Launching the lagers

My back room is down to the low 40’s. There’s 3 inches of new snow on the ground under a bright blue December sky. Time to make the beer! Or more specifically, time to make the lagers! The brewer’s natural, seasonal calendar tells me that six months from now it’ll be mid-June, there’ll be no snow, and it’ll be much warmer than it is now. Which means I will need an appropriate beer in hand. How about a pilsner? Don’t mind if I do.

A few months ago, the Market started carrying a Bavarian beer called Arcobraü Zwickel Lager. Described on the bottle as a a traditional unfiltered lager, I realized, after the first couple bottles, that there was retrievable and usable yeast in the bottom… Little by little, bottle by bottle, I built up a pint or so of dregs which I fed and cultured to nearly a quart of yeast slurry. It is indeed a tasty beer, so I had to brew an appropriately tasty homebrew in which to pitch the saved yeast. This is not a clone of the Zwickel Lager, although it may end up pretty close.

Zwickelish Lager

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 8 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • 1/2 lb. melanoidin malt
  • 1/2 lb. 30°L crystal malt (or Cara-Hell)
  • 8 aau’s Saaz hop pellets
  • 1 oz. whole Hallertauer hops
  • Arcobraü Zwickel Lager yeast (recultured)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)


Crush grains. Heat 14 quarts water to 164°F. Mash in grains and hold 90 minutes at 153°F. Heat another 13 quarts water to 168°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 25 quarts of sweet wort. Bring to a boil, add the Saaz hops. Boil 55 minutes, add the Hallertauer hops. Boil 5 minutes, remove from heat. Chill to 75°F, take a hydrometer reading, pitch yeast. Seal and ferment at 60°F for 48 hours then move fermenter to a 45°F area. Rack to secondary after two weeks (as long as active bubbling has stopped), condition cold (“lager”) for five to six weeks at as close to 38°F as possible. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and age four weeks (one at 60°F, three at 40°F). Serve well chilled.

OG: 1058

IBU’s: 36

Further reading: Dave Miller’s “Continental Pilsener” in the AHA style series, although a little dated now, perhaps, has a lot of great information about water, mashing and lagering in general, with several very usable recipes.

Note on style: Zwickel is best translated as “sample” – a zwickel is a small spigot on Bavarian lagering tanks, from which a brewer can pull a sample to test, taste and pass around. The style itself is rare outside of Franconia, Bavaria. It’s undoubtedly more like a Continental Pilsner than a Munich Hell or Bohemian Pilsner.

Note on sparging: This sparge temp is lower than usual, to avoid starch contamination in the wort, which would detract from the color and clarity of the beer.

Notes on yeast: If you can’t or daren’t use the Arcobraü yeast, probably any Bavarian lager yeast will do the trick.

A Dark And Smoky beer…

Mysterious. Intense. Smooth. Three characteristics that I aspire to, in my personal life and in my beer. Well, in my beer, anyway. I fall in love with beers that exceed expectations, that take conventional and add another layer of complexity, a twist, an unexpected element.

One beer that is a bit hard to find these days, at least in my neck of the woods, is a true German Schwarzbier. There are dark lagers, but usually they are malty-sweet Munich Dunkels or just generic “dark lagers”… A Schwarzbier is the dark equivalent of a pilsner, crisp, hoppy, less full-bodied than the Munich style. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Munichs, both Hell and Dunkel, but sometimes the Schwarzbier is what I crave.

I also love the flavor of smoke in foods, and in beverages. I’ve been known to enjoy a peaty single malt Scotch from time to time – the peatier the better – and often brew with a little peat- or beechwood-smoked malt. I have made my own smoked malt a couple of times, using my own maple and apple wood. Smoked malts can be overwhelming, not for the faint of heart. Used in moderation, though, they add a nice touch, a nice twist, to a more conventional style.

