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I've seen a lot of talk about aging with several different options and techniques. I am a bit confused about what the correct method is. I am about to make a Russian Imperial Stout and I know it needs to be aged for several months before it's ready to drink.

What is an appropriate amount of time to leave in the primary/secondary fermenter before bottling?

Does aging start in the secondary fermenter?

Does aging only happen in the bottle after carbonation?

The reason for these questions is that making an RIS is expensive both cost (compared to lower OG beers) and time in aging. I want to make sure I am giving the beer the best opportunity to become a delicious RIS.

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"Primary" fermentation for a big beer like that could be as long as 3-4 weeks. I certainly wouldn't touch it for 3 weeks myself, except to check the gravity once a week. After that, a secondary is up to you. I would personally secondary that beer for a few weeks before bottling, but I think you can skip that step, assuming your beer is fully fermented out.

That last step (figuring out if fermentation is truly complete) can be a little tricky on big, thick beers like RIS's. One good approach is doing what's called a Fast Fermentation Test when you brew. Basically, pull off a quart or so of your final wort as you are chilling it, and massively over pitch a portion of your yeast into there. Treat this portion as you would a starter, meaning keep it room temp and shake it up a lot during fermentation. You are only trying to see just how far down your yeast will take your wort. Here's the process in more detail: http://braukaiser.com/wiki/index.php?title=Fast_Ferment_Test

Anyway, the whole point of the above explanation is just to say that when your fermentation is done, including a little time for the yeast to clean themselves up (prob around 3-4 weeks) you can bottle. Just make sure you are TOTALLY fermented out. Aging starts the minute your primary is done, and can be done in the secondary, or in the bottle.

And specifically for your RIS, regardless of whether you bottle after the primary, or secondary it for a few weeks, you shouldn't expect the flavor to mature for 2-4 months (give or take). I'd do around 3 weeks primary, around 4-5 weeks secondary, then around 2 months in the bottle before I'd start sampling bottles to see how the beer is turning out.

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Thanks @Graham, that helps to clarify the process. – atodd Feb 9 '12 at 21:46

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