If you’re a homebrewer reading this, chances are at some point on a hot day you’ve cracked open a cold, crisp, clean lager, sat back in your chair and thought “I wish I could brew this”. Maybe you’ve had the good fortune to drink a pilsner in Czechia or a helles in Munich and you’ve been inspired to make your own.
Reading about lager brewing might put some homebrewers off, especially if cold fermentation is an issue, finding a suitable vessel (and space) for long term storage, or just understanding what the differences are between ales and lagers and how to brew them.
So What is a Lager?
Put simply, beer tends to be split into two categories – ales and lagers – and the difference comes down to the yeast. Ale yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae) preferes fermenting at warmer temperatures (around 20°C) and tends to ferment quicker whilst contributing esters to the beer’s flavour. Lager yeast (s. pastorianus) however prefers colder temperatures (12°C), takes longer to ferment and doesn’t give out esters like ale yeast does, resulting in a clean crisp taste.
The word “lager” means “to store”, and lagers are stored – or conditioned – for a matter of weeks to months in cold temperatures. During this time the beer matures and the yeast drops out making it brilliantly clear.
Not all brewers have the ability to control the fermentation and conditioning temperature so closely, and those that do may not want their fermentation chamber used for one beer for three months. There is a way around this though.
So What is a Pseudo Lager?
A pseudo lager is a beer made to taste like a lager, but really is made like an ale often using ale yeast. There is no official definition or BJCP guideline, it’s a lager with corners cut to get from grain to glass a lot quicker than traditional methods.
Sounds good? Here’s how it’s done:
The ingredients needed are the same as a regular lager, and it’s recommended to use a base of pilsner malt, with 10-15% of an adjunct malt. Munich or Vienna malt adds good complexity, and it’s increasingly common to use a small amount of dextrin malt for body and head retention. I sometimes see wheat used which will add a nice grainy flavour, but will also give the beer some haze.
Noble hops are the go-to with pilsners, and are used for balance and adding some extra dimensions to the flavours. Magnum is a traditional bittering hop with high alpha acids and provides a smooth and rounded bitterness. There’s a range of flavour hops which can be used, one favourite being Saaz, but Hallertau Hersbrucker, Spalt, Perle also go really well. I also like to experiment around with some other UK and European hops like Fuggles and Styrian Goldings. Remember, IBUs should be around 20-25 and aroma hops should support the overall flavour, not dominate it!
Yeast selection is very important. There are “clean” ale yeasts which produce low to no esters, like Safale US05, Mangrove Jack’s M-44 or MJ’s Californian Lager Yeast. The former two are West Coast ale yeasts and are known for clean fermentations, and the latter is a lager yeast which ferments clean at ale temperatures.
The brewing process is quite simple and no different from an ale’s brewday. Mash high, around 67-69°C for a Bohemian style pilsner as this will leave residual sugars and more body to the beer. Munich style helles are usually dryer so mash around 65°C. Otherwise mash and boil as you would an ale.
Fermentation and Conditioning
Like the yeast selection, this is very important. The biggest issue I’ve come across when sampling home brewed lagers is a bad fermentation. There should be little to no esters, so the yeast should be a clean yeast fermented at the correct temperature, with a high cell count.
This might sound tricky, but in reality is quite simple. A heat pad can keep temperatures warm and stable, and rehydrating dried yeast or pitching two sachets will keep cell count high. Whilst it is possible to overpitch, the adverse effects are much harder to achieve than underpitching, especially for this style. The yeast and fermentation are what will give the lager its clean and crisp taste which we’re after. Fermentation should take 1-2 weeks with consistent temperatures.
If possible, cold crash and condition the beer. This type of malt forward beer should get better with some ageing, and whilst 3 months might be too long, even 3 weeks will make a noticeable difference.
Package the beer as you would any other ale in bottles or kegs.
Drink and enjoy!
Pilsners are one of my favourite styles of beer and I’m very impatient, so I often make pseudo lagers instead. This is my go to recipe, feel free to experiment around with it so it suits you and your kit, and let us know how you get on with it.
Batch size: 23L
Bohemian pilsner 4.4kg
Dextrine malt 0.2kg
Magnum 12g @ 60 minutes
Saaz 25g @ 10 minutes
Mangrove Jack’s Californian Lager M54
Mash in at 69°C for 60-90 minutes, then raise the temperature to 75°C for 10 minutes. Drain off the wort and sparge collecting around 28 litres of wort. Bring the wort to the boil adding the hops in at prescribed times. Cool quickly and then pitch rehydrated yeast. Ferment at 18-20°C for a week or until final gravity is reached. If possible, cold crash for a few days then bottle or keg.