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One and Done Ale - An Experiment

I had a number of malt extracts taking up space in my brewing ingredient area, and decided to see if I couldn't make an old dream come true... creating an ale with an alcohol content above 16%.  This post is a chronicling of that experiment.

My basic goal is a vaguely barleywine-style ale, with a strong fruity element.  I'm thinking something perhaps dessert-like.

  • 6 pounds of Amber LME
  • 6 pounds of Maris Otter LME
  • 3 pounds of Pilsen DME
  • 12 ounces of Special B malt
  • 8 ounces of CaraMunich III malt
  • 4 ounces of Biscuit malt
  • 0.8 ounces of Chocolate malt
  • 2.5 ounces of Smaragd (Emerald) hops pellets @ first wort (before the boil started)
  • 2.5 ounces of Smaragd (Emerald) hops pellets @ 30 minutes
  • 2 ounces of Smaragd (Emerald) hops pellets @ 10 minutes
  • 0.5 tsp yeast nutrient
  • 1 pound Belgian clear candi sugar rocks
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet
  • Two packs of Wyeast Extreme Fermentation Yeast 4347
  • 0.25 Campden Tablets
For later:
  • 1 pound of Corn Sugar, boiled 10 minutes in 32 ounces of water
Estimated characteristics of the beer (per BeerSmith):
  • Original Gravity (including later sugar additions):  153
  • IBUs:  43.4
  • Color: 24.3 SRM
  • Est. ABV: 16.9%
  • Total hops; 7 ounces
  • Est. Final Gravity: 1.029
  • Batch size: 4.5 gallons
My hope is that the Special B will impart a strong plum/raisin flavor to the beer, and that this will be complemented with the coffee/chocolate notes of the Chocolate Malt, and the bread-like notes of the Biscuit Malt to give the beer something of a dessert-like flavor profile.  The unusually large hops additions (for me) were needed to balance out all the malt in this beer.

The choice of Smaragd hops, honestly, was "because I had them" (a whole pound in fact).  They are normally used as an aroma hop.  They're described as having a predominantly fruity aroma with flowery tones. I thought that might work well with the Special B fruitiness.  The hop is also said to "present subtle thyme, tarragon, clove, anise, and/or tobacco aroma" and one source (Nikobrew) said that it makes me consider how this hop could be used with darker, chocolate or roasted malt flavors." So I'm hoping that they're a good combo with the rest.  We'll see.

  • Chop a Campden tablet into fourths.  Put one-fourth into the brew kettle along with 3 gallons of tap water.  The tablet should remove the chlorine and chloramine from the water.
  • Activate the yeast packets if you have not already done so.
  • Measure all the ingredients and have them ready to go.
  • I decided to try something different here.  First, I dissolved all the malt extract into the water in the kettle.  Then, I transferred this starting wort into The Grainfather.  This raised the wort volume to just over 4 gallons.
  • In a mesh hop spider I placed all the specialty grains to steep.  This was set in the existing wort, which had been heated to 150F.
  • The grains steeped at 150F for 30 minutes.
  • The grains were removed from the wort and the hop spider cleaned out.
  • As the wort worked toward a boil, I put the cleaned hop spider into the kettle and suspended it with a bungee cord as it couldn't touch the wort from the rim of the kettle.
  • Before the boil, I added 2.5 ounces of Smaragd hops pellets into the spider.
  • When the wort reached a boil, I started the boil timer for 60 minutes.
  • With 30 minutes left, I added 2.5 ounces of Smaragd hops pellets into the spider.
  • With 15 minutes left, I added the Whirlfloc tablet.
  • With 10 minutes left, I added the last 2 ounces of Smaragd pellets and the yeast nutrient.
  • With about 7 minutes left, I began recirculating wort through the counter flow chiller to sterilize it for later use.
  • At the end of the boil, I removed the hop spider and turned off the heat.
  • I turned on the cold water to the counter flow chiller, put the outlet line into the sanitized fermenter, and turned on the pump.
  • The wort arrived in the fermenter at 68F from the chiller.
  • I inserted my oxygen stone and pumped pure oxygen into the wort for 120 seconds to give the yeast its best possible chance of success.
  • I pitched the two packets of yeast into the fermenter, attached a blow off tube into a jug of Star San.
  • I attached a fermwap heater to the fermenter, connected this to an Inkbird temperature controller, and inserted the probe into my fermeter's thermowell.  Using a known accurate thermometer, I calibrated the controller's temperature reading to match so that it would keep the beer at the right temperature.  
  • I set the fermentation temperature to 74F and let the controller raise the wort up to that temperature.
  • I took a refractometer reading and got 31 Brix or 1.136 SG.  It was almost off my refractometer's scale.
Fermentation Plan
  • Hold the fermenter at no less than 74F.
  • When the krausen starts to drop, feed the yeast 32 ounces of water with a pound of corn sugar to keep it going.
  • Check alcohol levels and do a taste test.  Adjust beer if needed or prepare to bottle.
  • Bottle with CBC-1 yeast and boiled water with corn sugar.
Those of you who have access to brewing software like QBrew, BeerSmith, or Beer Tools Pro will note that the software will calculate the potential ABV of this brew to 12.2%.  The Brewer's Friend calculator actually gives some different information.  They claim that the "Alternate" calculation works better for beers with a higher gravity.  That calculator estimates that this beer could exceed 19%.

