October 23, 2018

As Real As It Gets: 19% Beer

A 19% alcohol beer. Bad idea? Travesty or culmination? Is this crazy drink a figment of some deranged imagination?

No, this is As Real As It Gets.

You see, homebrewing doesn't always have to be serious. It doesn't always have to be an attempt to be the best, or to make something everyone will like. You can't always play Metal Gear Solid; sometimes you just want to play some Mario Kart. That's why there is a time-honed tradition among homebrewers to brew with stale doughnuts, mint gum instead of hops, or whatever crazy stuff is on hand and springs to mind.

In my case, it was a can of Real Ale hopped malt extract from Cooper's. This can was part of an annual cleaning here at Northern Brewer, getting rid of older or discontinued items that we don't want to sell. Hopped malt extract generally has a poor reputation in the US homebrewing community, partly because it takes away from the creativity of the brewer, but also because it is usually used as a no-boil kit, which is an iffy way of brewing if you are looking for quality. The can of Real Ale extract advised mixing in about 6 gallons of water with some corn sugar to make a British Bitter style beer.

Forget that.

I decided to mix it with about 2 liters of water instead, and make a tiny amount of super-beer. This is partly inspired by a 16% extract beer that a customer let me try a couple of years ago. I found it to very interesting, sort of like a whiskey liqueur or something like that. In order to take my batch above and beyond that, I set out to make a beer of about 1.170 starting gravity.

In order to ferment something like that, I knew I needed a special yeast. My yeast of choice was the White Labs Super High Gravity Strain, which is specially designs for fermentations like this. I also decided to step feed the yeast, so that it didn't get overwhelmed by the massive amount of syrup at the beginning (the osmotic pressure of the sugar would stress the yeast cells). I also decided to keep the fermentation on a stir plate, which served a couple of purposes.

In the first stages it allowed for continual oxygenation, which is a good idea according to White Lab's website on the Super High Gravity strain. During the later stages of fermentation it has the effect of speeding things up, forcing the yeast through a difficult fermentation.

Because I was step feeding, it was difficult to tell what the starting gravity was (or would have been). So the alcohol content and original gravity figures are approximate. But long story short I was able to ferment an entire can of malt extract, intended for 6 gallons or wort, compressed down to 3 liters of wort, and with a finishing gravity of 1.024, in just under a week. Then I cold crashed it and racked it.

What does it taste like at three weeks from the start of fermentation? Totally bonkers. But... not bad. The flavors were just all over each other, like a house that was collapsing. Boozy, so thick it drinks like maple syrup, but not very sweet, intense notes of pecan, caramel, biting hop bitterness, malt flavor as big as an elephant sitting down on your tastebuds and just not going anywhere. Long, long flavor. Though there'll be less than a gallon of finished beer, I can't wait for it to mellow out a bit.

'Til next time, keep homebrewing weird.