Serious Eats: Drinks
Homebrewing: How to Brew Pilsner
Crisp pilsner is the perfect summertime beer. Traditionally this medium-bodied style has a rich, grainy malt flavor that is complimented by a spicy and floral hop character. The dry finish should vanish on the tongue and leave you wanting more. Unfortunately, big breweries have changed the pilsner to be a boring and watered down representation of the original classic. But homebrewers can make this delicious lager to show their friends and family what a great, fresh pilsner can taste like.
Pilsner is a lager, which means it is fermented cold and goes through a cold storage phase before it is ready to serve. You will need to have a temperature controlled refrigerator if you want to brew this style of beer at home. If you haven't seen it already, check out my post on the basic steps of lagering before you try brewing a pilsner.
Two common types of pilsner are the German pilsner and the Bohemian pilsner. They primarily differ from each other in terms of the region the ingredients come from. The Bohemian pilsner is the older of the two styles, and its unique flavor is often attributed to the unusually soft local water.
The Grain Bill
More than almost any other style of beer, the varieties of grain used in a pilsner should be limited and simple. In fact, using 100% pilsner malt is the best way to go. Pilsner malt produced in Germany works well for all styles, but if you want to make a very traditional Bohemian pilsner you should try to find Moravian malt produced in the Czech Republic.
If you've never used pilsner malt in a homebrew recipe before, you might be surprised at the rich flavors that you get from this grain compared to the standard American 2-row. I like to taste a few of the kernels of grain before I add them to the mash, just to get an idea of where the different characteristics in the final beer come from.
When brewing with pilsner malt, I recommend boiling the wort for 90 minutes instead of the usual 60 minutes. Pilsner malt produces more dimethyl sulfide (DMS) than other grains, which contributes a cooked corn or vegetable flavor to the beer. Boiling for an extra 30 minutes with the lid off will drive away this unpleasant compound.
If you can't find pilsner malt of any kind, or if you are making an American-style pilsner, 6-row malt is a good substitute. The 6-row malt has more of a grainy flavor than 2-row, and it does a little better job of mimicking the character of the European malts.
Flowers and spice are the hop flavors we're looking for in a pilsner. Noble hops, with their low bitterness and complex aromas, should be used exclusively. I recommend using the same variety for bittering, flavor and aroma. When brewing a German style pilsner, Hallertau or Tettnanger are good hop varieties to use. If you are making a Bohemian style pilsner, then Saaz hops are the most traditional choice.
You can use any yeast labeled German, Czech or Pilsner lager yeast—they will all produce similar results. The real key to brewing a clean lager is to start with a very large quantity of yeast and having closely controlled fermentation temperatures. If you use a liquid yeast then I would recommend a 3 or 4 liter starter to get the best fermentation and flavor. Since such a large starter is usually impractical for most homebrewers, using 2 packages of dry lager yeast is an excellent low-cost alternative.
For most styles of beer made by homebrewers, tap water provides a pretty good tasting and cost effective option. The soft water used to brew traditional pilsners, however, produces a very soft hop flavor in contrast to water with higher carbonate levels. One of the easiest ways to soften your tap water is by simply combining it with distilled water from the grocery store. A 50/50 mix of tap and distilled water does a pretty good job replicating pilsner water without getting too complicated. You should never brew with 100% distilled water, however, since both the mash and fermentation require some of the natural minerals to do the job properly.