Nick’s tips for brewing high gravity beers

Our club VP Nick took the reigns on the education session again this month and discussed tips / methods for successfully brewing high gravity beers. Below are the notes. There’s a lot!

Why go big?

Special Beers were made for Special Occasions
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

Methods Overview:
1.      Add more GRAIN (but you’ll get lower efficiency)
2.      Add more GRAIN Double Sparge Long Boil
3.      Add DME
4.      Add Sugar
5.      Partigyle (Two Beers One Mash) also called No Sparge brewing
6.      Reiterated Mash (Two mash’s One Beer)
7.      Ice-It

Method 1:  MORE GRAIN
Grain Bill - Don’t just double a Stout recipe for a Russian Imperial Stout.
•       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. 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.  This will make it too phenolic. The solution is the middle road.
•       18 lbs. of British 2-Row
•       1 lbs. of Crystal 60
•       1 lbs. of Chocolate Malt
•       1.5 lbs. of Roasted Barley

Method 2: More Grain + a Double Sparge and Long boil so your efficiency isn’t shit. 
My efficiency drops heavily when I try and do high gravity beers. Once I hit 1.065 my efficiency starts dropping from 70% to sometime down to 60% for my highest gravity attempts.  Double Sparging is a way to get more sugars out, but then you have to boil extra long.

Method 3: ADD DME  
4 lbs of DME equals 5.5 lbs of 2-Row Barley and will up your OG by 28 gravity points.

•       12.5 lbs. of British 2-Row
•       4 lbs. Dry Malt Extract
•       1 lbs. of Crystal 60
•       1 lbs. of Chocolate Malt
•       1.5 lbs. of Roasted Barley

Formulate your recipe like Method 2 as your efficiency shouldn’t drop.  Take a portion of your Base malt and replace it with the equivalent in DME.  The only reason you’d do this is if your Mash tun was too small.

Method 4: Add Sugar
Brewing Sugar has been used for ages for increasing the fermentable sugar in a beer.  I personally think it’s Belgians secret to getting such high attenuation out of their yeast and producing such dry beers!   There are a ton of sugars to choose from, but be careful because they all ferment out to different levels.  Some of them fermenting 100%.  This can dry out your beer in a hurry leaving you with a very low FG.   Take care to either Mash high to compensate (154-160 degrees) or choose a sugar that isn’t 100% fermentable.  Here is a list.

For example in the recipe above if you use Dememera Sugar, you’d use 3lbs in replace of the 4 lbs of DME or 5.5 lbs of 2-row but you’d want to mash a bit higher to achieve the right mouthfeel. In general, the lighter the sugar is, the more fermentable it will be and typically it will be 100% fermentable.  The darker the sugar, the less fermentable it will be.


Parti-gyle is the english name of the traditional mashing procedure of mashing grains with two (or even three) infusions of water, resulting in successively weaker beers. Each beer is run off to its own pot, or gyle.   And so two or more different beers can be made from the same mash. It is a technique that has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years. The lautering process can be done many ways, but the classic definition is as follows:

1.) completely drain the mash of wort (to get what are called first
2.) refill mash with sparge water, and stir
3.) recirculate and drain mash again (to get what are called second
Parti-gyle is a great way to get different beers from one mash. Because the first runnings are strong with high sugar concentration, this method is particularly useful to use where one beer is strong the other is weak. It is easy to make a barleywine or other strong beer via parti-gyle, because of this high sugar content.

Here are some ideas for different mashes to yield strong / weak beers:

Weizenbock / Dunkelweizen, Dopplebock / Dunkel, Imperial Pilsner /
CAP, Tripel / Pils,  Tripel / Belgian Pale, Belgian Strong Golden /
Kolsch (both low mash temp), Old Ale / Dark Mild, Bock / Munich
Dunkel , IPA/ Ordinary Bitter, Scotch Ale/ Scottish Ale, Barley Wine/
Pale Ale, Belgian Strong Dark / Belgian Abby Ale, Helles Bock/
anything pils based, Maibock/ Belgian Pale, Imperial Stout / Foreign
Extra or Dry Stout

