How to Stop Worrying & Lager

It may be brewing science, but it ain’t rocket science. You can brew a great lager faster than you think—but not too fast. Drew Beechum demystifies how it works.

Drew Beechum Sep 14, 2020 - 9 min read

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Once you’ve spent enough time hanging around your local homebrew shop, you’ll know “the question.” You’ll hear it too much to ever forget it—it’s on the tongue of half the new brewers nervously eyeing all the ingredients and gear.

“So, yeah, my buddy and me, we wanted to make some beer—you know, like Bud or PBR. How quick can we do that?”

The question—when posed—always gets more or less the same answer: “Unfortunately, that stuff is the hardest to make. It really takes a lot of time and patience and gear. How about our Blond Ale kit instead?”

There’s a lot of simple hard truth to that statement, and it’s still the way I’d direct any rookie zymurgist. (There are simple matters such as yeast health and sanitation that I think you need to master before trying your hand at a lager.) I’m about to present you ways to “cheat” the system, but even I’m not so foolish as to think a neophyte can pull off a flawless Mortal Kombat–like fatality move.

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Just to get it out of the way: If you want to know how to make a proper lager of the American light variety, see my column The Classic Appeal of the American Lager in the June/July 2019 issue. All the rules for that apply.

The Traditional Lager Rules of Thumb

Let’s take a brief look through what a lager looks like traditionally—at least the way I was taught. (Word to the wise, there are about as many ways to “lager” a beer as there are lagers available to buy. You can get lost for a very long time doing the reading.)

  • Grow twice as much yeast as you would for an ale.
  • Chill the beer to at/below pitching temperature, 48–50°F (9–10°C).
  • Pitch the yeast and wait 24–48 hours for fermentation to begin.
  • Maintain the temperature for two weeks and watch minimal kräusen form. Be fascinated that anything is happening. (Is anything happening?)
  • Question the reality of the universe. What does it mean to “be happening”?
  • After active fermentation slows, raise the temperature over several days to 65°F (18°C). Allow the beer to sit there for two or three days to clean up the diacetyl.
  • Further question faith in the happening of things. Maybe look at what it takes to make whiskey; surely that’s easier.
  • Lower the temperature 1–2°F (1°C) per day until just above freezing.
  • Yeah, making whiskey has to be easier than this—just chuck it in a barrel and forget about it for four years, right?
  • Allow the beer to “lager” just above freezing for four weeks before packaging, then keep cool until properly carbonated.
  • If you’re making a Märzen or Oktoberfest, forget it—start in March, lager until September, and wonder why you didn’t take up stamp collecting.

And the truly fervent brewers say this can only be properly done with freshly fermenting beer added to the beer before bottling, and anything else is less than perfect and, therefore, heresy.

This is how a great many (home)brewers make lager—it’s the way we’ve been taught. It works. It’s also a giant, unprofitable pain in the ass. And it is damn near unnecessary for what homebrewers are trying to do.

Poking the Conventional Wisdom

I’m not a total heretic. I can’t quite embrace the heresy that is the “warm lager.” If you read around, you might find that a number of our so-called “lager” yeasts “need” cold temperatures because they are different beasts (S. uvarum instead of S. cerevisiae)—well, genetics is blowing up that belief. Turns out, a number of our “lager” strains are really “ale” strains that would prefer to live in New Hampshire instead of Florida.

Homebrewers—being the frugal, experimental lot they are—have grasped this bit of knowledge and run rampant. “If it’s genetically an ale yeast, then let’s ferment it like one!”

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Some of the results have been promising, but I can’t get there yet. The times I’ve tried it, I haven’t liked it. But I have had great success with another old idea brought back to life by homebrewers—the Narziss fermentation schedule.

Remember: Much of modern brewing science was driven by the needs of our largest lager brewers. They’ve had all the money and motivation to find every tiny efficiency possible to save another half-cent per unit sold. Over the years, that’s meant a number of crazy schemes to improve lager turnaround (because beer sitting in tanks costs money).

We’ve seen super yeasts, icing processes, pressurized fermentations, high-tech ceramic plates, and various de-esterification techniques. As you might guess, those are out of reach for the average homebrewer.

Enter Ludwig Narziss, one of the foremost brewing educators and researchers of the modern era. He has documented a number of fermentation schedules. Fairly or not to him, homebrewers have adopted one of them and run with it.

While there are endless variants of times and temperatures, the core method is the same. Start the fermentation cold, at traditional lager temperatures. As fermentation proceeds and gravity drops, raise the temperature in controlled phases to somewhere from 54–65°F (12–18°C)—a matter of dispute—to finish fermentation and clear any residual diacetyl. From there you chill, package, and enjoy.

Done right, with good yeast management practices, we can turn around a well-made (if not traditional) lager in 10 to 12 days, as opposed to 24-plus. It also has the advantage of being less demanding in terms of temperature control, while freeing up our fermentation spaces faster.

Rules to a Faster Lager

I’ve used a variant of the following schedule for years with a number of lager strains. If this is your first time, I’d suggest using Fermentis SafLager W-34/70. It might be both the most used and most forgiving lager strain in the world. In fact, the strain makes decent beers at ale temperatures (though I feel that they lack a certain lagery crispness).

  • Brew beer as normal.
  • When chilling, make sure you get the wort to pitching temperature (about 50°F/10°C) before adding the yeast. (I find this reduces ester production.).
  • Pitch the yeast at 50°F (10°C) and ferment for three days.
  • Raise the temperature to 55°F (13°C) and ferment for three more days.
  • Raise the temperature to 60°F (16°C); ferment two more days.
  • Raise the temperature to 65°F (18°C); ferment two more days.
  • Check the beer’s gravity and, if ready, proceed to packaging. If not, allow to sit two more days and check again.
  • If you want better clarity, consider using finings such as Biofine or gelatin, and allow the beer to clear a few more days.

One Last Bit of Lager Magic

Since you’re typically going to have less overt yeast and hop character, I find it critical to hit on a few more things:

  • Pay attention to your malt and hop choices.
  • Pick a good base malt (splurge a little).
  • “For the hops, choose a good-quality Noble-esque hop over a true Noble variety (as the versions we usually see are poor quality).
  • Don’t be a goofus and throw an IPA’s worth of hops into the beer until you really know what you’re doing. Even many great craft brewers don’t make a decent IPL.

Hopefully, this has convinced you that you can make a great “lager” in less time with less worry. While having tight temperature controls is a boon, I’ve done this technique with nothing more than a trash can full of ice and water.

Lager isn’t hard. Lager isn’t scary. Don’t let those who want to make it seem like a lost mystical art fool you into thinking it is.

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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