I’d never complain about my job—I doubt “professor” will ever be featured on a certain Mike Rowe series—but like any other gig, it has its busy periods and slow periods. Mid-May is when things get a little nuts, with graduation nearing and every committee, task force, department, and program wanting to meet one last time before everyone scatters like roaches when the lights come on. It’s in weeks like this that I like to both check off simpler tasks and buy myself some extra time. In that spirit, this is the perfect week to talk German Pilsner. Not only is this a delightfully simple recipe that produces a crystal-clear look and flavor profile, but it’s a beer I can brew and then ignore in the fermentor for a few weeks.
One of the most commonly brewed beer styles in the world, Pilsners can be broken out by region. The German version tends to be less malty and more austere than its older Bohemian cousin, and against that sharper background we get a flavor profile that is a bit more hops-forward. That’s not to say that you should be trying to make some kind of session IPL; bitterness shouldn’t take over the flavor. It should be a pronounced but restrained feature. If the bittering is too aggressive, you’ll end up with something that’s unpleasant to drink.
So why is the German Pils more bitter overall? Simple: water. There aren’t many times when you hear me bang on about water chemistry, but this is one. Great German Pilsners greatly benefit from relatively high sulfate content in their water. Luckily, my local water has a near-perfect level of sulfates and a nice sulfate-to-chloride ratio, which means bitterness is slightly accentuated. I land at just under 100ppm for sulfate and 85ppm for chloride. It can make some of my paler, more hoppy beers a little too sharp, but it’s damned near perfect for German Pils. In fact, I’m going to go make one as soon as I’m done writing this. And after I make a starter.
Your local homebrew shop is going to love me this week. Your grist: 9 pounds (4.1 kg) of Pilsner malt and 4 oz (113 g) of Victory. That’s it. I used to make this beer with Maris, but I’ve since been talked around on the slight sweetness of Pils malt to accent the bittering and make it more drinkable, and I have to admit that it does work a tiny bit better. This simple grist gives just a touch of grainy background with some mild toasty notes from the Victory.
Hopping is also pretty simple (as promised) and more restrained than you might think, given Pilsners’ reputation for being hoppier lagers. Get yourself 35-ish IBUs from a 60-minute addition of any hops (high-alpha acid, low-cohumulone are best), and then add half an ounce (14 g) of Hallertau at 10 minutes and an additional half-ounce (14 g) at flameout or in the whirlpool. You’ll have a clean bitter flavor and some noticeable floral-herbal hops flavor to go with it.
Finally, use a nice, high-attenuation lager yeast for fermentation. Lots of books will tell you Bavarian Lager, but I much prefer Bohemian Lager (Wyeast 2124). If you can get it, though, Wyeast 2247 (European Lager) takes the cake, finishing bone dry and clean! Basically, you want to avoid anything that leaves a heavier, rounder, maltier finish. The Bohemian Lager will more than get the job done.
Since I’m telling you that you might need to mess with your water, I suppose I owe it to you to give you some guidance on that. If you have soft water, you’ll want to add sulfates to your water, and luckily, we have just the tool: gypsum. Add a quarter-teaspoon to the mash, then proceed as usual. If you aren’t happy with the result (it tastes flabby or dull), increase it very slightly in subsequent batches until you get a crisp, almost flinty, finish. A little goes a long way, though!
You can help that nice, dry flavor along by ensuring a maxed-out attenuation. Start fermenting cool (50°F/10°C) and stay there. You won’t have much risk of diacetyl formation with this yeast, and low-and-slow will get the job done if you give it enough time. You can ramp temperature up a few degrees after about a week, but only do so if you can maintain a steady temperature. The last thing you want here is for the yeast to go dormant because the temperature is yo-yo-ing around, leaving an incomplete fermentation! Wait this one out, and then wait a little more (see what I mean about it buying time to work on other things—like grading exams?).
When you’ve reached a week past a week past the end of primary fermentation, then go ahead and package it. This one gets a relatively high carbonation level—2.5 volumes. Okay, relatively high for me (I love cask beer). The additional carbolic bite will likewise add to the crisp flavor.
Brewing this beer now means it’s ready by the 4th of July, and when the temperatures pick up, you’ll be glad to have this super-refreshing beer on tap. Your goal at every stage should be simple, clean, bright beer. We take a simple grist, often a single hop, and a long fermentation process and turn it into a classic grainy and floral lager. It almost makes the hot weather worth it. Prost!