Making Big Holiday Beers

“Well, the weather outside is frightful, and the fire is so delightful. And since you’ve no place to go…” well, then you’d better have some big winter beers in the fridge.

Although many “big beer” styles are available year-round, winter is the time when breweries release special  holiday beers. Many of these winter seasonals are high-alcohol beers — monster beers that are bigger, maltier and have a bite that can’t be found in your average-strength beer.

You don’t need to be a mad scientist to make one, but successfully brewing a high-gravity beer involves much more than simply piling on the malt.  Creating a monster beer requires skill and patience. Almost every stage of the brewing process must be modified. Most importantly, the brewer needs to pay special attention to taming the yeast during fermentation. If they are allowed to run amok, the resulting beer will be frightful indeed.

Characteristics of Big Beers:  

The characteristics of big beers differ from normal-strength beers in a variety of ways. Many of these differences are due to products made by the yeast during fermentation. Under-standing the elements that are likely to be found in a high-gravity beer, and the brewing conditions that influence them, will help you formulate your big-beer recipes and plan your brewing procedures with care.


First, and most obviously, the familiar sweet taste and smell of alcohol is a key part of the flavor profile of big beers. In some big beers, such as doppelbocks, the alcohol is noticeable but blends with the other flavors of the beer. In higher-alcohol beers, such as barleywines, the alcohol imparts a definite bite.

Normal-strength beers contain between 4 and 5.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Most beer yeasts cannot tolerate alcohol levels over 12% ABV, so this puts an upper limit on beer alcohol unless special yeast strains or brewing procedures — such as freezing or distilling — are employed. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines list the following alcohol levels for several styles of big brews: IPA (5–7.8%), wee heavy (6.9–8.5+%), English and American-style barleywine (8-12+%), Russian imperial stout (8–12+%) and doppelbock (7.5–12%).

The amount of alcohol in a beer depends on a variety of factors. Alcohol comes from the fermentation of wort sugars. So, the more sugars in the wort, the more potential alcohol in the final beer. However, several variables influence what percentage of the wort sugars are converted to alcohol.

In order to brew a high-alcohol beer, you need a yeast that will tolerate high alcohol levels. Some yeast strains are more alcohol-tolerant than others. Strains with low alcohol tolerance will begin fermenting a high-gravity wort, but will quickly drop out of solution, leaving many of the sugars untouched. Yeast manufacturers generally point out when a yeast strain is alcohol tolerant. However, be aware that some yeast strains are not labeled as alcohol-tolerant, yet still work well in high-gravity fermentations.

Attenuation is another important property to consider when selecting a yeast strain. Attenuation is the percentage of wort sugars a yeast strain will consume under optimal conditions. Highly attenuative yeasts leave less sugar behind and produce drier beers. Most beer strains exhibit apparent attenuations of between 68 and 77 percent. A strain with high alcohol tolerance need not be highly attenuative. Some Scottish ale strains can tolerate high alcohol levels, yet leave a considerable amount of sugar behind. This makes them perfect for wee heavies and other big, sweet beers. If you want to brew a big, dry beer, you’ll want to select an alcohol tolerant and highly attenutive yeast strain.

The types of malts used also influence alcohol production, as malts differ in their fermentability. The sugars contributed to a wort by specialty malts, such as crystal malt, are typically less fermentable than those that come from pale malts. Usually, specialty grains contribute less than 20% of the wort sugars. Conversely, simple sugars like corn sugar, sucrose or glucose are entirely fermentable. Simple sugars can be added to levels of up to 20% of the wort sugars. Wort made from an all-grain mash is typically, though not always, more fermentable than an all-extract wort. Malt extracts vary wildly in their fermentability.

So, worts made with a lot of specialty grains, and few or no added simple sugars, will most likely end up somewhat sweet. Conversely, a wort made with few specialty grains but many simple sugars will be drier. Alcohol production also depends on how well you run your fermentation.

If your goal is to produce a very high alcohol beer, you would need to select an alcohol-tolerant, attenuative yeast strain. You would then need to pitch that yeast to a highly-fermentable wort; one made with a minimum of specialty malts and with many simple sugars. See the recipes for Santa’s Claws, Troödon Tripel and Marfa Lights Malt Liquor for examples of styles that maximize — or at least emphasize — alcohol production.


