The epic stout. RIS-king failure.

Okay, do you think I’ve used the word “epic” too many times?  Maybe, but you may agree when you read this one that it is indeed an epic story.

In May I brewed a Russian Imperial Stout (RIS).  I used a few recipes that I put together, it involved a mini-mash and other processes.  Eventually, I tossed it in the carboy and added big starter of Irish Ale Yeast, and let ‘er rip.

After a few weeks I put it in secondary, knowing that it would sit for a few months.  My plan at the time was to make a few brews that needed a long time to condition, because I was going away and wouldn’t be drinking them for a while. I was also out of bottles.  So along with this RIS, I brewed a Double IPA.  I also brewed a Wee Heavy, which I bottled because it was a friend’s wedding gift.

Interestingly, they all turned out to be 8.5% ABV.

Anyway, back to the stout.  After I put it in secondary, I was at a brew pub in Gatineau, La Brasserie du temps, which was having a first anniversary party.  The brewmaster, who is a brilliant brewer, put a few of his bigger beers on oak.  We were able to compare the beer side by side, and at that point I decided I’d oak the RIS.  However, I wanted to be able to compare them, too.  So I split the beer into two smaller batches (a tertiary fermentation), tossed some oak chips in one, and let them sit.  With the advice of the Beer Advocate brain trust, I took samples every day, to make sure that it wasn’t too oak-y.  The character of oak chips can go from great to gross in a matter of a day.

After five days, the beer was perfect.  I bottled on the sixth day because I had something to do on the fifth.

In all, I had about 3.5 dozen bottles, split pretty evenly between oaked and unoaked.

Okay, so a few weeks later I popped one to try it.  It was a little sweet, and completely not carbonated.  Knowing this is a big alcoholy beer, I knew that it would take longer for the yeast to do its job.  So I just let it sit while I went on my month-long trip.

when I returned, I tried another one.  it was s-till flat.  This was bad.  After some consultation, with a range of dumb (just dump it it’s not worth it) and good suggestions (there was too little yeast and too much alcohol)  from the beer advocates, I decided to pump more yeast into the beer.  I opened every bottle, squeezed a few (sterilized) eye droppers’ worth of another package of Irish Ale yeast into each bottle, and recapped.  And waited.

After a few weeks, I tried another one.  Still flat.  This was getting desperate.  It tasted really good (maybe a little too sweet and thick, but the carbonation would open that up a bit).

So I began the remedial yeast revivification.  I put the bottles in my office where my computer pumps out some heat.  Every few days I turned them upside down and shook them to get the yeast back up off the bottom.  Once in a while, like every three or so weeks.  And waited. This was all in August.

A few weeks ago, at the end of September, I went to visit my friends with whom I had gone to the Brasserie du Temps.  I brought some of the stout, and when we opened the oaked one, we had perfect carbonation!  Brilliant. and the beer was pretty good.  Unfortunately, that one day delay between deciding that the oak had done its job and actually bottling it had made the oaky woody flavours a little more up front than I’d wanted.

Last week, I popped a regular RIS to try it.  It. Was. Still. Flat.

So I’m on my final, desperate push to fix this.  It’s been six months.  The beer should be at its best right now.  It is pretty good, but since it’s flat, it is missing that characteristic that makes it extra special.  The lack of carbonation makes it a little too syrupy.

I have put the bottles back in the computer room  and I am inverting them every day.  If, after a week, this hasn’t changed things, I will get another package of yeast, and do a final, desperate attempt to add yeast.

After that, I’ll just brew another one.

Here is what I learned from all of this.

  1. when you are brewing something big, pay very close attention to the amount of yeast you may have in solution.
  2. a tertiary fermentation will deplete a lot of yeast from the solution.  if you are doing this with a strong beer, yo umight want to add more yeast when bottling (I did this with my Double IPA and it carbonated perfectly).
  3. a tertiary fermentation is probably not the best thing to do in any case.  I should have split this beer for secondary, tossed the oak in one side after a few days of conditioning, and then bottled that.  Less yeast would have been gone.  (In my defence, I didn’t think of oaking until it was in secondary).
  4. don’t give up easily. There are different ways of doing things, as long as the beer isn’t infected or messed up entirely, you can probably salvage it.  I had a bad batch of extract once, and there was no saving that one.  It just didn’t ferment down.  I lost 10 Gallons of beer.

I still look forward to cracking this at Christmas.  It won’t be bad, just maybe not as good as it could be.  Next year, I’ll brew another, and knowing what I know now, we’ll see what happens.


About danmalleck

Medical historian and jack-of-all-trades curmudgeon. I tend to ramble about politics, social incivility, and our self-centred culture more interested in buying the next cool ringtone or LED TV than actively engaging in the sorts of discussions and issues that matter. The more opportunity we have to buy more stuff, the less concern there is, it seems, in politics, social justice and let's face it, basic human decency, unless those things actually can save us money or get us more things to show how awesome we are through displaying our material wealth. And I like to brew beer, make cheese, and put food in jars.
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