One of the more remarkable things you learn when you judge at a few homebrewing competitions is that a lot of the best beer in the world belongs on the light lagers table. After years of running down “yellow, fizzy lager” as tasteless swill that’s only suited to pounding before crushing a can on your head, many are surprised at just how good light lagers can be—even in a style that openly states that “strong flavors” are a fault. You can get incredible things out of subtle flavors, though, and what makes a lot of bad beer “bad” isn’t that it’s light or a lager or subtly flavored—it’s just bad beer. Make it good (and/or make it well), and it stands up to any other craft or homebrewed beer you’ll ever come across.
American lager is meant to be refreshing. It is not (at least not in its best form) meant to be tasteless. While it is characterized by low levels of malt flavor, low levels of bittering, low hops flavor (if any), and a neutral fermentation character, those are precisely the attributes we would want if the goal is a refreshing and crisp lager. Luckily, that’s exactly what we want. The trick is to make that beer and give it just enough flavor that it’s highly enjoyable while retaining that crisp and clean and simple and refreshing character. If you go too heavy on any one flavor, you start drifting into German Export lager or Pilsner territory, so you have to be judicious in your ingredient usage and super clean in your fermentation character. Easier said than done—but certainly doable, and worth doing.
I have a confession to make: my base for this recipe isn’t an American lager recipe. It’s a Kölsch recipe. I was inspired by a friend who won Best of Show with an American lager at a 1,000-entry competition by using a Kölsch recipe that came in lighter than he intended. I simply amended my Kölsch recipe to get a reliable and flavorful (but still very restrained) light lager, so that we can actually do this on purpose.
Since we want just a bit of grainy maltiness and a touch of corn, we can go with a simple 2-row base malt and add a small amount of flaked corn. That’s a little too on-the-nose, though, and can make a beer seem adjunct-y. Why not just go with base malts that will give us some of each? Take 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of Pilsner malt to start. You’ll get a bit of low grain, but you’ll also likely produce a little DMS—and we’re not going to worry too much about getting rid of it. Voilà—a bit of corn, with no corn added. And to make sure we also get a bit of actual, you know, malt flavor (but not too much, so we’re not going with an actual character malt), I simply add 1 pound (454 g) of Vienna malt. At higher levels, it imparts a nice bready flavor—this amount, though, tends to come through as a slight tinge of Grape Nuts. Works like a charm.
I use a little more bittering here than might be called for by the style guidelines, but only because the Pils malt sometimes seems a bit sweet, and so it needs more balance to be appropriately dry and crisp. Rather than the prescribed 8−18 IBUs I land at 23, and I get there using Hallertau hops. The small bit of floral/earthy hops flavor and aroma that survives will be a nice complement to the grain, and we get all the hops character in one simple addition: just calculate the amount you’ll need to hit 23 IBUs, and add it in a single charge at 45 minutes. Let me also caution you to stay away from other noble hops, especially the spicier stuff in the Saazer family. Peppery flavors jump right out in this recipe and ruin the effect, at least to my palate.
Finally—and you’ve never seen me write this before—use the good old Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or White Labs WLP001 yeast. You want clean and crisp, and this yeast does just that and nothing else. Even lager yeasts I’ve played with don’t give you quite the right flavor (most add roundness to the malt that makes it seem too rich), and other ale yeasts (even fermented cold, like we’re going to do) still give you some flavors. Let your yeast sit this one out in the flavor department.
Conduct your ordinary mash at about 152°F (67°C)—low-temperature mashing doesn’t seem to do much here, in my experience, despite what conventional wisdom suggests. Ordinarily, you’d also lengthen your boil to dissipate DMS (or maybe just concentrate malt flavors, since the DMS-dissipation research suggests that longer boils aren’t necessary). In this case, just boil for 45 minutes. It means your hops can go in right at the start; it shortens up your brew day a bit, and you hold onto (potentially) a touch of DMS.
Ferment cool, but not at lager temperatures. I like 60°F (16°C) for this yeast and this beer, and I give it plenty of time to finish up and clean up any precursors: fourteen days should be sufficient. Finally, at packaging, avoid the impulse to carbonate aggressively. Lots of recipes and commercial examples do this to impart a refreshing and crisp character, but this recipe should leave the beer plenty crisp on its own. Also keep in mind that too-high carbonation can wash out your good, subtle flavors and instead leave people tasting nothing but carbolic acid, which will likely come across as metallic or stale. Carbonating at 2.25 volumes of CO2 is plenty—2.5 on the higher end, if you want it a bit more “spritzy.”
Although it’s often billed as a summertime/lawnmower beer, I think this one works great for the spring. I usually brew this one just after the New Year, and I’m targeting an Easter timeframe to serve it. The light flavors and crisp impression make it an excellent spring beer!