High gravity brewing is definitely an advanced brewing technique and it can be notoriously difficult. A high gravity beer is normally defined as one with an original gravity OG of > 1.075.
The term high gravity brewing may be somewhat confusing to a
few home brewers when doing an online search.
The term is also used to describe how may commercial breweries brew and
ferment a high gravity beer and then dilute it just prior to packaging.
Why would they do this? Because they can get more volume of finished product without tying up the extra equipment and vessels. Generally commercial breweries will dilute from between 30-40%.
I’m not going to discuss this kind of high gravity brewing because MoreBeer.com has a very good article on the subject here. But for those who may need to brew a large volume for an event but have a limited amount of brewing and fermentation volume available, this might be something you want to try.
High gravity brewing is something I wanted to try early on in my home brewing career. Call it beginner’s luck if you want, but on my 6th all grain batch, I brewed an American Barleywine. I missed my OG, did not have temperature control other than a cool closet, poured the trub with the huge hop mass into a 3 gallon carboy and let it settle out overnight and added the clear portion back into the fermenter, and did not use pure oxygen to aerate. Even with all of these “mistakes”, the beer won first place in the Strong Ale category of the 2008 Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing and 2nd place in Best of Show.
Since then, I’ve re-brewed that same beer four times and have not been able to repeat the success. But I did learn a lot about high gravity brewing which I will pass on here.
Some of the problems may seem intuitive, others may not. Here is a list of the problems and their solutions you will encounter:
1. First of all, you will get a lower efficiency when brewing HG beers.
Solution: Account for the lower efficiency in your brewing software when designing your recipe. If you normally get 75% efficiency, expect to get in the neighborhood of 50-60% when high gravity brewing.
2. You will get a lower hop utilization.
Solution: Trust that your brewing software (BeerSmith) will adjust the hop utilization and compensate for the higher gravity in your recipe. I’m sure there are formulas for adjusting hop utilization in high gravity brewing, but it’s so much easier to let BeerSmith do all the calculations for you. Brad Smith has put in a lot of hard work so you don’t have to.
One tip to get better hop utilization during the boil is to add DME or LME at the end of the boil to get the gravity up to your recipe’s specs. This will allow you to get better hop utilization at a lower gravity during the boil. I added 6 lbs of DME at the end of the boil in my high gravity recipe. BeerSmith also does a good job with late kettle sugar additions.
3. Your yeast will struggle with the higher gravity and alcohol content.
Solution: Choose an alcohol tolerant yeast strain and build a huge yeast starter. Be sure to aerate well, preferably with pure oxygen, and add some yeast nutrient such as Servomyces to increase your chances of getting full attenuation. Instead of adding DME or LME at the end of the boil, you may want to try adding simple sugars often during the fermentation along with more oxygen and more nutrients tp create less stress on the yeast.
The process is similar to chaptalization (or sugaring) in wine making but is done not to add more alcohol, but to allow the yeast to adjust slowly to increased osmotic pressures.
4. Big beers often taste “hot” with too many fusel alcohols.
Solution: Start the fermentation in the mid 60’s (64-66° F/18-19° C) and monitor the gravity often. Fermentation temperature control is one of the most important aspects of high gravity brewing that is too often overlooked. Fermenting at cooler temperatures may take a lot longer, but with some patience, you will be rewarded with better alcohol integration, less fusel alcohols produced, and smoother more balanced flavors.
5. High gravity brewing often ends up with a stuck fermentation.
Solution: If you’ve done everything you can to insure good yeast health, you may need to add more yeast to finish the job or as a last resort, add Brettanomyces and call it a wild beer.
Champagne yeast is a good choice for stuck fermentations.
Try moving the fermenter to a warmer location or use a Brew Belt or Fermwrap to heat it up a bit. Rouse the yeast often and be patient.
6. High gravity beers may show some green flavors when young.
Solution: You may need to age your high gravity beer for a long time, up to a couple of years in some cases, before it mellows and conditions out some of those “green flavors”.
But, be aware that as your beer ages, your hops will be evolving as well. If you are brewing an American Barleywine, judges often expect it to taste like an IPA, but with a lot of malt character and some residual sweetness. Taste your beer often as it conditions to get a good sense of when it is at its peak and ready to drink.
In competitions, my American Barleywines that had aged for more than a year often received negative comments from novice judges regarding hop character. The beer what won the most awards was only 6 months old when entered. The hop character was big and bright, and overall the beer was well balanced. When a big beer ages, losing hop bitterness can sometimes throw it off balance as the malty sweetness comes forward.
7. It will be very difficult to re-brew the beer and get consistent results.
Solution: Consistency is difficult even for normal home brew recipes. Be sure to take good notes throughout your brew day and during fermentation and good tasting notes during conditioning and aging.
Pay special attention to gravity readings and the rate of fermentation, weigh your nutrients and sugar additions and make good annotations of all the variables involved at the time of the addition.
If you get an award winning beer, do your best to re-brew by following your notes to the letter. The biggest variable will be the fermentation.
At the same time, be aware that there is a huge difference in the quality of competition judge’s comments. You may have to enter your high gravity beer in quite a few competitions to get a good consensus on its merits and faults before tweaking your recipe.
8. It is difficult to create balance in a high gravity beer recipe.
Solution: I suggest you go with an established recipe, one that has won awards if possible. Otherwise, you will have to experiment.
One problem is that high gravity brewing can be expensive. You will be using a lot of grain and hops as well as malt extracts (if you choose to go that route).
These big beers are meant to be sipped. So, expect it to take a while to finish a keg of 12% ABV American Barleywine. On the bright side, you could bottle and cellar age the beers for many years, enjoying vertical tastings for a very long time.
High Gravity Beer List
Here are some big beers that you may want to brew yourself:
· Barleywine or Wheatwine- American or English
· Imperial Stout / Russian Imperial Stout
· Imperial IPA / Imperial Black IPA
· Imperial “Insert Style Here” ie. Imperial Wit, Imperial Porter
· Scotch Ale / Wee Heavy
· Belgian Golden Strong Ale / Belgian Dark Strong Ale
· Belgian Dubbel / Trippel
· Old Ale
· Doppelbock / Eisbock
When you are ready take your homebrewing skills to the next level, high gravity brewing is a great place to start. Believe me, you will learn a lot and put all of your knowledge of brewing science to use. Plus, big beers that you brewed yourself make great gifts. Try bottling some of your high gravity beers in 750 ml bottles and give the ultimate gift to the beer connoisseur in your life.
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