Big Orca Brews Big

People like session beers, but people love big beers. They can be tough to brew, so what follows is an outline of issues and tips for successful high gravity brewing.  Appropriately, this post is a big’un.

1. Styles
BJCP substyles in the 7%-and-up range include:

Doppelbock/Eisbock             Baltic Porter         Foreign Extra Stout
Russian Imperial Stout         Imperial IPA        Weizenbock
Dubbel                                      Tripel                     Golden Strong Ale
Dark Strong Ale                      Old Ale                  Barleywine

And of course there’s the Specialty category, which can include any other high gravity or “imperial” beer you might conjure up. Those are always fun.

2. Recipe Design
First things first: Ensure your recipe contains enough fermentables that yeast can convert to alcohol. This will mean using several more pounds of malt (or an extra can or two of malt extract) than you use in a typical average-strength beer recipe.

The bulk of that malt should be composed of base malt(s), like Pale or Pilsner malt. Base malts contribute the greatest amount of enzymatic activity to convert starches into fermentable sugars during the mash. In contrast, specialty malts and adjuncts, like Brown malt or rice, contribute far less—or no—enzymatic activity, and require the enzymes from base malts to convert their starches.

Another method of increasing fermentables and gravity involves adding adjunct sugars during the boil. Common adjunct sugars include honey, maple syrup, molasses, and candi sugar. If overdone, they can impair fermentation and leave behind a phenolic character, so always use in moderation.

Once your recipe is optimized for higher gravity, you’ll need to use enough yeast to actually convert those fermentables into alcohol. A good rule of thumb for high gravity brewing is to use 2 vials or packs of yeast for a 5gal batch. A better rule of thumb is to prepare a few days ahead of time and make a large yeast starter, roughly 3 or 4 liters. An inadequate quantity of yeast will result in those cells being overworked and stressed, which in turn will result in flaws in your beer. Not to mention, you risk not achieving your desired final gravity.

Before pitching yeast, but after chilling, aerate the wort extra thoroughly. High gravity wort, by definition, is dense and yeast will require sufficient oxygen to reproduce and grow without being overwhelmed. There are a few different ways to aerate wort, including vigorous stirring or submerging an oxygen stone.

When choosing a yeast strain, ensure the strain has adequate attenuation and alcohol tolerance. Attenuation refers to the relative amount of fermentables the yeast will consume and its ability to reduce the gravity of the beer. Alcohol tolerance refers to the strain’s ability to continue fermenting in the presence of increasing levels of alcohol. A strain, even if highly attenuative, could begin to die off if it cannot tolerate abv levels above, say, 7 or 8%.

Finally, although hops won’t affect gravity or alcohol content, consider using more hops than your typical average-strength recipe—ales especially. Depending on style and desired characteristics, the added bitterness and hop flavor will help to balance the potential sweetness and intense malt flavors of a high gravity brew.

3. Brewing Process
To create wort that is more highly fermentable, mash between 140 and 149 F. This is the ideal temperature range for beta amylase, which is the enzyme responsible for breaking down starch chains into their most fermentable form. On the other hand, to create wort with higher levels of dextrins, mash in the 150-158 F range. Many brewers mash at 150-152F for a more even balance of dextrins and fermentable sugars, and are still able to achieve a high abv.

Boil volume is one factor many homebrewers overlook when brewing high gravity beers. Many simply calculate water volumes for the mash and sparge like any other recipe, resulting in a boil volume of approximately 6.5gal for a 5gal batch. Nothing wrong with that, but . . .

. . . If you’ve got the equipment, consider boiling 7 or 7.5gal instead, and for as long as it takes to boil down to about 5.5gal. This method lets you collect more fermentables and dextrins from the sparge. By boiling longer and condensing the wort, you’ll develop more complex aromas and flavors.

4. Fermentation
Similar to mashing, you can control temperature during fermentation to create the best conditions for yeast in a high gravity beer. Ferment in the temperature range specified for the yeast strain being used. For ales, this will be around 62-74 F. Lagers will be in the 48-55 F range.

If the temperature is too cold during primary fermentation, yeast will become sluggish or, worse, dormant. In other words, fermentation may slow down or stop altogether.

If the temperature is too hot, yeast may create excessive esters and higher alcohols, resulting in a solvent-like aroma and flavor. Or, yeast may begin to die off, which can result in an incomplete fermentation and off-flavors and -aromas.

5. Time
This final factor could either be the easiest or the hardest thing for a brewer to accomplish: Do nothing. Seriously, leave the beer alone once it has been transferred to the secondary fermenter. High gravity beers take longer to ferment completely, and age can do wonders to the flavor and aroma profiles of a high gravity beer.

