It has always been in our nature as humans — and as brewers — to see how far we can go. We like to push the limits of the conventional or practical. Strong ales provide a great way for brewers to push their limits, not to mention their brewing equipment and their budgets!
Strong ale is an elusive beer to define, because the phrase refers to a wide variety of beers. Strong ales can range from 1.065 original gravity to 1.126, and final gravities range from 1.012 to 1.055 and beyond. The alcohol content can reach 12 percent or higher. Bitterness levels vary from 20 to 90-plus IBUs. With higher alcohol levels and higher hop rates, many strong ales benefit greatly from extended aging. This makes spring a great time to brew your strong ales. When fall and winter roll around, you’ll be ready to savor them.
Old ale and Scotch ale are often described as strong ales, but barleywine, Imperial stout and some Belgian ales also fit this description. The common theme behind all of these beers is lots of malt! These beers are not about efficiency or economics. Strong ales are the best of the best, worth their weight in gold (at least to the brewer).
When brewing strong ales, the yeast is key
One of the most important considerations when making strong ale is the yeast. Most liquid yeast strains (and even some dry yeast) on the market today are hearty enough to ferment 8 or 10 percent alcohol and beyond, so the major decision is what flavor impact you wish the yeast to impart. If you are going to make an American barleywine, choose a vigorous and clean-flavored yeast like Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) to accentuate the hop character. If you want to brew an old ale, in which fruity flavors abound, your choice should be British in origin and produce some esters, like Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) or White Labs WLP005 (British Ale).
Just as important as yeast variety is the preparation of the yeast prior to brew day. With strong ale, high gravity is the norm. And as the gravity increases, starting with enough healthy yeast becomes extremely important.
An active yeast starter is the best way to kick off fermentation in a reasonable amount of time. Yeast starters, simply put, are tiny batches of beer. Some people use 22-ounce beer bottles, champagne bottles or Erlenmeyer flasks. Whatever you choose, be sure you have enough room to make at least 500 mL of starter — but more is always better. You should make the starter of a medium gravity (around 1.040), using similar ingredients to the batch you are planning. The idea is to “wake up” the yeast and get them reproducing, so you are pitching more yeast into the wort.
The starter should be done a day or so before you plan to brew. The easiest yeast starter consists of one-third cup of dry malt extract boiled in a pint of water. Some people add yeast nutrient, yeast energizer, or even a hop pellet or two into the starter for safe measure. I believe in making starters similar to the wort I am planning, so whatever is going to be in the beer wort should also be in the starter. Whatever you do, boil the starter for 15 minutes, for sanitation. Cool to room temperature and pitch the yeast into the starter.
Once the starter has built up a head of foam or “kraeusen,” pitch this starter into the beer. The more yeast you pitch to your high-gravity beer, the better off you will be. Some people pitch up to 1.5 liters.
If you are a feverishly ambitious brewer, you could brew an entire batch of moderate-gravity wort (at 1.050 or 1.060 OG) and pitch your yeast in that. Allow this to complete primary fermentation, then rack over to a secondary, leaving a healthy yeast cake at the bottom of your primary fermenter. Transfer your cooled strong ale wort onto the yeast cake in that same primary fermenter ... and KABOOM! This method will allow a huge portion of healthy yeast to begin fermentation very rapidly. Keep a close eye on things, as it tends to be an extremely violent fermentation.
Whichever method you used, aeration is mandatory. If you inject oxygen, pump air or just shake to aerate, do it until you are sure there is plenty of oxygen in there. Then do it some more. It is also a good idea to consider pitching fresh yeast, not only into the secondary fermenter but also at bottling time. Using a fresh starter of the same type would be ideal, but dry yeast also works well when rehydrated and mixed into the beer. The stress of these fermentations can be damaging to the yeast. This practice will help the yeast along.
Go heavy on the hops
Hops play a major role in strong ales, which range from 20 to 90 IBU or more. Originally, hops were used in large amounts so the beers could be exported without spoiling. Hops provide an antiseptic quality that, combined with high alcohol content, allows strong ale to be aged for long periods of time.
When planning what hops to use and when to use them, there are a few things to consider. The longer the hops are in contact with the beer, the more impact they have. The way in which they are used is also important. Hops placed in the boil have heat on their side, so contact time is reduced. Dry hopping allows the slow absorption of fragile hop aromas and flavors that may be lost in the boil. A cheesecloth bag with inert weights, like marbles, works well to submerge the hops.
Lots of hops are needed to balance all that sweet malt. And that’s compounded by the fact that as wort gravity increases, the amount of utilization we extract from the hop is decreased.
