A Home Brewer’s Personal Journey through His Craft – Part 24
In the last part of our journey, if you all can remember back that far, I promised we would explore the limits of what beer can be. What is the strongest beer in the world? Well, that somewhat depends on what your definition of beer is. Is it purely a fermented product or can that be taken a step further by distilling and still be considered beer?
Consider this, distilled products such as whiskey, bourbon, or scotch, all start out very similar to beer as a fermented grain product. This is then heat distilled to evaporate the alcohol which is then condensed and collected and aged to develop the specific characteristics of the final product.
There is another form of distilling that has recently made a resurgence in the beer world, ice brewing or ice distilling. Legend has it that this was discovered by accident. A young apprentice at a German brewery mistakenly left a large wooden cask of bock beer outside before a major winter storm. When the snow melted it was found that the beer had frozen and split the cask open. Encased in that large barrel of ice could be seen unfrozen liquid. The brewers drilled into the ice and tapped the beer inside. It was found to be rich, flavorful, and much higher in alcohol content. Thus was born, Eisbock.
Unlike heat distillation, which extracts the alcohol from the brew; ice distillation removes the water from the brew, leaving the alcohol behind. This method has been used recently to produce several very high ABV beers. Currently, the strongest beer in the world, produced by the ice method, is a Belgian ale called End of History, brewed by Brew Dogs of Scotland. This comes in at an astonishing 55% ABV. That is 110 proof people, stronger than most whisky. I question if this is really still beer. Reportedly only 12 bottles of this were produced.
Beer purists will argue that beer must be a purely fermented product and I agree. The strongest beer in the world produced without any distillation or fortification is Sam Adams’ Utopias at 27% ABV for the 2009 release. This is cask aged in any combination of scotch, bourbon, port, cognac, muscatel, sherry, or brandy barrels for up to 10 years and blended to produce the final product. It is brewed from a variety of malted barleys and maple syrup using two proprietary strains of yeast. I believe the original release in 2001, which was 24% ABV, was brewed with yeast similar to White Labs WLP099 Super High Gravity Ale Yeast. This is available to home brewers and is advertised to be capable of producing beers up to 25% ABV; although this takes some very careful coaxing and nursing along to get those results.
I have attempted to make these extreme beers three times, once as an Eisbock and twice as high gravity fermentations. The first we will discuss, I called December Eisbock, was based on an article and recipe in the December 2003 issue of Brew Your Own magazine. The article was titled “Ice Block Eisbock” by Horst Dornbusch. I made a few changes and cut the recipe in half for a more manageable quantity to lager and freeze.
3 lbs Pilsner malt
4 lbs Munich malt
1 lb Caramunich malt
10 oz Pale malt
½ oz Homegrown Santiam whole cone hops (75 min)
½ oz Hersbruker whole cone hops (5 min)
½ tsp Irish Moss (15 min)
UCCS 2206 Bavarian Lager yeast
WLP099 Super High Gravity Ale yeast
This is a step infusion mash. Heat two gallons water to 122°F, add milled malts, stir, cover, and let mash for 30 minutes. Infuse one liter near boiling water and raise heat to 148°F, cover and let mash for 15 minutes. Infuse another liter of near boiling water and heat to 156°F, cover and let mash for another 15 minutes. Sparge with 180°F water and collect four gallons of wort. Kettle gravity at this point was 1.058.
Boil the wort for 45 minutes before making the first hop addition and add hops and Irish Moss at times indicated for an additional 75 minute boil. Total boil time, 120 minutes. Wort has boiled down to three gallons at this point.
Remove kettle from heat and let settle for a few minutes. Remove one pint of hot wort and seal in a sterile container. This will be used for Speise Krausening (priming) with the WLP099 yeast at bottling. Cool the remaining wort to 60°F, pour into fermenter and pitch the Bavarian Lager yeast. Initial gravity was 1.074.
