After spending much of 2019 researching New England IPAs, I shifted my focus to Pilsners for the 2020.
I have never brewed a Pilsner. In fact, I have only ever brewed one lager (way back in 2010). And despite only drinking a handful of Pilsners since college, today I find myself craving nuance, subtly and drinkability in beer.
Over the last several months, I have spent dozens of hours researching Pilsner from a wide variety of resources, including Lager – The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Brewing the World’s Most Popular Beer Styles, New Brewing Lager Beer, American Homebrewers Association, Brewers Association, Beer Judge Certification Program, Good Beer Hunting, Craft Beer & Brewing, Brülosophy, Scott Janish and Brew Your Own.
I have also spent a lot of time drinking Pilsner – some of my current favorites are Firestone Walker Brewing Company Pivo Pils, Russian River Brewing Company STS Pils and Suarez Family Brewery Palatine Pils. While my research began with German and Bohemian Pilsner styles I soon became intrigued with the emerging New Zealand Pilsner style.
Feel free to skip down to the Recipe and/or Tasting Notes section(s) if you are not interested in reading my rationale behind ingredient and process selection.
I wanted my 4.2% Mountain Pilsner to be distinctly different from my 4.2% Mountain IPA, especially with regards to hop flavor and aroma. After being blow away with Russian River Intinction (Pilsner aged in Sauvignon Blanc barrels with Sauvignon Blanc grape juice), I had found my inspiration for Mountain Pilsner; Sauvignon Blanc. I am particularly fond of the white grape varietal for its lime, green apple, passion fruit and white peach flavors.
To figure out which hops varieties could best emulate Sauvignon Blanc flavors, I researched The New IPA: Scientific Guide to Hop Aroma and Flavor and Thiol Driver. I ultimately selected four hop varieties for Mountain Pilsner; Columbus, Huell Melon, Southern Cross and Nelson Sauvin.
Columbus was selected for it value (see a trend here?). It is one of the most affordable high alpha acid hops which lends efficiency to bitterness and may help improve overall beer stability (when added during the mash). For more insight on the benefits of Columbus, I recommend reading The New IPA or checking out my Mountain IPA #1 blog post. I used Columbus in the mash at 0.1 oz/gal and another 0.06 oz/gal at 60 minutes to target ~24 IBUs.
Huell Melon is a relatively new hop variety from Germany. Its best known for distinctive honeydew melon esters (which can become more intense during fermentation) but I selected Huell Melon due to its high levels of ethyl isobutyrate (pineapple), ethyl 2-methylbutyrate (green apple, apricot). and 2-methylbutyl isobutyrate (2MIB) (apricot, gooseberry) esters. I used Huell Melon at 0.1 oz/gal in the whirlpool and 0.08 oz/gal in the dry hop (split over two doses).
Southern Cross is a New Zealand hop variety which has the highest known levels of the 2MIB ester. I used Southern Cross in the whirlpool at 0.1 oz/gal and in the dry hop (split over two doses) at 0.08 oz/gal.
Nelson Sauvin is the hop version of Sauvignon Blanc. Its distinctive white-wine characteristics are wonderful but Nelson is unique because its the only known hop to contain the 3-sulfanyl-4-methylpentan-1-ol (3S4MP) thiol. 3S4MP has an enhancing effect on linalool, geraniol and (most importantly for Mountain Pilsner) 2MIN, boosting the flavor intensity of those compounds. Nelson also contains high levels of the 4-methyl-4-mercaptopentan-2-one (4MMP) thiol (boxtree, ribes and black currants). I used Nelson Sauvin in the dry hop at 0.08 oz/gal (split over two doses).
Malt / Mash
Similar to Mountain IPA #1, I used Mecca Grade Estate Malt for 100% of the grain bill since all of Mecca Grade’s barley malt is Full Pint variety. Full Pint contains nitrogen compounds and terpenes that are biotransformed from grapefruit into passion fruit flavors. For Mountain Pilsner, I used 100% Mecca Grade Pelton (Pilsner style) malt.
While traditionalists swear by a decoction mash for Pilsner, I followed Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo’s 130°F – 140°F – 150°F step infusion mash recommendation for STS Pils.
Yeast / Fermentation
Honestly, I had no idea where to start when it came to selecting a lager yeast strain. During my lager research, I recall one source estimating that approximately 80% of lager beers are fermented with the Weinhenstephan strain (SafLager 34/70, WLP830 German Lager Yeast, WY2124 Bohemian Lager, L13 – Global). Several homebrewers mention that the Weinhenstephan strain can kick up lots of sulfur during fermentation and Cilurzo specifically prefers a low sulfur yeast strain (like Augustiner) in STS Pils. A few weeks later, Marshall Schott (Brülosophy) mentioned he prefers Imperial Yeast L17-Harvest for his lagers for the same reason. Eventually I discovered that L17-Harvest was in fact the Augustiner strain. Since I have enjoyed A38-Juice so much in Mountain IPA, I ordered a couple pouches of L17 for Mountain Pilsner.
Interestingly, one study mentioned in The New IPA found that a “standard” lager yeast strain resulted in 17% more 2MIB (apricot, gooseberry) than an English ale yeast strain during Pilsner fermentation with dry hops. So in addition to the enhancing effect of Nelson Sauvin’s 3S4MP thiols on 2MIB, lager yeast can potentially boost apricot flavors too!
