Of Ice and Men*: Simple Lager Brewing

People often tell me they're making their first lager in the same hushed, anxious tones one might use to describe losing one's virginity or going skydiving for the first time.  There's no need for that: lagering (like much else we discuss here), is pretty simple.  You, too, can lager, and there's no need to work yourself into a kreuzen over it (see what I did there?).

What's ironic here is that so many people care so much about temperature and care that they end up mucking up their beer.  They effectively temperature-control and yeast-coddle their way into a bad beer, and instead of the beautifully controlled masterpiece of a virtuoso pianist they end up with Lennie and the rabbits: they love their beer to death (YES - Monday morning Steinbeck reference...).

So, what's the key to making lagers?  And what are you doing that might be unnecessary?  Read on to find out! 

Lagering To-Do's

This is going to be a pretty short section, because as I said, making good lagers is pretty simple. The driving force in lager beers is producing beers with few flavors from the yeast: so, minimizing esters, phenols, fusels and off-flavors.  We accomplish this in lager beers by using yeast that are conditioned and bred to ferment at lower temperatures, which slows activity and prevents the formation of flavors that are typical in most ale strains.  So, then, lager is mostly about yeast strain selection and fermentation temperature, which is usually in the 50F (10C) vicinity.

The mystery is that so many misunderstand when and why temperatures are important, and as a result they're often being wasteful, inefficient, and/or damaging their beer through their "care."  

There is a very narrow window in which temperature control is essential to producing good lagers.  Your goal is to produce "clean" beer, so avoiding esters, phenols, and fusels is the key.  Well, when do those form?  If you answer that question, you know when you need to control temperatures aggressively.

First off, we don't much need to worry about formation of these compounds in the Lag Phase, when your yeast are just waking up, so from pitching to about 18 hours in, don't sweat it (no pun intended) if your beer isn't at 50F yet.  Then there's the fact that most of what you're worried about is produced in the Growth Phase (18 hours in until about day 3 or 4).  So there it is: a roughly 72-hour period when temperature is essential.  

  • Keep your beer at 50F (10C) for about 96 hours, and don't worry about the first 12-18 of those.  

That's basically it.  Any questions?

Undoing the Damage of Over-Lagering

The problem comes in when people think that they need to treat their beer like it lives in whatever magical place Coors Light keeps that train that makes it instantaneously snowy.  Lagering is about temperature control, not about keeping your beer cold.  

You need that initial cool period to limit the production of stuff you don't want, but here's the thing: in that period, even at cold temperatures, you're still producing things you don't want, just less of them or different varieties of them.  You still may have precursors and compounds that need to be cleaned up (diacetyl, acetaldehyde, etc.).  But if you never let your beer warm up, you're virtually guaranteeing that you'll be leaving them behind when your yeast settle in for their brewer-enforced long winter's nap.

This is why I say you need a little less care with your lagers.  After you're done with the Growth Phase, let that temperature come on up.  Personally, I let it rise 5-6 degrees F, but I've also (for reasons I'll get into in a second) just pulled them out of the fridge and let them come up to room temperature.  The risk of doing so is very low - since the possibility of ester, phenol, or fusel production after a few days is minimal - but the risk of not doing so is very much real and orders of magnitude larger.  Don't believe me?  Judge one flight of Amber Lagers at a BJCP competition: at least half have caramel or green apple flavors which might have been addressed by a more-complete attenuation instead of the Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-like temperature control that the brewer subjected their beer to.

Practical Lager Brewing and Lager Myths

There are other, practical, things you can do to make lager brewing a better experience, too.  First off, as I said, you can just yank them out of that fridge and leave them at room temperature.  I learned this when I got into a run of brewing lots of lagers and needed to keep up my brewing pace so that my ingredients didn't stale - there's only room for two in that fermentation chest of mine, so my young lagers had to get turfed out into the big bad 68-degree basement when they were just a few days old, so that their younger siblings could chill out (it's like that scene in Monty Python's "Meaning of Life" with the Catholic family).  And you know what?  Those beers were awesome.  Better-attenuated, no off-flavors, no precursors, and I didn't have to commit to weeks of waiting for them in the fridge before I could brew again.

Then there's this obsession with massive yeast pitches for lagers.  I read on a message board about a rule of thumb of "doubling" whatever the yeast calculator told you, just to be safe.  One recent FB poster said he made a 6-liter starter for a 5.5-gallon beer because it was a lager.  A homebrew club friend once told me that he pitched five smack-packs into an 8% Dopplebock.  People: CALM DOWN.  Chris White might be laughing all the way to the bank, but you're going overboard.  Every lager I brew, no matter the ABV, gets the same half-of-a-2L-starter into a 4.5-gallon batch.  And did I mention that I've won more than 100 medals for lagers in competition?  You're overpitching, which probably won't hurt you, but it's hurting your wallet.

One more lagering myth I've heard is that you need to transfer off of your yeast for an extended period of aging in the carboy/bucket/vessel.  Put simply: no, you don't.  First, autolysis is the homebrewer's bogeyman.  I've never experienced it, nor known anyone else who has, and I've accidentally aged a Roggenbier for four months on its yeast cake when I forgot about it (we'd just moved in, and it ended up behind some boxes. Call Beer Social Services on me if you must).  So, clearly, the risk is low at our volumes and with our level of hydrostatic pressure.  And second, every time you transfer your beer, you're exposing it to air and contaminants.  Every beer is contaminated and oxidized to some degree, and the more you move it, the more so it gets.  So we're talking about balancing the minuscule (and, potentially, mythological) risk of autolysis against the absolute certainty of a higher level of contamination and oxidation.  No thanks.  Leave it be until fermentation is complete, then package it up.

And then there's the great bottle conditioning question.  "Dude, you totally need to add a pitch of yeast when you bottle lagers because the yeast won't carbonate your beer."  Right.  Let me put this one to bed with an anecdote that - although anecdotal - I think you should consider instructive.  I made my first Eisbock a couple of years ago, and I f***ed up.  I started with a pretty strong (8.9% ABV) Dopplebock that was about eight weeks in the fermenter, and set about to freeze-distilling it. Turns out that takes a while and I started in the afternoon.  Well, at 3AM I had barely any ice formation, and went to bed.  At 7AM when I woke up, I had myself a Dopple-sicle.  I'd concentrated it by nearly 40%, and had made myself a nice 13% beer.  Curious about whether it would bottle condition, I just treated it like I normally would, and added the appropriate weight of priming sugar.  Two weeks later, perfectly carbonated.  If THAT beer with THAT treatment at THAT age and with THAT level of alcohol toxicity can bottle condition, then anything can.  Unless you've actively filtered out or killed your yeast, there's probably no need to add more yeast when bottling a lager.

There's No Lager Mystery

Lagers are just beer.  There's no need to be intimidated by them.  Even the process listed here - which assumes you have a temperature-controlled vessel/chamber/fridge in which to ferment - isn't strictly necessary.  Especially in winter, check for a cold spot in your basement - many, left unconditioned (think a closet, storage area, etc.), hold at a pretty steady 52-57F, which is perfectly acceptable to make lager beer.  Even low-tech solutions like ice baths and evaporation can be maintained long enough to get your beer out of the "danger zone" for esters and all that other stuff.

So, as always, relax.  Sit back, pour yourself a Sinebrychoff Porter, and have George tell you about the rabbits again.

Keep it simple.


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*I realize the title is a little bit sexist, and I know that lots of women are brewers (brewsters?), but the reference to "Of Mice and Men" and the easy play on words and its connection to the Lennie/rabbits thing made it irresistible!