The Ravages of Time
Neil Fisher of Weldwerks Brewing describes his approach to recipe design and brewing process for making barrel-aged stouts that stand up to extended aging.
Time is a transformative ingredient in wood-aged beer, and brewers ought to consider the effects of time as they envision the beer they ultimately want to produce. Neil Fisher of Weldwerks Brewing (Greeley, Colorado) walks through his approach to recipe design and brewing process for barrel-aged stouts, sharing what he’s learned about making beers that stand up to extended aging.
LIKE MANY BREWERS, WHEN we loaded into barrels our first renditions of the beer we’d later name Medianoche, we planned on then-standard 9- to 12-month aging process, and the recipe we used (which was similar to the homebrew recipe I shared in the Spring 2014 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®) reflected that. It was a big beer with a long boil and a high starting gravity (28–30°P, around 1.120 standard gravity), and while it tasted great after a year, we saw the potential for making it better by reconstructing the recipe to stand up to longer aging in the barrel. When we let that 9 to 12-month
recipe go for 14–15 months, the base recipe started to disappear, and over time the returns diminished.
We found that we like more age than we thought, so we went back to the drawing board to design a hardier beer, having learned quite a bit over that first year of tasting our barrel-aged stout as it aged. We thought we could make it better, and that was all determined by how much patience we could have with the barrels. The first step was to increase the gravity, which we pushed up to around 35°P (1.154 SG).
I’ve been delving into the science of it, and one thing I learned was that a degree of Plato is not interchangeable between malt and other sugars. They measure the same, but the way we drink and experience them and the way they age are all different. A degree of Plato that you derive from dextrose is different from what you derive from sucrose is different from maltose or fructose. I’ve seen that it’s more a product of the maturation of sugar and the effect of the oxidative reaction—how that impacts our perception of sweetness—and I think maltose is probably the most delicate in giving you the benefit of mouthfeel without cloying sweetness in the finish. Maybe it’s hocus pocus, and there are plenty of brewers who find success adding sugar in different ways to achieve their alcohol and gravity goals, but for what we want in a stout—a beer with chewy body and a luxurious mouthfeel that can hold up after 18 months in a barrel—malt is the only way to achieve it.
Our ABV and attenuation haven’t really changed—we’re starting five points higher and ending five points higher—but another thing we’ve noticed is that our all-malt fermentations are healthier than those in which we use more simple sugars. Fermentations with simpler sugars such as dextrose tend to spike initially, and while they still finish out in the same place after 7 to 8 days, we see cleaner fermentations with all malt. The growth phase is pretty normal with malt, where when we’ve added 3–4°P in simple sugars, it really throws off the fermentation character.
A degree of Plato is not interchangeable between malt and other sugars. They measure the same, but the way we drink and experience them and the way they age are all different. I’ve seen now that it’s more a product of the maturation of sugar and the effect of the oxidative reaction—how that impacts our perception of sweetness—and I think maltose is probably the most delicate in giving you the benefit of mouthfeel without cloying sweetness in the finish.