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El Gordo drinks beer and goes Steinstossen at GAF, Toledo

Das Boot

Das Boot

Last weekend I went to the German American Festival (GAF) in Toldeo, Ohio.  I was there to drink beer and throw rocks.

The drinking beer makes sense, that’s what we do at Big Orca.  There were several beers to choose from too.  By my guess there was at least 20 or 30 authentic German beers to try, even several I had never had or heard of.  Prices were okay, but they were on a ticket system.  Buy a handful of tickets for $20 and make it rain like you’re throwing monopoly money.  It did make the beer lines faster when no one needed to make change or use one of those bullshit ipad kiosks, but it was hard to keep track of how much funny money you were spending.


German Beer at GAF 2014But whats up with the rocks?  El Gordo was Steinstossen.  From the GAF website: Steinstossen (stone throwing) is a typical Swiss alpine sport that is a leading attraction at festivals in Switzerland, but seldom seen at festivals in the United States.  Contestants in the Men’s division of the Steinstossen hurl a huge stone weighing 138 pounds during two-hour periods beginning at 3:00 on Saturday and Sunday. Contestants begin on a 20 foot runway, hurling the rock into a 4 inch deep sand pit.


Steinstossen 2014That’s me launching a big ass heavy rock.  I unfortunately couldn’t bring Big Orca the glory of winning the event, but I did well enough to get into the top 10.  Not bad for a first try, but I’ll be back next year to do better.

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The hops are growing well would be an understatement

The hops are taking over.  In my earlier post, I shared my concern for their health.

They have gone from this:

Hop trellis

To this:

Out of Control Hops

I’m proud of my farming skills, but also worried that mass at the top might start talking to me like Little Shop of Horrors.  Who knew hops would grow so well in PA?

hops up close

Close up of the vines

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The Belgian Dip Nightmare

So the verdict is in — my beer sucks. It’s been a while since the last post, but I was holding out in hope of a miracle and sure enough I didn’t get one. I’d love to stop the post now because there’s nothing to be proud about, but instead, I’m going to show you a glorious pic of the brew and analyze what I think might have happened.

photo (4)

Perfect head, Perfect color, not so perfect taste.


So as you can see above, the beer actually looks pretty tasty in a cup. The problem is, the initial smell after popping the bottle cap is what I imagine raccoon urine would smell like. The smell is so off-putting it pretty much destroys the rest of the experience. Once you gain the courage to take a sip it actually has a solid body to it. The flavor is there in the middle but then aftertaste brings you back to reality. Imagine sucking on a mouthful of the pith of an orange and that about sums up the aftertaste of my stellar brew. This probably spawns from the fact I put an entire ounce of tangerine peel and coriander seeds at flameout for a 3 gallon batch of beer.

Stone has an excellent write-up on one of their vertical epic ales that they brewed with tangerine peels. They detail the roadmap on how to properly brew a beer with spices. I probably should’ve done a bit more research before I decided to throw all the spices in my brew pot. I learned my lesson the hard way but that’s why I’m writing this post so you guys don’t make the same errors. Mistakes were made, lessons were learned, but one thing still hasn’t changed, I love brewing beer. El Gordo and I are going to test our home brew skills this weekend so stay tuned for what’s coming up next.

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Brewing with Fresh Sugar Cane Juice

Inspiration for a new beer can come from anywhere. Like standing at the Cuban food stall waiting on my sandwich to grill and noticing that they make fresh squeezed cane juice.   Now I’ve brewed with sugar cane before, making a beer inspired by time with my grandfather in Florida, but that was with cane syrup.  This was fresh juice that was pressed right in front of you.  A light bulb went off and I told the guy I would be back tomorrow for alot of juice.

crushing sugar cane

This guy was doing some serious work on the sugar cane press.

The next day I showed up with 2 growlers and I got a pretty decent bulk rate on a half gallon.  For about the next 20 minutes I ate a delicious empanada and watched the guy blow through about 30 stalks of cane with his press.

The plan to get this to work in a beer was simple.  Sugar cane juice tastes like really fresh sugar water with a hint of a grassy something going on.  I wanted to play on this odd flavor, so I used Sorachi Ace and  Saaz hops.  These hops have herbal, grassy even lemon dill flavors.  I thought they would work well with the fresh light flavors of the cane juice.


The simple sugars in the cane juice made the yeast go crazy.

The simple sugars in the cane juice made the yeast go crazy.

The rest of the beer was a basic extract recipe of half pilsen malt extract and half wheat extract.  The cane juice was added in the last 10 minutes of the boil to kill any yeast but prevent any of the aromas and flavors from cooking off.  This was finished with an East Coast ale yeast.


