It may be hard for people outside of Tennessee to remember, but just before the country went on COVID-19 lockdown, a devastating tornado tore through the Nashville area. It killed 26 people and injured more than 300, destroying or severely damaging many homes and businesses in its path.
One of those businesses was Smith & Lentz, a popular brewery and taproom in East Nashville. The tornado ripped out its back wall. “We pretty much have to go through the whole buildout process again,” says Kurt Smith, cofounder and head brewer. “I wish we could have someone build a wall and call the electrician, but it doesn’t work like that.”
For rebuilding, he had already planned to keep the brewery closed for four months or more when bars, restaurants, and taprooms across the country closed in an effort to curb the impact of the pandemic. “It might be sort of a blessing to be going on our insurance plan at this point,” he says.
When the brewery reopens, Smith will go back to brewing what he loves: lager. While the IPAs sell well there, it’s not unusual to find a range of lager styles on the Smith & Lentz taproom menu at any given time. It’s also not weird to look at that menu and see three to five different kinds of pilsners on tap.
“We think pilsners can be as different from each other as the four or five IPAs we have on tap,” Smith says.
It didn’t start that way. The brewery opened in 2015, and for the first couple of years, it brewed only one type of pilsner. “German Pils was sort of classic, Noble-hop focused,” Smith says. “It was the beer from the very beginning we were most excited about making.”
As the brewery continued selling that beer and getting good feedback on it, Smith started thinking of other possibilities—starting with Czechia. He had studied abroad in Prague and always had a soft spot for svetlý ležák—Czech pale lager. “Czech pilsner was something that I always drank a lot of outside the brewery, and I continue to do so,” he says. That led to Happy Hearts Club, their first Czech-style pils.
After that, they just kept playing around with the style. “We kind of just went with it,” Smith says. “It was taking the opportunity to look at it as something that was just as versatile as IPA.” The result is that sometimes now, in the Smith & Lentz taproom, you can order an entire flight of different pilsners. “People, even regulars, will get flights of all our pilsners,” Smith says. “I think that’s a pretty cool way to experience a flight. I don’t think in too many other places you can get that experience.”
Smith also says he’s happy that the regulars like them enough to keep drinking them. “I think that we’re fortunate that we can justify having three to five pilsners on tap, and we get that support from our customers.”
Selling beers of that strength also means that they can sell more beer. “We’re obviously in the business of selling pints—that’s essential to our model,” Smith says. “Having something that’s 4.5 to 6 percent, people are going to have more of them, so that’s a plus.”
The Building Blocks.
For any variations, Smith says, they stick with their preferred yeast strain: White Labs WLP800 Pilsner Lager. With that one strain, they can still get a range of different results by varying things such as mash temperatures and schedule, pitching temperature, and fermentation regime. “It has a dramatic difference in the beer,” he says—even if the hops stay exactly the same. “[The yeast] can attenuate pretty good, so we have to be careful of that. We really like that yeast, so we’ve just kind of learned to work with it with different pilsners and different lagers.”
Another foundation is the grain bill. It’s straightforward: 100 percent Weyermann floor-malted Bohemian pilsner malt.
Beyond the yeast and the malt, things can vary a lot.
The mash is not traditional; Smith & Lentz isn’t doing any elaborate decoctions or multistep mashes—not yet, anyway. Its brewhouse isn’t really set up for it. “We just do single-infusion,” Smith says. “We just have an insulated mash-lauter tun. We keep it very simple on the mash schedule.”
Just the same, he says, they can get a range of results by adjusting the mash temperature and length. The Czech pils gets a shorter, warmer infusion—153–154°F (67–68°C) for about 40 minutes. “You can risk over-converting your malts,” Smith says, “and it will end up being much drier than you want if you don’t shorten your time.” Meanwhile, he wants German pils to be bone-dry, so he ferments it closer to 148°F (64°C) for a full hour.
The boil is another area where their pilsners can vary. The German one gets a 90-minute boil, while the Czech gets a full two hours—developing residual sugars and darker color, to more closely resemble what they might get with a decoction. It helps that the brewery has a direct-fire kettle, Smith says, “so we get some of that Maillard reaction in the boil.”
That also means that the Czech version is less fermentable and has more body—it might wind up at 1.013 after fermentation, while the German version might reach 1.006. “So that makes a huge difference,” Smith says, “[as does] how you carbonate the beers and present them.” German pils gets a tall, flared tumbler, while the Czech gets a sturdy, round, dimpled mug.
Hopping is also an area where the beers can diverge greatly. The German one typically gets about 45 IBUs of Tettnanger, while the Czech gets between 30 and 35 IBUs of Saaz.
Most of the lager fermentation takes place around 52°F (11°C), followed by a diacetyl rest once the beer is about 60 percent attenuated. That can vary, too. “We’ll force the temperature down a little on the lager if we want an extra-clean profile,” Smith says.
The source of the WLP800 strain is said to be Pilsner Urquell, known—as are many Czech lagers—for a bit of diacetyl. But Smith is not a fan of it, so they perform the diacetyl rest even for the Czech pils.
While the German- and Czech-inspired versions might be the most common, they’ve done a number of other variations—including an Italian-style pilsner. “So, we dry hopped it,” Smith says. The varieties were Saaz as well as Hallertauer Blanc. “We did ferment it a bit warmer to get a little more esters from the fermentation. Fermenting that beer at 66°F [19°C] definitely had a pretty big flavor impact. … Pushing fermentation temps on pilsners is one way to make pilsners different from each other.”
More offbeat variations have gotten fruitier with the hopping. “Dry hopping with something like Citra in a pilsner, it goes quite a long way,” Smith says. “It adds quite a bit of mouthfeel as well as quite a bit of ‘American’ aroma.”
Smith says they have also been experimenting with whirlpool hopping and with Zuper Saazer varieties from Hophead Farms in Michigan.
Also crucial to pilsner: the quality of those hops. “We’re pretty small, so it creates barriers to actually selecting lots,” Smith says. “However, we’ve found some ways of working directly with some farms.” These include Hop Head in Michigan, Crosby in Oregon, and Roy in Washington.
“This has really improved the quality of our beer, especially in pilsners where the overall balance may be more delicate, so we want to make sure that all the contributions from the hops are positive. It’s a philosophy of ours that’s crucial to a pilsner.”
Photo: Jamie Bogner