As I was debating what to brew next, leaning towards a Schwarzbier, my son decided to brew a Rauchbier, shooting for a traditional heavily smoked amber lager. I talked him down from 50/50 smoked malt/Munich malt to a more moderate 20% rauchmalt and 80% pilsner and specialty grains. But of course that discussion led me to decide to add a little rauchmalt to my schwarzbier.

Dark brown to nearly black, with a strong but not overwhelming smoky flavor, this brew walks the fine line between a smooth stout and a Scotch ale. Since it’s fermented as a lager, it is very clean and crisp. The hops are mainly in the background, giving the beer a deep bitterness and not much hop aroma. At nearly 6% abv, this is a substantial brew.

Dark & Smoky Schwarz-Rauchbier

5 gallons, all grain


  • 7 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • 2 lbs. Weyermann Rauchmalt
  • 1/2 lb. Weyermann Carafa I malt
  • 1/2 lb. roasted barley
  • 1 oz. Stirling hop pellets
  • 1 oz. Tettnanger hop pellets
  • White Labs German Lager yeast (WLP830)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)


Crush grains. Heat 13 quarts water to 162°F. Mash in and hold 90 minutes @ 150°F. Heat another 15 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 25 quarts sweet wort. Bring to a boil, add Stirling hops and 1/2 oz. of the Tettnanger hops. Boil 40 minutes, add 1/4 oz. Tettnanger hops. Boil 18 minutes, add remaining 1/4 oz. Tettnanger hops, boil 2 minutes (60 total) and remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment at 55 – 60° for 7 to 10 days. Rack to secondary, condition at 40°F for three to four weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and age cold (35 – 38°F) for six weeks.

OG: 1060

IBU’s: 39

Notes on ingredients:

Grains:There are both domestic and imported versions of beechwood smoked malt – the imported, from Bamberg, Germany is almost always labeled “rauchmalt”. The domestic version (available from Brewcraft) seems less intensely smoky to me.

I have been using Carafa malts instead of chocolate and black, recently. I find that the Carafa malts (which are dehusked before roasting) are much less tannic/bitter. They come in at least three different color ranges, this brew used the lightest of the three (“only” 300° or so Lovibond).

Hops: Stirling is a North American-grown cross between Saaz and Hallertauer, it has a woody and pineapple-like aroma, and at 7% aa is a nice choice for bittering German-style lagers.

Yeast: The German Lager strain is among the most neutral lager yeasts available; this beer is already complex enough without the addition of a strong, distinctive yeast profile.

PS: Just realized that my last post seems to have never uploaded correctly – two weeks ago I brewed a Bohemian-style Pilsner, and apparently failed to publish the story, etc. SO here is the recipe, at least!

Riley’s Czech Pils

5 gallons, all grain


  • 7 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • 1 lb. cara-pils malt
  • 1 lb. Vienna malt
  • 3 oz. Saaz hop pellets
  • White Labs Budejovice Pilsner Lager yeast (WLP802)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)


Crush grains. Heat 13 quarts water to 167°F. Mash in grains, hold 60 minutes at 154°F. Heat another 15 quarts water to 170. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 25 quarts sweet wort. Bring to boil, add 1-1/2 oz. Saaz hops. Boil 45 minutes, add 1/2 oz. Saaz. Boil another 15 minutes, add another 1/2 oz. Saaz. Boil 30 minutes (90 total), add last 1/2 oz. Saaz, remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment at 58 – 60°F for 8 to 10 days. Rack to secondary, condition at 40°F for four to six weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and age cold (35°F) for six weeks.

OG: 1056

IBU’s: 41

With that, thank you for your support, your questions, your comments in 2010. It has been a fantastic year for me as the Home Brew Guru, and I look forward to 2011! Happy New Year!

The Constant Brewer

Life has been up and down these last couple weeks – failed hard drive in my computer, flooded cellar, thermostat and furnace issues, suspicious activity on my credit card, and my father facing serious surgery. So far, we have replaced the hard drive and recovered all the files and data, fixed the flood issue (but will have to deal with a holy mess on the back lawn where they dug a huge new trench to lay drain pipes), installed a new thermostat, and canceled the credit card (awaiting the new one in the mail). Dad’s surgery will hopefully be taken care of well before Thanksgiving, and each day is a new chance to move on.

