Could any beer be more loved, and loathed, than American Pilsner? Loved, because it makes up the vast, vast majority of beer sold in this country, and increasingly, the world. Loathed, because it has a reputation for being tasteless, bland, low-brow and unstoppable in its quest for total world beer domination.
It's hip to trash on American light lager beers when you're a homebrewer/beer snob. After all, we owe much of the current craft brewing movement to a rejection over the last 40 years of these mass-market lagers by small brewers and their supportive customers. Popular mass-market beers are bad, because they're popular and mass-market, while all the cool kids drink craft beer.
This contrarian stance seems a very human one to take. Many people start drinking fizzy yellow beer, then move on to more complicated styles as they get into brewing or are exposed to more craft beer. Your tastes grow up. "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways."
I was going to paraphrase that as "When I was a child, I drank as a child..." but that didn't seem quite right. The point is that these beers are something you move past as a regrettable proof of your earlier state of ignorance. Now you're a Big Boy and drink nothing but Double IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts. You rebel, you.
Eventually though I think we come full circle. The fact is, American Light Lagers are very, very hard to brew. There is no room for error, nothing to hide behind. And it's a technological marvel that every can of Bud tastes the same the world over. Seriously, that's an achievement on par with the Moon Landing. So you begin to respect it, in a grudging kind of way.
But it's still, well, bland. But it is designed to be that way. The irony of American Lager is that the very height of the Brewing Arts is used to produce a beer that tastes as much like nothing as possible.
But it wasn't always like this. What if there was another way?
The Classic American Pilsner
The story of American Light Lager is the story of Railroads, Immigration, Prohibition, Class Warfare, Junk Science, Television, Advertising, War, Monopolization, Baby Boomers, the Growth of the Middle Class, Suburbia, and well, basically, the story of everything that happened in the last 150 years. In short, way too complicated for much discussion here. Suffice to say, many factors contributed to a race-to-the-bottom in terms of flavor. Bud-Lite today doesn't taste anything like Budweiser did, say, 120 years ago. In fact, the beer that built the fortunes of Messrs. Busch, Miller, Coors, and Pabst was a very different beast indeed.
So why not make one? After all, the joy of homebrewing is the ability to brew whatever strikes your fancy. Why not brew a Classic American Pilsner like Grandpa, or even Great-Grandpa might have drank when he was young?
Unfortunately, this beer is functionally extinct. What would such a beer look like? Much of the homebrewing revival of the style can be attributed to the writings of Jeff Renner, whose research and methods have been used for years by homebrewers resurrecting the style at home. (See The Revival of the Classic American Pilsner, Zymurgy, 2000; and Reviving the Classic American Pilsner - A Shamefully Neglected Style, Brewing Techniques, 1995.)
Traditionally, recently immigrated Continental brewers would have been faced with a challenge. Most barley grown in America back then was 6-row, meaning that the kernels grow in six vertical rows around the stalk, instead of just two as in 2-row barley. This created a problem, because 6-row has higher protein and thicker husks than 2-row, which means it could cause chill haze when used to brew the newly popular, and preferably clear, lager beers.
But 6-row had other tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, it was suited to a wider variety of growing conditions which meant that it was planted and thrives in many areas of the country. When malted, 6-row also had the benefit of increased enzyme levels over its 2-row brother, meaning it could easily convert high percentages of unmalted grain adjuncts. The higher percentage of husks also meant that lautering was fairly easy, even with gummy adjunct grains. Substituting in a percentage of corn or rice meant that the protein levels of the 6-row could be tempered a bit, resulting in a clearer beer, while the cheaper adjuncts and ready availability of the malt saved the brewer money. Consumers also enjoyed the mellow sweetness of corn, and the crispy dry quality of rice. It is a match made in heaven that continues in the American Light Lagers and Malt Liquors of today.
