Monday, July 18, 2016

Homebrewing Big Beers

Our homebrew club recently used club dues to buy a 30 gallon used whiskey barrel. We talked about the purchase as a club and also the brews that would go in the barrel. We decided the first brew would be a nice big, heavy and dark beer that could handle the strong whiskey flavor that's likely to come from a freshly used barrel.

We discussed putting a second clean beer through the barrel, an option I was in favor of, but some of our more experienced members have had bad experiences trying to use a barrel more than once for cleans beers so we're going to use the barrel for sours after this initial batch. If you've had success using a barrel multiple times for clean beers I'd be interested in hearing about the experience in the comments.

Our club president loves his big, rich, club you over the head with a hammer imperial stouts so he provided the recipe for this brew. We served the same beer in Baltimore on club night at this years Homebrewcon only it wasn't barrel aged. I personally thought it was the best beer on tap but it didn't win the popular vote.

We had 4 club members get together and brew their portions together yesterday and three others who are brewing at home and bringing the beer in for transfer. All together we had 7 members at the brew session to help with handling of such a large beer which brings me to the gist of this post.

Big Beer Gotchas and Tips


Cost - Brewing a 5 gallon batch of Russian Imperial Stout can be a surprisingly expensive undertaking. Instead of 10-15 lbs of grain you're likely buying around 30 lbs of grain. Even if you make yeast starters you're likely looking at $50-$75 for all the ingredients. This beer cost $59 with the 15% discount  we get at our LHBS. That means we spent $420 to fill the 30 gallon barrel.

Equipment - You can pretty much figure on needing two of everything when you're brewing a 12% beer. 2 Yeast Starters, 2 mash tuns, 2 buckets for milled grain and two brewers ;-). The yeast starters are a must. A beer this big (1.126) needs a lot of happy yeast so you need two 1.5 liter starters. You might be able to get away with 1 mash tun if you have at least a 12 gallon tun and keep your water to grain ratio at 1 qt / 1 lb of grain. This is a pretty thick mash but it will convert. I brewed an 8.5 gallon batch this time around with a 17.5 gallon tun and at 1 qt / 1 lb grain it was overflowing when I tried to stir. Tip: with a thick mash like this I found it helps efficiency to stir every 15 minutes. 

Helpers - You probably can brew a big beer by yourself but having help makes the day much more pleasant. Lifting, mashing in, boil over watching and being able to grab a bite to eat are all good reasons to have some help. If you are brewing alone a pump is the next best option!

Efficiency - Maybe this is just me but this is my second RIS and it's the second time I came nowhere close to hitting my preboil estimate. If you normally have 72% effciency you might be able to count on 60% efficiency but 55% is more likely in my experience. The first one was way off and I needed to add 3 lbs dme to hit my numbers. This time around wasn't that bad I was only off by about 9 GU but it was still around 14% off my normal efficiency. If you don't know how to adjust your gravity based on your preboil SG measurement, byo has a good article here.

Time - A longer mash and sparge are not required but help a little with hitting your numbers. You also get the most bang for your buck if you take a second runnings and produce another beer after the Imperial. I do this with any beer over 1.070 because it really only takes an extra hour to get another 5 gallons of beer if you plan the day out.

Fermentation - Big beers bring big fermentation. This means blow off tubes, blow off tubes, blow off tubes! Don't use a standard airlock, you'll regret it.

I'm sure there's more and if I think of anything I'll do a follow up post. If you have any advice I'd love to hear it in the comments.