Lager Follies, Part 1

A homebrewer’s journal, by John Kleinchester

Homebrewing is an ever-evolving adventure. Sometimes you brew amazingly awesome beer. Sometimes you get stuck in a rut and want to walk away for a while. And sometimes you need to traverse a road that not only have you never been down before, but seems like an uphill battle from the start. The road I decided to embark upon for the first time was the fantastical world of lager brewing.

I’ve been wanting to brew a lager for a few years now but it’s only recently that I’ve acquired the chest freezer that would allow me to do it. My chest freezer is definitely the best investment I’ve made so far into this increasingly expensive hobby, but I would argue that the quality of my brews has absolutely improved since being able to strictly control the temperature of fermentation. Before the chest freezer I was sticking my fermenters in the closet and hoping for the best.

In all honesty, I was totally intimidated by lager brewing. I’ve been happily working with top-fermenting yeast cells for a long time now… what’s this bottom-fermenting stuff? It’s like playing tennis for years and suddenly being handed a ping pong paddle to play with. How do I do this? I spent hours upon hours researching methods and recipes, looking at the different techniques of crafting a fine lager. But that didn’t stop the intimidation factor.

I based my recipe on a lager that my homebrewing buddy Jeff had recently made and turned out deliciously, so I was pretty confident there. I even planned out a starter since lager yeast is notoriously finicky and needs a large pitch in order to get going. Jeff and I keep a ridiculously detailed google doc of every recipe we’ve ever brewed and under the notes for this brew I actually started listing the reasons why this was could fail before I was even done brewing. It was a note for myself, but I figured this would be the appropriate place to share:

Let’s list the reasons this could go horribly wrong, shall we?

1. The 2 packets of 2308 Munich Lager were marked Sept 2012 and Nov 2012. Generally speaking, it’s best to use Wyeast within 6 months of production. These spent all that time in the fridge, but still, even the newer one is 2 months older than it should be.

2. The two starters I made the night before showed zero sign of activity overnight. Not sure if that’s a result of the old yeast or what. I left them out overnight and then stuck them into the chest freezer in the morning so they’d be the same temp as fermentation.

3. I decided to brew inside because it was so hot, but forgot that I factored in the 1.5 gallons of  boil off from the propane burner. The stove seems to barely have a boil going at all. Going into the fermenter, it was about 5.5 gallons. When I added the two starters it was more like 6.25 gallons!

4. The grist on the grain mill seems to be too fine. It’s definitely doing more than just cracking the grain. I should look into adjusting this.

5. Just as an added kicker, the stir bar that was in one of the starters went into the fermenter because I forgot it was in there. Yeesh.

So guess what? A week has gone by since brewing and I could not detect any activity at all. Thinking/hoping that it was just my unfamiliarity with lager yeast, I decided to take a gravity reading only to discover that it was the same as my O.G. Uh oh. So that means NOTHING has happened yet. I tried not to panic as I quickly googled around for questions, answers, anything that would calm my fears. As it turns out there were quite a few people out there who experienced the same thing I was. My stress subsided (for the time being) and I decided there wasn’t much I could do at the moment; I was leaving for a few days of vacation so it will have to wait until I return. If there still has been no activity, then I’m going to pick up some new fresh yeast from the local homebrew shop and hope that will generate enough activity to kickstart fermentation. Otherwise, my drain will be chugging this one.

Here’s to hoping for good news in Part 2…

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