Sunday, February 1, 2015

Brewing The Scottish Wee Heavy

The Scottish Wee Heavy is a smooth, rich, malty-sweet, high alcohol, medium to full bodied Ale that incorporates brewing processes that are unique to the style. Also listed in the BJCP Style Guidelines as Strong Scottish Ale it is referred to historically as a 90/ shilling ale, based on an early method used by Scottish brewers to rate beer according to its alcohol content. The 90/ shilling beers of the day were those having over 6.0% alcohol, today's BJCP guidelines expect the Wee Heavy to contain 6.5% to 10% alcohol in order to be within the style. With higher alcohol levels approaching those found in wine, the Wee Heavy benefits enormously from a long period of cold conditioning to smooth and round out it's flavor profile. 

Scottish Wee Heavy 1.082 OG Sample

When attempting to brew a beer that falls squarely within the guidelines of any individual style, I start off by learning all I can about the history of that beer. Obviously the Wee Heavy originated in Scotland, the geographic location being incorporated in the name is a dead giveaway to that. The first questions to answer before brewing a Scottish Ale are what would the water profile have been like, what types of grain were available to breweries in the region and which variety of hops were likely used. As for figuring out the brewing water profile it's no secret that the underground springs near Edinburgh Scotland provided the perfect soft water to produce the rich malty beers that have become synonymous with the area.
Golden Promise Malt, long recognized as the traditional grain used when making Scottish Ales and whiskey, is also a great choice to use in a grain bill for a Wee Heavy. Thought to be produced by selective breeding of UK 2 row barley, Golden Promise is an early spring barley that is well suited for the growing conditions of Scotland. As for determining the yeast strain used when fermenting Scotch Ales, to me the qualities are indistinguishable from the UK Whitbread strain as far as I can tell. The yeast should be fast fermenting and alcohol tolerant, producing little or no esters when the beer is fermented between 62F to 68F, while accentuating malt character. The yeast should also be a high floculent, medium to high attenuating strain that forms a tight compact sediment once fermentation has completed. Yeast with those qualities will be perfect for fermenting a high gravity beer and are well suited for the months of cold conditioning that follow.
Wee Heavy Original Gravity 1.082 And Final Gravity 1.017

According to some historical accounts the Wee Heavy was originally brewed with herbs and spices because Scottish hop production at the time was nearly nonexistent. As time passed hops were imported from England to replace the herbs and spices but they were used sparingly. This resulted in an ale that was rich malty, slightly sweet with an unmistakable warming produced by high levels of ethanol and propanol that developed with extended aging. The hops provided just enough bitterness to keep the beer from becoming excessively sweet and the beer was left to ferment cool enough to keep esters at a minimum while enhancing the rich malt flavors.

One unique characteristic when brewing the Wee Heavy is how malt caramelization is achieved in the kettle, through a long boil instead of the addition of Crystal malts. During a two to three hour boil the wort caramelizes, or darkens, as the sugar molecules change causing them reflect light differently. The extended boil time also increases the Malliard reaction in the wort to produce complex flavors that would not have time to develop any other way in a shorter boil. The color of the wort, the complex malt flavors and the medium to full body and mouthfeel of this beer is a combination of grain selection, wort boil, fermentation and long cold conditioning. I should mention patience too, this is one style of beer meant to be enjoyed a year or more after it's brewed, so plan on having an area dedicated to storing the bottled beer at 45F for quite a while.

When using mash temperatures in the 155F range in combination with soft pH 5.6 water a very chewy caramelized wort will be produced with the potential for easily creating a 9% or higher alcohol beer. With all great things comes great responsibility and care should be taken to ensure there are enough viable yeast cells, vital enough to convert a huge amount of sugars before going dormant. For a five gallon batch of beer a large yeast starter made with two vials of Whitbread strain yeast and four thousand milliliters of 1.040 starter wort should be sufficient to do the job.

