Brewing Big Beer

Written by Damon on February 8, 2009

One of the great things about home brewing is that you aren’t limited by commercial concerns.

You can brew using fresh fruit or wild mushrooms, or you can brew beer that is so ridiculously strong that commercial brewers would have to charge wine prices to make it worthwhile.

Whoo-yaa, we home-brewers aren’t limited by paltry such concerns.

Strong Beer Brewing Tips

I can’t say that I’m an expert yet, but the Internet is sadly lacking in good advice for brewing strong beers and I’ve brewed enough to give useful advice to someone starting out.

Before You Brew

Pitch a lot of yeast

Screw the starter. Make a batch or two of weaker beers and harvest the yeast before trying a strong beer. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to pitch more yeast than your wort knows what to do with than to nurse a low volume of yeast through a strong wort.

Let me add a paragraph to emphasize: you will hate yourself for not pitching enough yeast. I’m sorry, hate is such a gentle word.

Think about your final gravity

Say you get 75% attenuation.

With a wort that begins at 1.040 you end up with 1.010. 1.080 ends up as 1.020. 1.120 ends up as 1.030. That is a cloyingly sweet beer.

Think about doing something to balance your beer:

Add a ridiculous amount of hops

Use a lot of fully fermentable sugar (dextrose for sugar without flavour, or unrefined sugar like demerara for sugar with flavour, or honey, or maple syrop, or…)

Use a mash schedule that that produces a highly fermentable wort, or

Combine these techniques to balance your beer.

Think about your mash capacity

You might need to add a little extract to get the gravity you desire. Max-out your mashing system and then don’t be embarrassed about adding a little extract. You’ll still have plenty of nutrients to nurture your yeast through the trying fermentation.

When You Brew

Mash Schedule

You can get by with a basic infusion mash, but I really like to do everything I can to dry out my big beers. Dry horse piss tastes like horse piss. But if you’re drying out big beer, then you’re doing well to make your beer average.

Try a step or decoction mash that hits 140° (60°) and 158° (70°) degrees to get a highly fermentable wort. Or add fully fermentable sugars.

Bitterness and Gravity

The stronger your beer, the less you’ll perceive bitterness.

I don’t know the exact proportions, but you need to add a lot more hops to get the same perceived level of bitterness.

But it gets worse. The stronger your wort, the lower your extraction.

So take advantage of needing to add sugar or extract and get your hops in well before you add the gravity boosters.

I’m doing an Imperial Stout right now with 16.75 lb of malt. I’m adding 2.4oz (68g) of 16.4 AA Zeus/Centennial as bittering hop.

It may seem like a lot of hops, but I’ll be adding 4.5 lbs of extract and another 2lbs of sugar in the last 20 mins of my boil to hit my target gravity without wasting hop bitterness.

Long Boil Times

This one’s pretty obvious. If you’re mashing a lot more grain, then extract more wort and take your time boiling to get the same level of extraction.

Aerate Like It’s the Last Oxygen You’ll Taste in a Month

Yeah. Lots and lots and lots and, in case you haven’t got it yet, lots of oxygen is needed for your high-gravity wort.

After Brewing

This is where you wish you’d done everything above as I’d instructed. Big brews can be a huge pain in the beering muscles (I hope you’re exercising your beering muscles at the gym every day).

Help, My Fermentation Has Stopped

Big Beer = Long Fermentation.

Accept it, now deal with it.

To start with, pitch with the yeast that you want to be the dominant yeast flavour. Don’t worry if it can’t handle high levels of alcohol. All it needs to do is handle enough to assert itself.

Your Yeast Can’t Handle Your Wort

You’ve got a stuck fermentation.

If you’ve added sugar, remember that you should expect a lot higher attenuation than normal. So even if you’ve got average attenuation, you might have a stuck fermentation.

The first thing to do is to add yeast nutrients or yeast energizer. If you’re not even close to your final gravity think about re-aerating, but try to do it without adding oxygen outside the fermenter, or do it with the next step.

Plan to Add Champagne Yeast.

Champagne yeast is plain, resistant to high alcohol, and works at a wide range of temperature.

I add Champagne yeast to strong beers that seem fully attenuated before bottling to remove the last bit of sugar and make sure I have enough yeast to carbonate the beer.

I also add Champagne yeast and re-aerate stuck fermentations because it kicks unfermented sugars’ ass.

Give Your Beer Time

Strong beer takes time.

The first really strong beer I made, only using a starter, took 6 months to ferment. The less yeast you use, the longer you should be prepared for the process to take. As long as the beer is slowly fermenting, all is good.

If you want to give it some help, swish it around in your fermenter. All you want to do is replicate the process of rolling the barrel. Rolling the beer used to be a common practice with strong beers. Add a little oxygen, but not too much.

Only do this if your fermentation is truly stuck. Half a point a week is not unusual so don’t worry. Put your beer in a cool dark place and let the yeast do its thing.

Strong beer takes time. Relax and let the yeast do its work.

Posted Under: Home Brewing

4 replies to “Brewing Big Beer

  1. Steve

    Mmmmm. I too, am a fan of HUGE beers. When I first started brewing, I brewed two batches from extract kits. I was so dissappointed that I immediately jumped into partial mash brewing. My first beer was a whopping 10% alcohol. Imperial Nut Brown Ale with plenty of pure maple syrup…

    Anyways, I’ve continued to up the ante with every batch. Not all are big beers, but most. I want to be one of the few homebrewers to hit a 25%ABV that is actually drinkable.

    Keep preachin’ the word about big beers!

  2. Post Author Damon

    25%? Are you sure that’s possible without extracting water by distilling or freezing?

    Nice to hear from another big beer enthusiast.

  3. Rick K

    Nice article !
    I too do “Big Beers”. I came up with a recipe for this stuff I REALLY love that I call “QuadroBock”. S.G is typically 1.32 – 1.35. It takes 8 months or so to clear. I stumbled across a 10 year old growler of it in the basement a few weeks ago. It ages well, really well 😉 Yeast is a 2 stage, a German yeast followed by Champagne yeast. Alcohol is about 17% when it clears. The 10 year old bottle had little yeast sediment (just some brown stuff I assume is related to what I put into it), and the carbonation was low so I assume not much further fermentation went on after it was bottled.`Actually, the carbonation wasn’t all that low, just that the bubbles take along time to fight their way up to the top !

    Happy Big Beer Brewing!

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