High ABV Beers: Natural Carb or Force Carb?

After recently bottling a batch of my 7.2% ABV Saison De Rojo (Red Saison): a

Saison De Rojo after 2 weeks in the bottle. Note the amazing "rocky" head. Classic bottle conditioned pour!

Saison De Rojo after 2 weeks in the bottle. Note the amazing “rocky” head. Classic bottle conditioned pour!

beer that has sat in primary since September,  I made the decision to bottle my high gravity beers from now on. I know that bottling is much more of a pain then kegging, but something really bothers me with putting a 9% barleywine in a stainless steel keg and putting the gas to it! I now am of the mind that a high gravity brew’s best qualities are not shown their full respect when kegged and pushed out with Co2. Keep in mind that the “real ale” movement in the UK and the German Riehiensgebot forbids any outside C02 to be used in the process of making and packaging beer. I agree with this statement and I also disagree at the same time. More on this point in just a minute…

  •  bottle re-fermentation and natural carbonation

Is it a coincidence that many of the worlds finest beers are packaged either on lees or carbonated naturally? Certainly not! Most (if not all) German  beer brewers use natural carbonation methods to package their beer. They achieve this by “capping” the fermenter and not allowing more than a given amount of Co2 to escape the fermenting beer. Normally an adjustable psi airlock of some sort is used which allows the brewer to capture the exhausting Co2 and use it to carbonate the beer naturally. Other ways are to “krausen” the beer, meaning to add an already fermenting beer of the same style to the pressure rated fermenter or keg, which in turn carbonates the beer. This is the most traditional way of the two. The idea behind this concept is to: a).  not use anything outside of malt, hops,yeast, and water in the process to make and package the beer b). to lessen the chance of carbonic acid from force carbonation.

The Real Ale movement supporters of the UK also subscribe to this mindset as well, hence the very title: Real Ale. The cask ales of the UK and the US  by definition should be gravity fed or pumped by hand and not pushed by any Co2 tank pressure. The traditional cask ale enthusiasts claim that Co2 adds off flavors and a small amount of oxidation in the beer is actually desired. Unfortunately by using these guidelines, once a cask ale is opened they tend to oxidize quicker than a normal forced carbed keg. The bottom line is the Real Ale movement is striving to keep the qualities and traditions of cask ale alive today as it was back in the old days.

Many of the worlds finest beers like the Real Ales and German beers, are packaged with active yeast and are re-fermented in the bottle. There are many benefits to this practice starting with the increased shelf stability that bottling conditioning brings. Basically, the brewery packages the beer in a flat, non-carbonated state with some additional sugar and active yeast (like homebrewers), or they krausen the batch of beer much the  same way the German brewers do. How does this make the beer more shelf stable? Keep in mind that yeast use oxygen to reproduce and ferment sugar, they in turn use up any free oxygen that has made its way into the beer during packaging. By definition, you now have created an antioxidant in the beer thereby fighting off any chance of oxygen staling the beer. This is a very attractive attribute to any brewery that wants a quality, natural, beer that will be shelf stable for a while and does not want the added cost of pasteurization or filtering.

Another quality of the bottle conditioned beers is the constant changing profile that comes with an unfiltered beer. Because the beer is canned, bottled, or kegged with live active yeast, the beer flavor tends to change as time goes on. Filtered and pasteurized beer are “locked” into place because the yeast is removed before packaging. Also the fine carbonation created by a natural carbonation is said by many to be superior to artificial carbonation.

  • Counterpoint: kegging benefits

Don’t misconstrue the statements above!  I am by no means ready to give up the simplicity and speed of kegging! (go and bottle a 10 gallon batch of beer and you will be ready to pull your hair out!) I still stand by the opinion that hoppy beers benefit much more than other styles of beer when it comes to kegging. You are able to serve the beer fresh with “keg” hops and prevent oxidation in the process. You can also serve hefewiezens and hoppier styles faster as these beers thrive on freshness….hands down kegging is the very best option for these two styles. Good luck trying to serve your aged bottled beer with fresh hops in bottom! It just wont be the same. The speed in which I can carb up a keg is just to good to give up! (I have not even mentioned serving beers on nitro gas.) All of these factors are great reasons to keg your beers.

My process is to a modified fast carb: I will chill the keg down to fridge temps, then force carb at about 48-72 hours at 32-38 psi depending on the style. When I get ready to serve, the keg head pressure is dropped to my serving pressure which is 8 psi. The carbonation is slow and accurate, but does not take a week to complete. The carbonation and head on the beers are tiny bubbles and usually include a great lacing. I have been kegging for about 3 or 4 years and haven’t looked back…until recently of course!

Hope this article helps you if you are on the fence about bottling or kegging your dubbel, triple, imperial stout…etc,etc. Just remember to re yeast those high gravity beers! I love to use the red star champagne yeast due its resilience to high amounts of alcohol (<18% abv) and its work-horse tendency. Having said that, I picked up some wine yeast this weekend to bottle with…I’m thinking of using it when I bottle my Flanders red!  Cheers until then!

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2 responses to “High ABV Beers: Natural Carb or Force Carb?

  1. I just had a go at bottle conditioning a Trippel (more like a Quad ending at 9.1% ABV) that I made as a present for my son, who loves St Bernardus Abt 12. I added the requisite corn sugar and got nil carbonation.

    I’m told that I might have added Champagne yeast, which can hold up to the higher alcohol levels, to guarantee bottle conditioning.

    Is that your experience?

    • Yep. If you have had it sitting in secondary (or primary) for a while on that amount of ABV?… More than likely the yeast are not at thier best. Now I have read that the higher ABV beers need to sit quite a while before you get any carbonation. However, as stated in the entry, I will re-yeast as an insurance policy with champagne yeast. Since the bottles are already capped, you will have to re-yeast each bottle and re cap them individually. I had the same problem with a barleywine in the past. i just made a dry yeast slurry with some warm water and used an eye dropper to deliver the new yeast into each bottle. Try it…you’ll see it will work just fine!

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