So what's the difference between those beers of yesteryear and today's beers? Well, there are several important technical differences in the industrial brewing process, but I think the most important difference is hops. The German and Czech brewers tended to hop these beers like a Continental Pilsner, making the hops noticeable not just as bitterness but also in taste and aroma. Traditionally they would have used Cluster, America's historic variety, but also possibly some of the Noble varieties, either imported or cultivated for the brewery. But over the years this hoppiness was slowly chipped away, until now most American Pilsners are about 1/3 as hoppy as their forebearers.
So in a nutshell, a Classic American Pilsner (or CAP, as they're often affectionately called) is a light lager, made with 6-row malt and high percentage of corn or rice, probably a bit stronger than modern lagers, and hopped at a level similar to a German or Czech Pilsner.
Well, I'm up for a challenge and my New Years Resolution was to brew lighter, more drinkable beers, so I figured I'd give it a try. I set out to write a recipe in BeerSmith, trying to use as many ingredients that I already had as possible. Most notably the beer would be based on 2-Row pale malt, because I had a 50# sack of it.
Another important step would be the use of First Wort Hopping. An ounce of my hops, normally destined for late addition for flavor and aroma, would instead go into the freshly run-off wort and kept hot (175-180) for the duration of the sparge. This results in a smoother bitterness, and retention of aromas and flavors that would normally be boiled away in a conventional hop addition. Why this works no one really knows. One theory is that the hop oils and acids attach somehow to other molecules in the wort prior to the boil, which helps them survive the process and emerge on the other side. Personally, I chalk it up to magic elves. Thank you magic elves.
Water is really important for pilsners, and Seattle's water is, big surprise, basically rain water. In the winter our water comes from rainfall, and in the summer it's melting snow. So it's well suited to brewing Pilsners. Just a little calcium chloride would be needed to drop the pH into the right area, and lactic acid to lower the pH of the sparge and knock-out water.
But as I worked on the recipe I quickly got in over my head, mostly due to mash schedule issues. Protein rest or no protein rest? Multi-step, or just infusion? Cereal mash or flaked corn? Decoctions? Argh...
So I sent a post out on AHA Techtalk to see what others thought and ended up kicking a beehive. I received a lot of advice, opinions, uppity snide comments, and well meaning suggestions, much of which was contradictory. Finally I even heard from Jeff Renner himself. Based on his suggestions I put a recipe together, but I was still somewhat attached to the first one I'd cooked up by myself.
The Project - A Tale of Two Pilsners
In the end I decided that I would brew two CAPs. One I would make as simply as possible. 2-row malt, flaked corn, single infusion. The other would more or less follow the recipe in Renner's 2000 Zymurgy article. 6-row malt, corn grits in a cereal mash, with multiple rests following the traditional American Double Mash schedule. Yeast will be the same. Hops the same. Water treatment the same. Fermentation temp the same. Carbonation levels, etc.
It was to be a battle of convenience vs. authenticity. Historical Perspective vs. Modern Sensibilities. At the end, I'll take a couple growlers to the club meeting and see what people think. Was it worth the extra effort? Is one more stylistically accurate, but the other tastes better? Well have to wait and see.
Brewday #1: CAP 'n Trade 2-Row Classic American Pilsner
This recipe was designed to use ingredients I already had, and to be a simple and easy as possible.
Classic American Pilsner, All grain, 5.25 gallons, 90 minute boil
Est. O.G.: 1.057
Est. F.G.: 1.015
Est. ABV: 5.6%
Act. O.G.: 1.060, overboiled so diluted down to 1.053 with distilled water
Act. F.G.: 1.011-1.012
Est Act ABV: 5.5%
- 8 lbs 2-Row Pale Malt (Great Western)
- 3 lbs Flaked Corn
Mash Water treatment: 3 gm Calcium Chloride. Campden tablet to remove chloramines.
Sparge water treated with 0.5 ml lactic acid. Collected 7.5 gallons for the boil.
- 1 oz Domestic Hallertau, leaf, 4.7% AA. First wort hop.
- 1/4 tsp Calcium Chloride at 90 (to help buffer pH of boil)
- 1 oz Domestic Hallertau, at 60 minutes.
