Thursday, February 11, 2016

Maple Imperial Stout - Recipe & Tasting Notes

In retrospect, I guess it is a little weird how long I went without brewing any dark beers at Kent Falls. I do love stouts and porters quite a bit, and we had always intended to add them to the lineup. But winter snuck up fast, and with the many many many many things I'm juggling all at once, even just orchestrating the timing of releases to their appropriate weather patterns sort of slipped from my attention. There are many ideas I've been working on, and concepts I would like to try out in the future, and a lot of those fall into the neglected dark beer realm. You'll see more stout/porter-type stuff from us next winter, and especially whenever we're able to expand our barrel cellar. (So far, we haven't put a single clean beer into barrels). Different stouts, different porters, different flavors touching up those simple bases, and perhaps even different barrel-aging processes to create something new and #extreme. Like, has anyone even ever tried putting a stout in a barrel before? A barrel-aged stout? I can't say I've heard of it being done. It's probably just too crazy to work, but I'm at least willing to approach the concept on a purely theoretical level, before abandoning it as an absurd idea.

Eventually, maybe I'll even repeat something like this recipe: a 15% ABV maple imperial stout. Maybe. If you've encountered many Kent Falls beers in real life, you'll know that that's about triple the average ABV of the beers I brew here. The anarchist in me kind of wants to avoid brewing anything super boozy, but if there's one thing I'd buck my own conventions for, it'd be a beer like this.

One of my brewing white whales is perfecting this vague ideal I have of a maple imperial stout. It's weird: I generally haaaaaaaate sweetness in beers. In many cases, it can completely ruin a style I should otherwise appreciate. I've come to realize that I just... don't like imperial IPAs anymore. I could probably go the rest of my life without drinking another barrel-aged barleywine. Malt bombs just aren't for me, I guess. Basically every beer I brew is super dry, and rare is the beer that finishes above 3 plato that I would consider acceptable. Their grain bills are super stripped down and simple for a reason. Yet, oddly enough, imperial stouts very often slip through the cracks of my preferences. I think it may be that the roast and depth of flavors balance out the caramel raisin sweetness that I can't stand in other boozy malt-focused beers. Some additional adjuncts can still send these beers too over-the-top, and I'm getting a little burned out on the bourbon barrel-aged stout thing as well, but maple? Maple is one of my favorite flavors in the universe. Maple is a Trojan Horse into my heart and soul. God help me if maple becomes the next pumpkin, because I am helpless to resist it. Thus, I will always be chasing the perfect maple stout, a beer that balances a subtle sweetness with those earthy maple notes, roasty malts and coffee and vanilla undertones.

Having already written about the troubles of imparting maple flavor into beer (the TL:DR: it's just way too fermentable for the flavor to really stick), let me go on a bit of tangent. Let me talk briefly about the brewing-foibles along the way for my grandest Maple Beer attempt. I wanted this beer to be big, incorporate an absolutely ludicrous amount of maple syrup, have a bit of oak backing it up, and hold up as something I could age for years and years and decades to come. Born in the driveway of a homebrew shop, it was later carried home half a mile to my old apartment, where it was fermented and aged. It then endured one of the most miserable packaging experiences of my homebrewing career, thanks to the wonders of leaf hops.

Leaf hops are like this vegetative homing missile designed to find things that can be clogged, and clog them with supernatural vigor. And they follow no rhyme nor reason, either; sometimes they will decide to grant you mercy, and leave your things unclogged; other days, they will decide just to clog all your shit right to hell. Immediately before trying to keg this stout (the plan was to age further in the keg, then bottle off of the keg), I transferred a Brewer's Gold single-hop pale ale that had used leaf hops for every stage and had zero issues. All the beer went through fine, and the leaf hops stayed right where they were supposed to be.