After 5 days of primary fermentation, rack the beer to a secondary fermenter and move to refrigerator for lagering at about 36F for nine weeks. The final gravity at this point was 1.018 for about 7.25% ABV. Rack to a plastic tub, cover and move to freezer.
After about 12-14 hours the beer was nearly completely frozen, so I had to move it to the refrigerator to thaw just a little. I was going to have to remove about one gallon water in the form of ice to get to the target 12% ABV. The beer was slushy and I was able to remove a gallon or more of ice. The problem is this is an inexact science, There was still a lot of beer (alcohol, malt, hop, color, flavor) trapped in the ice. After the ice melted it looked just like the beer and had a gravity of 1.010.
Bottle the beer with the WLP099 yeast, priming with the reserved pint of Speise wort. After all this effort, I ended up with only 15 12 oz bottles.
I let this beer bottle condition for six weeks after which it tasted very much like a barleywine. It had a bit of an oxidized flavor which is to be expected and is even an acceptable part of the flavor profile for an Eisbock. The oxidation diminished over time. The carbonation was more than adequate and continued to increase as it aged. This was a very nice, heavy, strong beer; easily falling into the 10-12% ABV range.
Our next extreme brew was my grandiose attempt to duplicate Sam Adams Utopias. I did some research on the Sam Adams website regarding three of their high gravity beers; Triple Bock, Millennium, and Utopias. I also obtained a small hint from Jim Koch himself at the GABF two years previously. He was serving the Triple Bock specially aged on raspberries for the GABF. I wondered, is that something they may do for the Utopias as well?
The ingredients for this brew are pure SWAG, but are my best guess based on what I could find. The process is based on information from White Labs regarding how to get the best result from the WLP099 yeast. Also, using information from another article in the December 2003 issue of Brew Your Own, “Brewing the Big Ones” by Bill Pierce.
1 lb +1 cup Extra Light DME
8 lb 2 row British Pale Malt
2 lb 60L Crystal Malt
2 lb Vienna Malt
1 Tbsp Burton Water Salts
2 Tbsp Yeast nutrient
2 oz Tettnang whole cone hops (90 min)
1 oz Spalt hop pellets (45 min)
1 oz Saaz whole cone hops (45 min)
1 oz Hallertau whole cone hops (15 min)
7 pints pure Maple syrup
1 vial WLP002 English Ale yeast
3 vials WLP099 Super High Gravity Ale yeast
4 cups plain oak chips
2 12 oz bags of fresh frozen raspberries
2 cups Remy Martin VS Grand Cru Cognac
2 cups Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry
Prepare two sealed 1 qt containers, each with 2 cups oak chips and 12 oz thawed raspberries. In one add 2 cups cognac and the other, 2 cups sherry. Refrigerate until needed in secondary and tertiary fermenter. This will be used to simulate the cask aging.
Prepare a starter for the WLP002 English Ale Yeast. Bring 1 cup DME to boil in 1 liter cold water. Cool and pour into large sanitized bottle, pitch yeast, shake well to aerate and attach fermentation lock. Wait one or two days until this is very active before beginning brew.
Heat 14 qt water treated with water salts to 170°F and add milled malts, stir well and stabilize temperature at 153°F for 60 minutes covered. Increase temperature to 167°F, lauter and sparge with three gallons 170°F water, collect 5 gallons of wort.
Add four pints maple syrup and bring to a boil, add hops at times indicated for a total 90 minute boil. Cool and transfer to primary fermenter. Should have about 4 ½ gallons at this point, do not add any water to top off. Pitch the WLP002 yeast starter.
I was afraid this was going to be a disaster. The basement brewery I was building in our new home in Colorado Springs was not yet functional so I was attempting to do this on the kitchen stove. It is one of those flat glass top stoves. They heat up very quickly but are thermostatically controlled to protect the glass top. This means they do not provide continuous heat but cycle on and off once they reach temperature. It takes for freaking ever to boil a large kettle of water and to keep it boiling, like 2 ¼ hours to heat the mash water to 170°F!
