How to Brew Big – Making High Gravity Beers

by Brad Smith on May 9, 2010 · 4 comments

Want to brew the biggest beers and barley wines? Looking for high gravity ales? This week we take a look at how to brew the biggest beers. I’m talking barley wines, imperials, high end scotch ale and other highly alcoholic brews.

Planning your Big Beer

High gravity ales start out with a bit of planning. Homebrewing big beers is not the same as brewing regular ones. For starters, high gravity ales need malt, and lots of it. Use a tool like BeerSmith to adjust your original gravity to match the style you’re brewing.

If you are brewing with malt extract, you may need 50-100% more base malt than you usually use. Adjust your recipe to match the desired gravity.

For all grain brewers the situation is more complex. Scaling up the amount of grain used while keeping the batch size the same results in lower batch efficiency. This is because you are sparging with proportionally less water per pound of grain. Where you may get a 72% brewhouse efficiency with a regular beer, your high gravity ale may achieve only 60%.

As a result you need to lower your estimated brewhouse efficiency when estimating the original gravity of your beer. This means you will need more grain than you would get by just scaling up a regular gravity beer.

Beer Balance

A second factor to consider when designing your big beer is balance. Here the bitterness ratio which is the ratio between the original gravity of the beer and IBUs of bitterness, becomes very important. As you add more malt to make your beer big, you need to add proportionally more hops to balance the beer. Otherwise the big malt will dominate your beer, making it too sweet to drink.

To offset this, you need to calculate the bitterness ratio of your beer and compare it to the average bitterness ratio for your desired style. Big beers need big hops – its not unusual to have 50, 75 or even 100 IBUs for a big beer or barley wine.

Big Beer Yeast

While you may be tempted to toss any yeast into your big beer, many common ale and lager yeasts do not have the tolerance for very high concentrations of alcohol, which could result in a stuck or incomplete fermentation. If you are brewing big, pick a yeast strain that is specifically designed for high gravity beer. Many big beer brewers even use multiple yeast strains or champagne yeast.

When adding yeast, be sure to use a big yeast starter. Since you have so much malt in the wort, its critical to have a robust population of active yeast to ferment your big beer. Since there is so much malt to consume, you can afford to go proportionally larger on your yeast starter than you would with a regular beer.

Big Beer Brewing

Some additional concerns come into play when you actually brew your beer. First, if brewing all grain, you need to calculate how much space you need for your mash. The 5 gallon igloo coolers used by most home brewers can only accept a limited amount of malt – typically topping out at around 13lbs of grain, even with a relatively low water to grain ratio. If you are going big, you may need a bigger mash tun.

Since you will be mashing and sparging with less water than a normal batch it is important to maximize your efficiency with the grain and water you have. Draining the mash tun slowly and sparging slowly will help your efficiency.

A variation on big beer brewing, called parti-gyle brewing is worth mentioning here. This technique lets you brew two beers from a single mash. After the main high gravity wort is drawn from the mash tun, additional sparge water is added and a second batch of wort, with lower gravity, is drawn off and brewed alongside the main ale. For some very high gravity ales, you can even make a third, very light beer from the third runnings off a single mash tun.

Fermenting a big beer can take much longer than a normal beer. As the alcoholic content goes up, the fermentation tends to slow, so careful monitoring of the gravity is important as well as good old patience. You may not need as much sugar to carbonate your beer, as there will likely be some residual unfermented sugars in the beer itself.

It can take much longer to condition a high gravity batch. Some barley wines are aged a year or even two years before reaching peak flavor. However, high gravity beers tend to improve greatly with age much like a fine wine.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Glass Bottles May 17, 2010 at 5:11 am

I think the last step should be building a bunk in your basement or garage for those who come to enjoy a cold one! Great article and tips!

Bryan September 9, 2013 at 10:34 am

A couple things to add for higher gravity beers. Oxygenation/aeration becomes much more important. Shortening the lag phase is also important. Ideally, pitch an already active starter. Yeast nutrient, more than you might normally add, can help reach the upper limits. One of the biggest factors with attaining high gravity is nutrient deficiency. Increased levels of FAN may help push the limits. I’m attempting to reach 15% abv with my next batch…

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