Brewing Big Winter Beers

What is it about the arrival of Old Man Winter that makes the thought of sipping on a strong big beer just perfect? Winter ales are all about roaring fires and a dark brew that will keep you warm and bring cheer during the festive months.

Porters and stouts are the staple of brewers during the colder seasons. Full-bodied, rich, and perfect for hoisting with friends and family while the snow accumulates outdoors.

These beers typically have high alcohol by volume, and a high gravity (starting and final). Hops aren't presented the same way, but often times IBUs creep well over 40 with these ales to help maintain balance.

UK-style winter warmers are stronger than average, dark, somewhat sweet and start at around 5% ABV. Belgian winter beers are often stronger versions of flagship beers, and may be gently spiced, while US winter beers are generally spiced and are more rich than Belgian beers. There are many seasonal beers in the colder months that can fall under a big winter beer label, but some of the best have special qualities that come from oak-aging.

So where to start with a big beer? What’s different than regular beers about them process-wise? And what about oak aging?

How Do I Start With A Big Winter Beer?

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You might have brewed beer plenty of times, but not tackled a big beer. Many of the same principles apply but there’s some special considerations as well.

Be Open to using some extract.

To get all that alcohol, it doesn’t have to be from mashing grain only. Remember, the bigger the mash, the lower efficiency you'll typically get. Adding sugar from malt extract is not failing! So don’t be ashamed to add extract to get guaranteed sugar and ensure your SG hits the high notes.

Yeast selection is important.

Selecting the right yeast strain to go big and pitching enough  into the wort are crucial for any beer, but even more so with the high ABV of big beers. Make sure your yeast can tolerate the high ABV.

When pitching, use a large starter. No matter the strain of yeast you’ll be utilizing, there will be stress on the yeast due to the higher starting gravity, and extra stress as the ABV increases throughout fermentation.


Oxygen must also be considered. In the realms of more advanced tools but something that can be considered by all brewers, pure O2 and other methods are a simple way to give your yeast a healthier start, and is especially important for yeast in high gravity beers.

Big beer brewers swear by adding pure oxygen twice. While once is generally a good idea for all brewing, a second time is a no-no except for with these big beers. The first time oxygenating, add oxygen to the wort for at least 90 seconds (pure O2) initially to raise the oxygen content.

The second time should be done after the yeast and wort has sat in the primary for around 12-18 hours, which is after one complete cell division. More oxygen supports the yeast, providing help for faster fermentation speed and attenuation.

Big Beer Body - How Can I Work With A HIgh ABV?

winter beer grains

A larger amount of alcohol needs to be carefully balanced with extra body in the finished beer. Oak is important here, but it’s not the only tool or ingredient you can use.

Lactose is a useful ingredient. It directly adds a subtle sweetness to your brew without giving the yeast more fermentable sugar. Just watch out that the online calculator you’re using for your recipe doesn’t consider your lactose as fermentable, which will throw off your expected final gravity and attenuation measurements in the calculator.

Another consideration is flaked oats. The silky-smooth mouthfeel and creaminess from oatmeal in a porter or stout is simply wonderful. It’s also far away from a beer that’s thin and possibly even watery - not what is wanted in Winter.

Mashing with un-malted flaked oats and some other grains adds rich large beta-glucan gums, which is what makes the consistency of your breakfast oatmeal so thick. This adds a delicious viscosity to do your brew. Flaked oats can be mashed directly, and un-malted oats should go through a cereal mash if you want them to convert.

Spices are another consideration for adding those holiday flavors. Most winter beers involve varying amounts of cinnamon, cloves, allspice and more.

Oak Aging Your Winter Beer In A Barrel

barrel aging winter beers

We’ve previously covered the use of oak in brewing, from wine, to bourbon, and to beer. It’s all about modifying and imparting flavor, and with respect to winter beers, mellowing the flavor from being a cold whack to the face into more of a hearty caress that warms you all the way down.

If you want to be true to the world of barrel-aged big beers, and you’re experienced, the full barrel is the way to go. Winter beers are perfect for used barrels that come out of bourbon distilleries and have been recently used. They impart smokey, vanilla and wood flavors, which are highly desirable for stouts and porters.

Brewing with oak barrels is all about volume. Standard oak barrels hold up to 50 gallons. That’s a large brew amount for the home brewer and may not make sense at those commercial / highly enthusiastic volumes.

The way some homebrewers tackle this challenge is to call other brewers in the area (or do a club barrel), splitting costs and combining the labor to make enough quality ale to fill a barrel. On your own, you might have more luck contacting small boutique distilleries who may have smaller sizes that you can obtain, which is more manageable.

As a bonus, small barrels are known for imparting flavors much more quickly than larger size barrels; in as little as two months instead of six months.

Big dark beers are higher ABV and do take longer to age as they inhibit the process with their high alcohol content, but this also avoids contamination which can be an issue from barrels open to the air for long periods.

Can I Barrel Age Beer Without The Barrel?

There’s plenty of reasons why a barrel is just a bit too far. Cost, storage, and the amount of beer you’ll need to produce to fill one are all high on the list. Plus you live somewhere that other brewers don’t, like Germany, where no one brews beer because everywhere sells quality beer cheaply.

What’s your next best option?

finished winter stout

Heavily toasted oak chips, cubes, spirals, staves or chunks, from your local home brew supplier. The highest quality of these come from an entire barrel, only some of the chips will be from the charred inner surface where the oak was torched. After acquiring your oak, you’ll then need to soak in bourbon. That also sanitizes the chips, a useful side-effect. Beginning the soak when you pitch your yeast and then adding everything in after fermentation is a common approach.

You can leave them for as long as you need. Everyone has different thresholds for how much oak is too much, so it's important to sample every once in a while to avoid over-oaking, and get the flavor profile you want.

While there are many ways to brew & design a winter beer, what ultimately matters (as always) is that you like it and are able to enjoy it with a friend or two.


written by Tristan Rayner

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