Recipe Formulation and Homebrewing A Wee Heavy
When we first decided to take on the Wee Heavy style for our December Recipe Kit, I'll admit that I had a fair amount of due diligence to do. It's always been one of my favorite styles to drink inside of the big, dark and heavy category in my head, but I wasn't sure what really constituted a Strong Scotch Ale other than that.
I quickly found out that the real high points of this style were a slightly warming alcohol character, a distinct caramel and malt sweetness, and balanced low IBU’s to give a little contrast to the malt sweetness. Although that seemed easy enough, I wanted to really push the limits of this style and of the specialty malts involved, and that’s exactly what happened!
The Recipe Formulation Process
For us, recipe formulation starts with the yeast. I’ve often said that yeast determines 80% of the flavor profile for a beer, and a Wee Heavy is no exception. Wee Heavy’s have a killer malt profile that comes from the expression of specialty grains through the yeast. The trick is to use a moderately attenuative yeast that will properly express a higher percentage of specialty malts than you would use for a drier style like a pale ale, somewhere in the 15 to 20 percent range. For our recipe, we decided to put Imperial Organic Yeast A31 Tartan through it’s paces, since it’s basically made for this style. For higher gravity beers, attenuation is in the 70 - 72 percent range, which admittedly is a little lower than we wanted, but thought that it would be a great trial run anyway, and help make our Scotch Style Ale come out a bit more malt forward.
Once the yeast is chosen, we generally try pick a base malt that is appropriate to the overall outcome that we want. Usually, American 2 Row for hoppy beers and lighter, American styles, Pilsner style malts for lagers, European styles, or IPA’s that we want super light in color, and Pale Ale malts for anything that we want to be more malt forward and balanced, especially browns, reds, and English style, malt forward beers. Naturally, we wanted Maris Otter for this beer!
For specialty malts, the only real way to determine what you want to use is by going by style guidelines and reading about the effects of the malts, and at what percentages they do what you want them to do. For a Wee Heavy, the main flavor profile per style is big malt, big caramel and toffee, with a slight, warming alcohol quality. This means medium level crystal malts, malts with lighter roast characters, and malts that will give you the perception of residual sweetness, like honey malt.
Now, anyone can pick up Brewing Classic Styles and make a dead nuts incarnation of any style they want, thanks to Jamil’s hard work and awesome recipes and interpretations, but when we do a recipe, not only do we want to make it our own, we want to brew a little outside of the styles and make it something a bit more interesting.
Making a Beer Recipe Your Own
Making a beer your own isn’t just doing something super crazy in every batch, although it can be that as well. For us, it’s more about using some of the cooler malts available in this awesome day and age of brewing and trying to make everything balance in a way that makes the finished product fit the finished product that is in your head.
For this beer recipe, we wanted to add a feel of Scotch whisky, not so much that it was a polarizing and overdone single malt whisky, but enough to play off of the higher gravity and light, slightly alcohol warming expected in the style. For this aspect, we decided to use a small amount of Mesquite Smoked Malt, right around 3%. Because of the lighter, slightly acrid smoke character that it provides, it ended up being a very subtle background smoke character, which is perfect. With the residual sweetness, this part was perfect! It’s a lightly smoky aroma with very little in the actual flavor, just a light hint at the end of the palette.
For the caramel character, we decided on a slightly more ‘burnt’ profile, cutting back some of the expected sweetness in exchange for an almost raisin-fruit character that would ideally balance and add to the base malts own natural malt sweetness. The ideal candidate for this, of course, is American Caramel/Crystal 150° L, since it adds some deep, raisin-y toasted toffee characters that are hard to find in just any specialty malt. We did this at about 6%, and balanced it with English Crystal Rye 70° L and it’s lightly burnt, complex caramel character at about 6% to give a little contrast and some of the lighter caramel/crystal notes. To bring the caramel profile together, we added Weyermann Caramunich 3 at around 3% to add in some of the more mid-level, less toasty and more sweet-forward malt aromas. With a total specialty malt percentage of almost 20%, which is way more than we do for most beers, we felt like we were on to something.