I should have waited a couple more weeks but was impatient to get this party started. This was the most complicated and expensive brew I had ever attempted so why shouldn’t it get screwed up, it is only to be expected.
The fermentation began very quickly and became very vigorous. After three days it began to slow down. At this point prepare another yeast starter with 1 lb DME in 1 gallon of water boiled for 30 minutes, cooled, and add 2 vials of WLP099. When the starter becomes active, about one day, shake it up well to aerate and pitch into the primary fermenter.
Activity may or may not increase depending on how much fermentables are left from the WLP002 yeast. Give it two or three days and then add one pint maple syrup diluted with one pint water and 1 Tbsp yeast nutrient. The activity increased dramatically for one day and then slowed again just as quickly. Add another pint of diluted maple syrup and another Tbsp of nutrient. Activity will pick up again and this time let it go until it has nearly stopped, about six days.
Strain the raspberry, oak, and cognac mixture into a secondary fermenter letting it drain well. Rack the brew into the secondary. There were very minimal signs of continued activity in the secondary. After four days, add another pint of maple syrup, undiluted, and another vial of WLP099.
Activity continued very slowly, seeming to cycle one day on and one day off. This continued for three weeks. Strain the raspberry, oak, and sherry mixture into a tertiary fermenter letting it drain well. Rack the brew into the tertiary.
Let the beer settle out and clear for 18 days before bottling without any priming sugars and let bottle condition for three months.
At room temperature it was very clear amber color with light, rapidly dispersing carbonation and a little sweet with some wine flavor. Body was very light and the alcohol was immediately apparent. Chilled, it turned very muddy looking from heavy chill haze and the carbonation was nearly non-existent. Very good stuff, maybe not really what I expected but very good anyway.
I shared a bottle with Jason Yester, then head brewer at Bristol. He thought the flavor profile was right on track with Utopias but the ABV was low, probably 15-16%. You will notice I did not take any gravity readings. I decided they would be rather irrelevant given all the additions and had no idea how calculate or adjust for them.
I let this beer age for a long time, trying one or two about once a month. At about 2 ½ years I presented one at the Bristol Christmas party where Jason commented he thought it was the best beer there.
At 5 ½ years, my brother surprised me by pulling one out I had given him when it was only six months old. It was simply amazing with the raspberry and sherry being the primary flavors. By this time I only had two bottles left and had not tried one in over two years. I took one of those bottles to a Bristol employee meeting. Mike Bristol and brewer Joe Hull were amazed as was everyone who sampled it. Joe commented the aroma reminds him of Utopias but the flavor (maple, raspberry, sherry) was less intense and better, more drinkable. He also made the best compliment I have ever received as a brewer, “I don’t want to drink it because the aroma is so wonderful, if I drink it, it will be gone.”
As of this writing I do not have any of this left but I am considering doing it again.
Our third extreme beer was inspired by a brew Jason was doing at Bristol. It was a Double Imperial Stout. He had asked me if I had ever brewed with maple syrup or molasses. That was when I shared the Utopias clone with him and showed him the recipe I had used. He told me of his plans to brew the Double Imperial Stout. I advised him the WLP099 was the yeast he needed to use but I suspect he already knew that. I decided I would try to brew this as well. Bristol’s beer was ultimately released as XXX Warlock Double Imperial Stout at 18.4% ABV. I called mine Old Black Magic Double Imperial Stout at about 17.25% ABV.
