These columns really do write themselves, sometimes. I was contemplating what style to write about this week, while also working on three or four recipes designed to burn down my older stashes of noble (and noble-ish) hops, while also clicking on my yeast inventory and noting I had two pitches of Czech Pils yeast. That's about the moment I stop and think to myself, "hey, have we done Czech Pale Lager yet?," and jump over to beerandbrewing.com - nope, and that's perfect.
Because in the dog days of summer it's a great time to brew up a large batch (or a few variations based on different hops) of what can conventionally be referred to not by its proper BJCP Style Guidelines name (the aforementioned Czech Pale Lager) but instead by a more descriptively-accurate name: Session Pilsner.
This is especially good timing for those of you without a fermentation fridge but with a basement and air conditioning. As long as the AC is cranking to stave off the summer heat it's also making for a cool, dry basement; that's perfect weather for some quick session lager brewing.
The Czech Pale Lager (or Session Pils, as I prefer to think of it) is a hoppy, session-strength pale lager that is among the most popular styles of beer among drinkers in the Czech Republic. The guidelines give us something of a mish-mash of guidance, though. The beer should be "rich" and "refreshing," which can be a tough needle to thread, though not impossible. Take lemon pound cake as a useful analog: rich, but with bright citrus flavors and thus, arguably, refreshing.
Bittering is rather high, especially in contrast with the low starting gravity: many recipes (including the one below) feature a roughly one-to-one BU:GU ratio. The beers are often (but not always, and variations are noted below) Saaz-driven, with the herbal hops character shining through clearly.
In short, we want a beer that has the rounded, bread-rich malt of a standard Bohemian Pils, but at session strength and maybe just a touch more hops-forward. If that doesn't sound good to you, then you're just not having enough fun in the beer business! Done well (heck, even done only adequately) this could easily become one of your favorite styles to brew.
I made this recipe by carving back my Bo Pils recipe and accounting for some of the body lost in the "sessioning" of it. It can result in a weird kind of balancing act, but if you focus on the flavors and feel you want to create the decisions start to make a little more sense.
We start with Pils malt - floor-malted Pils malt, as in the Bo Pils recipe. Weigh out six pounds (2.7kg) as a base. Then, add in twelve ounces (0.34kg) of Biscuit malt. That will take up some of the flavor "slack" lost by reducing the floor-malted Pils malt, and also add some unfermentable sugars to retain more body. Finally, a quarter-pound (0.11kg) of acidulated malt, for pH correction/control. That grist should give you lots of rich, bready flavor even in a beer that only comes in at about 3.7 percent ABV and is as pale as a sheet.
I like working from the end of the boil to the front in terms of hopping for this beer, and while there's a "standard" hops approach, feel free to get creative! The standard approach is an ounce of Saaz at flame-out, an ounce at 15 minutes, then as much as needed at the top of the boil to reach 35 IBUs in total.
Now, if (like me, this very moment) you happen to have a lot of Continental-but-not-necessarily-noble hops laying about (Polaris, Styrian Goldings, Huell Melon), or even some Aussie/NZ hops sitting in the freezer, you can have fun with those, too! They'll punch up well against the low-gravity but rich-bodied session grist we're using, and you can still plausibly claim them as something in the Session Pils family (if entering in competition, though, consider a name change in Specialty to "Session IPL").
Whatever your hopping, though, follow this regime and add an ounce at flame-out, an ounce at 15 minutes remaining, and some balancing IBUs at the top. Going too heavy in the late hops can result in a beer that's so hops-forward it drowns out the malt character, which we don't want to do.
And for yeast, I prefer the Wyeast 2278 Czech Pils for its classic "Bohemian" fermentation profile and low attenuation, but most any German or Czech lager strain will do well.
Mash at your standard temperature (mine is 152F/67C), lauter and sparge as usual, and boil, adding hops per the recipe. There's no great trick to this one. Experiments with mash hopping, lots of extra additions, variable mash temps, step mashing, and more on this one have never gotten me as good a result as this single-infusion, early-middle-late hopping approach.
Fermentation temperature is important, though, because we want a clean and full attenuation. The guidelines still stick with the "a little diacetyl or ester is OK here" line, and I don't dispute it, but I'd rather aim for none - if they happen to appear, then I can claim credit for adding just a "hint" of them. Start at 52F (11C) for the first week (or 72 hours, if you're in a hurry to get another beer in the temp-controlled fridge), then let the temperature rise to 60F and hold there for about two weeks more.
You should end up with a dry-but-malty beer with a healthy degree of attenuation but some residual sugars adding weight. Cold-crash, then package and carbonate to 2.5 volumes of CO2.
It might seem like just another hoppy session beer, but the regionally-authentic ingredients in malt and yeast do tend to come through, even in the face of atypical hops. Play around with this one, especially if, like me, you're sitting on a lot of hops!