Finding Balance Between Mash Temperature and Yeast Attenuation
This concept is oft overlooked by many a brewer and recipe developer. It’s not enough to just mash high or low with any yeast strain, or only mash at one temp no matter what. It’s all about that balance between yeast attenuation and mash temp. We knew that we wanted more malt character than usual, and that our yeast at higher gravities would only be in the 70% range, so we chose a slightly higher mash temp to make sure we made plenty of fermentable and non-fermentable sugar, around 154°. The idea here is that we will have a ton of non-fermentables to achieve our goal of a malt bomb, but still have enough fermentable sugar to achieve our higher alcohol content, even with a higher finishing gravity.
The way it ended up, we actually achieved about 76% attenuation. We were expecting a finishing gravity of about 1.023, and ended up at 1.020. Those extra three points made a pretty significant difference in the beer, making it slightly drier and bringing out a little more of the smoke and hop characters, which worked out well. Although the yeast performed better than expected, our beer still came out balanced due to low IBU’s and a high percentage of specialty malts.
When choosing hops, especially for a beer like this, the first thought is Bitter-Balance. What kind of potential IBU’s are we looking at, and how many pounds of hops will I need to add to achieve that? Luckily, Wee Heavy is a beer style that doesn’t want or need a ton of bitter to balance out the malt, because it’s already a malt bomb, so we only needed to balance some of the sweetness to achieve our goal.
The bitter-balance additions are almost always your bittering additions, and we usually go by how much alcohol, how much sweetness we want, and what the style guidelines say. 17 - 35 IBU’s, according to the BJCP, is the range of bitter expected in this beer, and we’re never afraid to manipulate that to meet our needs. Higher alcohol and maltier beers can handle some extra bitterness without ruining the balance, which is something we bank on when making a beer like this. We ended up choosing Loral hops because of higher IBU’s, and therefore less hops we needed to add, and because their flavor and aroma profile of floral, pepper and dark fruit is very reminiscent of noble hops and we felt it would add to this palette of flavors that we were trying to create. To maximize this character and hit somewhere near that 30 IBU mark, we elected to do a 30 minute and flame out addition only. This allows more hop flavor to come through, hopefully to compliment the rest of the beer and help create balance.
The Finished Product
So after all of these mental calculations and a brew day, we came up with Heavy Half Scotch Style Ale in both Extract and All Grain. With an original gravity of 1.090, and a finishing gravity of 1.020, it sits right at 9.3%, which is definitely a bit higher efficiency than we were planning, but you won’t hear a complaint from us! The aroma is a very cool, lightly sweet burnt toffee with a vague hint of smoke, and the flavor is a malt blast of darkly sweet caramel and toffee with a rich malt background and very light aftertaste of smoke, barely enough to know it’s there.
Although it's technically a Wee Heavy, it's also definitely at the outer edges of the style, which I think is a point in it's favor. It's got all of the malt sweetness, but it's not as overpoweringly sweet as a more traditional Wee Heavy because of the higher IBU's and smoke malt additions. The real downside: you could drink it all day and never get bored, and at 9.3%, well, it might lead to some falling down!
When you make a recipe, brewing it a couple of times is always a good idea. It’s rare for most brewers, us included, to create the beer that’s in your head on the first go-round. One of the best things you can do is brew your beer and taste it, then brew it again with adjustments until you get what you want. For many of us, variety is the spice of life, so take good notes when you brew, and pull them back out when you taste and jot down any thoughts or changes you think of. This way, if it's a beer that you only brew once a year, you'll have your fresh thoughts when you get back to it. There are a lot of beers in a year, and it's best to make notes and changes before they stack up!
Thank you for reading! Please don't hesitate to post any comments or questions below!