IBU is complex to calculate. The formula from “The Brewmasters Bible” by Stephen Snyder (Harper Perennial, 1997) is fairly easy to use. The formula is: (ounces of hops) X (alpha acids) X (percent utilization), all divided by 7.25.
Ounces of hops are the weight of hops you plan to use for each hop addition. If hops are added 3 times, 3 equations will need to be added together — one equation for each hop amount, alpha acid content, and time in the boil (percent utilization). Alpha acids are given as a percent; in this equation, use the whole number, not the decimal equivalent (4.3 percent alpha acid = 4.3). Percent utilization is dependent on time in the boil and for us, wort gravity. Thirty percent utilization is very good for a bittering hop addition in normal-gravity wort for 60 minutes. So it’s safe to say, given the higher-gravity wort of strong ales, that the percent utilization will be closer to 20 or 22 percent for the same time in the boil. The percent utilization for hops with 30 minutes in the boil goes from around 15 to 8 percent for strong ale. And hop additions that normally spend a very short time in the boil are reduced from 5 to 6 percent down to 1 or 2 percent. So the moral of the story? Hop to it! You’ll need it!!
Malt: the heart of the matter
Strong ales can be made with malt extracts, a partial-grain mash with extract added, or all-grain. When I brew with malt extracts, I find I have more options if I start off with something plain and light, without hops. It is a good idea to use malt extracts that are similar in origin to the beer style you are going to brew. Muntons or EDME work very well in the English-style beers. And I’ve made many beers using Mountmellick; it is a fine extract for stouts or Scottish ales. I can have more control over the batch by using specialty grains for color and to reinforce the malt.
Crystal malts and, sometimes, dark roasted malts go well in English styles. Roasted barley and peat-smoked malts are used for Scotch ales. Crystal, cara-pils and chocolate malt all can contribute to the depth of a barleywine. Use lots of dark, heavily roasted malts to produce the rich complexities of an Imperial stout. Light malt extract is especially important with some Belgian styles — either because they rely on sugar adjuncts for flavors or colors, or because there is a light color in the finished beer.
Because malt extract is already concentrated, you can reach some astonishing original gravity readings. But careful planning will help in hitting the gravity you desire without losing your head. Malt extract will deliver a gravity reading of about 1.038 to 1.045 with one pound in one gallon (syrup malt extract and dry malt extract, respectively). Using this as a guide, you can estimate how many pounds of malt extract you will need to hit your target OG.
First, abbreviate your desired OG to the numbers behind the decimal (1.090 OG = 90). Then multiply by the number of gallons and divide by the abbreviation of the gravity contribution of the malt extract for one pound in one gallon. Say you want to approach Thomas Hardy’s brew that starts with an OG of 1.125. Take the abbreviation for 1.125 OG, which is 125, multiply by 5 for a five-gallon batch and divide the whole thing by 38 (if using syrup malt extract) or 45 (for dry malt extract). Here goes: (125 x 5) / 38 = 16.45 pounds of syrup malt extract or (125 x 5) / 45 = 13.89 pounds of dry malt extract.
If you are planning an all-grain strong ale, it can be difficult to reach high original gravities. Probably the most efficient solution would be mashing as much grain as you are able to, collecting the volume you need and “bumping up” with malt extract or sugar in the boil if necessary. The addition of sugars to the boil is not uncommon in the creation of some strong ales.
There are, however, ways to get what you need solely from your malt. Long wort boils, two to three hours or more, can do the trick. By evaporating some of the water during long boil, you concentrate your wort, and also create rich caramel flavors that go well in barleywines. Taking only the first, highest-gravity runnings from the lauter tun also will help you achieve higher gravity with less caramel tones. But you will need more grain, as this method is much less efficient. And because you will get about half as much extract out of the grains, due to low efficiency, you may need to do more than one mash, adding the runnings together, or have a large mash-tun to handle all the grains.
One final tip: Use small bottles for your precious strong ale. It will make the beer last longer ... or maybe it just seems that way!
Todd Frye owns The Home Brewery, a homebrew supply and mail-order firm in Ozark, Missouri.
The Strong Ale Cheat Sheet
OLD ALE is an English ale with a copper to dark color. English hops like Goldings, Fuggles and Northdown are used to carefully balance the powerful malt flavors of this high-gravity brew. Many have strong caramel flavors and low to medium bitterness levels, in spite of the large amounts of hops.The warming sensation of a high alcohol content and a heavy body make old ale a good choice for cold winter evenings. Because of the higher levels of alcohol and hops, these beers can be set aside for years and will mature well.
