Don’t Be Afraid of the Light: The Wisdom of a Perfect Pilsner
If you love the ubiquity of the crisp, refreshing pale lager, never more than a pop-top’s distance away from Springfield or the Serengeti, you can thank the brewers of Pilsen, who, in 1842, created what would go on to become the world’s most popular beer style. If, on the other hand, you hate the tongue-numbing blandness that characterizes most of the tin-can lagers, well, technically the idea started in Pilsen, but I think the blame lies in the ranks of the dreaded brewery accountants.
The real pilsner, fresh from the tanks, is pure delight, and for the homebrewer, it’s a challenge of one’s skills, senses, and attention to detail.
A pilsner is simplicity itself. One kind of malt, one kind of hops, pure water. Nothing to hide behind—an “itsy bitsy teeny weeny bikini,” as far as showing off the kind of faults and foibles that a rowdy amber ale wrapped in Crystal and Cascade will conceal completely. It’s a terrifying thought, this nakedness, and a pilsner scares brewers more than it should.
Pilsner is brewed in a wide range of “interpretations,” most with little resemblance to the golden nectar of Pilsen. The best Czech versions have a burnished golden color, a soft maltiness, and just a hint of creamy caramel. Balancing that is the crisp, minty or herbal character of Saaz hops, with no trace of rough or resiny flavors, despite considerable bitterness.
Here are a few thoughts on what’s important and what’s not.
Use the best—and appropriate—ingredients.
Pilsner malt from Europe, preferably from the Moravia region of the Czech Republic itself, is a must. Currently, both the traditional, under-modified as well as the more modern, easier-to-use type are available in the homebrew market. Saaz hops have a unique aroma, although the US-grown Ultra variety is very similar and quite suitable.
I believe that whole hops have a cleaner flavor despite not keeping as well as pellets. The pelletizing process smashes the plant’s cells, spilling some green, chlorophyll-like flavors into the beers. I saw with my own eyes a dolly in the Plzensky Prazdroj brewery loaded with bags of high-alpha pellets and cans of hop extract, but don’t be tempted to use anything else but Saaz or Ultra.
Water is also a key element.
This not just as marketing fodder, either. Pilsen’s water is the softest in the brewing world, with very little minerals of any kind. The lack of alkalinity means the hop bitterness is superbly clean and crisp, with none of the raspy aftertaste that accompanies bitter beers made with harder water. Most of us need to use distilled water to be authentic, which I believe is the point of all of this. For those of you scientifically treating your water, the PPM levels of all the common water minerals of Pilsen water is in the mid to high single digits.
Mashing plays a role in flavor development.
The traditional pilsen mash is diabolically complicated, the most complex of any of the historical lager mash schedules. It’s a triple decoction: three times a portion is removed, boiled, and added back to the mash to increase its temperature. This process developed early on, as a way of increasing the heat while using a wooden vessel, a much smaller kettle being required for the decocted portion (1/3 of the mash). The 22-step mashing sequence was also needed to deal with the old under-modified malt, which needed much more vigorous cooking to unleash all its sugar content, and to reduce the larger proteins so they would not create haze in the beer later on. If you decide to use the under-modified Moravian malt, you will need to read up on the triple-mash decoction procedure and follow it—a brew day to remember, for sure.
The other thing that happens in a decoction is some caramelization of the wort and grain while it is being boiled. This is a crucial element in old-time pilsners, and is a reason you may want to include at least one decoction in your process. Simply take a thick third of your mash out during the protein rest, raise it to boiling over about half an hour, boil for 15 minutes, stirring to prevent scorching, and then add it back. This should just about get you to saccharification temperature.
Another method that might develop similar flavors is to take a quart or two of the first runoff, and boil it briskly until it is reduced to a syrup and begins to darken, just slightly. This technique can also be used with extract beers.
Cold fermentation is important.
You can make a very nice beer by following all my guidelines here, then fermenting with an altbier yeast at coolish temperatures, but it won’t exactly be a pilsner. To get the real stuff, you really need a method of controlling fermentation temperature to use lager yeast to its best advantage. Primary fermentation should be about 50 degrees F; secondary should be in the 35 to 40 degree F range. Depending on the yeast, a couple of days of elevated (50 degree) temperatures late in the lagering may be needed to reduce the buttery diacetyl that sometimes rears its head. Authentic Czech yeasts that produce the characteristic dry, soft maltiness are available from both the liquid yeast suppliers, and this is the place to start.
Freshness is supreme.
If you’re attempting to make an extract version, the freshness of your extract is of supreme importance. Liquid extract ages quite rapidly, producing thin, cardboard-like or even “ballpoint pen” aromas, and it definitely gets darker as time passes. Dry malt extract may be a better choice as it is more stable. If you have doubts, ask your supplier. They’ll know.
Okay, enough preaching. Let’s have a recipe.
Randy Mosher is a freelance art and creative director, lecturer, and author of numerous books and articles on beer and brewing.