Classic American Pilsner

by Jeff Renner (, 3/23/95

Last fall I asked for help in recreating the taste of the beers I grew up having tastes of in Cincinnati in the fifties. Part of the flavor I remembered was certainly just the pungency of beer to a child's sensitive palate. But part was certainly the greater hopping levels, some DMS from the corn that was expected, especially by mid-western palates, and just the greater flavor profile produced by brewing without techniques designed to reduce flavors (N2 wort scrubbing, neutral yeasts, minimal wort caramelization, etc.).

Starting with the Brewing Techniques article on Pre-prohibition Lagers by George Fix (May/June,'94) and the one on Bushwick Pilsners by Ben Jankowski (Jan./Feb.'94), I formulated a 1.048 OG, 1.016 FG. 80% six-row, 20% flaked maize, 25 IBU target beer fermented with New Ulm yeast from Yeast Culture Kit Co. A good bit of the body/sweetness profile was produced by the short, 15 minute rest at 60C with 45 minutes at 70C, giving an apparent attenuation of 67%. If these times were reversed, it would probably result in an apparent attenuation of close to 80%, giving a drier, snappier, less satiating beer. This is not what I wanted.

Because I was mostly brewing for historical curiosity, I brewed only five gallons. I now wish I'd brewed my usual 1/4 barrel, because it succeeded beyond my wildest expectations! Not only did I brew a successful historical reproduction, THIS IS A GREAT STYLE BY ABSOLUTE, WORLD-CLASS STANDARDS. American mega-breweries have to answer not only for the sin of what they are producing today, but for having killed off a great beer style. Steam beer is not our only indigenous beer style, only our best known.

This isn't a continental pilsner, but it yields nothing to that style in absolute terms. Fix and Jankowski were too stinting in their praise of this style. I guess I thought of it as a pretty good job that American brewers did making do with the materials available. It is far more. This extinct beer is a WORLD CLASS STYLE. I'm not saying that my beer is a world class beer, but it's pretty damn good. It has a beautiful, full golden color with a long lasting, thick creamy head, full flavor with modest maltiness bolstered by the subtle corny sweetness, balanced by a clean hops bitterness and yeast character, with a long, clean bitter finish.

We as homebrewers have helped revive other extinct styles (such as porter), and I propose to this group that this should be next one. This isn't lawnmower beer. This is the beer that our grandfathers paid a nickel for and got a free lunch with. This is the beer that German immigrants created when they arrived in the US, and that swept out the ales in the lager revolution by its demonstrably better quality. This is the beer of American steelworkers and shipbuilders. This is the beer that built America! This is the bee.... Oops. Sorry. I got so excited that I fell off my soapbox.

Now I know we are all fond of ales and despise American megaswill lagers. We lament that ales were forced out of America by lagers. But we are comparing today's commercial lagers with the ales we make or microbrews. That switch would have been a tragedy, but a classic American Pilsner is a different beer entirely, and ales of 150 years ago were probably pretty rough.

We've always heard that corn and rice are nothing more than malt stretchers. American six-row barley malt is too high in protein to make stable beers, so corn was first used to dilute the protein. Cost cutting was a bonus that got out of hand. But 20% corn is a delightful flavor addition. Unfortunately, I know of no commercial examples that still exist with that corn and malt expression, especially with decent hopping levels.

The AHA guidelines are limiting on this. They allow a premium American lager to have a maximum of 23 IBU, and say nothing about corny DMS - this generally is considered a defect. (As a matter of fact, Fix relates judges who liked his beer but found it "far out of category.") But this flavor was expected, especially in mid-western beers. At the Ann Arbor Brewers' Guild meeting last week, this beer got rave reviews from all, including a number of highly ranked judges.

So here is the recipe for five gallons of "YOUR FATHER'S MUSTACHE," a Classic American Pilsner.

9 gallons moderately (temp.) hard well water boiled to soften and eliminate bicarbonate alkalinity, racked, treated with 2 t. CaCl2(2H2O), target 60 ppm Ca.
Grain bill:
7 lbs. American six row malt (80%)
1.75 lbs. flaked maize (20%)
Mash schedule:
Doughed in 8.5 qts. 58C water to get -->
50C protein rest, 30 min., (pH 5.5), then infused w/ 3 qts. boiling water to -->
60C sac. rest for 15 minutes, then boosted w/ burner to -->
70C sac. rest for 40 minutes, then boosted w/ burner to -->
76C mashoff for 10 min.
Lautered in insulated Zapap,
collected 7 gal. @ 1.041 for 32.8 p/p/g.
Note - Beautifully clear wort with minimum recirculation, easy sparge. This six-row is beautiful to work with.
Boil - 1 hr, beautiful hot break, like egg drop soup
Hopped to 25 IBU target:
25 g. Cluster hops pellets @7.5% - 1hr boil
1/4 oz. Styrian Goldings @5.2% - 10 min. boil plus settling steep - 15 min.
1/4 oz. Styrian Goldings @5.2% - 15 min. settling steep.
Counter current cooled to 64F, 4.75 gallons collected at 1.055, then diluted to 5.5 gallons at 1.048 in 7 gallon carboy, force chilled in snowbank to 50F. Pitched New Ulm yeast from bottom of 3 liter starter. Fermented @ 50F - 52F 12 days, racked, lagered seven weeks @ 33F, kegged, conditioned with 10 psi @ 38F, then dispensed at 42F-44F. The flavor showed best at mid 40sF and when drawn to give a good head and reduced carbonation. (Most beer shows best like this).

I hope I have encouraged some of you lager brewers to try this style. It is naked brewing, as Dan McConnell commented. There isn't any place to hide, so watch your techniques. Please let me know your results, and lobby for this to be a recognized style. I propose two divisions: Pre-prohibition, OG 1.150 - 1.060, 25 - 40 IBU; post prohibition, OG 1.044-1.049. 20 - 20 IBU. I suppose we could recognize rice rather than corn, but rice really is a flavor/body diluent. Fix says that modern American lagers grew out of pre-prohibition "Western Lager," a lower gravity, lower hopped, rice adjunct beer that was held in "low esteem" by Easterners.

Thanks to Martin Manning, Ed Westemeier and Lowell Hart for their ideas on what made the beer I remembered from the 50's, and George Fix and Ben Jankowski for their Brewing Techniques articles.