Now our first-born lager is but a distant and bleary memory, time to look back on the experiment.
It took us a over a year and a half of all-grain brewing to pluck up the courage to do a lager, mostly because our books and the guidance make it sound so damn complicated. The implication seems to be that if you can’t mirror the water quality of Plzen and don’t have lagering capacity of a cavern in the Alps, it just ain’t worth the bother.
This, coupled with a rather narrow definition of what a lager should taste like, makes the process rather daunting. However, having now had a go ourselves, we’d say that you don’t need to worry about things as much as the books suggest to get something very drinkable, and yes, even “authentic”.
More details of the homebrewing lager process after the jump. And maybe some gratuitous pops at the BJCP guidelines…
Here’s a good overview of how to brew a lager. It’s reasonably helpful, and probably the source we consulted most during the process. However, we didn’t follow it to the letter – we were always going to have to make some compromises.
Lots of the gurus insist on getting the mineral balance of your water right, to mirror great lagering cities like Plzen or Munich. They advocate adding minerals and even distilling your brewing liquor.
We thought, bugger that, we’ll just do what we usually do; filter some good old London tap water to get rid of the chlorine, and add a couple of teaspoons of gypsum to the mash. London lager, here we come.
OK, we didn’t compromise here, but this was the first time we had ever used it successfully. The trouble with liquid yeast is you (generally) have to get it going a few days beforehand, and that means extra cleaning and sanitisation, not to mention having the time and energy on a week-night to do it.
However, having now used liquid yeast on a number of occasions, it’s easy to fret too much about whether it’s in optimum condition. According to instructions, you’re supposed to add the starter to the beer just after your starter has gone through high krausen . However, we’ve added it before this point, and also a week or so after this point, and it’s made no difference to the fermentation. So lesson 1 — don’t worry about the exact condition of your liquid yeast. It’s ready when you are — don’t be dictated by it!
All the gurus insist on temperature control. We don’t have a beer fridge, or a cavern in the Alps, so therefore can’t control the temperature much. But we were keen to see what we would get just by putting it in the coldest place we could — the garage.
We had a stroke of luck with the primary fermentation. The temperature dropped just before Christmas, leaving our garage at around 8-10 degrees C — perfect for the lager.
Incidentally, the fermentation is very different to an ale. You get a very slow steady release of CO2 for a long time. Ours took about three weeks.
We did a secondary, just to get the crap off the bottom. By this point, the temperature was heating up again, so we kept the secondary to just 10 days, so that we could get on with bottling and lagering. You can (and should, according to some sources) lager in a fermenter, but it seems easier and perfectly effective to do it in the bottle.
After a 48 hour “diacetyl rest”, where you bring the lager in to room temperature for a couple of days to kill some flavours, it was time for the actual lagering.
By this point, we were into the late January / early February heatwave. We put five bottles of beer in our actual fridge and the rest in the garage, where the temperature ranged from 8-16 degrees during the six weeks lagering time. This is quite a lot warmer than the recommended temperature of 2-6 degrees.
Six weeks? Well, actually, we cracked open a bottle after 10 days. And it was already glorious.
After around four weeks, we tried a bottle from the fridge (lagered at around 3 degrees) compared with one of the standard bottles. The one from the fridge did taste a bit crisper and cleaner that the other, but there wasn’t a lot in it, and the non-refrigerated version was still, unquestionably, a good lager.
This lager won’t win any American homebrewing competitions, because it has faint traces of diacetyl — that butterscotch flavour associated with ales — and slight fruity esters. This is a big no-no according to the style guidelines.
However, it was extremely reminiscent of the lagers we’ve had in Franconia. They can lack the clinical finish of a Munich Hell, but we’ve got rather a taste for the “imperfections” you find in the homey brews further north. We concluded that we’d brewed a good honest “landbier”, and were frankly delighted.
Furthermore, we tested it on several “die-hard” lager drinkers at our party, and they enjoyed it and came back for more.
So all in all, you can get pretty decent results without worrying overly about the temperature, or even without leaving it that long. I’m sure that if we had paid more attention to the exact mineral qualities of the water, and fermented and lagered the brew at exactly the right temperatures, and for the right times, we’d get a nice clone of a German pilsner. But I’m really not sure the supposed benefit of this is worth the extra effort.
So if you’ve always wanted to brew a lager, but been put off — go for it! Just don’t take style guidelines too seriously. They’re incredibly restrictive and really don’t reflect the reality of fantastic variety of lagers available in Germany and other countries. Taste your brew with an open mind, and I’m sure you’ll be delighted.