What if pils, but West Coast?
My personal on-ramp to craft beer came in the form of Spaten Optimator, a fairly traditional (and, yes, not technically “craft”) doppelbock. Other friends who got into beer at the same time cite stuff like Sierra Nevada Stout and Chimay Grande Reserve.
I feel like—at least back in the ’90s and early ’00s—this was fairly common. Stouts, porters, and even big Belgian beers were approachable for non-beer drinkers. Chocolate, coffee, dark fruit, and other dessert-y flavors are easy to get on board with. Today a lot of people are coming into the fold via IPAs, which is mindblowing to me. NEIPA’s focus on citrus and soft mouthfeel definitely makes onboarding a little easier, though.
Since I wasn’t a typical college drinker—no beer pong for me—it took me way too long to get around to appreciating pale beer. I drank the occasional Yuengling Lager at parties, but when I was scoping craft 6-packs at the local supermarket, pilsners weren’t on my radar. But like any aficionado, my tastes have evolved over time. Today, I can’t name a style I don’t appreciate (though if I had to choose one style to shoot into the sun, it would probably be hefeweizens).
Fads in craft brewing are cyclical. One year, barrel-aged stouts are in. The next, it’s all about kettle sours. Then it’s on to NEIPA and “craft lager.” Sometime in the last couple years, a mini-wave developed for hoppy pilsners, and a ripple off of that wave was the “West Coast” or “SoCal” pilsner. It’s a sub-style best exemplified in my mind by Highland Park Brewery‘s Timbo Pils, Goodie Pils, and Eddie Pils.
Think of them as amped up takes on the Italian pilsner, which is itself just a dry-hopped Czech or German pilsner. The main difference is that West Coast pilsners use waaaay more hops, and usually the kind of hops you’d find in a modern IPA: Mosaic, Citra, Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, and so on. They’re usually unfiltered, and come in somewhere between about 4.7% and 6%.
Despite my newfound respect for lagers, I’ve never made one at home. (I did use lager yeast in my attempt to clone John Courage Amber Lager for Allison’s dad, but I fermented it at ale temps.) Since I’d recently picked up a keezer but wasn’t ready to start kegging yet, I decided to use it as a fermentation chamber and take a stab at making my own West Coast pils.
What’s in it?
- Method: BIAB, no sparge
- Batch size: 3.5 gallons
- Mash: 60 minutes @ 154F
- Boil: 90 minutes
- OG: Either 1.053 (refractometer) or 1.058 (hydrometer)
- FG: 1.013
- ABV: Somewhere between 5.3% and 5.9%
- IBU: ~35
- Efficiency: 84% or so?
- 6 lbs Pilsner (Best Malz)
- 42g (1.5 oz.) Mosaic cryo [24.1% AA] @ FO
- 28.3g (1 oz.) Mosaic cryo @ dry hop (3 days)
- Yeast: Saflager W-34/70 (1.5 packs, eventually, mostly rehydrated)
- Water: Distilled/RO + 2.2g Gypsum, 1g CaCl2, & 0.5tsp lactic acid
- Etc: Per HPB’s instructions, I aimed for a slightly lower post-boil volume (~2.8 gal), then topped up with bottled distilled water at FO to reach my fermenter volume.
How’d it go?
I didn’t want this to be a total stab in the dark, so I sent an email to Highland Park Brewery asking for tips. A few days later, I got a reply from owner/brewmaster Bob Kunz’s wife (Tiff), who pointed me to a recent article Bob published at Craft Beer & Brewing. It provided most of the basic info I needed, though I did follow up to clarify a few points. Tiff and Bob were great!
PSA: Never be afraid to reach out to brewers! The worst they can do is say no or ignore your requests for help, but most often they’re eager to share info. Many of them were homebrewers before they opened their breweries, after all.
Bob’s instructions were for 5 gallons, and specified that you should collect only 4.5 gallons pre-boil, boil down to 4 gallons, and and then top up with distilled (or otherwise sterilized) water at knock-out to reduce the temp and get the wort out of the range where DMS precursors can redevelop. Since I was brewing a 3.5 gallon batch, I shot for 2.8 gallons out of the boil and topped up with 0.7 gallons.
I also deviated a little from HPB’s mash instructions, which were to mash for 45 minutes at 155F. Unfortunately, the Robobrew isn’t quite that precise and my options are 154F and 156F. (Nevermind that that temp measurement is only accurate at the bottom of the kettle.) I opted for 154F and frequent stirring to stabilize the mash temp. I also decided to mash for a full hour just to ensure complete conversion. This was a success: even without sparging (and with a pretty angry squeeze of the grain bag) my pre-boil SG was 1.048, or 4 points above BeerSmith’s estimate for the recipe.
