High gravity beers are challenging to drink and challenging to make.
There are many elements that craft brewers love to play with when making their unique concoctions. Some like balancing ingredients to break into new beer categories. Others like experimenting with add-ins for unique experiences. The latest trend catching the fancy of brewing mad scientist are “big beers.” These beers have a high alcohol content, creating the high gravity craft beer category. High gravity beers are right up there with wine on tap as something the educated customer will want to see when they walk into your brewery, pub or restaurant.
Definition and History of High Gravity Beer
High gravity beers are related, on a base level, to malt liquors. They share the same heavy characteristics, like high alcohol content and heavy taste. In the hands of a master brewer, however, it can create an intense experience for the consumer. High gravity beers aren’t for everybody, but those who like them really love them and will make time and effort to seek out a good one. High gravity beers are made to be flavorful savory beers meant to be sipped and paired with very specific food if possible.
The term comes from the original gravity, or OG, of a brewing mixture. Original gravity measures the fermentable and non-fermentable elements in a brewing mixture. A high gravity means there’s a lot for the yeast to consume. Plenty of food for the yeast means plenty of alcohol when the yeast has finished producing. Once the yeast has consumed all the grain, the gravity is measured again for final gravity. High gravity beers need a lot of ingredients to come together. Getting the balance right is tricky but brewers looking for a new challenge might want to take this one up.
Empires of Beer
Imperial beers are the most well-known high gravity beers. The style originated in the 18th century when the Russian imperial court imported a custom stout from England for lavish parties. The English brewers made the beer extra strong to keep the brew from going bad during the long trek across Europe. Traditional Imperial brews include porters and stouts, but pale ales made in this style are a popular choice as well. High gravity beers in this style include Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and Unearthly (Imperial India Pale Ale)
Barrel-aged ales get their name (and some of their flavor) from the barrels used in the making. The beer is aged in old liquor casks, taking on the flavors of bourbon, wine, tequila, rum and other spirits that were originally brewed in the barrels. Fine oak barrels were often reused by liquor makers shipping their products to and from thirsty customers across the world to keep costs down. Modern breweries have more choices in the matter but if your brewery is part of (or partnered with) a local distillery, it’s a match made in high gravity. Samples if this style include Brooklyn Black Ops, Darkness and Barrel-Aged Abraxas.
Barleywine, despite its name, is a beer known for intense flavors. Whether it’s a heavy fruit flavor or a heavy dash of hops, this drink runs with the high alcohol content and really offers consumers a heavy kick. The process dates back to ancient Greece, where the treasured brew was stored in jugs made of gold and silver. Modern barleywine began as a treat for English and French nobility in the late 18th century. It’s made from grain rather than fruit, which is why it’s a beer, but it also ages like a wine. Popular examples include Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, Hog Heaven Barleywine Ale, and Olde GnarleyWine.
Producing high-gravity beer can provide the reward of a heavy, heady brew, but the production isn’t always easy. The more yeast added to a brew, the less efficient it can get. The amount of yeast required for a high-gravity beer can produce too much alcohol and actually kill the yeast before it finishes producing to the full extent of its capability. Brewers used to efficient brews can misjudge here and kill a high-gravity beer before it begins. For your first couple of tries, it’s okay to cheat a little and add some dried malt extract after your initial wort to buff up the strength.
Adjusting the attenuation of a high-gravity compound requires a steady hand. When a beer has a higher alcohol content, the flavors have to be stronger to compensate. Different yeasts have different amounts of sugar they are able to consume and ferment. Consider switching to a different yeast when brewing a stronger brew like this. Saison yeasts can keep going long after others have given up the ghost. If that doesn’t work, spring for some champagne yeast, which is made to work well in alcohol.
Champagne yeast can also help solve the other big problem in high-gravity beer. Yeast gives the beer a frothy, bubbly texture, but because so much of it is used in the production of the initial alcohol content, there might not be enough left help in the suspension to give it good carbonation. The trick here is to add a little yeast after the fact. You can either do it by the bottle with a little bit of dry yeast or, if you know ahead of time that there’s a distinct lack of fizz, put it in your bottling bucket along with the mixing sugar.
High gravity beers are challenging to drink and challenging to make. If you’re looking to go to the lab without wanting to devote a lot of brewery space, consider renting some extra equipment to try your hand at making one of these beers. These beers span the globe and multiple eras of human history. They’ve been in the courts of Russian czars, the treasure hordes of Greek kings and the goblets of French nobility. They provide a unique taste as well as challenges worthy of anyone claiming the title of brewmaster.