- 0.25 oz Domestic Hallertau, at 15 minutes.
- Whirlfloc tablet at 15 minutes.
Fermenting in a fridge set to 48 degrees. I'll pull it out and give it a D-rest at 60 degrees for three to four days after 9 days fermenting cold. Then lager for 6 weeks at 34 and keg.
Nearly flawless brewday and super easy. Had my first boilover in a long time though, too busy blogging... :) Minor mess, need to pay more attention! Vigorous boil to encourage protein break, actually overboiled wort and had to dilute with distilled water. My tap water is cold right now, on full blast it was chilling to 53. Not too shabby, was shooting for 48-50. Mash was easy, but flaked corn tends to float, which made seeing the sparge water level over the grain bed a bit difficult.
Procedure for first wort hopping: collected a gallon of wort in a 5-gallon bucket, then mixed in the 1 oz. of leaf Hallertauer First Wort Hops. Continued to collect wort until I had three gallons in the bucket. Transferred to the kettle and kept wort and hops around 175-180 degrees as best I could. As the rest of the wort continued to sparge I kept adding it to the kettle at 1 gallon intervals, keeping it hot, until I had the full boil volume and began the boil.
So there's the 2-row CAP. Two days later I invited some interested members of my homebrew club over and we brewed the 6-row CAP.
Brewday #2: CAP 'n Trade 6-Row Classic American Pilsner
This one is designed to be a far more traditional CAP than the 2-row version. The recipe is based on Jeff Renner's 2000 Zymurgy article. It utilizes a cereal mash, which gelatinizes the starches in the corn grits and acts as a sort of decoction to pull the main mash temperature up for an alpha rest at 158. Otherwise pretty much everything is the same: water, hops, boil time, minerals etc.
Classic American Pilsner, All grain, 5.25 gallons, 90 minute boil
Est. O.G.: 1.052 (6-row has less extract yield than 2-row)
Est. F.G.: 1.013
Est. ABV: 5%
Act. O.G.: 1.050 (Underboiled, ended up with closer to 5.75 gallons)
Act. F.G.: 1.010-1.012
Est Act ABV: 5.1-5.3%
- 8 lbs 6-row malt
- 3 lbs Corn grits (Two 20 oz. packages was only 2 1/2 lbs. It was like hot dogs and hot dog buns, I wasn't going to buy another box just to get that last half pound. So I used a half pound of coarse cornmeal instead.)
This was the mash schedule I worked from. I printed it out and posted it in the kitchen so it was readily available.
- Prepped 3 gallons of water at 114 degrees with 3gm of Calc Chloride and some campden tablet.
- Time 00: In a large pot, mash in 3 lbs corn and 1 lb 6-row malt with 5 quarts of 166° prepared water to hit 153° F
- Time 15: Mash in main mash of 7 lbs 6-row with 1.4 gallons at 114° to hit 104° F
- Time 20: Bring cereal mash to boil
- Time 30: Cereal mash boiling
- Time 35: Add about 1 gallon boiling water to ramp main mash to 144-146° F
- Time 65: Add cereal mash to main mash, adjust temperature as needed to 158° F. Have boiling water and cold water ready for this.
- Time 95: Ramp to 170° F mashout. Should take about 1.5 gallons of boiling water. Include .1ml lactic acid in water.
- Time 105: Begin sparge and lauter
Sparge, boil, hopping, cooling, pitching and everything else was the same as the previous beer. As a result of the 6-row and a less rolling boil, I ended up with an O.G. of 1.050 and 5.75 gallons of wort. Oh well, at 5% ABV it's still stronger than Bud-Lite...
So there we have it. A tale of two pilsners. They are fermenting away, and the next post will be in two months or so when they've been lagered and kegged. Then comes the taste test. Will authenticity triumph? Will modern malts make a cleaner beer? Will both be good in their own different ways? Most importantly: did I brew a clean lager?
We'll find out.
UPDATE: The Results