While American style Lagers usually are not my first choice when I reach for a beer, I don’t share the contempt for them that the Hipster Beer Snobs do. These beers are incredibly easy to drink, very light tasting and refreshing, and with their brilliant clarity they are so visually appealing to me. I happily drink and enjoy them when I’m out and about where tap selections are limited, or if I don’t particularly feel like being challenged. As a very wise friend of mine likes to say, “sometimes, you just want a beer”. In short, I like American Lagers and I am not ashamed to admit it.
From a Brewer’s perspective, American Lagers are without a doubt some of the toughest beers to make. To produce beers that are so very pale, crisp, light bodied and refreshing, and that have such low levels of beer flavours and aromas requires flawless process execution. Strong flavours in 1A and 1B are considered a fault. Any recipe or process errors will stand out loudly, in a bad way.
As a Homebrewer, I’ve always been attracted to the challenge of brewing a professional grade macro lager, so in the late summer of 2017 I took my first stab at 1B, American Lager. How hard could this be? Just substitute a portion of the malt with some adjuncts, keep bitterness low and ferment with any lager yeast were my thoughts at the time.
Homebrew 1B, First attempt
American Lager Mk1, BJCP Style 1B
Targets (74% BHE, 31L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):
PBOG = 1.033, OG = 1.045, FG 1.006, ABV ~ 5%
SRM = ~2.5
IBU = ~13
BU:GU = 0.30
3 Kg CMC Pale 2-Row (66.2 %)
0.454 Kg O-I-O Flaked Maize (9.4 %)
0.950 Kg White Minute Rice (21 %)
0.125 Kg Weyermann Acidulated Malt (2.8 %)
Water Treatments: Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 1g SMB + 4g CaCl2 + 2g CaSO4 added to mash.
Mashing Regime: Single Infusion, 152F / 65C, 4 hour mash, no mash out.
90 minute boil, pre-boil OG was 1.038.
Hops: YCH Czech Saaz pellets at 60 minutes (~ 11 IBU) and 10 minutes (~ 2 IBU)
Yeast: 2 re-hydrated packets of Saflager 34/70.
Brew day was full of distractions and didn’t go particularly well. My actual pre-boil OG was 1.038, high by 5 points. The likely cause was the 4 hour mash that was a result of me being called away to deal with something non-beer related.
The OG ended up being 1.047, not too much higher than the 1.045 and so I proceeded to chill the wort down to 50F/10C, pitched the 34/70 and added 90 seconds of pure O2. I fermented the beer at that temperature for 6 days, observed the expected activity and then allowed the beer to free rise to 68F/20C for a week before starting a slow cold crash to 32F/0C.
I kegged my “1B” with gelatine finings 22 days after brew day, and carbed it to somewhere between 2.5 and 3 volumes. The final gravity was 1.004 and the resulting ABV was 5.6%, too high for style.
2 weeks later I sampled the beer. While it wasn’t bad, it was far too heavy in body and flavour. I found this surprising as it contained around 30% flaked corn and rice adjuncts which I thought would’ve lightened up the malt impact more than it did. I knew that I had completely missed the style goalposts and tweeted my disappointment.
Fellow Home brewer Marie-Annick Scott, a frequent award-winning expert in this style, replied to my tweet: “The secret is to brew it to 8% and dilute it with distilled water in secondary.” Of course, I foolishly ignored her suggestion and began planning out my next 1B, thinking of all other ways to get it closer to style that didn’t involve dilution.
Judgement, American Lager Mk1
The beer was decent even if it didn’t fit 1B, and I figured it was still worth my while to enter it into GTA Brewslam 2017 to get some feedback. I decided to enter it as an International Pale Lager (BJCP 2A) where it scored 30/50 and 34/50.
Both Judges detected green apple aromas, and one of the Judges also mentioned corn which made sense given the flaked maize used in the grist. The Judge who gave the lower score offered more extensive feedback than the other and commented that it was too full bodied for an International Pale Lager, had a balance that was very much towards the malty end of the style, and was somewhat sweet. Strangely enough, that Judge suggested I mash longer and lower but of course didn’t know I had done a 4 hour mash in the beta-amylase temperature range. Overall I was in full agreement with this Judge’s verdict; the beer was far too full bodied and malty for 2A, let alone 1B.
