Pilsners writ large are easily the most popular beers in the world. They also happen to be the most popular in my house—refreshing and crisp yet complex, whether Czech-style, German-style, American-style, or freestyle.
A bit of background: the name pilsner comes from the town of its invention: Plzeň, in Bohemia, in modern-day Czechia. As the story goes, the locals wanted some better beer, so they contracted a young brewer named Josef Groll from Bavaria. Bringing some lager yeast with him, he brewed with local Saaz hops, the area’s soft water, and a then-new type of pale malt to brew Pilsner Urquell—the “original pilsner.” The brewery claims the beer is basically unchanged since then—and in its cellars, you can sample it unfiltered and unpasteurized. (It also happens to be the best beer I’ve ever tasted—so, when it’s time to start scratching such things off our bucket lists again, make those travel plans and get thee to Plzeň.)
Pilsner Brewing, Simplified
In Czechia, brewers invariably produce their lagers using at least one or two decoction steps in their mash. German brewers will do either a decoction mash or a multistep infusion mash. Step mashes that maximize attenuation and foam stability for pilsner are common around the world, and with American-style adjunct pilsner, there typically is a cereal mash, too (to convert that corn or rice).
It’s no wonder, then, that many view pilsner as an advanced style best reserved for all-grain brewers. Here’s our secret: The producers of malt extract have already done all that mashing work for us.
Given that it’s a lager, control of fermentation is important, too. However, there’s nothing about extract brewing that prevents us from doing that—and as we’ll see, there are simpler ways to go about it.
Here’s what I believe: With a few process changes, homebrewers at any level of experience can brew this style well.
To the Recipe…
Malt: The grain bill tends to be 100 percent pilsner malt, possibly with a small dash of Carapils or CaraMunich. In extract terms, either pilsner liquid malt extract (LME) or pilsner dry malt extract (DME) works fine. (I usually work with light pilsner DME because I find it easier to dissolve.)
Hops: I especially love Saaz or Hallertau Mittlefrüh, but most Noble hops will work well here. Lately, I have been using both Saphir and Saaz in my pilsners, while also dry hopping them for an “Italian-style” flair.
Water: Soft water works best for a traditional pilsner, so try a 50/50 blend of distilled water and your usual brewing water. The goal is a low-carbonate water, which together with the hops and pilsner malt is what really defines this style.
Yeast: Any lager yeast strain will work here, if you pay attention to its preferred temperatures. One that many brewers like is Fermentis SafLager W-34/70 or its equivalents—it ferments cleanly and is pretty forgiving. Using two packs of it, rehydrated, will help ensure a clean fermentation (see “How to Use Dry Yeast,” beerandbrewing.com). Also try to aerate your wort as thoroughly as you can.
Lager Fermentation, Pressurized
Lagers are generally fermented at cooler temperatures than ales, in the range of the upper 40s to mid-50s Fahrenheit (8–13°C). Maybe you already have a way to manage that, such as a chest freezer with a temperature controller attached—if so, good for you. In that case, a typical schedule might have you ferment at 50°F (10°C) for two weeks, allow the temperature to rise to 60°F (16°C) over about four days for a diacetyl rest, then cold-crash or gradually drop the temperature to 35°F (2°C) and lager for as long as you can stand it.
However, here I want to lay out a simple fermentation method that anyone can try, even without strict temperature control. Enter the process known as pressurized fermentation.
Let me break that down: Fermenting under pressure is the process of fermenting beer inside a closed, pressurized vessel (such as a corny keg). Fermenting lager under pressure at higher-than-normal temperatures actually speeds up the fermentation. It also helps to suppress unwanted esters, sulfur, and flavor compounds such as buttery diacetyl. You can also make clean lagers in a fraction of the time—about 10 days versus the usual three- to four-week fermentations.
During a typical fermentation in a bucket or carboy, you’re letting CO2 escape the fermentor through an airlock or blow-off tube. In pressurized fermentation, the fermentor is sealed, and the CO2 produced by the fermentation is trapped inside.
Achieving this at home is easy. However, there are a couple things you’ll need:
- First, you’ll need a five-gallon (19-liter) corny keg with a rating of at least 60 PSI. (This is all of them, in theory, but you can check that the rating is clearly printed on the exterior keg wall.)
- Next, you’ll need a spunding valve—a device you should be able to find at your local homebrew-supply shop or online retailer. It usually costs about $30–$40.
The spunding valve simply attaches to the gas-in post on the corny keg. There is a pressure setting that you can dial in, so that any pressure that builds over the set value is released through the valve—this prevents over-pressurizing. A good starting point is 8 PSI. It’s possible to dial it up to 15, but that’s up to you. (My best results have been at 6 PSI.) Set your spunding valve as soon as you’ve pitched the yeast.
Here’s the bonus: While the beer is fermenting under pressure, the CO2 is being trapped in suspension, naturally carbonating your beer along the way. (For much more about spunding and natural carbonation, see Gearhead: The Force Behind the Fizz.)
Pressurized fermentation is a great tool for a variety of reasons. Brewers at any level of expertise can manage it. It can improve the fermentation turnaround time while also inhibiting off-flavors—no easy trick for those without temperature control. It also saves you the trouble of carbonating your beer after packaging—no need to add external CO2. Even experienced brewers who are used to temperature control and carbonating their beer might want to give this a try.
So, if you ever wanted to brew a beautiful Bohemian pilsner but felt intimidated—now you know you can do it. Imagine drinking your own crisp, clean lagers in just a few weeks. Na zdraví!