Pre-prohibition Pilsner Inspired Recipe - Brain Sparging on Brewing


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March 10, 2018

Pre-prohibition Pilsner Inspired Recipe

For some reason way back in 2014 I decided I really wanted to brew a pre-prohibition pilsner. What started as a simple recipe turned into a research project in which I tried to uncover some of the original pilsner recipes from local Fort Worth's only pre-prohibition brewery. After locating some information about the brewery I struggled to find recipes. Having failed to identify recipes, which were probably very simple anyway, I've shelved the research and just moved forward with brewing the recipe so I can clear it off my brewing to-do list. I will likely come back around and use the research notes on a separate post but for now let's just talk about this pre-prohibition pilsner inspired recipe.

Some thoughts on pre-prohibition pilsner and other beers

Pre-prohibition pilsner suffers the same fate as virtually all beers from that era. They are all treated as mild curiosities despite amounting to, in some cases, hundreds of years of North American brewing history. Meanwhile, brewers plumb the depths of European beer history looking for obscure styles and more ways to incorporate hype-earning nostalgia into beer marketing. 

It's actually easy to see why American pre-prohibition beer styles get so little love. Their history is dominated by the same industrial light lager brewers that squeeze craft beer out of the markets. They are also often considered "not real" versions of their German or English counterparts. Shiner Bock, for example, arises from early post-prohibition attempts to return to brewing pre-prohibition styles. Sure, it is not a good version of a German bock but it is a pretty good example of an American bock of the type worked out by eighteenth century brewers trying to emulate the German style. (And if you feel Americanized versions of these beers are inauthentic then you should feel the same about German pilsner as an inauthentic version of Czech pilsner.)

Additionally, the basis for many of these recipes arises from a need to work around available ingredients which is rarely a problem in today's brewing. Corn appears in many pre-prohibition recipes because it was available and helped cut the domestic barley supply, which often included protein-heavy six row, to create lighter beers. Some of the older recipes, particularly English derived recipes, contain all sorts of bizarre substitute ingredients. These types recipes aren't sexy and can be more of a pain to brew. Adding a cereal mash for adjuncts takes time that a straight malt-based pilsner doesn't need.

Nevertheless, we should not be so cavalier about throwing away this part of our brewing history. These beers were built out of the same ingenuity to make the best beer out of the available ingredients and equipment that led to the historical European beers that brewers crave emulating. Why can't a homebrewer or small craft brewery consider corn and other pre-prohibition ingredients? Not all of us have fallen spruce trees or chanterelle mushrooms in our backyard.

Designing this pre-prohibition pilsner inspired recipe

Having failed in my research I turned to taking a more liberal approach to designing my pilsner recipe. As usual I did not constrain myself to trying to brew a perfectly historical pilsner. Rather, I let historical sources guide my path with a fair amount of veering--hence calling it an inspired recipe and not a historical recipe. 

While many pre-prohibition pilsner recipes split their grain bill between six row pale malt and corn I opted for two row pale simply because it's what I had on hand. For corn I discovered my parents tried growing corn around the same time I started researching this project. They let me have quite a bit of their meager harvest which I froze to eventually make this beer. It's sweet corn rather than the starchier corn generally used in brewing. Because this corn is much softer than starchier varieties I opted not to mill it before the cereal mash. Instead I boiled it and then mashed it by hand with a meat tenderizer. I would use something less manual for a larger batch but on this one gallon homebrew recipe it wasn't much work.

Added the hand-mashed corn to the mash tun--the liquid from the cereal mash went into the rest of the hot liquor

Homebrew recipes for this style often insist Cluster is the only appropriate hop for the style. Authors advancing this position often rely on the contention that Cluster was the dominant native hop grown before prohibition therefore it must have been used in the style. While I am confident there were many pilsners using Cluster in whole or in part I find it difficult to believe all American brewers relied exclusively on this hop. Hops were imported from Europe and there undoubtedly was some planting of German and English hops on this side of the pond. I chose a hop somewhere in the middle of American fruitiness and German grassy/floral by selecting Mt. Hood. It's not like Cluster much at all but I don't like Cluster.

The water profile is the yellow bitter profile in Bru'n Water. It's not what I would normally use for a German or Czech pilsner but I wanted something a little closer to what local water is like after boiling. I want a little more sulfate and bicarbonate to give the hops a little more pop.

Pre-Prohibition Pilsner Inspired Recipe

Batch Size: 1 gallon
Est. ABV: 5.4%
Est. IBU: 36.5
Est. OG: 1.051
Est. FG: 1.010
Est. SRM: 3.3
Expected Efficiency: 72%
Grain BillPoundsOuncesSRMPct. Grist
Two row pale malt18277.70%
Sweet corn7122.30%
Water Profileppm
Modified Bru'n Water Yellow Bitter
PH: 5.33
Water AdditionsMashSparge
Epsom Salt0.3g00.2g
Canning Salt
Baking Soda
Calcium Chloride0.2g0.1g
Pickling Lime
Lactic Acid0.4ml
Mash ScheduleStep Temp.Step Time
Single decoction mash with cereal mash
Mash volume: 3.47 qt
Sparge volume: 0.62 gal
Infuse 1 quart with corn and boil 30 min21230
Add cereal mash to 2.47 qt mash water
Infuse mash with 3.47 qt total at 156F148F20
Decoct 0.50 qt and boil
Return decoction to raise mash156F40
Boil ScheduleVolumeUnitTimeIBU
60 minute boil
Mt. Hood [6%]0.25oz6028.3
Mt. Hood [6%]0.2oz108.2
Mt. Hood [6%]0.1oz00
Fermentation Schedule# DaysTemp.
Yeast: 34/70
Pitch half dry packet
Pitch at 62F1565
Lager at 35F335F

Brewday & Fermentation Notes

Brewed 2.22.18

First runnings: 1.054
Preboil gravity: 1.033
Preboil volume: 1.7 gal
Mash efficiency: 82%

Postboil gravity: 1.054
Postboil volume: 1 gal
Brewhouse efficiency: 76%

Lagered 3.10.18 to 33F for three days.

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