There are so many other variations you could do also.  After you run off the strong beer, you can “cap” the mash.  This is adding crystal, roasted, and toasted grains to the mash before putting in the strike water for the 2nd beer.  For example, you could run off 5 gallons of barleywine, then cap the mash for a brown ale and run off 10 gallons of brown ale (5+10gal parti-gyle).  One half as an american brown, nicely hopped, and one an english brown ale.   (3 beers from the one
mash). You can also steep grains, just like extract brewing.  In the previous example, you could run off the 10 gallons or 2nd runnings, and steep the grains separately to make pale ale, and brown ale. If you can think of any two beers where the base grain bill is the same, you can steep grains in the wort, cap the mash for the 2nd runnings, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Parti-Gyle Gravity Split Table
Average OG      1/2 – 1/2 Split                   1/3rd – 2/3rd (i.e. 5+10gal)
(Total Batch)   1st half        2nd half        1/3rd (1st)     2/3rd (2nd)
1.05                    1.06               1.04                1.075            1.0375
1.051                  1.0612          1.0408          1.0765         1.0383
1.052                  1.0624         1.0416           1.078            1.039
1.053                  1.0636         1.0424           1.0795         1.0398
1.054                  1.0648         1.0432           1.081             1.0405
1.055                  1.066            1.044              1.0825         1.0413
1.056                  1.0672         1.0448           1.084            1.042
1.057                  1.0684         1.0456           1.0855         1.0428
1.058                  1.0696          1.0464          1.087            1.0435
1.059                  1.0708         1.0472          1.0885          1.0443
1.06                    1.072             1.048             1.09               1.045
1.061                  1.0732          1.0488          1.0915          1.0458
1.062                  1.0744          1.0496          1.093            1.0465
1.063                  1.0756          1.0504          1.0945         1.0473
1.064                  1.0768          1.0512           1.096           1.048
1.065                  1.078             1.052              1.0975        1.0488
1.066                  1.0792          1.0528           1.099            1.0495
1.067                  1.0804          1.0536           1.1005         1.0503
1.068                  1.0816           1.0544            1.102           1.051
1.069                  1.0828          1.0552            1.1035         1.0518
1.07                    1.084             1.056               1.105           1.0525
1.071                  1.0852          1.0568            1.1065         1.0533
1.072                  1.0864          1.0576            1.108           1.054
1.073                  1.0876          1.0584             1.1095        1.0548
1.074                  1.0888          1.0592             1.111            1.0555
1.075                  1.09                1.06                  1.1125         1.0563
1.076                  1.0912           1.0608             1.114           1.057
1.077                  1.0924          1.0616              1.1155         1.0578
1.078                  1.0936           1.0624              1.117          1.0585
1.079                  1.0948           1.0632              1.1185        1.0593
1.08                     1.096              1.064                1.12             1.06
1.081                   1.0972          1.0648             1.1215         1.0608
1.082                   1.0984          1.0656             1.123            1.0615
1.083                   1.0996          1.0664            1.1245          1.0623
1.084                   1.1008           1.0672             1.126           1.063
1.085                   1.102              1.068                1.1275        1.0638
1.086                   1.1032            1.0688             1.129           1.0645
1.087                   1.1044            1.0696             1.130          1.0653
1.088                   1.1056            1.0704             1.132          1.066
1.089                   1.1068             1.0712              1.1335      1.0668
1.09                      1.108               1.072                 1.135         1.0675
1.091                   1.1092             1.0728              1.1365       1.0683
1.092                   1.1104             1.0736              1.138          1.069
1.093                   1.1116               1.0744             1.1395       1.0698
1.094                   1.1128              1.0752              1.141          1.0705
1.095                   1.114                 1.076                 1.1425       1.0713
*using 60%-40% points split for 1/2-1/2 split batch and 50%-50%
points split for 1/3rd-2/3rd batch

General process goes as follows: You have two mash tuns with similar grainbills where your essentially going to use the first runnings from both tuns. 20 lbs of Grain in one 5 gallon batch o beer! First you infuse 6.5 gallons of water into 10 lbs of grain for 30 minutes at 154 degrees.  From this you should get about 5 gallons of wort at 1.065-1.070.   Sparge with 3 gallons and add that to the 5 gallons.  Together it should be somewhere in the 1.060-1.065 range. Heat those 8 gallons up to strike the second mash tun and rest at 148 for 1 hour.  Drain and you should have a wort of an OG of 1.110. This should produce a beverage of 11%-12.5% Abv

HOPS – Use more of them!
First, a high-gravity brew will have lower efficiency of hop utilization than a lower-gravity brew which means you need to use more hops then normal. Also the components that produce hop aroma and flavor are the first things to go as beer ages.  It makes sense then to use more hops depending on how long you want it to age.  It also helps if you’ve cellared hoppy beers and experimented. 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. First Wort Hopping (FWH) with a 90-minute boil is key for all “big” beers.

Yeast 1: Make a HUGE Starter
Pitching new beer on top of old yeast is a time-honored tradition and it will serve you well.

Yeast 2: Babysitting Your Yeast
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. Talk about my Tripel not fully attenuating because of this.  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% 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. 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 to get the yeast back into suspension. 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.

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.   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.  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. 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.