Levels of fermentation by-products, such as esters, are likely to be elevated in a high-gravity beer. Esters are molecules that make a beer smell fruity or solvent-like. The degree to which esters are evident in the resulting beer depends on many factors. The higher the gravity and the higher the fermentation temperature, the higher the ester levels. Other fermentation by-products, such as higher alcohols (fusel oils), are also increased at high gravities and temperatures. In some styles, such as barleywines, these products are an accepted part of the styles. In others, such as  doppelbocks, brewers attempt to minimize them.


Most big beers contain more residual malt sugars than ordinary beers because the yeast stop fermenting at a higher final gravity. In some big beers, brewers use extra means to lower the final specific gravity. These methods include adding champagne yeast after primary fermentation. Using more fermentable adjuncts also yields a drier beer. For example, some Belgian brewers add Belgian candi sugar to boost the alcohol content — but not the body — of many of their big beers. The sweetness of a big beer is also accentuated by alcohol, which tastes sweet.

If your goal is to brew a high-alcohol beer with some residual sweetness, choose an alcohol-tolerant, but lowly-attenuative yeast. Pitch this yeast into a wort with a reasonable amount of sugars from specialty malts, and few simple sugars. See the recipes for Nessie’s Wee Heavy and Monkey Man IPA for beers that have a sweet finish.


There are essentially two ways brewers deal with the sweetness of big beers. They can accentuate the maltiness of the beer or attempt to balance the sweetness with hop bitterness. In high-gravity worts, however, hop bitterness is harder to extract than it is in normal worts. So, making a bitter big beer takes a little extra effort. See the  recipe for Grendel’s Barleywine or Monkey Man IPA for an example of a big beer with a bitter edge.


Most homebrewers bottle condition their beers. When bottle conditioning a high-alcohol beer, the yeast may have trouble fermenting the bottling sugars since high levels of alcohol inhibit yeast. Hence, most bottle-conditioned big beers exhibit a low level of carbonation. Kegged beers can, of course, be carbonated to any level desired. Most big beers, however, are lightly carbonated, containing less than 1.8 volumes of carbon dioxide (CO2).


The head on a high-alcohol beer is usually thinner and less lasting than the head on a normal-strength beer. Head retention is decreased by the presence of ethanol and higher alcohols (fusel oils).

Brewing BIG BEERS:

Successfully brewing a big beer requires making modifications to almost every step in the brewing process. Some of these modifications, such as adding more hops, are simple for a homebrewer to accomplish. However, the most important step — managing a good fermentation — will take considerable effort.

When brewing normal-strength beers, you can sometimes compensate for a shortfall in one aspect of your procedure by modifying other aspects. You can, for example, pitch more yeast if your aeration is inadequate. In the biggest beers, however, you have little room for error. Even small shortcomings can have large, negative consequences.

The most common flaw in big homebrews are fermentations that stop short — the yeast simply don’t chew through enough of the sugars. This leaves a cloying, sickly-sweet beer. Excessive fermentation byproducts, such as fruity esters and solvent-like fusel oils, are also common defects. Brewing a big beer is a challenge, but — if you follow the recommendations below — you can create a monster.

Wort Production:

Brewing a big beer begins with making the wort. For extract brewers, this step is straightforward. Simply stir your malt extract into your brewing water, and prepare for the boil.

For all-grain brewers, wort production is a bit more difficult. When brewing a normal-strength beer, an all-grain brewer mashes the grains in hot water, then rinses the grain bed with sparge water to extract the malt sugars. When brewing a high-gravity beer, a brewer must alter his usual procedures to boost the specific gravity of the wort he runs off from his grain bed. First of all, begin with a mash that is as thick as possible. The thicker the mash, the higher the gravity of the first runnings. Overly-thick mashes lead to poor conversion, however, so don’t drop below 1.25 quarts (1.2 L) of water per pound (0.45 kg) of grain.

Second, omit or limit the sparge and collect only the early, higher-gravity runnings from the grain bed. In a normal gravity beer, the grain bed is sparged and progressively lower gravity wort is run off. Usually, the brewer quits collecting wort when the runnings drop below 1.010, or thereabouts. For higher gravity beers, brewers frequently stop collecting wort at much higher gravities (1.020 or higher). This lowers the brewer’s extract efficiency since some of the sugars are not extracted from the grain bed. However, the wort is not diluted by the late, low-gravity runnings. Even with a thick mash and a truncated sparge, the wort collected may still be too low in gravity for the biggest beer styles. If this is the case, the wort will have to be condensed by a long boil.

There is one simple way for all-grain brewers to avoid the low efficiencies and extended boil times required with straight all-grain brewing of a high-gravity beer. If you spike your all-grain wort with malt extract, you can mash and sparge as you normally do, then simply make up the difference by adding malt extract.