Monster Pitch Of S-04 Yeast Ready To Go
Oxygenating the wort and using a large pitch of healthy yeast I also added a capsule of WhiteLabs Servomyces nutritional yeast supplement to the kettle to provide the yeast with the extra energy they would need. After cold crashing the starter for two days in the refrigerator it was easy to decant the starter wort off of the yeast cake prior to pitching it on brew day. Pitching a gallon of starter wort into a five gallon batch of beer is not the best way to ferment a great tasting high gravity beer. Diluting a five gallon batch of high gravity beer with a gallon of oxidized low gravity starter wort would be both counter intuitive and counter productive. 
The Whitbread strain has many qualities that make it a perfect choice for Bitters, Stouts, Porters, Brown and Scottish Ales and IPAs. It thrives in the 62F to 68F temperature range making short work of converting sugars while keeping ester production down. A medium attenuation strain with high flocculation and sedimentation properties that produces a clear, malty, sweet beer with little yeast flavor and perfect for long periods of cold conditioning. A trick to fermenting a high gravity beer is to make sure you pitch enough yeast to get a fast and furious fermentation going quickly and to get the most attenuation possible. Yeast  gets stressed out quickly in a high alcohol environment, pitching plenty of yeast reduces the amount of stress on the individual cells which in turn reduces the chance for off flavors to develop in the finished beer.       

Blowing The Lid Off - Use A Blow Off Tube
Don't be fooled at all into thinking that this yeast is a slouch in any way, it's one of the most aggressive strains I've worked with. When the following conditions have been met like adding yeast nutrient, oxygenating the wort, pitching plenty of vital viable cells and holding temperatures between 62F to 68F you can expect an explosive fermentation. Twelve hours into the fermentation I looked in the fermentation chamber to see the lid of the fermentor ready to blow right off and painting the insides of the chamber with fermenting beer! I was caught off guard thinking that having two bubbler air locks in the lid would be enough to vent off the Co2 produced by the fermentation. The krauzen in the fermentor rose so quickly that it clogged both airlocks with foam and the Co2 pressure nearly built up to the point of no return.

Half Gallon Jar With StarSan And Blow Off Tube
To relieve the pressure on the fermentor's lid I pushed the end of a 5/16" ID vinyl tubing over the airlock vent tube and routed the other end to the inside of a half gallon jar with StarSan in it. The larger diameter of the tubing allowed the foam to flow through it easily and eliminated any risk of having it clog up. With the blow off tube in place I was able to listen to the fermentation bubble, hiss and rumble like mad for the next three days as the yeast went to town on all that sugar. This batch fermented at a constant 67F from start to finish throughout the primary fermentation phase then raised to 70F as the final gravity dropped from 1.020 to 1.017. Although the perception of some diacetyl like flavors are acceptable in a Wee Heavy those flavors should not be produced by having diacetyl in the finished beer. This last one had me going there for a while, but raising the temperature near the end of fermentation is a good way to help the yeast clean up after themselves and remove excess diacetyl.

The recipe I used for the Wee Heavy consisted of just three grains. The base grain I chose to use was (90%) Pale Ale Malt, it was easier for me to order than Golden Promise Malt,
(8%) Melanoidin Malt and (3%) Roasted Barley Malt. The Roasted Barley Malt was used mainly to deepen the color of the beer and the Melanoidin Malt to increase the rich smooth maltiness of the beer without having to do a decoction mash. For hopping I added 4 ounces of East Kent Golding (UK) pellets to the kettle with 20 minutes remaining to the boil. I brewed this batch in a 15 gallon kettle and had no trouble at all fitting in all the grain and water needed for eBIAB mashing. I set the PID controller to 155F and mashed for 90 minutes stopping to give the mash a stir every fifteen minutes. I use single crushed grains and by stirring in between have been getting a little better than 70% efficiency everytime.

Scottish Wee Heavy After 1 Year Of Cold Conditioning

 The beer was bottle primed and has been carbonating at 68F for just over three weeks now, next week I'll refrigerate a bottle then open it to test out the carbonation. The carbonation level for such a high gravity beer is very low, the lowest carbonation level in any other style of beer I've brewed before. Even the high gravity Barley Wines I've brewed then conditioned for a year had higher carbonation levels than the Wee Heavy's .75 to 1.3 volumes. If I'm reading between the lines correctly the Wee Heavy is more like drinking a Scotch whiskey than a beer, especially when you start reading about the propanol that develops in the beer with long cold conditioning. Once the carbonation levels have proven out the beer will go into 45F cold storage for the next twelve months to condition in the bottle. Based on what I've read a Wee Heavy like this one can reach it's peak flavor in a year and can retain a great flavor profile for up to three years, before the beer's flavor starts to degrade.

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