OG = 1.060 to 1.075
FG = 1.015 to 1.020
SRM = 10 to 20
IBU = 30 to 60
ABV = 5% to 8%
Hops: Golding, Fuggles, Northdown, Northern Brewer.
Yeast: Wyeast 1098 (British Ale), 1275 (Thames Valley Ale); White Labs WLP002 (English Ale), WLP026 (Premium Bitter).
Grain bill: Pale malt, caramel malt (20° L), chocolate malt.
Extract: Muntons or Edme light to amber malt extract
SCOTCH ALE is similar to Old Ale in strength, if not a wee bit stronger. Scotch Ales are labeled in shilling “cost,” abbreviated by the “/” mark behind the number. (The higher the number, the stronger the beer and higher the cost. For example, “120/” means “120 shillings.”) The heavier Scotch beers range from 90/ to 180/ and higher. Beers at the high end start with original gravities of 1.126 and beyond.
Scotch Ale has more malt character than old ale and even less hop presence. The malt flavors are complemented by the strong alcohol flavors. A common taste in Scotch ales is a slight smoky flavor. Sometimes this is a yeast by-product; smoke also can be introduced in the form of malt that has been smoked with peat.
OG= 1.070 to 1.126
FG = 1.019 to 1.029
SRM = 10 to 35
IBU = 25 to 35
ABV = 5% to 10%
Hops: Goldings, Northern Brewer, Fuggles.
Yeast: Wyeast 1728 (Scottish Ale), White Labs WLP028 (Edinburgh Scottish Ale).
Grain bill: Pale malt, brown malt, peated malt.
Extract: Mountmellick amber, Muntons amber dry malt.
BARLEYWINES are similar in strength to Scotch ale (1.085 and higher), but with more wine-like, fruity flavor to complement the big caramel malt taste. They can range in color from traditional dark amber to pale. Barleywines are usually boiled for a longer period of time to increase the gravity. The longer boil times also create caramel-like flavors in the wort. In the English tradition of barleywine, the balance between malt and hops is tipped in favor of the malt. In the American tradition, the hops are well balanced or dominating.
OG= 1.085 to 1.125
FG= 1.020 to 1.030
SRM = 12 to 26
IBU = 50 to 80
ABV = 8% to 12%
Hops: Northern Brewer, Goldings, Fuggles, Willamette, Centennial.
Yeast: Wyeast 1084 (Irish Ale), 1388 (Belgian Strong); White Labs WLP099 (Super High Gravity).
Grain bill: Pale malt, caramel malt, chocolate malt.
Extract: Yellow Dog malt extract, Briess, Muntons.
IMPERIAL STOUT has been called a black barleywine, but the style originated as a very strong stout. Great quantities of malt, including lots of the darker roasted malts, give this style a roasty, chewy flavor. More hops are used in this style for their preservative qualities, and at 50 to 80 IBU, the hop bitterness looms large. This is coupled with bitterness from dark roasted grains.
OG= 1.070 to 1.120
FG = 1.020 to 1.030
SRM = 35+ IBU =50 to 80
ABV = 7% to 12%
Hops: Northern Brewer, Target, Goldings, Fuggles.
Yeast: Wyeast 1728 (Scottish Ale), 1388 (Belgian Strong); White Labs WLP099 (Super High Gravity), WLP007 (Dry English Ale).
Grain bill: Pale ale, roasted barley, black malt.
Extract: Lots of Muntons dry malt extract.
BELGIAN STRONG ALES generally have OGs of 1.080 or so, although they range from 1.062 to 1.120. Even though they are very similar to the rest of the group in that respect, they differ in several other ways. The hop flavors usually aren’t overpowering, but blend with the other flavors. It is the use of spices and the choice of yeast that set this style apart. One example is Golden Strong Ale, which is pale in color and subtle in flavor. This beer has strength beyond its flavor, which comes from the addition of sugars to the boil. There is also dark strong ale that is richer in sweet malt flavor, heavier in body and darker in color.
OG = 1.062 to 1.120
FG= 1.012 to 1.024
SRM = 3 to 10
IBU = 25 to 35
ABV = 7% to 10%
Hops: Hallertau, Hersbrucker, Saaz, Tettnanger, Spalt.
Yeast: Wyeast 1388 (Belgian Strong), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale).
Grain bill: DeWolf-Cosyns pilsen, Munich, Caravienne, light crystal.
Extract: Muntons extra light dry malt, Bierkeller light.