Today is my birthday, 31 years old. And wouldn’t you know, I woke up to an interesting little birthday surprise this morning. But not one I was hoping for.

Yesterday, my 5 gallon batch of barleywine was bubbling away nicely. Last night, when I got home from Thanksgiving festivities, it was as silent as a church mouse. I gave it a good shake to rouse the yeast, and it started bubbling away again. This morning, however, all quiet on the western front, save for the single bubble every few minutes. That can only mean one thing…stuck fermentation. I was sort of afraid this would happen. Here’s where I think I went awry…

After I finished boiling the barleywine, I took the original gravity reading and came out to about 1.090, which is definitely on the high end of the density spectrum but exactly what I intended. As you’ll recall, I did two separate mashes for the 5 gallon batch with the hopes of getting as much sugar in the wort as I could to make this a potent little brew. Somewhere in the 10-12% ABV range.

Once I cooled and racked into the primary, I aerated the hell out of the wort to give the yeast a healthy dose of oxygen to feed their alcohol-producing escapades. I pitched the Wyeast Activator pack, and hoped for the best. Fermentation started within 24 hours, and as I just described, abruptly stopped less than a day later. I took another gravity reading to see where things stood, and came out to 1.050, not even close to my target final gravity of 1.020. Clearly, there’s still work to be done. And I definitely should have known better.

A high gravity wort needs lots of viable, active yeast to properly ferment. I’ll use the analogy of a family taking a long road trip to their Thanksgiving destination…you wouldn’t put a quarter tank of gas in the car if you needed to drive several hundred miles, because obviously that’s not enough fuel to get you where you need to go. Likewise, pitching the standard 125 ml of viable yeast in any given Wyeast Activator pack is the equivalent of a quarter tank of gas when it comes to high gravity brews…there’s no way in hell I’d make it my final destination using that amount of yeast. The high levels of sugar, and eventually alcohol, put too much stress on the yeast, causing it to flocculate and go dormant. Kind of like grandpa crashing on the couch after gorging himself on too much turkey and stuffing.

So…today I’m going to get a 2 liter yeast starter going with the same strain of Wyeast 1056 American Ale I originally used, hoping to create a much larger, more aggressive population. Once the starter ferments out (probably within a day) and proves its viability, I’ll repitch into the barleywine and see what transpires. If all goes well, the fermentation will resume, and I’ll eventually get to my final gravity.

Long-winded way of saying I screwed up. But hey, that’s part of homebrewing. You win some, you lose some. But you learn something each time. Hopefully, this one isn’t a lost cause.

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