high gravity beers trappist beer lineup

High Gravity Beers – Risks and Rewards

High gravity beers are the one-of-a-kind brew you’ve been searching for.

High gravity beer provides a playground of elements for craft brewers. Some brewers enjoy the challenge of balancing ingredients to break into new beer categories, while others revel in experimenting with add-ins to create unique tastes. The latest trend that’s catching the fancy of mad brewing scientists is “big beers,” a.k.a. high gravity beers. These high-alcohol beers feature distinct flavors establishing the style as a leader amongst craft ale. This complex beer is a fun challenge to brew and an impressive addition to your unique brew offerings.

Big, bold, and flavorful high gravity beers aren’t for the shy drinker or brewer. These beers are trendy, complex, and exciting. Beloved by beer clubs and beer aficionados for their unique and multi-layered flavor profiles, high gravity beers are a great option to showcase your brewing talents.

If you think you’re ready to take on a challenge at your brewery, here’s why you should consider adding a high gravity beer to your menu.

What is a High Gravity Beer, Anyway?

High gravity beers are a little tough to define. These beers are the mavericks of the beer world. Aside from high alcohol content and bold flavors, these beers are tough to pin down by taste. What it really comes down to is the brewing process behind the beer.

According to CraftBeer.com, high gravity beers qualify as “any type of bold brews with a high OG (original gravity) rating above 1.075.” On a base level, high gravity beers are most closely related to malt liquors, sharing similar characteristics such as a high alcohol content rating and heavy flavor profile, but high gravity beers are distinctive and unique.

In order to understand what the gravity rating is, we have to take a moment to go to beer school. Gravity refers to the amount of solids dissolved in the wort (the sugar solution that comes from hops and malt and forms the basis of the brew) in comparison to the density of the water. The original gravity accounts for the fermentable and non-fermentable elements of a beer recipe

These big beers get their name from the original gravity found in the brewing mixture. Essentially, this means there’s a lot of flavor packed into this beer and it carries a very recognizable aroma. Higher gravity means more for the yeast to consume, and plenty of food for the yeast means a higher alcohol content level is reached. As soon as the yeast has consumed all the grain, the gravity is measured once more for a final gravity check. This unique process produces high gravity beer flavors (and high alcohol content) that make this beer distinctive.

Unlike other lighter brews, high gravity beers require a lot of ingredients to come together. Achieving the proper balance of flavors is tricky and requires experimentation. This makes it perfect for brewers who get into the science of the craft. Brewers seeking a challenge may find great satisfaction in trying their hand at high gravity beer. In the hands of a master brewer, a well-made high gravity beer has the potential to create an intense and memorable taste experience for consumers.

The fact is, high gravity beers aren’t for everybody, but those who enjoy them really do love them! One thing’s for sure, loyal high gravity beer fans WILL put in the extra time and effort to seek out the tastiest and best big beers out there. These big beers are often meant to be sipped. With their distinctive flavors, they can be paired ONLY with very specific foods and are available in several different seasonal beverage styles.

Styles of High Gravity Beer

The best part about high gravity beers are the various forms and styles available on the market. Dating back to early years, high gravity beers have largely evolved over time and developed into several different household beer types everyone knows and loves.

high gravity beers like lagunitas imperial stout are challenging but well worth the effort

Lagunitas Imperial Stout courtesy of Flickr user Rich McGirr.

Imperial beers are the most well-known high gravity beers. This distinct and heavy brew style originated in the 18th century when the Russian imperial court regularly imported a custom stout from England for lavish parties and celebrations. The English brewers purposefully made their beer extra strong to ensure the brew wouldn’t go bad during the long trek across Europe. Traditional imperial beers include porters and stouts; pale ales made in this style are also a popular choice. Popular imperial high gravity beers include Old Rasputin Russian Imperial StoutBrooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and Unearthly (Imperial India Pale Ale).

Barrel-aged ales get their name (and recognizable aromas) from the physical barrels used in the brewing process. The beer, aged in old liquor casks, takes on the flavors of the various batches of bourbon, wine, tequila, rum, and other spirits previously brewed in the barrels beforehand. Interestingly enough, these fine oak barrels were often reused by liquor makers shipping their products to and from thirsty customers across the world as a means to keep costs down. Today, modern breweries have more barrel choices available to them, but if your brewery is part of (or partnered with) a local distillery, then it’s definitely a match made in high gravity heaven. Samples of this big beer style include Brooklyn Black OpsDarkness and Barrel-Aged Abraxas.

Barleywine is another beer known for its intense flavors. Despite what the name may suggest, this high gravity beer beverage is one enjoyed by many craft brew lovers all over. Whether it’s potent fruit accents or a heavy dash of hops, this drink includes the typical high alcohol content and offers consumers a heavy kick. The brewing process for this beer dates back to 18th century Greece, where barleywine originated as a treat imported for both English and French nobility. The treasured brew was stored in jugs made of gold and silver. Because barleywine is made from grain rather than fruit, it’s considered a beer but it ages like a fine wine. Popular high gravity beer brands in the barleywine category include Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style AleHog Heaven Barleywine Ale, and Olde GnarleyWine.

Production Risks

High gravity beers provide the reward of a heavy, heady brew for customers to enjoy but unfortunately, the brewing process isn’t always easy. Different complications might arise based on the complexity of the recipe you’re attempting. Essentially, the more yeast added to a beer mixture, the less efficient the process becomes. The amount of yeast required for a high gravity beer is larger than usual, which sometimes creates those unexpected issues.

Additionally, there is a chance for too much alcohol content to get produced which then kills the yeast before the process is complete, restricting proper brewing from reaching full capacity. Brewers who are used to efficient brews might misjudge the detail and skill required, thereby killing the batch of high gravity beer before any customers get a taste. Remember, 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 gravity content, the flavors must be stronger to compensate. Different yeasts carry different amounts of sugar to consume and ferment. Consider switching to a different type of brewing yeast when preparing a stronger brew like this one. For example, Saison yeasts keep going long after others have given up the ghost. If this brewing tip doesn’t work, spring for some champagne yeast, which is also made to work well with high alcohol content mixtures.

Champagne yeast also solves another other big problem with brewing high gravity beers. This type of 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 champagne yeast after the fact. You may either do this by the bottle (with a little bit of dry yeast) or, if you know ahead of time there’s a distinct lack of fizz, put it in your bottling bucket along with the mixing sugar.

Brewing the perfect high gravity beer right off the bat doesn’t always happen and that’s okay. Andy Sparhawk, Brewers Association’s craft beer web manager said it’s tough for brewers to “hit target gravities on their first brew, but taking a gravity reading and seeing a change during the fermentation period is certainly a good start!” Perfecting your recipe for the perfect high gravity beer takes trial and error and that’s half the fun!

Why Should You Brew a High Gravity Beer?

Beer of the month goers, craft brew enthusiasts, and risk-taking beer drinkers all over appreciate a well-made high gravity brew. The creative flavor profiles, from strawberry, lemon meringue pie, or coffee, are a great way to promote your brewery menu. Create a distinctive beer no one has ever had before. High gravity beers will pop out on your menu and draw new business in thanks to their distinct styles.

High gravity beers are, at times, challenging to drink thanks to the high alcohol levels. They’re also challenging to make, but worth the effort. Because they pack an extra punch, they’re often priced a little higher (which makes up for the fact that this beer is meant to be sipped, not guzzled).

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, and they would be right at home on your brewery menu. High gravity beers provide a unique taste as well as challenges worthy of anyone claiming the title of brewmaster.


Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia – licensed under CC by 40. Post images via Pxhere.