High Gravity Ales overview

a. Traditionally brewed as beers for special occasions from 1st
b. Typically original gravities are 1.060 – 1.070 and higher.
c. Challenges:
i. Recipe formulation; hop utilization and esters.
ii. Fermentation not starting quickly, typically requires a yeast
iii. Stuck fermentation, typically from lack of oxygen as the solubility of oxygen decreases with increased wort concentration. Fermentation requires oxygen, high wort concentration leads to low O2, as fermentation goes on, the O2 is consumed and eventually gone and fermentation stops.  Aerate properly. Use a yeast starter. Pitch more yeast
iv. Achieving complete attenuation often requires extra care
1. longer fermentations
2. multiple pitching
3. rousing the yeast
a. Agitate (old breweries used to “walk” the cask)
b. Personal experience, racking the beer
v. Fermentation going too hot in the first 2 days of primary creating
unwanted fruity esters and hot alcohol in finished product such as
fusels and acetone.

3. Some high gravity styles and their SG range.
a.  Barley Wines; 1.090 – 1.120
b. India Pale Ale; 1.050 – 1.070
c. Bock 1.066 – 1.074, Maibock 1.066 – 1.068, Doppelbock 1.074 –
1.080, Eisbock 1.092 – 1.116
d. Fruit beers; max 1.116
e. Old Ales; 1.057 – 1.125
f. Strong Scotch 90/-; 1.072 – 1.085
g. Foreign Stout; 1.052 – 1.072, Imperial Stout; 1.075 – 1.095+
h. Märzen/Oktoberfest; 1.052 – 1.064
i. Weizen Bock; 1.065 – 1.080

4. Recommended yeasts
a. White Labs
i. WLP007 Dry English Ale
ii. WLP099 Super High Gravity Ale (ferment up to 25%)
iii. WLP500 Trappist Ale
iv. WLP510 Belgian Bastogne Ale
v. WLP530 Abbey Ale or WLP540 Abbey IV Ale
vi. WLP570 Belgian Golden Ale
b. Wyeast Labs
i. 1728 Scottish Ale
ii. 1084 Irish Ale
iii. 1214 Belgian Abbey
iv. 1388 Belgian Strong
v. 1762 Belgian Abbey II
vi. 3787 Trappist High Gravity
vii.  American Ale 1056 (14%) or American Ale II 1272 (18%)

5. Specific Beers
a. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company – Bigfoot Ale
b. New Holland Brewing Company has a High Gravity series of 8
different beers
c. Ayinger – Celebrator Doppelbock
d. Bell’s Brewing Company – Expedition Stout
e. Founders Brewing Company – Harvest Ale

6. 21% ABV All-grain Beer (

Short List of Sugars:

Corn sugar/syrup: Probably the most common of the sugars we’ll be discussing, corn sugar is made up almost entirely of glucose/dextrose. It will ferment completely, contributing more alcohol content than a similar amount of malt extract, and will lighten the body and flavor of the brew. Corn sugar will also ferment very rapidly, and will thus shorten the time your beer will need to spend fermenting. The most common use of corn sugar is as a priming sugar during the bottling process. For more details, see Homebrewing 104: Bottling and Carbonation. If you’re using corn syrup, make sure it is pure corn syrup, and doesn’t have any flavorings or preservatives added (as storebought corn syrup often does).

Table sugar: As mentioned previously, table sugar is 100% refined sucrose, derived from beets or sugar cane. Unlike malt extracts, which contain a variety of non-sugars and have a strong flavor component, table sugar is completely fermentable and will contribute no flavor at all to your beer. For this reason, its most common use is to boost the alcohol content of the finished brew. Impure or unrefined beet sugars should not be used, as they contribute flavors which are decidedly unpleasant (we’re not making borscht here). Impure or unrefined cane sugar, such as cane syrup, sugar cane juice, or whole sugar cane can be used, but in large quantities will contribute a dry, cidery acidity to your final product.

Malto-dextrin: Sold to homebrewers in powder form, malto-dextrin is a combination of malt extract and dextrin, a complex sugar consisting of a chain of dextrose molecules. This chain cannot be broken by beer yeast without the assistance of enzymes, and so is often used commercially when brewers want to sweeten the finished beer. It also adds a little body and contributes to head retention, and many homebrewers I know will add between a quarter- and a half-pound of malto-dextrin to every beer they brew for these reasons alone. You will also find it as an ingredient on many “imitation” or “clone” recipes, which attempt to recreate the character of one commercially-produced beer or another.

