I've heard that brewing anything over around 14% ABV is pretty much impossible…and that achieving anything over 11% in a homebrew environment is not very realistic. Is this true? If so, how do they make beers like the Samuel Adams Utopias?
14% would be pretty high, even for high gravity yeasts, but 11% is definitely realistic. There are a few tricks to getting high ABV. You want really good aeration so that the yeast are healthy, often this means aerating when pitching and again the day after.
You also may want to add sugar slowly instead of putting it all in at once. This is easy with belgians for instance because you can just start with the malt and then add belgian candi sugar slowly, putting a little bit in every day or so. This is also a good technique for brewing things like mead.
And then just basic things that you want with every beer, but are especially important, like high pitch rates, a large starter, good temperature control, etc.
11% is very realistic though, wine homebrewers do it all the time!
Edit: As to how higher gravity beers are made, it looks like Utopias is actually a true beer, it just is fermented for a really long time using hardy yeast and a lot of simple sugars. A lot of other higher gravity beers (Sink The Bismark, etc) use ice distilling to increase ABV after the beer is brewed.
For very high gravity beers, you can use White Labs Super High Gravity Yeast - WLP099. It has a stated alcohol tolerance of 25%. You can use just this yeast, or use the regular yeast that you want to use to produce the dominant flavor profile, and then pitch WLP099 when fermentation is 2/3 complete (ideally, from an active fermenting starter comprising the same wort as the main beer.)
While you can brew high gravity beers just like regular beers, there are two common faults that occur in a homebrew setting:
- higher alcohols - this gives a solventy aroma and taste to the beer. Caused by yeast stress, such as too few nutrients and by too high a fermentation temperature.
- high finishing gravity - again, this is caused by the yeast dropping out early, due to insufficient nutrients, alcohol intolerance, or temperature swings
Both are reduced to a small degree by time. But the best way is to use the best practices when brewing the high gravity beer:
- Oxygenate with pure oxygen to attain 15ppm of O2. Oxygen solubility in wort decreases with gravity, so airation via shaking etc.. doesn't provide sufficient O2. Oxygenate at 6h, 12h and 18h after pitching to ensure successive generations are able to propagate.
- use Yeast nutrients (ideally a blend containing micro-nutrients as well)
- pitch a big starter - at least 1.5x what you would normally pitch for the given OG. (at least 1.5 mil. cells/ml/°Plato)
- regulate the beer temperature. This is particularly important since the yeast will easily push the beer up 10-15°F above ambient temperature during the first few days of fermentation, causing harsh fusel alcohols to be produced. Keeping the beer temperature low (as low as 15C/60F) will reduce the amount of fusel alcohols produced. As fermentation slows, the temperature is then increased towards 22°C/75°F to ensure the yeast don't drop out before the target FG is reached.
With these processes in place, you can turn around big beers in a couple of months, rather than waiting over a year as traditionally done. The same applies to making mead. I recently brewed a 12% wheatwine that is very enjoyable in just 10 weeks.
1Don't believe everything a manufacturer tells you. Although that yeast supposedly can reach high ABV levels, most reports from people who have used it say that it's an underperformer. If you want it to do what they claim it does, you have to baby your fermentation along. Nov 18, 2013 at 16:26
I've seen also reports of not hitting the target abv, but it's not clear if those reports have all the items I mention above. I got 12% from S-04 with my wheatwine without having to constantly manage it. I didn't use a starter but rehydrated 3 packets, added O2 (@0h, 6h, 12h), used twice as much nutrient and of course temp control. I didn't do step-wise additions. This week I will brew a 14% RIS, using the same strain. It will be interesting to see where it stops. IMHO, you only have to baby the brew if any of these essentials are missing.– mdmaNov 18, 2013 at 21:18
I can recommend this page to view the tolerance levels of White Labs different yeast strains.
What is the source of these number? Are these White Labs advertised tolerance levels, or from an independent source?– ShaneNov 18, 2013 at 23:47
1If you go to White Labs webpage you can read up on each of the yeast seperately, guessing that these numbers are simply collected from the site. But nothing I can say for sure...– SanderNov 19, 2013 at 8:31
Look up fractional freezing, Brewdog use this technique with "32% Tactical Nuclear Penguin" and " 41% Sink the Bismarck"
That's not brewing it to that strength, though. And technically it's freeze concentration, not distillation. Mar 16, 2014 at 21:12
I was responding to this part of the question, "achieving anything over 11% in a homebrew environment is not very realistic". It's a way to achieve beer to high ABV. Shall I reposition as a comment to the question then? Mar 17, 2014 at 17:01
"Freeze distillation is a term for a process of enriching a solution by partially freezing it and removing frozen material that is poorer in the dissolved material than is the liquid portion left behind" [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractional_freezing#Freeze_distillation] Mar 17, 2014 at 17:11
That may be what wikipedia says, but it is incorrect. Distillation removes alcohol from water. Freezing removes water from alcohol. That is why freeze concentrating is legal in the US for homebrewers and distillation is not. Mar 17, 2014 at 20:15
These boys are happy with the term wiki.homedistiller.org/Freeze_distillation I consider homedistiller.org a good resource. "Such enrichment parallels enrichment by true distillation, where the evaporated and recondensed portion is richer than the liquid portion left behind." Mar 18, 2014 at 16:51