The Boil:

For extract brewers making a big beer, a couple modifications to their usual boiling procedure will lead to a better beer. Extract brewers normally boil a concentrated wort, then dilute the wort to working strength with water prior to fermentation. However, boiling a concentrated wort can lead to problems with wort darkening and lower hop utilization. Wort darkening causes the wort to take on reddish tones from caramelization.

Thicker worts also suffer from lowered hop utilization. Lowered hop utilization means that a given amount of hops will cause less bitterness in a high-gravity beer than it would in a normal strength beer.

In a high-gravity beer, both these problems will be exaggerated. Thus, extract brewers should try to boil as large a volume of wort as possible, to minimize the density of the concentrated wort. One option to consider is making a smaller batch of beer. If you have a five-gallon (19 L) brewpot, you can make a three-gallon (11 L) batch of beer and perform a full-wort boil. You can use your normal fermenter for primary fermentation and a three-gallon carboy — available at most homebrew stores — for secondary fermentation.

All-grain brewers will start their boil with a wort that is larger in volume, but lower in specific gravity, than they want. Therefore, they will need to extend their boil time to reduce the volume and concentrate the wort. To do this, some homebrewers boil their  wort as long as three hours. This extended boil time will have a variety of consequences. The wort will darken  during the extended boil, and hop utilization will be decreased. You can compensate for wort darkening by lowering the amount of dark grains in your recipe. To compensate for lowered hop utilization, you can add more hops, use hops with a higher alpha-acid rating, or boil the hops longer.

Adding yeast nutrients during the boil may help with your fermentation, especially if a lot of simple sugars were used in the boil.

Cooling and Aeration:

For ales, the normal temperature range for fermentation is 68–72° F (20–22° C), and for lagers it’s 50–55° F (10–13° C). Some homebrewers like to start their fermentation warm (usually 5–10° F above the recommended temperatures), then let them cool at the first signs of fermentation. Other homebrewers cool their worts all the way down to fermentation temperature before pitching the yeast. For normal-strength beers, there are pros and cons to both positions.

When brewing a big beer, however, there are two good reasons why you should cool your wort down to fermentation temperature (or slightly below) before pitching your yeast. High-gravity fermentations heat up quickly from the action of the yeast. Starting a fermentation hot only means you have to expend more energy cooling it down during fermentation.

Another characteristic of high gravity worts is that they do not absorb as much oxygen during aeration as normal worts do. Yet, the yeast still need oxygen for a healthy ferment. You can use the fact that cold wort absorbs more oxygen than warm wort to help out in this respect. You can partially compensate for the effect of high gravity on oxygen solubility by cooling the wort down to fermentation temperature (or slightly below) before aerating.

When racking the beer to the primary fermenter, homebrewers have an option that may help out their fermentation. When making a high-gravity beer, you can carry a little more trub than usual over to the fermenter. Trub is the protein and lipid “goo” that settles out of the wort after the boil. When brewing a normal-strength beer, most brewers attempt to minimize the amount of trub in their fermenter. If left in contact with beer for too long, trub can cause off flavors. However, trub can also serve as a source of molecules that your yeast would otherwise need oxygen to produce.

If you normally limit the amount of trub in your wort, shoot for allowing 20–30% more trub into the fermenter than you normally would. If you do carry over some extra trub, be sure to rack your beer to secondary immediately after primary fermentation has ceased (or slowed significantly).


In my opinion, the most important consideration when making a good high-gravity homebrew is running a good fermentation. The difference between a well-fermented beer and a poorly-fermented beer is noticeable no matter what style of beer you brew. However, the differences become more and more noticeable at higher gravities. There are several keys to running a good fermentation.

For starters, you need to pitch an adequate amount of yeast. In a high-gravity fermentation, the yeast have a big job ahead of them. There are many sugars to consume and the yeast will have to finish the job in a high-alcohol environment, which inhibits yeast activity. As a consequence, the brewer needs to ensure there are enough healthy “workers” to complete this Herculean task.

There are several ways you can get enough yeast for pitching. You can build a yeast starter. For a five-gallon (19 L)  batch, make a two-liter starter with starter wort of the same gravity as the beer to be brewed. Alternately, you can make a larger starter at a lower gravity. A one-gallon jug (3.8 L) with an airlock works well for starters. You can also use three-liter soda bottles.

If you don’t want to make a starter, you can save yeast from a previous beer or get it from an outside source, such as another homebrewer or brewpub. For a normal five-gallon (19 L) batch, you would need about one cup of yeast solids. For a big beer, you will need more, up to two and half cups for a very big barleywine. The amount of yeast needed (at least roughly) scales with starting gravity.

