Once upon a time I set out to make a great Czech Pilsner.
I failed. Dramatically. And consistently. I have exactly one bronze medal in the category, despite more than ten attempts at brewing it. It never did poorly, but it just couldn’t break through.
Not much of a story, really, but what’s interesting is what came out of it: a fantastic beer for another category. Because what was really funny was that although I did every last thing I could think of to get my Czech Pils recipe to work and start bringing in the big numbers in competitions, it always—always—outperformed like crazy when I dropped a couple of bottles of it into the Pre-Prohibition Lager (previously, Classic American Pilsner) category. It got even better when I changed up the hops to match its new New World character, dropping the Saaz and swapping in an American Hallertau cousin. The resulting recipe became one of my best-scoring and most-popular beers, with my highest average score (40.1/50) and second-highest individual score (45/50).
This beer is meant to represent the kind of pale lagers that were brewed by the likes of fellow Philadelphian John Wagner, who brewed the first lager in the United States! Essentially, John and fellow brewers followed an Old World formula (lightly kilned malt, pale in color, cold fermented), but the beer they made also reflected their new home: corn was sometimes used as an adjunct to lighten the color and add a bit of sweetness to the flavor (it’s not here, but you could add some if you wanted); the beers weren’t “true” lagers in that some light fermentation character was acceptable (it’s a bit warmer here, after all); and they used different hops (usually American-grown versions of Hallertau Mittelfruh). The result was something that was kind of like German or Czech Pilsner, incorporating elements of both (firm hopping like the Germans, rounded malt flavor from the Czechs) and adding some local variability and flair.
This version began life, as I said, as a Czech Pils, so the grist is pretty straightforward: 50/50 Czech floor-malted Pilsner and Maris Otter to a gravity of 1.050 (should be about 5 lb/2.3 kg of each), and then a half-pound (227 g) of Carapils. It’s simple, which is why it works. The base grains give it a pronounced-but-soft graininess with a hint of honey sweetness, and the Carapils will add basically nothing to the flavor but help you get that rounded malt feel that buys you some slack with the semi-aggressive hopping you’re about to add!
Because—strange as it sounds to people who think of light lagers as being thin and dull—this is a decidedly hoppy beer and quite probably always was. Brewers such as Wagner weren’t lacking for hops to work with in the New World, and coming from Bavaria they were certainly familiar with the popularity of hoppy Pilsners. Stick with your usual water profile (no need to dilute/soften as you might for a Czech Pilsner) and buy yourself a lot of Crystal hops. Crystal is perfect here: it has just the flavor we want (woody, rustic, herbal, and a touch of light fruit), relatively low cohumulone levels (if you buy into the theory that it might impart a softer bitterness), and high beta-acid-to-alpha-acid ratios, which means that as those isomerized beta acids oxidize, they impart a bit of bitterness, so this beer stays nice and bitter for a long time even as the alpha-acid derived IBUs drop out of it. Assuming 5 percent alpha acids, add 1.5 ounces (42 g) at 60 minutes, an ounce (28 g) at 10 minutes, and half an ounce (14 g) at flame-out.
And for yeast, I like the Wyeast 2206 (Bavarian Lager) here. It’s not necessarily the best choice for a pure German Pils, but since we want a bit of rounded maltiness here, it makes for a great option and seems to keep out of the way of the hops.
One of the great things about this style is that there’s no need to worry about a bit of DMS, so don’t bother with extending your boil to drive it off (again, if you believe in that sort of thing). Normal 152°F (67°C) mash, normal boil, normal chilling and aeration and yeast pitch. Now, some will tell you to aim for a bit of fermentation character “because you can, in the style!” So what? I can try to get a bit of fermentation character in by underpitching or under-aerating or fermenting a little warmer, but that introduces risks that I don’t like, and I don’t feel like the bit of ester or whatever you get is worth it. In fact, I’d say ferment this beer a little colder than you usually would—I like a clean background to enjoy the best of that malt and those hops. Start fermentation at 48°F (9°C) (the Bavarian Lager yeast can easily handle it) and slowly increase your temperature over a few days to about 52°F (11°C), then hold there until the completion of fermentation (2–3 weeks, to give it time to finish out completely).
One of the best things about this recipe and this beer is how long it can sit (properly refrigerated, of course), and what happens when it does. After about three months, you’ll find that the malt and hops are so perfectly integrated that you’ll want to just sit and smell this beer for a while. The hops aroma and flavor will drop off a bit as time goes by, but as it does, the grain-and-honey flavors of the malt will take up the slack, with a pleasant burr of bitterness on the tongue to scrub the palate. Brew it today, ration the bottles, and you could still be drinking and enjoying it a year from now.