I also took three large bourbon barrel chunks and began soaking them with bourbon to make a tea that I can add during the bottling process to give the beer a barrel-aged flavor.  I'll only do that if it seems to make sense with the beer's flavor profile.

The Fermentation

About 12 hours after pitching the yeast, I saw no activity in the blow-off vessel.  I carefully looked inside the fermenter and saw that a small colony of yeast was starting to grow on top of the beer.  At about the 24-hour mark, I checked again.  This time there was a nice thick krausen.  I was satisfied at this point that the yeast was alive and well, and left it alone.

Update 3/26/2016:  After 2 weeks on the primary yeast cake, I decided to move it to a secondary fermenter to clean it up a little.  Samples taken to read gravity were showing about 27 Brix, down from the original 33 Brix measurement.  Tastes of these samples were bitter and felt "pulpy" or "gritty" so I thought transferring to a secondary might help some of the solids settle out.  I removed the blow-off tube and installed an S-shaped airlock.  An hour or so later, I noticed the airlock bubbling regularly, so I am confident the yeast is still in there doing its job.  The beer had a very strong acetone smell to it, possibly from high fermentation temps.  Depending on the cause of the aroma (ethyl acetate vs. fusel alcohols) it may clear up in extended conditioning.  We'll see.  Interesting note - this beer had one of the largest yeast cakes in the bottom I've ever had.  It filled almost the entire conical section in the bottom of my SS Brewing Technologies Brewmaster Bucket fermenter.

Contingency Plans

There were three ways I thought this beer could go wrong, and I decided to plan to deal with them:
  • Yeast Viability or Stuck Fermentation:  My yeast was 5 months old.  This meant it wasn't very viable.  There was a real chance it might not take off in such a high-gravity environment.  My fallback position was to rehydrate some CBC-1 bottle conditioning yest (which can tolerate 16% ABV) and pitch that if fermentation hadn't started in 24 hours.  If that still didn't take off, I'd pitch champagne yeast or wine yeast, which I have on hand.  Similarly, if I experienced a stuck fermentation before final gravity, I'd do the same to rouse the yeast, plus raise the temp.
  • Finished Beer Too Sweet:  My initial calculation in BeerSmith showed this to be a 65 IBU beer and have a 0.5 bitterness ratio, which would be about ideal for my taste.  However, I didn't think about how the sugar additions would dilute the beer's bitterness. If the modified calculations are correct, the final ratio for this beer could be as low as 0.284 which is on the sweeter side.  With the addition of a high alcohol content, which sometimes lends sweetness, this could make the finished beer too sugary.  To counteract this, I'll take two quarts of water and boil an ounce of Smaragd hops in that to make a hop tea.  I'll gradually add this to the bottling bucket and stir it to adjust the bitterness to (hopefully) a balanced level.
  • Finished Beer Too Yeasty:  It's possible I'll need to add yeast multiple times to get this beer fermented and carbonated.  All that yeast carries some risks with it.  The worst here is that autolysis, given the age of my yeast, could rear its ugly head.  Another is just an overly yeasty aroma and flavor.  To reduce the risk of autolysis, my plan will be to get the beer off the main yeast mass as soon as the gravity gets close to the target.  I may even transfer it to a third fermenter before I'm done.  I'll also plan to give it a long period of conditioning to give the yeast time to settle out.
We'll see how this turns out in a few weeks, and I'll come back to update this post.

Update 3/26/2016:  The chance of this beer being too sweet ought to be incredibly low.  When I've tasted samples as I've done gravity checks, the beer has always tasted somewhat bitter.  If it's undrinkably bitter at the end of the process, which is possible but unlikely, I do have a beer in bottles that turned out too sweet.  I could use it to balance this one if necessary.

Update 4/3/2016:  The gravity reading on a refractomteter has dropped from 27 to 25 Brix since my reading approximately 8 days ago.  There is still regular activity out of the airlock, so I am satisfied that the yeast is in there doing its job.  A taste test revealed that the bitterness has dropped quite a bit on the beer, which I was glad to see.  It's now mildly sweet.  Best guess is that the alcohol content is only up to 6.4% at this point. The yeast has a long way to go if it's going to hit my 8 Brix target final gravity.

Update 4/17/2016: The fermenter is still bubbling through the airlock periodically, so the yeast still alive and well.  I'm planning to take a hydrometer reading soon to get a better idea how it's progressing since it's not possible to trust a refractometer very well in the presence of alcohol.


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