If you’re making a big beer, you will probably have selected an alcohol tolerant strain for pitching. Keep in mind, however, that selecting an alcohol tolerant yeast is not a substitute for pitching an adequate amount of that yeast. A small amount of yeast will lead to a poor fermentation, regardless of the characteristics of that yeast. On the other hand, if you aerate thoroughly and pitch enough yeast, your fermentation will likely go well.

After pitching the yeast, you must control the temperature during fermentation. The activity level of the yeast cells depends on the temperature of the wort. Yeast “work” faster at higher temperatures. But yeast activity itself produces heat. Without something to remove the heat being produced in the fermenter, the fermentation can run out of control. Excessively hot fermentations produce higher ester levels and more fusel oils. With normal strength beers, placing the carboy in an environment a few degrees below  fermentation temperature does the trick. The wort temperature may climb a few degrees at the peak, but it basically stays within a reasonable range. With higher-gravity beers, however, the temperature can rise sharply during fermentation, so you may have to apply some extra cooling to keep the temperature from rising out of control. Placing your fermenter in a container — such as a garbage can or large picnic cooler —with cold water is a simple, effective way to cool a fermenter.

If the temperature is controlled during fermentation, a high-gravity beer will take longer to ferment than a normal-strength beer. A simple rule for estimating the length of an ale fermentation is that it should last one day per each two degrees Plato of the wort. (One degree Plato equals four specific gravity points.) Lagers take roughly twice this long. To give an example, this rule would predict that a barleywine  (1.100 SG, 25° Plato) would take 12.5 days to ferment. Obviously, the actual amount of time will depend on a number of variables, including temperature and yeast strain. However, this rule should at least allow you to guesstimate when you will need to rack the beer for conditioning.


After primary fermentation has finished, rack the beer to your secondary fermenter for conditioning (often called secondary fermentation).  If you want your beer to be as dry as possible, you can perhaps knock the final gravity down by a point or two by adding a small amount — 1/2 to 1 teaspoon — of fresh yeast during conditioning. The fresh yeast may be able to consume some of the wort sugars that the yeast from the primary fermentation could not. The better your primary fermentation went, the less effective adding yeast to your secondary fermenter will be. You can add the same strain you used for primary fermentation, or another yeast. Some homebrewers add wine or champagne yeast at this time. These yeasts can ferment beer to a lower gravity than most beer yeasts can. If you do add fresh yeast at this stage, leave your beer at fermentation temperatures for a few days to let the yeast work.

Once your beer has stopped fermenting (or refermenting, if yeast has been added), begin cooling it for the conditioning stage. A period of cold conditioning will help the beer fall clear and let the green beer flavors and aromas mellow. If you are brewing a lager beer, the recipe will probably specify the details of how to lager. It is typical to decrease the temperature of the beer by 2° F (1° C) per day, then let it age at under 40° F (4° C) for about 90 days. For ales, conditioning regimens vary. At a minimum, you can cool the beer down to around the low end of the fermentation range — or slightly below — and let it sit for about as long as primary fermentation lasted. Alternate, you can cool the beer to below 40° F (4° C) and let it sit indefinitely. As you might expect, heavier beers usually benefit from longer conditioning times. If cooling an entire carboy is problematic for you, you can package the beer and let it condition in bottles or a keg. However, some brewers feel that cold conditioning in bottles is not as effective as bulk conditioning.


All of the normal options for packaging are possible for big beers. Most homebrewers bottle condition their homebrews. This can be tricky with big beers because the high alcohol content can impede the yeast in the bottle, leading to undercarbonation. One way to ensure maximum conversion of the added bottling sugar is to add fresh, healthy yeast to your bottling bucket. You don’t need much — about one teaspoon of yeast per five gallons (19 L) should do the trick — to ferment the small amount of bottling sugar. It also helps to give the yeast some added time to ferment the bottling sugar. For high-gravity beers, let the bottles sit for two weeks at room temperature before moving them to cold storage.

Many homebrewers put their barleywines in small six-ounce (177-mL) bottles (sometimes called “nips”). Smaller bottles means more time spent bottling. But, for many, they provide a more reasonable serving size.

If you want a monster in your fridge for the next holiday season, you will need to head down to your basement laboratory a few months earlier to provide enough time for fermentation and conditioning. On the other hand, if you start brewing now you can have a merry, scary Valentine’s day.

Issue: December 2002