available on tap. When we were down at AleSmith judging at QUAFF's America's Finest City competition, not only was I able to try Little Devil on tap at the brewery, but one of their brewers, Bill, told me that Little Devil started out as nothing more than a propagation batch for Horny Devil. Yeast costing what it costs, it was actually cheaper to brew up a big starter batch of ultimately useless beer.

Pitching new beer on top of old yeast is a time-honored tradition and it will serve you well. The fermentation kicks in almost immediately as the hungry yeast are fed a fresh helping of sugar. It's easy to do, too. Just rack the smaller beer off to secondary and direct pitch the fresh beer on top of it. This technique is not only good for "big" beers, but in truth for all beers. Commercial breweries get between 30-90 fermentations out of a single batch of yeast. Homebrewers can expect about three. Again, it is the scale involved, not the technique. And since yeast costs about $5 a pack, don't whine. Aside from sanitation (again--tin foil. Also, a spray bottle of ethanol never hurt no one) all you have to worry about is appropriateness. In other words, don't brew a hop-death IPA and then throw a Belgian Triple on top of it (Don't laugh--Anderson Valley uses their proprietary yeast to make Brother David's Triple and Dubel--they just ferment it at very warm temperatures. 85 Fahrenheit or so). The hop-gunk stuck in the trub will manifest themselves in the second beer. Again, a little planning is all it takes. You can also save yeast cakes in growlers for future use if you are going to be brewing with three-weeks time. Google for "Yeast Washing." In Summary, starters are mega important for "big" beers and propagation batches are the real way to go.

Yeast 2: Babysitting Your Yeast

You didn't think just having enough yeast would be sufficient, did you? These "big" beers are a real labor of love--and they need all the attention you can give 'em. Yeast need oxygen and lots of it. This may strike some people are opposite of what should be considering oxidation. Again I turn to MB who explains that yeast go through about a 24-hour lag phase, or aerobic reproduction phase. During this phase the yeast are "budding" (asexual reproduction) and need as much oxygen as you can give them. While this is true for all beers, this is (of course) doubly true for "big" ones. While oxygen is needed for reproduction--along with amino acids, lipids and minerals like zinc and copper--saturating your wort with pure O2 has the added benefit in "big" beers of making the yeast walls stronger and therefore more tolerant to alcohol. I cannot overstate how important this is. If you want your beer to properly attenuate, not only do you need lots of yeast, but you need lots of healthy, alcohol-immune yeast. Almost all yeast strains-if cared for properly--will work up to 10-11%. I've had tremendous success with both Wyeast 1056 and 1272, having routinely gotten them up to 14-15% and in the case of 1272 specifically, up to 18% in the second Blackwine. I am very proud of the fact that I have never had to pitch more yeast in order to restart a fermentation. Here's how you do it.

Just like how a saturation point exists for iso-alpha-acid solubility, one also exists for oxygen solubility in your cooled wort. However, the yeast will consume all that O2 pretty rapidly. To keep the yeast as happy as possible, you need to re-saturate the wort with O2 every four hours. Of course only a true geek will wake up in the middle of the night to pump in oxygen, you get the idea. Stick as close to the every 4-hours policy as you can. Of course, for those of us with sleep disorders (hey Drew) this is a piece of cake. For most beers, both "big" and "small," the lag phase usually turns into out and out fermentation after 24-hours. However, if you "retard the fermentation" (I'll discuss this in the next section) you might want to consider an even longer oxygen saturation time-frame. While I haven't done any real experiments, the 18% Blackwine received infusions of O2 for 48 hours. While it has other problems (hops boiled for too long and an excessive dry hopping), oxidation is not one of them. It tastes like aspirin, not cardboard, though it is improving with time. Now, the best way to add oxygen to your beer is with a big (think 20#) O2 tank and that nice stainless steel air-stone on a stick that John sells. I use the little baby air-stone on the end of a small tube hooked up to a red oxygen tank. My system sucks because those tanks are frigging expensive ($8 a pop and they don't last that long) and they don't pump all that much air. After a shop brew I watched Fletch use the big wand and the big tank to aerate three carboys full of beer. After sixty seconds, the wort was foaming out of the carboys. With my setup, all I get is a thin layer of bubbles on top. Yes, Kent's system costs money, but how many times are you going to live? It also has the added advantage of being a big stick, so you can use it to stir and rouse your yeast.