Old Black Magic Double Imperial Stout
8 lb Pale malt
1 lb Munich malt
1 lb Vienna malt
1 lb 120L Crystal malt
1 lb Rye malt
1 lb Chocolate malt
1 lb Black Patent malt
1 lb Roasted barley
3 tsp gypsum
1 tsp Irish Moss (15 min)
1 pint Organic Blackstrap Molasses
1 qt Honey
4 qt Organic Grade B Maple syrup
2 oz Galena hop pellets 10.5% (90 min)
2 oz Bullion hop pellets 7.9% (90 min)
2 oz Willamette whole cone hops 4.7% (60 min)
1 oz Fuggle whole cone hops 4.5% (15 min)
1 oz Fuggle whole cone hops 4.5% (5 min)
3 vials WLP099 Super High Gravity Ale yeast
This is a step infusion mash. Heat 3 gallons cold water treated with gypsum to 132°F and add milled malts. Temperature dropped to 120°F so I added 1 liter hot water to raise temperature to 125°F. Cover and let mash for 30 minutes. Infuse 2 liters 180°F water and increase temperature to 148°F and let rest for 15 minutes. Infuse 1 ½ liters 180°F water and increase temperature to 156°F Cover and let rest for 15 minutes. Lauter and sparge with 180°F water and collect 6 ½ gallons of wort.
Stir in molasses and bring to a boil, adding hops and Irish Moss at times indicated for a total 90 minute boil. Cool wort and pitch two vials of yeast. Initial gravity was 1.086.
After four days in the primary fermenter, rack to secondary and add 1 quart maple syrup. Gravity before adding syrup was 1.040 and 1.054 after adding syrup.
After three days of strong fermentation the gravity was 1.036. Add another quart of maple syrup raising the gravity to 1.058. It became very active again within three hours.
After another three days the gravity was 1.032. Add another quart of syrup raising the gravity to 1.045.
This time it took eight days for the activity to subside. The yeast was slowing down. The gravity was at 1.028. Add the final quart of syrup raising the gravity to 1.038. The brew became very active again within 1 ½ hours.
I let it sit for 17 days at which time the gravity was down to 1.024. Add 1 quart honey increasing gravity to 1.034.
Activity continued very slowly and after about two weeks the gravity was at 1.023. I let it go another 1 ½ weeks and decided to rack to a tertiary fermenter and add the third vial of WLP099. I took another gravity reading after racking and much to my surprise it had increased to 1.045. I suspect some unfermented maple syrup and honey had settled to the bottom of the secondary and had gotten remixed into the brew with the action of racking to the tertiary.
After another two weeks of very minimal activity the gravity was now at 1.028. I assumed there had been both some additional fermentation and resettling of the syrup and honey. Adding up all the incremental gravity changes, I determined the ABV was now at about 18.2%. Also, after taking in account the increased volume from the syrup and honey additions, I determined the final ABV to be somewhere between 16% and 18%. Upon final consideration and calculation, I decided to claim 17.25%.
I bottled this without any priming sugar since I suspected there was still some unfermented honey and syrup. It tasted sweet, roasted, bitter, and was very black.
I tried the first bottle after 6 months of conditioning. It had no carbonation but was very good and very strong. It was roasted black, it was sweet, it was bitter, it was Old Black Magic. It was wonderful with a very warming alcohol presence. It was so rich and strong that finishing a 12 oz was a bit of a challenge.
I let it age another 9 months and it was freaking awesome. As I stated before, this is so rich and powerful, finishing a bottle can be a challenge, but a challenge I was up to.
This just continued to improve with age but I am sorry to say that it is now long gone. The depth of flavor from the large quantity of dark roasted malts was an amazing counter-balance with the strong alcohol presence. The hint of maple syrup and a mead-like hint of honey combined with the roasted malt produced a flavor like dried dark fruits.
We did a side by side tasting with Bristol’s XXX Warlock and my Old Black Magic. The best comment I recall from that was they both were awesome brews but, “The XXX was all about the alcohol content and was two dimensional at best, while the OBM had more depth of flavor, at least five dimensional!”
OK, that’s three extreme beers down leaving us 16 bottles of beer on the wall. Next time we meet to take some down and pass ‘em around I think we will go south of the border and explore some chili beers.
Keep on Brewin’
To be continued…