Since I visited Munich a few years ago I fell into German beers in a big way. Whilst there is no denying that I enjoy hoppy, bitter, juicy and dank beers to be found from some of the best craft breweries – there is something about German beers that I keep coming back to time and again as both a home brewer and consumer of commercial beers.
I like to think that centuries of brewing tradition – albeit to what can seem a relatively limited “palette” of pale, low hopped lagers – has every right to be considered a crafted product as the more boundary pushing beers brewed by the new wave of breweries.
I have done a few iterations of Munich Helles a few Kellerbiers and a Dunkle. The lighter styles are probably my house or stock beer and have been a useful yardstick for checking whether my process and procedures are working and dialled in since they do show up any flaws easily.
So in June I put my Munich kellerbier into the Manchester Beer Week Home Brew Expo held at Beer Nouveau to get some unbiased feedback.
I named it saufbruder: drinking buddy or companion in German and dispensed it from keg. I had some good feedback and had a great time. Whilst I didn’t come tops in the competition by any stretch, I had brewed a well received lager it seems.
So I have a few pointers which have worked out well for me (there may be an element of superstition rather than sound science in some of these):
- Gone in 60 minutes?
DMS precursor is produced during the boil and is particularly present in pilsner malts. It can however be driven off with a vigorous and lengthy boil so I err on the side of caution and go for a 90 minute boil with the lid off as much as possible to vent it off. I haven’t found any particularly corny flavour in my beers which is the flavour associated with DMS, so it’s hopefully lacking in my beers.
- Make a starter
Lagers need a good healthy pitch of yeast and a starter helps produce the right yeast cell count to prevent off flavours from stressed yeast or yeast that is having to reproduce rather than consume the sugars to attenuate the beer. I find a 2 litre starter from a liquid yeast pack works well and I normally just add this after a gentle rouse to the cooled wort. It is really quick to produce a krausen and is always well under way within a few hours of pitching.
I use the Southern German Lager WLP838 from White Labs which is a very good vigorous fermentor and seems to produce quite a lot of sulphur during fermentation and this doesn’t carry through into the finished beer it seems.
I’ve also reused this about 4 times from each batch, keeping it in the fridge and repitching after reactivating with each starter and it has been robust enough to kick start every time even after a few months in the fridge.
- Can you cold ferment?
I am lucky to have a cellar, where I can get low temps in winter for my lagers, but don’t let a lack of cold conditioning space put you off. I have a Munich helles and an IPA both fermenting at the moment and both are quite happy with about 16 to 18 C in the cellar at the moment. I have not noticed any sulphur or esters or phenols with my summer or slightly warmer fermented lagers. There were no complaints of this from tasters at the Manchester Beer Week home brew expo who tried my kellerbier (or at least were too polite to mention them!?) so I can only fairly assume that I am getting a clean fermentation even if a bit warmer.
I do raise the temperature a little by using a heat pad or brew belt near the very end of fermentation when it is close to reaching the final gravity which is supposed to encourage the yeast to consume any unwanted byproducts that cause off flavours.
- Do you have to lager or have access to cold conditioning?
Well in the main yes, If you want to brew a lager. That is what lagering is after all: cold conditioning. It drops the relatively slow flocculating yeast out of suspension and conditions and smooths the flavours in the beer. It is preferable to lager in bulk rather than in each bottle but only from the perspective of reducing the amount of yeast carried over before bottling. I have lagered in 6 litre Demijohns in a small fridge with good results, but this was a faff at bottling. Outside of winter I have managed perfectly well with the fermentor sat in an ice bath of ice blocks to cool it to help drop the yeast out, and time also helps.
On the other hand I find that kellerbiers are a great way to make a lager with limited or no access to cold conditioning. They are traditionally served young or ‘green’ and it’s acceptable for them to be cloudier with yeast in suspension (but not as much as a wheat beer say). This is also one of my favourite styles and there is something I think that is added by the unfiltered yeast that a regular lager lacks.
So in reality don’t let the lack of a fermentation chamber put you off brewing a lager. Time and relatively unsophisticated methods of reducing the temperature can work very well.
- So what’s craft about German lager?
Without getting too proscriptive about what a craft beer is / isn’t or should / shouldn’t be, part of what I think makes a craft beer is ingredients: their quality and source; and integrity of process.
I try to source quality ingredients for the malt and hops and try to source German ingredients where possible. Quality in should really equal quality out. Process and attention to detail also count towards the finished product. A rushed lager shows I think in the end result and integrity of process counts a lot.
These apply equally to the brewer of an ultra juicy DIPA as it does a malty crisp refreshing helles lager with a balance of hop bitterness and flavour.
Comments that I had at the home brew expo were to the gist of “I could drink that all day” or “I can imaging drinking that in the garden on a hot day”.
If your beer is envisaged in a biergarten then I think you’ve hit the right note somewhere in your process.