Speaking of rousing, it is not a bad idea to "walk" your "big" beer after about a week in primary. The term comes from a practice British brewers used to employ where they would quite literally roll their hogsheads around the brewery to re-suspend the yeast. You can shake your carboy, but I hate the idea of shaking glass. If you are feeling really adventurous you can stick a solid stopper into the neck, lay your carboy on its side and gently roll it around. I don't like this idea for a few reasons. One is that the scar on my finger reminds me why I hate glass carboys. The other is that switching stoppers around is a vector for infection. We get around this in our homebrewery by using half-barrel kegs fitted with Corny tops as primary fermenters. You can get them from Sabco for $160 a pop. Sure, it's a lot of money, but in my mind well worth it. No glass, plenty of room for a full ten gallons, and because you can fully pressurize them (to 130 psi), no lifting. Let CO2 do all the work for you. Of course you have to lift the damn things to "walk" them, proving once again that in brewing, there are no absolutes. Alternatively, you can use a sanitized stick of some sort to stir the yeast into suspension. Or, you can rack the beer into another fermenter and then re-pitch the yeast. These two methods have obvious sanitation drawbacks but the point is with "big" beers it pays off to rouse/re-suspend the yeast after about a week of primary fermentation.

We're not done babysitting yet. One of the common flaws of both home and professionally brewed "big" beers is the formation of esters you don't want and harsh, biting weird alcohols such fusels and acetone. When the yeast is introduced into such a high-gravity environment, they go insane, reproducing as fast as they can. These leads to all of the bad stuff mentioned above. Especially if you sit there keep feeding them oxygen. Once again, MB to the rescue. She recommends that for high-gravity worts, you immediately cool them to 50 degrees Fahrenheit for 24 hours. This in effect retards fermentation, but really only slows down the reproduction phase. Sure, it feels counter-intuitive but the results are well worth it. I highly recommend it for American-type "bigs," where a clean fermentation is basically mandatory (especially for DIPAs). Granted, with "big" Belgians the funk is what you are going for, so maybe it is not totally appropriate with them. Again, see Anderson Valley's Brother David series. Still, for most of you "big" beers, MB's technique is going to pay dividends. You only need keep the temperature low for 24-hours, after which all you do is raise the temp to whatever is normal for the yeast you have chosen.

Step Number Four: Fermentation

I talked a great deal about the beginnings of fermentation in the above section, but I still need to spend a little time talking about the challenges posed when fermenting "big" beers. Like everything else with these monsters, they require more. In this case we are talking about more time. We all know that 7 days (or much less) is typically sufficient to ferment "normal" beers. Guess what? I feel that 10-14 days is usually sufficient to ferment out "big" beers, though with beers above 1.140 I let them go for a month in primary. The yeast have a big mess to clean up and autolysis is much less common than people think (within a month, anyway). Also, a really "big" Saison could take much longer than 30-days. Basically, with most styles, you are looking for 75% AA. As far as secondary goes, it is really hard to over do it. I would recommend a month, minimum, and much greater times for your really big beers. The second Blackwine was in secondary for six months. Now of course, there are exceptions such as DIPAs, which don't have much malt character to speak of (they are mashed low--typically about 149 or even less) and taste great fresh. Most "bigs," however, benefit greatly from a long secondary. As far as temperatures go I would think British cellar temps (53-57 Fahrenheit) are the way to go. Some styles, such a s a really big Biere de Garde will be better off at lower temps (about 39-42) and of course lagers are lagers.

One trick that has recently gained a great deal of traction in both the homebrewing and microbrewing scenes is the concept of adding sugar to beer while still in primary. As mentioned way above, George Mahoney does this for his Franken Ale. Delaware's notorious Dogfish Head popularized (though by no means invented) this practice with their almost ridiculous really "big" beers, 120 IPA (45 degrees Plato, 21.5%) and Worldwide Stout (the 2002 version was 23%, though it has since been lowered--I had some over New Years and it was quite difficult to drink). Sam Adams uses this technique for their Utopia, as well. The idea of adding sugar of some sort to your primary is that if you did everything else right, you have all these eager, healthy and alcohol tolerant yeast just sitting around being lazy. Put 'em to work! More sugars give the yeast more to eat thus lowering the final-gravity and boosting up the alcohol. You can use any of the sugars mentioned in the grain section above. I've heard of people using honey as well as molasses. The only kind I would avoid is white sugar, a substance I feel has no place in brewing. You can also of course pitch in multiple yeast strains, which maybe is to add some complexity or might be to restart a stuck fermentation. Non-Sacchraromyces sugar eaters such as Brettanomyaces, Lactobacillus and Pidiocacus are becoming more and more popular. Not only will they eat through most everything, but they have the added benefit of tasting damn good, especially in "big" beers where their funkiness can be balanced out by the wealth of other flavors present.


Want to make your own beer at home? Get started on the right foot. Check out the Falcon's sponsoring shop, The Home Beer, Wine, Cheesemaking Shop. John Daume, proprietor, has been serving the home brewing and winemaking needs of Angelenos since 1972, over 30 years! (Falcon Members receive a 10% discount on supplies)
Looking for older Falcons' information?, The Westval Maltose Falcons Webpage (Locally cached) (The Original Falcon's Roost, prior to 1999)
Looking for a home wine making club in the Los Angeles area? Check out our sister club, The Cellarmasters, over 30 and still stomping grapes.