Finally, if this beer is good, I would like to make a sugar cane wine next.  Doing research to see if anyone else had done a similar beer as I was trying, I found an article on Smithsonian.  The writer went looking for sugar cane wine in Ecuador.  He didn’t find exactly what he was looking for, but made his own.  I think it will be my next experimental fermentation.



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Summer is here

Crabs and dead rise

Crabs and dead rise

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Corn Husker Hooch

A good friend of Big Orca was visiting this past week from Nebraska.  He is usually a whiskey drinker but tagged along with us to Monk’s Cafe in Philly.  He tried a lot of beers and didn’t like any until he had a Tartare Rouge from Bear Republic.  Several sour beers later, he was sold.  He was a sour beer guy.

Now that he was a beer guy, I convinced him to brew with me.  I wanted to do something he would enjoy and came up with the follow three things.  It should be sour,  it would have corn in it and it needed to be red.  Why red?  Because he is a huge Nebraska football fan.

So here is the break down of what makes a “Herbie’s Sour Red Corn Hooch”.

  • Berliner weisse yeast
  • Beets for that Nebraska red color
  • Flaked corn




The above was combined with Pilsen extract for the bulk of our wort.  The corn was mashed with 2 row and the beets were simmered separately and added in the last 10 minutes of the boil.  Some light hopping with German smarsgard hops rounds it out.

Beets for color






The wort came out dark brown but once the trub settled out in the fermenter it ended up nice and red.  I’ll let this beer sour for a few months and it should be ready for Nebraska games this fall.

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Voodoo Redo

So grilling out and drinking this memorial day, a neighbor brought over a voodoo doughnut beer for me.  I wrote about these beers before when I had the bacon maple version.  Like I wrote in that post, voodoo doughnut are famous for the voodoo doll doughnut that has raspberry filling blood and a pretzel stick pin through it’s heart.  This is Rogues interpretation of that very doughnut.  This one is way more drinkable than the bacon maple one.  I really liked this version and most of the people who tried it with me agreed.  These are fun beers and I thought it was worth a share.

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Growing hops and kegging beers

So this spring a couple of big things happened with my home brewing.  I am working towards a functioning kegerator setup and I planted some hops.

Hop enclosure

Hop enclosure

Lets start with the expansion into both growing hops and urban farming.  I live in the city and have a very small space to grow anything.    Fortunately the back yard I have gets plenty of light and I have some decent soil if the size of my neighbors flower bushes each summer are any indication.  Im hoping for the best with what I have to work with.  I purchased 2 nugget hop rhizomes from Lancaster Homebrew and they arrived alive and with little green nubbins ready to sprout.  I planted them in small enclosures to keep out any rabbits.




Can't stop a determined rabbit

Can’t stop a determined rabbit

I don’t know it rabbits eat hops, but they spend a lot of time in my yard and I figured it couldn’t hurt.  However, something did get into one of them and snap off the top of one of my sprouts.  I’m really hoping it didn’t kill it.







Temporary hop trellis

Temporary hop trellis

To give them something to grow on, I ran some string down from a 10 ft. electric conduit pipe.  This is a temp solution until I see if they actually grow.  If they establish themselves, next yearI will most likely need something higher than 10 ft.






red headed keg

red headed keg

Expect more posts with updates on my urban hop farming and their progress.  But, now lets talk about kegging beers.  As soon as you bottle your second batch of homebrew you already start making plans and saving money to do it, because as El Rojo told us, bottling sucks.  The plan is to have a kegerator built in the next couple of weeks.  Already received some kegs and various other parts, just need a freezer.  The place that I ordered my kegs from must have known we have a token red-head at Big Orca and sent me a red-headed keg.

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Beer bottling is the worst

The good  — My Belgian Wit a.k.a. The Belgian Dip is bottled. The bad – I had to bottle it. Going through the motions of bottling for the first time in a while made me realize just how much it sucks to do so. It’s never fun when your counter looks like this:

photo 1 (1)

And has to end up looking like this:

photo 5

Going through the motions made me desperate for a sweet keg kit. It would be fantastic if I could just pour my beer into a freshly cleaned keg and be drinking my beer the same night. Instead, I now sit and wait. The initial taste was a little too bitter. There’s a good chance I might have put too much tangerine peel into the wort. But the optimist in me sees myself holding a nice frosty beer with subtle hints of tangerine and coriander on a beautiful spring day.  Until then, check back for some random beer reviews and any other trouble El Gordo and I might get ourselves into.


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