I have four five-gallon glass carboys for secondary fermentation. At the time I would rack my wort into a secondary and free up my primary fermenters to make more beer. I was also brewing lagers at the time which would sit in the carboy for secondary fermentation of up to eight weeks.
There is great debate about whether a secondary fermentation is necessary. Technically in most cases a secondary fermentation is not an actual fermentation; it is more about the beer aging and maturing. I feel my beers are clearer and brighter when I use a secondary, but over time I have gotten away from doing it. Most of my beers are low enough in alcohol that they do not need extended time to age. Skipping a secondary is also just easier; it’s one less step.
Frequently now when I do rack to a secondary it is when I am too lazy to bottle, and just want to get the wort off the trub and avoid any associated off-flavors. This is precisely what we with the Geary’s HSA clone we brewed. Andy’s kegs were full so we decided to bottle. After four weeks in the primary we racked to a carboy until we would have time to wash enough bottles. When we racked the beer to the secondary I was scared the beer was ruined by autolysis, an off-flavor caused by the beer sitting on dead yeast. We racked the beer and hoped for the best. The beer sat in Andy’s basement for another month before bottling day. When I tasted the beer on bottling day I’ll be darned if it didn’t taste like an HSA!
Bigger beers like Hampshire Special Ale need time to mature. The high levels of sugar that is fermented also creates a high level of byproducts which give the beer off-flavors. Additional time to mature gives the yeast time to clean up those byproducts. Even after being racked to a secondary vessel, there is still enough yeast in suspension to do the job.
A high gravity beer with a lot of flavors is a lot like a lasagna. It is great when it is fresh, but often times it is even better after it has sat in the fridge for a couple of days. The same can apply to a beer. The higher alcohol levels in a bigger beer can make the beer taste and feel hot and alcoholic when it is young. That character will mellow with time.
The HSA was the first beer I have brewed that was over 7% alcohol in a long time. For the most part my five gallon carboys have been sitting empty for months. If they are going to take up space, they may as well have beer in them!
The other nice thing about higher gravity/higher alcohol beers is that they age well. If I brew five gallons of IPA, the hop character will dissipate over time. After a few months in the bottle, the flavor and aroma will be so degraded I won’t want to drink it anymore. It is almost a race to drink it all. A strong stout or scotch ale will age nicely in the bottle. I won’t have to worry about drinking it all in a short period of time.
These are beers I am exited to brew, give as gifts, and see how they evolve over months and years. I may even buy a new computer and printer so we can design and make labels for these brews.
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