Brewing Continental-Style Lagers: Tips From the Pros

Continental-style lagers are one of the most challenging styles of beers for homebrewers to master. One of the key elements is the malt profile — layering in malted complexity, while melding those flavors seemlessly with the hops, water, and yeast. To help us better understand the intricacies of how malts factor into these styles, we talked to two masters in the art of layering in nuanced complexity.

Josh Pfriem is the Brewmaster and Co-Founder of pFriem Family Brewers in Hood River, Oregon

The base malt for continental-style lagers is critical to the outcome of the beer. When we brew an IPA we are looking at combining 2–4 hop profiles to create a flavor profile, it is the same for malt with lagers. When brewing a beer like a helles, the main flavors you are trying to achieve are the balance between malt, fermentation, conditioning, and a touch of hops. We have found combining three different base malts for this beer to be beneficial. This allows opportunity to drive strong flavors or soften flavors. The key is to strike a balance between flavor and drinkability.

Sensory technique for testing malts is an underappreciated art. We recently started using ASBC Hot Steep Malt Sensory Evaluation Method: (You can view a version of this sensory evaluation in the July/August 2018 “Techniques” column “Sensory Methods” as well.)

You have to be very careful and intentional with specialty malts when it comes to continental-style lagers. A little goes a long way. In light color beers we use very little to none. In beers like dunkel, Märzen, and Vienna lager, specialty malts are needed to create the desired colors and flavors. We tend to lean towards the German maltsters for these delicate flavors. I won’t give you specifics of which we prefer, but rather point you back to the sensory evaluation method mentioned earlier and say, “Give it a try!”

Base malt spec sheets are not often referenced at the homebrew level. But if you can obtain one for your next bag (s) of base malt, there are few elements you should be looking for:

Friability — A measure of modification and homogeneity. Given as % friability. Low friability may lead to a higher viscosity and poor lauter performance.

Color — Lower color may have a higher dimethyl sulfide (DMS) potential as well as higher LOX enzyme problems. Longer boils can help alleviate these problems though.

Total protein — Higher protein can result in lower extract. If protein is too low then FAN (free amino nitrogen) might be compromised.

FAN — Low FAN is a sign of poor protein modification. If FAN is below 200 ppm then yeast nutrient should be used to supplement.

Our approach to brewing lagers will also vary depending on the specific style of lager we are brewing. We vary our mash profile based on the base malts and style of beer. We have found our ramp time and temperature between the mash steps can increase malt complexity.

For example our Mexican lager is a single infusion while our Oktoberfest is a multi-step mash with long temperature ramps. Playing around with different elements from the grist profile to the mash procedure keeps things interesting. Don’t get locked into one way of approaching a beer style and continental-style lagers are definitely no exception.

Matt Brynildson is the Brewmaster at Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, California

When we developed Pivo and later formulated the rebirth of Firestone Lager, we really wanted to differentiate these lager beers from our North American pale malt-based ale line-up. Having spent a good amount of time tasting beers in Europe, specifically Germany, it became clear that the Pilsner malts produced there create a subtle yet different flavor and character than the North American malts we were familiar with. I have a distinct memory of how different the mash and the wort smelled when visiting a Pilsner brewery in Germany for the first time and that European malt character made an impression on me that I will never forget. That difference in character is in-part derived from the barley varieties grown as well as the way that they are malted, typically focusing on low color and an enzyme package built for all malt beer. To put it in simple terms, we were trying to emulate the flavor, texture and weight of German lager beers, so we sourced the raw materials from reputable German sources. That started with talking to brewers in Europe and asking which malts they liked best. That led us first to quality maltsters like Weyermann and later to other European malt producers like Best.

There are a few things that we do to evaluate incoming malt. We like to chew malts. I often say that if any raw material doesn’t taste or smell good in its raw form, it likely isn’t going to make good beer. You should do this with a reference base malt sample to observe the differences. We also evaluated malts using laboratory scale techniques for making a consistent and representative wort or teas. There are more involved methods like the ASBC Congress Mash but there is also a simple and effective ASBC Hot Steep Method. Most importantly, we have a well-developed sensory program for finished beer which has been a key in guiding our recipe development decisions.

I believe the best continental-style lagers and Pilsners have little or no specialty malt. Brewers need to remember that people drink with their eyes first and these beers need to be bright and light in color. A cara-malt or even a perceivable toasted malt character is out of place in my book. Grainy cereal notes can be perceived as well as bready notes. Keep the recipe simple and focus on perfecting your yeast management and fermentation program. The best lager beers are simple recipes with perfect fermentations, good attenuation and low perceivable sulfur. We have used a small amount of foam positive specialty malts to improve foam characteristics like Carafoam®, but keep it in check.

Making sure you’re looking for malts with low color (1.8-2.0 °L) and low protein (9.5-10.5%). Diastatic power does not need to be through the roof. Remember that North American malts have evolved to cater to high-adjunct American industrial lager brewing. You don’t require that kind of enzyme package for all malt traditional beers. Taking your time in the mash program to insure that you have created a wort that can be well attenuated.

We practice a traditional step infusion method when brewing these beers. I like to start with a short 5 min protein rest (122 °F / 50 °C), step up to one or even two separate scarification rests taking advantage of beta activity (148 °F / 64.5 °C) checking for full scarification via iodine test and add a mash off step (169 °F / 76 °C) to arrest enzymatic activity. We utilize an advanced steep conditioning mill that keep the husk in-tact and results in lower polyphenol extraction. Most brewers are dry milling, so I would recommend to pay attention to your grist profile and try not to shred the husks and don’t over sparge. Test the pH of your last runnings and don’t collect wort that is above 6 pH (in fact you should need to collect wort above 5.8 pH.) Taste your wort and make sure that it is free of off flavors and as clear as possible. Attention to detail is the best advice I can give. Do your homework and take care of your yeast.

Issue: January-February 2019