I wasn’t surprised by the results of this competition, and regarded it as an opportunity to validate my own judgement that this was not a good example of 1B. In hindsight, this beer fit like a glove in 1C (Cream Ale), but I already had a Cream Ale entered in this competition that was doing well in the 2017 circuit.
In the spring of 2018, I saddled up and took another shot at making 1B. This time around I reduced the overall grainbill to achieve a lower OG/FG to try lighten the body of the finished beer. I also replaced the flaked maize with a larger percentage of minute rice to keep the corn sweetness out of the mix. Finally, I dropped the IBU’s to compensate for the lower OG and also to try to further minimize flavour.
Homebrew 1B, Second Attempt
American Lager Mk2, BJCP Style 1B
Targets (74% BHE, 31L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):
PBOG = 1.030, OG = 1.040, FG 1.006, ABV ~ 4.5%
SRM = ~2
IBU = ~9
BU:GU = 0.22
1.25 Kg CMC Pale 2-Row (31.3 %)
1.25 Kg Best Malz Pilsner (31.3 %)
1.4 Kg white Minute Rice (35 %)
0.100 Weyermann Acidulated Malt (2.5 %)
Water Treatments: Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 1g SMB + 4g CaCl2 + 1g CaSO4 added to mash.
Mashing Regime: Beta-glucanase rest at 115F/C for 15 minutes, protein rest at 133F/ 66.7C for 20 minutes, then Saccharification rests at 145F/62.8C for 30 mins and 152F/75.5C for a 30 minutes. No mash out.
90 minute boil, pre-boil OG was around 1.032, but I landed at the target OG.
Hops: ~30g 2.6% AA BSG German Hallertau Mittelfruh pellets added as first wort hops, for an estimated ~ 9 IBU.
Yeast: Same as Mk1, 2 re-hydrated packages of Saflager 34/70 dry yeast.
The brew day was straightforward and I hit my OG. I noted that the wort was a cloudy pale grey colour during the vorlauf, presumably due to the rice solids, and it didn’t clear up much by the end of the sparge. I wasn’t concerned about the clarity as I was sure the boil would cause the particulates to coagulate and drop out. Indeed, the wort was nice and clear by the end of the boil. I chilled the wort to 50F/10C, pitched the yeast, added O2 and pretty much followed the same fermentation schedule as 1B Mk1.
I kegged this beer a mere 3 weeks after brew day. It finished at 1.002, lower than expected and had a correspondingly higher than desired ABV of 5%. Upon sampling 1 week later, my notes say “Damn, this has flavour too”, however, the beer was excellent. I feared once again I hadn’t made a good 1B, but it was absolutely delicious and much closer than Mk1.
Judgement, American Lager Mk2
I entered my second attempt at American Lager in the 2018 Members of Barleyment Homebrew competition in category 1B. The judges gave it high scores (40/50 and 38/50) and generally had good things to say about it, but it didn’t place.
Both judges mentioned corn (odd, as there was no flaked maize in this version) and light apple aromas, and mentioned it was slightly high on the malt balance. One judge implied that I might do better if I were to enter it as an American Lite Lager (BJCP 1A).
I followed the MOB Judges’ suggestion and entered this beer as a 1A in the 2018 Saskatoon Headhunters Competition, where it earned a 3rd place medal out of 11 entries in the combined american lager / international pale category. Judges gave it 39/50 and 37/50 and they agreed it was a good beer. Both Judges also commented on corn aromas, sulphur on the nose and mentioned that the balance was towards the malt. One also hinted at a slight sourness and a few subtle off-flavours.
Main competition Feedback Take-Aways:
- Too Malty / corn sweetness / too much flavor
This was a bigger problem in Mk1 than Mk2, but still a problem. Flaked maize adds sweetness and some flavor, so replacing corn with rice in Mk2 was a good move. However, even in conjunction with lowering the OG this didn’t bring the malt level down enough. Marie-Annick’s dilution technique seemed to be the next logical step towards reducing flavor and knock this problem on the head.
- Green Apple
Not actually a fault for styles 1A and 1B in the BJCP guidelines, but try to bring apple esters down to be in line with reduced flavor levels in general. To accomplish this, a very large pitch of Wyeast 2007 Pilsen Lager yeast fermented cold and long should work.
