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Three Pint Stance - First-time home brewer questions, Vol. 3: Yeast-pitch and Chill

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And we are back to our longitudinal series “First-time home brewer questions!” In this edition, I give Mike the cold shoulder as I discuss the differences between Ale and Lager and what to keep in mind when brewing a lager at home! On to the good stuff…

MF: I try to homebrew a few beer batches a year, but want to try something different like a lager. Is the process much different?


3PS: Ahhhh, lager. A word that many people are familiar with, but that is often tossed around as a catch-all synonym to beer or ale. I can understand how the term gained this watered-down definition, as until the onset of the “craft beer revolution,” just about every commercially available beer in the US was in fact, a lager. Budweiser, Miller Lite, Narragansett, Schlitz, Schaffer, and even America’s oldest brewery Yuengling - all lagers.

To make a lager, you must first understand what lager means and what a lager is. Let’s handle the definition first. A lager is a beer that is brewed with a particular strain of yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus) that is both fermented and conditioned (stored) at low temperatures. There are many small differences between ale and lager, but the biggest, most glaring difference is this - lagers love cold temps!

If you have been to the homebrew store and done any kit shopping, or even put your own recipe together, and get to the part where you pick out a yeast, you will notice there are TONS of ale recipes and yeast strains to choose from and maybe only one or two lager yeasts and probably as many kits available. The truth of the matter is it is just harder to make a lager on a standard homebrew setup and most home brewers park themselves comfortably in the vast possibilities and relative ease of brewing ales. To be honest, a lot of commercial brewers do this too, because as Tom Bull of Dirigo Brewing Company in Biddeford (a brewery that SPECIALIZES in lager) says, “The most critical ingredients after raw ingredients are time and temperature, and the key to making good lager is treating time and temperature as essential components to the recipe.”

“Alright, Tim. You’ve lectured enough but answer the damn question? How do we make a lager at home?!” Cool your jets, reader! I suppose I could give you a direct answer like “Buy a mini-fridge and a secondary temperature controller and use that as your fermentation chamber so you can dial in your ferment and conditioning temps.” I could do that, and you could go that route and you would be well on your way to making crisp, delicious lagers at home.

Or, I could give you a short list of things to keep in mind, and you, intrepid home brewer, can use your wit and cunning to solve these problems and provide your beer the proper fermenting environment in a way that is unique to you!

Here is my “Making Lager at Home” cheat sheet:

  1. 1.    Start simple. Make a beer that isn’t too high in alcohol or too bulked up with dark/modified malts. Lager yeast can be fussy, so start out with simple recipes that provide your yeast with plenty of ready to ferment sugar.
  2. 2.    Ease into the cold. While it is important to keep your ferment temperature low, you may find that pitching (adding) yeast to a 55-degree wort leads to a very slow start to your ferment. Pitch around 65 degrees and once you begin to see activity, slowly bring the beer down into the high 50s. This can be achieved by pitching the yeast with the beer in a warm room and then moving the beer into the basement after 12-24 hours. Just keep an eye on the ambient room temperature and be on the lookout for signs of active fermentation.
  3. 3.    Be patient. Your beer may finish fermenting in about 4-6 days, but that does not at all mean you are ready to move on to bottling/kegging. As our friend Tom Bull said, Time is essential to the process, and the key to any good lager is an extended period of time hanging out near 35 degrees post-ferment. This can be for 2-6 weeks depending on the recipe, but you will know when the beer is ready by tasting it along the way. This extended aging will help smooth out some of the rougher flavors produced by the yeast during its fermentation and will give the beer time to clear up, or brighten.
  4. 4.    Don’t go crazy with hops. While IPL (India Pale Lagers) have become a thing recently, I implore you not to make a hopped-up lager as your first lager. Lagers are celebrated for their nuanced flavors, and a heavy hand with the hops will negate all the work you did to bring those nuanced flavors out from the malts and the yeast. Save the hops for your next ale brew day and keep the lager crisp!

My final piece of advice is this: chill out! Seriously, act like a lager and chill. Lots can go wrong when trying something for the first time in your brewery, but the best thing to do is relax and let the beer do its thing. If you can’t control the temp as much as you would like, don’t worry about it! You’ll still end up with something pretty tasty in the end. Don’t like the way it tastes after two weeks? Wait two more! Lagers develop a little more slowly than your average beer, but I think you’ll find they are always worth the wait!


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