I got the wort to boiling, set a timer for 90 minutes, and took the dog for a walk. When I came back 45 minutes later, I could immediately tell something was amiss. There definitely wasn’t enough steam billowing out of the kettle, a cursory glance confirmed that my wort wasn’t boiling anymore, and there was a smell of burnt electronics in the air. The Robobrew control panel read 199F, and the 1000W switch was dead. Shit.
Since I don’t have a kettle large enough for the entire boil, I had to split the wort out of the Robobrew into two smaller pots and finish the boil on my gas stove. Just before knock-out, I added the 0.7 gallons of distilled water and 42g of Mosaic cryo to the empty Robobrew kettle, then poured both pots of wort on top of that and lugged the machine outside to chill with my immersion chiller. The Robobrew control panel showed that the room temp distilled water had indeed lowered the wort temp to around 190F. After 20 minutes of chilling, the wort was at 65F and I transferred it to my Brew Bucket to finish chilling in my keezer.
In the end, I guess it all worked out fine. My OG was above target: According to my refractometer, I hit 13.2 Brix, or 1.053. A hydrometer reading I took was closer to 1.058, so I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. (Excessive hop debris in the hydrometer sample may have skewed the reading.)
I’ve since done a lot of reading about the Robobrew and it appears that many users have encountered similar issues with their units. Lucky for them, suppliers like MoreBeer have been very supportive with warranty replacements. Unfortunately, since I got mine under mysterious circumstances (it just showed up on my doorstep one day), I can’t get warranty service. So I opened my machine up and started sleuthing. First, I swapped the power leads for the 1000W and 500W switches. Result? The 1000W switch lit up and I was able to get to a mild rolling boil with a few gallons of water. However, the 500W element didn’t work at all. Diagnosis? A power relay on the board burned out. Solution? Ordered a new board ($35 shipped via Brewer Dude). Hopefully that fixes it.
But back to the brew day: After chilling the wort down to ~58F in the keezer, I pitched a single packet of rehydrated Saflager W-34/70 (Weihenstephaner). Fermentation at 55F was slow to kick off. Like, really slow—four days later, there was still no airlock activity. A gravity reading showed it had dropped a whopping 4 points. I rushed to my LHBS and grabbed another packet, sprinkling half of it directly on top of the wort (which, it should be noted, had developed a bit of a krausen at that point). By the next morning, it was down to 1.026. Much better. By the sixth day, it was down to 1.013 and at FG.
After a few days’ diacetyl rest (at about 65F), I added the dry hops and let it sit for another few days at ale temps. On the 12th day, I started cold crashing to 35F, and on the 16th day I kegged it. (My first kegged beer! Hooray!)
In case you’re curious, I kegged the beer like so: First, I filled the keg with a Star San solution, then used CO2 to push it out through the beer line. Once the keg was empty (and full of CO2), I used a ball lock connector and length of transfer tubing to gravity transfer the beer directly from primary and into the keg, pulling the pressure release valve to keep it flowing. Miraculously, the keg post didn’t clog, even with all those hops. Credit to the cryo, I suppose.
Once it was kegged, I set my shiny new-old keezer to 42F and started carbing at 15psi. I opted for the set-and-forget method this time.
How’s it taste?
After a couple weeks spent carbing up at lager temps, it’s tasting pretty damn good and not far off from what I can recall of Timbo and his pals.
Appearance: Super pale—in my keezer’s beer lines, it looks like water. In the glass it’s a faint gold with a fluffy head that sticks around for a while and plenty of lacing on the glass. In other words, it looks like a beer made with 100% pilsner malt really ought to look.
Aroma: The initial blast is light malt and an almost candy-like berry-forward hop aroma, along with the faintest wet dog smell. I’m not sure if that’s from the Mosaic or the yeast, or something else. It’s something I’d like to work on for next time. As the beer warms, the berry notes come out more. It’s delightful.
Taste: This is 100% a pilsner, but damn it’s a bitter one. With the clean lager yeast (and without any crystal or adjuncts to hide behind) the pleasantly grainy character of the base malt shines through in the finish. The hops are what you’d expect from Mosaic: bright berry up front that slides into a more conventional “hoppy” character and then a slight green pepper thing the longer it lingers. And yeah, it’s very hoppy. Especially on the back of the tongue. After a couple weeks conditioning in the keg, the back-of-tongue bitterness is diminishing, though, and the malt sweetness is coming to the fore. Good things come to those who wait.
Mouthfeel: I feel like the hop bite is much more apparent in mine than it was in HPB’s, which (in my memory, at least) had a rounder, more pillowy mouthfeel that softened the lupulin hit. Next time around, I might go 1:1 on the gypsum and calcium chloride additions and/or shift more of the hops to the dry hop to make it more pils-like and less session IPA-y.
Overall, with a few tweaks this could be a beer I’d drink year-round.
Would I brew it again?
Yeah, I’d definitely brew it again. I’m already dreaming up the next batch—I’m thinking Wakatu at FO and Ella in the dry hop, maybe.