Garage Pilsner – Brewing a Lager on a Budget

For as long as I have brewed, the thought of making a lager has loomed large in my mind. Like most home brewers, I started out with a snobbish aversion to lager generally. Few get into home brewing with the intent of cloning Bud Light. I wanted to make the coveted flavorful ales absent from the local grocery store beer aisle. As a result, I have made my share of weird hipster Belgian ales, hefeweizens, English milds, and sour ales.

But I have long wondered whether I could even make a drinkable lager? For all the derision shown to mass market lagers, these are difficult beers to brew. They require precise control of fermentation temperature and much more time than brewing an ale.

Brewing lager, as opposed to ale, involves the use of strains of yeast that thrive in frigid temperatures and ferment on the bottom of the tank. Where I have brewed a saison ale in the dead heat of summer in the hottest room in my house (the laundry room) with temperatures approaching 80 F, lager enjoys fermenting in the low 50s F followed by lagering. The process of “lagering” consists of an extended period of maturation after the beer has completed fermenting but before final packaging in bottles or a keg.

Lager’s cool ferment and extended resting time all but eliminates fruity ester tastes and produces a crystal clear, crisp, and refreshing beer. This taste makes lagers the most popular beers in the world. Think of Heineken, Dos Equis, Stella Artois, Miller, Coors, and Budweiser.

For many years, these mega-breweries operated on the assumption that consumers only wanted beers that were smoother, lighter, and clearer. The most egregious example of this being the introduction of Miller Clear in 1993, a lager beer with no color in pursuit of a “less filling” beverage with “no bloat.”

Miller Clear – so light it essentially functions as a parachute.

While you can partially blame the dominance of bad lager beers on the impact of prohibition, mass market distribution, and a financially driven race to the bottom, there can be no denying that for well over one hundred years when it came to beer, most enjoyed drinking lager.  If you offered your great grandfather a milkshake-like hazy New England IPA he would likely throw up in his mouth a little bit while politely trying to stomach it.

With this in mind, I decided to take a shot at brewing a lager. However, I faced obstacles. Primarily, I lacked temperature control equipment and did not want to spend much money on a beer that I might not even like.  

After some reflection, I figured out that I could cheaply achieve a temperature-controlled ferment by going old school and brewing with the winter season. Fortunately, late winter in Ohio proved decidedly chilly. Temperatures in the United States dropped to the lowest level in 30 years. In other words, perfect weather for a lager.

Perfect weather to spend and hour outside next to a boiling pot of wort.

My go-to basement fermentation spot (in the corner of my home gym/closet/man area next to the sump pump) would not work as it stays around 60 F and does not get cooler regardless of the weather outside. This temperature works near perfectly for ales, but I needed to get to the the low fifties Fahrenheit for the ideal temperature for lager yeast. I put a thermometer in the garage and while certainly cold enough the temperature fluctuated wildly throughout the day.

To make the garage work, I decided to buy an InkBird temperature controller ($35.00) along with a small heating pad ($24.97). The combination would bring the temperature of the fermenter right to 53 F. In addition, I wrapped the fermenter in Reflectix insulation that I previously used (with highly unfortunate results) to make a wind break for barbecuing.

Cold garage temperature controls – I put the heating pad on the bottom and plugged it into the digital temperature controller.

For the recipe, I went with a Pilsner. The Pilsner recipes that I reviewed all had similar grain bills but varied wildly on the amount of hops. I went with the hoppier end of the spectrum with 40 IBUs of Czech Saaz hops.

After a chilly brew day, fermentation proceeded uneventfully and the temperature controls in the garage worked as planned. I held the temperature steady at 53 F with minimal fluctuation. The wort did not begin to ferment for a worrisome, though normal for lager yeast, three days as opposed to the less than 24 hours I had grown accustomed to for ale yeast. I hoped to do the 45 days of lagering in the garage, also, but the weather did not remain cold enough with temperatures drifting into the 40s. So I hooked up the InkBird to my kegerator for lagering. My wife, being ever supportive of my brewing, gave birth to baby number five a week after I transferred the beer to a keg and began lagering.

At long last, almost two months after brew day, the Garage Pilsner achieved the clarity and taste that I wanted. Brewing lager didn’t turn out to be much more difficult than other beer, but it did take substantially more time to complete.

The beer tasted crisp with a refreshing hop bitterness. It turned out clean with no fruity or otherwise off tastes. I noticed that taste improved as it spent more time in the keg after the 45-day lager. I believe that the keg time allowed the hops to fade a bit and balance out in comparison with the light body of the beer. For my next time brewing the Garage Pilsner, I plan to tweak the hops to hopefully achieve balance sooner.

Ingredients

  • 9 lbs Pilsner malt
  • 8 oz Carapils malt
  • 3 oz Saaz hops (60 min)
  • 1 oz Saaz hops (1 min)
  • Fermentis Saflager S-23 Lager Yeast

Process

  • Mash at 152 F for 60 minutes
  • Ferment at 53 F for 3 weeks
  • Lager for 45 days at 34 F

Numbers (*Planned/Actual)

  • SG 1.052/1.057*
  • FG 1.012/1.006*
  • 5%/5.5%ABV*
  • 39 IBUs
  • 170 calories/12 oz
My daughter likes to strike a pose when I photograph beer.

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