Not every newly-added change found in the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines is a home run – the decision to add myriad IPA styles but not subdivide Saison is bizarre to me – but I’ve tried to remain agnostic on most of them until I’ve had the chance to work up examples of the newly-added styles. One that made an early impression on me, and which genuinely seemed to fill a niche in the beer style pantheon, is the Czech Amber Lager. Try as I might, I couldn’t reasonably make the case that it was “just such-and-such a style, repackaged.” It stakes out a position in terms of recipe, flavor profile, strength, and color that is distinctly its own, which is both refreshing and lays down a nice brewing challenge. Start working this one into your autumn or late-winter lineup (I like it as a “welcome to spring” beer), and I think you’ll find yourself with a new favorite sessionable lager.
Picture a lighter-than-Altbier Altbier with different hops. Or a Marzen, but hoppier and more herbal. Or an English Bitter, but a lager, and with totally different malts and hops…rats, see what I mean? It really seems like this one should land in another category, but it simply doesn’t. Czech Amber comes in at a very modest 4.4-5.8% ABV (this recipe is at the lower end of that range), but punches above its weight class in both malt character and hopping. The malts are complex and rich, but can also have that same woodsy, dry-toast character I like in my Altbiers. It’s also prominently bitter but not especially strong in hops flavor, but what’s present isn’t the soft floral earthiness of Hallertau, but the spicy herbal notes of the Saazer hops. If Bock, Vienna Lager, English Bitter, and Altbier had a love child, it would be the Czech Amber Lager. It’s a session lager with big flavor, with a unique palate of impressions competing for your attention.
Finding a recipe to start from that I could trust proved impossible here, so instead I just borrowed from recipe components that gave me the desire elements in other styles – after one initial brew and two surprisingly-minor rounds of recipe “tweaks,” I settled on this recipe.
Base malts play a pretty large role here, because I didn’t want to overpower the beer with a ton of caramel malts which could make the beer seem overly thick and sweet. Three pounds of floor-malted Pils, three pounds of Maris Otter, and 1.5 pounds of Munich malt give us lots of flavor without a ton of unfermentable sugars. To that base we add half a pound each of Melanoidin malt, British Dark Crystal (90L), and Chocolate Rye. Why those three? Because the Melanoidin malt promotes a rich toasty flavor, the Dark Crystal adds a nice burnt sugar/plum flavor, and the chocolate rye dries out the beer without adding a ton of roast flavor. It’ll be too dark at 18-19 SRM, but don’t sweat it.
Hops are not all that dissimilar from Czech Pilsner, just not quite as assertive, with two ounces of Saaz at 45 minutes remaining and one ounce at 15 minutes remaining. You might also consider half an ounce or so at flame-out, if you want a bit more of an herbal nose – it’s arguably more “on point” for the style, but I find it muddies up my malt aromas, so I leave it out.
Finally, yeast is simple: Wyeast 2124 (Bohemian Pilsner) works just fine.
A quick note on water: it might not be a bad idea to dilute your usual water with some distilled, just to soften it up a bit (unless, of course, you already have particularly soft water). This will keep your bitterness from being too harsh, and so long as you have sufficient calcium (about 50ppm) you’ll have plenty of support for your active yeast! Mash at a steady 152F for 75 minutes, then lauter/sparge and boil as usual. Since there’s not much Pilsner malt in this recipe there’s even less of a reason to follow the “long boil to eliminate DMS” advice, so sixty minutes is fine.
Ferment at 50F for about one week, then let the temperature rise on its own to as high as 68. Upon completion of fermentation, wait an additional 2-3 days, then cold crash and package, carbonating to about 2.5 volumes of CO2.
Lager this one for six weeks or so before consuming, and you should have a brilliantly clear, brightly hoppy, deeply malty, crisp and clean-finishing lager that’s as pretty to look at as it is pleasant to drink. With a restrained ABV of about 4.7% you’ll be surprised how much flavor you get, and it will keep for several months – if you can keep the crowd away from it for that long. Enjoy!
Podcast Episode 22: The Current State of Lager in the U.S. with Notch Brewing Founder/Brewer Chris Lohring
Chris Lohring of Notch sits down with John Holl to discuss lagers of all kinds, the importance of a comfortable tap room and ways brewers can face competition from each other and from the outside.