One constant through it all has been brewing. Like clockwork, I have brewed, racked, bottled and tasted, and shared with friends. Like bread, beer is life. Or beer is bread, maybe, in liquid form…

Another recent constant has been the presence of mice in the brew house. A dead one in an empty fermenter a while back, another raiding my sack of pale malt, a third scurrying along a counter top among cases of bottles, and this morning, as I assembled my brewing set-up, there was a field mouse trying to jump out of the cooler I use as a mash tun. How it got in there, I have no idea – there was a lid on it with an empty fermenter on the lid… Anyway, I took the mouse out and dumped it in the woods, wished it godspeed, and went in and thoroughly cleaned and sanitized everything…

The weather has turned cold enough here in Vermont that my back room is down to a constant 50° or so – lager season has begun. This week’s beer is the first in a series of cold-fermented brews, slowly aged and conditioned. Hopefully, this will be ready about Opening Day in April (Go Sox!).

Wühlmaus (German for field mouse or vole) Pilsner is a classic German-style pilsner, lighter in color than the Czech/Bohemian equivalent and more bitter – the emphasis is on a crisp, clean taste, with low maltiness and medium to high hop flavor. Don’t worry, there will be a Bohemian Pils later in the year too!

Wühlmaus Pilsner
5 gallons, all grain


  • 7 lbs. Weyermann’s Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • 1/2 lb. carapils malt
  • 1/2 lb. Vienna malt
  • 1 oz. Mt. Hood hop pellets (4.6% aa)
  • 1/2 oz. Northern Brewer hop pellets (10.6% aa)
  • 1 oz. Tettnang hop pellet (5.1% aa)
  • White Labs Pilsner Lager yeast (WLP800)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Crush grains. Heat 13 quarts water to 162°F. Mash in grains, hold 60 minutes at 150°F. Heat 15 more quarts water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge, collecting 26 quarts of sweet wort. Bring to a boil, add Mt. Hood hops, boil 30 minutes. Add Northern Brewer hops, boil another 15 minutes. Add Tettnang hops, boil 15 more minutes (60 total), remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment cool (60°F) until onset of active fermentation (a day or two), then move to a cooler location (50°F). Rack to secondary after two weeks, condition cold (40°F) for four to six weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle. Let stand in a warmer area (65 – 70°F) for three days then move bottles to a cold location (35 – 40°F) and age at least a month.

IBU’s: 36.5

Notes on style: As noted above, the German or Continental Pilsner style differs from the Bohemian or Czech version in degree only – a bit lighter in color (Bohemians tend to be a deeper gold, Germans a pale straw color), balanced but leaning toward the bitter side (Bohemian varieties are a tad maltier), otherwise pretty similar. Best-known examples (not necessarily the best representatives, though) are Beck’s and St. Pauli from Germany, Grolsch and Heineken from the Netherlands. Dig deeper and you will discover a wealth of smaller German Pilsner breweries, well-known in their homeland but not major exporters, such as Warsteiner, Bitburger, Jever among others.

Notes on yeast: This Pilsner yeast is probably Czech in origin, perhaps even Urquell’s strain itself. It’s likely that some, if not most, of the German pilsners are also using a yeast strain that is originally from Bohemia, the birthplace of the light lager style.

Notes on lagering: “Lager”, of course, comes from the German verb “to store”. Lager yeasts generally function best in very cool to cold temperatures. I prefer to start mine warm, let the yeast get established, then gradually move the beer to a cold space. Part of the necessary process for any lager style (Munich, Vienna, Bock, Märzen, Schwarzbier, etc…) is time – allow several months before planning to drink this beer at its best. Consistency, however, is equally important – your beer will be better at a constant 50°F than if it “yo-yo’s” between 35 and 60°F.