Then I tried to transfer my imperial stout. There were considerably fewer hops in my imperial stout than in my Brewer's Gold pale ale; I'd used a mix of leaf and pellet hops for bittering and late additions. Not for any particular reason, but because it was what I'd had on hand, and I hadn't thought about it too much. But despite the small addition of just a few ounces, these leaf hops decided they were going to clog my auto siphon. Aggressively. I tried unclogging. I tried pumping harder. I remember the moment where the end of the hose popped out of the keg due to some kind of pressure build-up and sprayed syrupy imperial stout all across my room. The auto siphon I was using was so clogged I could not get any beer through it. I would pump and it would just shoot blanks. I separated the hose from the siphon and tried siphoning the old fashioned way, to no avail. I tried sucking the beer through the hose to start it; clogged. I tried a second auto siphon, and it immediately clogged. I tried one of those mesh straining bags around the end of the siphon: this did a great job of siphoning noisy angry air pockets through my hose. I tried creating a small wormhole in the bottom of the fermentor to draw the remaining beer through dimensions, summoning it into my keg with arcane magicks: clogged. These goddam things were so maliciously intent on clogging every piece of brewing equipment in my house, I'm fairly sure that they actually devised means to travel back in time and kill the parents of my auto-siphon. I'm sure that if I had just tried pouring the liquid from the bucket into the keg, these leaf hops would have found a way to clog the air itself. If they'd had these leaf hops available on the Titanic when its hull was ruptured by that iceberg, the ship would have never sank.

But I digress.

At some point I was standing there, half my apartment sprayed down with a thick mist of imperial stout, broken auto-siphons littered about me, and I was seething with rage. These mere five gallons of imperial stout contained, I'd guess, at least $100 worth of ingredients, and for whatever stupid reason or curse or personal incompetence, I could not move it from one vessel to another. Just physically... couldn't. The laws of gravity were broken that day. I gave up. Sealed up the keg, purged. Purged the carboy with CO2 and sealed that back up until I devised a better plan. Or had access to a better filter. Something that those leaf hops could not defeat. That turned out to be my patent-pending Bear Flavored Dry-Hop Keg device, and in the end, I did eventually successfully get to package this beer.

I had a terrible fear that this stout would come out oxidized or infected after all the abuse that it endured, but it's now been in the bottle for a year, and it's holding up very well. It's sweet, certainly, and trending more towards the typical imperial stout sweetness as it ages. The maple is there, but considering the tremendous amount of maple syrup that I used — two thirds of a gallon Grade B syrup in 4.25 gallons of beer — the flavor is still not as prominent as I would have liked. Part of my hope in making this beer so high in alcohol was that the yeast would tire out and just stop fermenting the stuff while there was still a little maple character left, or that the fermentation would proceed slowly enough that all the delicate nuances wouldn't get scrubbed out. [Edit: the first comment on this post raised some questions that I really should have addressed to begin with, regarding the fermentation. Getting a big beer like this to attenuate is obviously a concern, and by adding the maple syrup in staggered additions, following primary fermentation, I figured the gentler fermentation would help maintain some maple character, but also ensure the yeast didn't get hammered too heavily, and would thus be able to finish this beer out to the degree I expected. Fermentation-wise, especially as a homebrewer, I think this always the best strategy for high-ABV beers]. This worked, to an extent, but if you really want a dynamic maple bomb, you'd have to go to even more extremes. Which is insane to suggest. Clearly there is a point at which just adding more and more maple syrup ceases to become practical, and I think with a touch of oak and maybe even vanilla beans, you would get some magnification of some of the maple characteristics. I did add an ounce of oak chips in the carboy as this aged, but they weren't enough to come through. In retrospect, I wish I'd done more along those lines — a more prominent oak backbone would be good here.

Then again, subtlety is a beautiful thing. The only downside of the beer tasting as balanced and restrained as this is, is the cost of maple syrup. It's... not cheap. So either you have access to a maple source yourself, and cost doesn't matter, or else you're going to be throwing down a lot of money for little reward. What's a little nuance and complexity worth to you?

And maybe that right there explains why something like the "pumpkin spice everything" craze became what it was, and hasn't happened yet with maple. At least in terms of beer, pumpkin and maple both come through extremely, teasingly subtle. In a market that really hasn't had a whole lot of interest in subtle, that's not gonna fly. But pumpkin has those spices to back it up, And man, those spices sure don't have to be subtle. You can load up on the spices. Maple has no such cohort. It is a natural and independent flavor. It is pure of heart. Noble. Humble. And that is why I'll keep chasing it.