One of the reasons I have avoid brewing lagers over the last 10 years has been its long, involved fermentation process. Professor Ludwig Narziss recommends pitching the yeast cold, letting the wort free rise to 46- 50°F and ferment to ~50% terminal gravity. Then raise to 54°F until reaching terminal gravity. Next gradually cool the beer 2°F per day until reaching 32°F where the beer is lagered for several weeks or months. Similarly Greg Noonan recommended pitching cool and letting the wort free rise to 55°F to ferment for 4-12 days. Next, a 2-day diacetyl rest at 55-60°F was followed by a gradual cooling of beer 3-5°F until reaching 38-40°F. Once carbon dioxide production slows, reduce the temperature to 33-37°F and lager for 7-12 days per each 2°P. The inherit complexity of these traditional methods of lager fermentation are exactly why I avoided brewing lagers for a decade! In 2016, Mike “Tasty” McDole presented his fast lager fermentation method at HomebrewCon; ferment at 50°F until 50% to terminal gravity, raise to 53°F until 75% to terminal gravity, raise to 57°F until 90% to terminal gravity and raise to 62°F until fermentation is complete. Taking fast lager fermentation even further, Schott described his lager fermentation process in the Brülosophy Podcast Episode 124 | exBEERience: Lager Fermentation as identical to that of his ale fermentation process. Intrigued with the results of the Brülosophy lager fermentation experiments, I decided to give Schott’s method the first try since I can always make things more complex on the second recipe iteration if I am not happy with the result of Mountain Pilsner #1.
And what about water chemistry? I was set to use Bru’n Water’s Pilsen water profile but in early January I was able to get my hands on Suarez Palatine Pils which was so soft and pillowy that I eventually sent it to Ward Lab for mineral analysis. I used the approximate Suarez brewing water profile of 126 ppm Ca, 4 ppm Mg, 8 ppm Na, 20 ppm SO4 and 180 ppm Cl.
With all of that said, you can find the Mountain Pilsner #1 recipe here: https://share.brewfather.app/bm992J3FpX6W5k.
Mountain Pilsner #1 was brewed on March 14, 2020 and reviewed on April 27, 2020. The brew day itself was without anomalies but the beer did attenuate much higher than expected (>90% attenuation!). All in all I am very happy with my first Pilsner (and second-ever lager).
Appearance – Unfiltered keller pils appearance with a dense white foam with lots and lots of compact bubbles. The beer itself is straw yellow with beautiful orange undertones.
Smell – The aroma is very subdued and fleeting, by design. There are faint hints of Saltine Cracker and Saturday morning grass clippings. As the beer warms, Granny Smith apple and chilled white wine become background noise.
Taste – There is a ever-so-faint flavor of warm summer apricot and peach skin. I also pick up on citrus and floral aromas along the lines of lemon grass, I think. As the beer warms the bitterness becomes more assertive with Pillsbury Grands! biscuits, and green apple skin.
Mouthfeel – Soft and smooth, light and airy. Mountain Pilsner #1 is a go-to lawnmower beer and something I plan on crushing all summer long.
Overall – So good! Mountain Pilsner #1 is the kind of beer that Emily Carter of Bierstadt Lagerhaus describes as “toe[ing] the line between bland and sublime . . . By the time you get to your third one, you realize there isn’t anything you’d change about that beer.” Or as Augie Carton of Carton Brewing Company has been known to put it, Mountain Pilsner #1 is a beer you talk over, not a beer your talk about.
Changes For Next Time – The only change to the next iteration of Mountain Pilsner will be removing 10 oz of Mecca Grade Pelton malt to reduce the original gravity SG to 1.036 and achieve 4.2% ABV. That’s it for now!
Awesome breakdown here, it sounds amazing! You noted that you picked up on a faint citrus taste akin to lemongrass. When I have had Hill Farmstead lagers I have also known a pretty pronounced citrus flavor that I love and they typically use traditional german noble hops in their beers (Mary – Hersbrucker & Spalter). In your research on hops have you encountered any information on how to pull out those citrus flavors?
Also, what did you think of the water profile? Was it similar to what Suarez was doing with their water?
The mouthfeel was very much in line with Suarez, even with my pilsner coming in at a lower ABV. I would definitely recommend the water profile I used as a good starting point. You can adjust up or down from there after tasting. Very soft and smooth, helps enhance the perception of body in a smaller beer.
I haven’t done much research on German noble hops to be completely honest. With that said, I read that Saphir also come exhibit citrus elements too which is why Firestone uses it in Pivo.
Based on what I read in Scott Janish’s The New IPA book, I would recommend three things.
1. Select German noble hops that are monoterpene-rich (especially myrcene) since those have been shown to boost citrus qualities in beer. Check out http://thirdleapbrew.com/technical/comprehensive-hop-acid-oil-chart/ for a sortable chart. For modern German varities, Hallertau Blanc and Mandarina Bavaria would be your best best. Saphir and Select have about 50% less myrcene than the other two. And for traditional noble varieties, Saaz, Tettnag, Spalt, and Hallertau are in order from highest to lowest myrcene levels.
2. Load up on whirlpools hops to take advantage of the biotransformation of geraniol (floral) to beta-citronellol (lemon). I don’t have much data on geraniol levels in German hops, but you would want to select varities that have the highest levels but still fit your overall target flavor/aroma. Target ~200F for whirlpool temp to coax out more citrus (lower temps yield more floral and herbal notes). A 15 minute whirlpool duration should be fine.
3. Consider dry hopping during fermentation to take advantage of any citrus favorable thiols