Lactose: As mentioned earlier, lactose is not fermentable by normal beer yeasts. This means that its flavor will not change when it is used in beer. Lactose is the primary sugar in milk, and has a characteristic milky or creamy taste as a result. It is also the least sweet of all the sugars. It is most commonly used in certain varieties of stout, such as sweet stouts, milk stouts and cream stouts. Usually, about half a pound is enough for a five-gallon batch of any of these, although I have seen recipes that use as much as a full pound. Remember that, because it is not fermentable, lactose should be added above and beyond the normal complement of sugars in your beer. Some people prefer to add the lactose at the time of priming, althoughbecause of its non-fermentable nature, I fail to see what possible difference this could make.

Brown sugar: Table sugar is made by refining sugar cane syrup. When the refining process is complete, the stuff that has been removed is molasses. Brown sugar is simply cane syrup that has been incompletely refined. That is, the process was halted before all of the molasses was removed from the syrup. This means that, while brown sugar does possess similar characteristics to table sugar, it also retains some unfermentable sugars and other compounds which will lend their own characteristic flavor to your beer. Brown sugar is often used by homebrewers in stouts, alts and other dark beers that require a long fermentation, as it is difficult to ferment. Brown sugar should never be used for priming, as it distributes itself fairly unevenly, and can result in some beers being flat, while others explode in the bottle.

Molasses: As already discussed, molasses is made up of the byproducts of the refinement of cane syrup. As a result, about 25-40% of molasses is completely unfermentable. This means that, more so than any of the other sugars we’ll be discussing here, molasses will contribute a very strong flavor to your brew. This flavor is not unpleasant, and actually goes quite well in some stouts, porters, and brown ales, but it is very potent. One cup will contribute a noticeable flavor to 5 gallons of beer, while more than 1.5 or 2 cups will threaten to overpower it. An excess of molasses will also add a large amount of body to your beer, making it heavy and undrinkable in quantity. Molasses should never be used as a priming sugar.

Sorghum: While it is often labeled “sorghum molasses”, sorghum is not molasses. It is a syrup derived from the sorghum plant, and while its flavor is similar, it is unique in its own way and is slightly more fermentable. It can be used in somewhat larger quantities, but be conservative with it. Like molasses, do not use it for priming.

Rice syrup: Instead of being made from malted barley, rice syrup is made from malted rice. The resulting syrup has a high concentration of glucose, with smaller amounts of maltose and fructose. Unlike malt, rice has very little inherent flavor, and a beer heavy in rice syrup will have a lighter color and a lighter, crisper flavor. Most of the commercial American pilseners such as Budweiser use a significant quantity of rice syrup to brew their beer.

Maple syrup: I have personally never had the cojones to brew a beer using maple syrup, although I can envision situations in which it might work very well. In Charlie Papazian’s “New Complete Joy of Home Brewing”, he advocates the use of at least one gallon of maple syrup in a five-gallon batch of beer. Most commercial storebought maple syrup is less than 5% actual maple syrup, the rest being made up of corn syrup. This is fairly cheap stuff, while pure maple syrup can run $10-12 US per quart. Papazian doesn’t make it clear which variety he’s talking about, but if it’s the latter, that’s an expensive batch of beer. In either case, the amount seems high to me, and I can only imagine a very strongly maple-flavored brew as a result. Other recipes I’ve encountered utilizing maple syrup have used as little as 12 ounces, and I’ve never seen one that used more than two quarts (half a gallon). This range seems more reasonable to me, and if you’re going to brew a maple-augmented beer, I’d suggest starting smaller and increasing the amount in future batches if it works well.

Honey: Honey is a very popular ingredient in beer, and rightfully so. It also has a number of special considerations which the other sugars we’ve discussed do not. Honey contains a variety of sugars, mostly glucose and fructose, but smaller amounts of maltose and sucrose as well. In addition to the sugars, honey is likely to contain other ingredients, which can include pollen, enzymes, wild yeast, beeswax and even tiny fragments of the bees themselves. These will be present in greater concentrations in raw honey, which you might get at a roadside stand or farmer’s market. None of these are necessarily bad things, but honey should always be boiled for the full duration of your wort, at least 60 minutes, to neutralize any potentially harmful ingredients (harmful to your beer, not to you). Honey is very fermentable, and will lend a dry, crisp sweetness to your beer. It’s a very tasty addition to weiss beers, lagers, and lighter ales. One pound of honey is usually enough, and more than two pounds will detract noticeably from your beer’s malty character. There are several types of honey available. The two most popular among homebrewers are clover honey, which has the most “traditional” honey flavor, and orange blossom honey, which contributes pleasant citrus undertones. Alfalfa honey is probably the lightest and least flavorful variety, making it popular for those who want to avoid the often saccharine finish that honey can lend to a beer. Some farms and markets may also sell wildflower honey, which has a light, flowery, almost herbal aroma and flavor which can be a wonderful complement to certain types of aromatic hops when used in pale ales and other light brews.