5.0 Gal., All Grain
Brewed: 9.24.14
Bottled On: 3.14.15
Fermented at 66 F
OG: 1.093 (before maple addition)
FG: 1.028
ABV: 15%

38.8% [#10] 2-Row malt
27.2% [#7] Grade B maple syrup
15.5% [#4] oak-smoked wheat
7.8% [#2] chocolate rye
7.8% [#2] flaked oats
2.9% [12 oz] Carafa III

Hop Schedule-
2 oz CTZ @FWH

1 oz medium toast American oak chips

British ale yeast


  1. I just so happened to get a gallon of grade C maple syrup for very cheap from a friend in VT. I also recently brewed a Grodziskie and have leftover oak smoked wheat malt... seems like not brewing my own version of your stout would be spitting in the face of powerful cosmic forces... but anyway... questions. I have them:

    Adding the syrup - did you mention when that happened in the process? I was toying with feeding it into the fermenter a bit everyday after initial fermentation slows down. Any thoughts on this? I figure I feed it until it quits, and that leftover maple of the last addition may carry over some initial sweetness.

    Getting these big beers to ferment is always a battle. Recently did an all day boil of a huge English Barleywine. OG 1.145ish. Exciting, until I tried to ferment it. got to 12%ish, with a lot of gravity left and it quit. I still haven't figured out what to do with it... Brett perhaps? So my additional question is: Any tips on getting big beers to attenuate?

    Sorry to be so long winded... I've been drinking.

    Keep up the great work!
    - Greg

    1. Ahh, all great points and questions. No worries about long winded, that's exactly why I failed to explain much of this in my post. Already too long-winded myself.

      Yes, you really probably should give a riff on this recipe a try, it sounds fated! Or at least opportune. I actually just learned that Grade C maple syrup exists from some brewer friends, and it sounds like the way to go. Wish I'd known about it before. So that's pretty ideal. And you're perfectly on track with those thoughts on when and how to add it. That's exactly what I did, feeling that if I added it, a little at a time, post primary fermentation, the yeast would be more likely to remain healthy, the fermentation would proceed slowly but surely, and the maple character would be more likely to remain in the beer. I think it was definitely the approach to take.

      That should help some with the attenuation issues, as the gravity on this wasn't actually as terribly high to begin with as with that beer you mentioned. I pitched a very large yeast starter and let it rip, and I believe I may have pitched more yeast alongside the maple syrup, too. But at that point there's obviously a large yeast cake, and if you're careful to add the additional sugars in slow doses, I think the yeast should be pretty equipped to handle it.

  2. Something that I have been thinking with regards circumventing the fermentation issue with Maple is adding it at a point where the yeast has already flocculated and gone dormant. I wanted to get your opinion on this and if either of these could potentially work because I haven't actually done either but just been thinking of possible solutions.

    So option 1 is just relying on temperature. Cold crashing the beer and then add the maple syrup directly to the keg, carbonate it up and serve away. This could conceivably work if you just operate out of the keg but potentially could be an issue if you bottle some off of the keg try to age the beer.

    Option 2 could be to reach the final gravity you want to hit, cold crash and transfer to secondary or the keg and then hit it with some metabisulfite to kill further fermentation. Then add your maple syrup and cross your fingers.

    Of course, you may want to add some staggered maple additions during fermentation to get a more 'incorporated' maple flavor, this is more for strengthening it's punch at the end and getting it to sit correctly in the mix.

    You think either of these could conceivably work? I've read of backsweetening kegged cider using similar methods, so I'm not entirely sure why it wouldn't work with maple.

    1. Yeah, that's certainly an approach that's worth trying. It's not far off from what I was thinking here, except I didn't expect the yeast to go dormant, just slow down and not ferment as aggressively (and possibly stall out at the end, with so much sugar). As you said, it works with cider, no reason it shouldn't work here, and it could definitely help to bring out more maple character.


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