My choice of Saflager 34/70 was most likely to blame here. While a Sulphur note is desirable in German Lager styles such as German Pilsners, it’s not welcome in 1A and 1B. Wyeast 2007 is known as a low sulphur producer, a very clean yeast in general and it is recommended as a good choice for American Lagers.
Revision and Re-brew
For the third attempt at American Lagers, I decided it was time to change my overall strategy. I’d brew a double strength lager base beer, and then dilute it to reduce flavor. This is, after all, how the macro brewers do it. Presumably their main motivation is to save on fermentation tank space and maximize profits, but for me the bonus was if I did the dilution right I would produce two 19L kegs of 1A and 1B with one brew!
My plan was to keep the grist almost the same as Mk2, except use all 2-row and no pilsner malt. I don’t why I decided on a 50/50 2-row/pils split in Mk2, but for this brew I thought it best to keep distinctive and flavourful base malts out of the grist.
Another difference would be the water treatments. In Mk1 and Mk2 I favoured a higher chloride to sulphate ratio. Looking back this didn’t make sense as chloride enhances malt roundness, whereas the objective was to make very crisp, dry beer. So for the 3rd iteration I’d reverse the chloride to sulphate ratio to 1:4.
I’d target 24L of 1.071, 20 IBU wort into the fermenter. Ferment out to ~ 1.014 = ~7.5% ABV at 50F/10C with a huge pitch of Wyeast 2007 Pilsen Lager, and then dilute with boiled, cooled water to realize 2 full kegs. The amounts beer/water proportions could easily be adjusted if the base beer ended up a bit low or high in ABV.
The one concern I had with this plan is I’d need to achieve an apparent attenuation of ~80% to hit my target FG, and Wyeast 2007 is not a high attenuator (71 – 75%). I would be counting on the large proportion of rice adjunct which converts to highly fermentable maltose to help drive the FG down, and mash for a long time at low temperatures to produce a very fermentable wort. I had faith as both Mk1 and Mk2 reached very high attenuation with lower proportions of adjuncts than Mk3.
American Lager Third Attempt
American Lager Mk3, 7.5% ABV Base Beer
Targets (64% BHE, 31L boil, 24L wort in fermenter, before dilution):
PBOG = 1.057, OG = 1.071, FG 1.014, ABV ~ 7.5%
SRM = ~3.6
IBU = ~20
BU:GU = 0.28
4.75 Kg Rahr Pale 2-Row (56.4 %)
3.5 Kg white Minute Rice (41.5 %)
0.175 Weyermann Acidulated Malt (2.1 %)
Water Treatments: Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 1g SMB + 1g CaCl2 + 4g CaSO4 added to mash.
Mashing Regime: Same as Mk2, but extended both sacch rests at 145F/C and 152F/C from 30 mins to 45 mins each.
90 minute boil.
Hops: 13g 12.4% AA YCH Nugget pellets, for an estimated ~ 20 IBU.
Yeast: ~700 ml Wyeast 2007 Pilsen Lager slurry, harvested same day from a 1.040 Czech Pale Lager.
Assuming FG = 1.014, 7.5% ABV:
American Lager BJCP 1A: 10L base beer + 9L water = 19L @ 4% ABV
American Lager BCJP 1B: 13L base beer + 6L water = 19L @ 5% ABV
I brewed the beer on Saturday, January 26 2019. Looking at the volume of Minute rice relative to the 2-row, I had some reservations but I mixed them together and doughed in. I didn’t use any rice hulls because I was concerned about their potential flavour impact. After the initial dough in, I added boiling water infusions to hit the rest of the mash steps.
Sparging was an absolute nightmare. From my Mk2 notes, I was expecting some difficulty but nothing like this. It took 3 hours to collect the full volume of runoff, a personal record for me. It’s possible that the large mass of the grist caused worse compaction than previous high adjunct grists I’d worked with. A side effect of this was a much longer 2nd saccharification mash rest than planned.
The runoff was that strange cloudy pale grey I’d noted in Mk2, but it tasted good and I’d got very close to the pre-boil gravity target. The rest of the brew was without incident. I chilled and siphoned beautifully clear, yellow and very tasty 1.072 wort into an SS brewbucket and chilled to 50F/10C before pitching the yeast and oxygenating for ~120 seconds with pure O2.
Assuming all goes well with the fermentation, I’ll describe the dilution and packaging details in a follow up post. Until then, wish me luck in my quest to make home brewed American Lagers Great Again!