Who said lagers take longer?

Posted: May 19, 2014 in Brew Blog

I finally got around to brewing my first lager, after all these years.  I’d done a Kolsch, which is a lager-like as any ale you’ll try, but I’d always avoided lagers.  Why?  I think it’s two things…firstly, I tend to associate lager with the horrible mega-swill rubbish I’d been forcing into myself for more than a couple of decades.  One of the first things I learned when I started researching beer brewing was that VB, Carlton Draught, Toohey’s New and Budweiser are all pale, bland lagers.  So it seemed strange to want to brew the very style of beer I’d learned to shun.  The beers that I’d occasionally gotten to enjoy, such as Coopers Pale Ale, Schofferhoffer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the like were of course ales.

Secondly, once I got into home brewing, I’d always read that lagers were harder to brew.  The malt is notorious for producing DMS during the boil, then they need a LOT more yeast, cooler temperatures, longer fermentation times, diacetyl rests, and can throw all sorts of horrible sulphur smells off during fermentation.  And even if you made it through all of that, you had to “lager” them for many weeks to allow the off flavours to be removed from the beer.  Who needs that trouble, when I can brew, ferment and keg a ripping hefeweizen inside of a week?

But I still have a lot of mates who enjoy their bland, megaswill lagers.  Not so much the Aussie stuff, but beers such as Stella Artois, Becks and Heineken.  It’s the main reason I brewed the Kolsch, I’ve got 3 taps so figured it would be a way to keep that lot happy.  Once the Kolsch keg blew, I figured it was time I gave lager brewing a go.  I decided on a classic Bohemian Pilsner, as I’ve had a few Pilsners in my time that I’ve enjoyed.  A pretty basic recipe, 95% German Pilsner malt, and 5% Carapils (for a bit of body and better head retention).  I figured I’d aim for 5.2% and 45 IBU.  Most recipes call for nothing but Czech Saaz hops, but due to the low alpha acids in Saaz, and the high IBU of this beer, I’d need 120 grams of it to achieve the right result.  I only had an 80gm bag, so I figured I’d cheat a bit, and bitter this with Hallertauer Mitt, of which I have plenty due to my love of weissbeir.  With a tame noble hop such as Hallertau at 60m, and then 80 grams of Saaz spread across 30m, 10m and flameout additions, I figured this should work out ok.

I decided on using Wyeast 2001 (Urquell Lager), and grabbed a pack early on so I could start working on my starter.  For my 17l planned batch, Yeastcalc told me I’d need a substantial 340 billion cells.  Of course a Wyeast pack only has 100b when it’s brand new, and it was more like 60b by the time I got it, so I knew I was in for a major starter.  In the end I did it in 2 steps, as I wanted to produce around 100b extra cells so I could store this away in my yeast bank for future use.  So with ‘intermittent shaking’ in my 4 litre plastic vege oil container, I did 2 litres for step 1, and 2.8 litres for step 2, resulting in 440b cells.

So brew day arrived, and as per popular advice I did a 90m mash and 90m boil, and chilled the wort post boil.  I planned to ferment at 10C, but it was taking the wort a long time to get down that far, and I always get nervous about leaving my cooled wort exposed to the elements, so I ended up pitching the yeast at 14C.  A few hours later it had settled down to 10C in the fermenter.  I was expecting a long lag time, but interestingly enough the next morning, around 12 hours after pitching, I could see a healthy krausen forming.  I decided to take a gravity check just to see what was happening, and sure enough the beer had already dropped from 1054 to 1050 in the first 12 hours.  Very unexpected.

I kept an eye on it over the next couple of days, and could see the colour lightening substantially as fermentation progressed.  After 4 days, the beer had already reached 1.020, which was about the point I had planned to start the D-Rest.  I also noticed that there was nothing in the way of off-aromas coming from the ferment, in fact far from the rotten egg/sulphur compounds I’d read to expect, it smelled pretty good inside my fermentation fridge.  And the gravity samples smelled fine, and even tasted pretty good considering how young the beer was.

So I dug around and did some more research on the web, and managed to find a couple of references that spoke of the ‘myths’ of lager brewing.  It seems some brewers out there believe that not all lagers will have long fermentation times and produce terrible smells, as long as you pitch the right amount of healthy, viable yeast.  And they went on to argue that a diacetyl rest is not always necessary, again depending on the pitch rate, yeast type and other factors.  But, it did seem they were doing d-rests as a matter of habit regardless, so I went back out and upped my temperature to 16C.

I left it there a couple of days, then took another gravity check.  After only 6 days in the fermenter, my lager was at my expected final gravity of 1013, and it smelled and tasted pretty bloody good.  I was stunned, this fast turnaround was completely unexpected, and where was all the butterscotch and rotten egg?  I dropped the temp back down to 10C, and left the beer another week, before I could work up the courage to start my crash-chill.  It just didn’t feel right crash-chilling a lager so soon after pitching!  I left it chilling for 3 days, then kegged the beer (onto gelatin), with a plan to lager it in my keg fridge for a few weeks.  I snuck a little taster with a mate yesterday, after only 2 days in the keg, and despite being under-carbed, it’s already clearing really well, and tasting pretty good.  We both agreed we can taste that classic Pilsner flavour, and can’t pick up anything nasty, so it will be interesting to see how this beer develops further over the coming days/weeks.  I’ll be testing it often…in the name of science of course!

Now, if you’ve made it this far, well done.  I always figure these posts will be much shorter than they turn out to be.  I will sign off by saying this is obviously my first ever lager, so maybe I just got lucky, perhaps the malt and yeast I used helped (as well as going to the trouble of pitching at the optimal rate), so I’m not naive enough to say none of the old rules apply.  But I can say that in this case, it turned out to be a hell of a lot easier than I ever thought possible.  And it won’t be long before I do another one.

  1. mikey says:

    This is great. I’ve been wanting to do a lager for a long time, but the thought of *that* extra work always turned me off.
    Really interested to see how this ages, clears, and tastes!

    • carniebrew says:

      Too right Mikey. I reckon if you are already making yeast starters, and have the ability to temperature control your fermenatations, then there’s nothing stopping you from making a lager.

  2. […] storage, really tuned me off. Then a fellow home brewer, Carnie Brewing, posted on his blog about his attempt and quick turn around. That got me interested […]

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