New Home Brewers Shouldn’t Start With a Lager
- Thursday, 08 September 2016
If you’ve had your first brew day, your first beer was probably an extract kit, and that first beer was probably a Lager. Or maybe you took a look at our article on getting started in home brewing and you’re curious about what that first extract kit should be.
That first brew day is a lot of fun. Maybe it’s with friends, maybe it’s with family, but either way, it’s a day filled with anticipation. You follow some directions, mix up some ingredients, and take your first wort sample for later calculation of beer strength. Then you wait.
Next comes bottling day and it’s the first sample of your new creation. There’s still bottle conditioning to do, so the beer isn’t to its full potential yet, but it’s still pretty good. It’s pretty impression that a half decent beer can come out of an extract kit. And good job making something at least half drinkable on the first time out.
After conditioning, the fateful day has arrived and it’s finally time to try your new creation! It’s good, especially for a first try, but it’s not great. Here, many people drop off home brewing, as they can often buy something better. Others persevere and gradually become better and better home brewing.
But why isn’t that first home brew great? Extract brewing kits can make some very good beer, and they’re pretty much idiot proof. They generally won’t make the most mind blowing beer, but it’s better than “well, that’s pretty good for a first try.” Even on that first try.
The Problem Comes Down to Lager
The first extract brew is usually a lager. It’s what generally comes with home brewing kits, so most people don’t think twice. They just use what comes with the kit. Adding to that, it’s usually not the best extract out there. These things vary in quality.
The choice by home brew supply stores to include a Lager extract (and Lager yeast) in a lot of starter kits is a strange one. A Lager yeast needs lower fermentation temperatures than an Ale yeast, and a good Lager generally needs more conditioning time. A good Lager should be fermented below 20 degrees Celsius and then further conditioned at even lower temperatures before bottling. This treatment brings out the great crispness of a Lager and prevents the grassy flavours associated with beers that have been fermented at too high a temperature.
All of this requires temperature control.
Temperature control is something a novice home brewer isn’t going to be prepared to invest in, so why are they expected to make a Lager straight out of the gate?
A Brief Interlude on Temperature Control
We use temperature control in all of our home brewing. This is simply an old fridge hooked up to a STC-1000 that turns the refrigerator on when things need to get cooler, or turns a heating element on if things need to get warmer. We don’t have a sophisticated home brew set up, but it works. Temperature control is one of the most important and sophisticated elements of our at home brewing routine.
It’s an investment though. Both in money and space. Not everybody has the space for a second fridge, nor does everybody want to invest the time or money in purchasing a second fridge. Yes, it’s easy to get a cheap (or even free) second hand fridge. But this takes time.
We didn’t start home brewing with this level of equipment. Almost nobody does.
This type of equipment is almost mandatory to make a half decent Lager, so why on earth should new home brewers be encouraged to make a style of beer that needs expensive, bulky, and somewhat complicated equipment. The whole idea of the first brew day is that it’s simple and fun. Trying to wrap one’s head around the nuances of proper fermentation temperatures is fun that should be reserved for later.
Lagers Are Hard
It’s true that a Lager is more difficult to make than an Ale style. As simple Lager styles are often lighter in hops, malt, body, and flavour, there’s very little to hide behind in the event that a mistake is made. Mistakes that novices will inevitably make as they’re learning about the art of brewing beer.
Sure, starting with a big and bold Stout is probably not the best way to encourage home brewing. After all, getting interested into home brewing often comes in tandem with a general interest in beer, and, while a Stouts aren’t necessarily the most challenging beer to drink, for people starting out on their craft beer journey, they may be less interested in making three slabs of it. Even if the full flavour of the beer will help to hide any imperfections.
But a standard Pale Ale will help to hide most minor mistakes that may be made on someone’s first round of home brewing. Hop forward Pale Ales are the popular variety these days, and the hops of this style will help to disguise any off flavours that are present. Sure, hops aren’t for everybody, but a maltier Pale Ale will still hide things.
Adding to this, Ale yeasts are often happy to be fermented at temperatures in a range of 20-30 degrees Celsius, the typical temperature of most people’s houses. So why not cater to this?
A good Lager has many nuances and subtleties that are hard to get right. This is a style best reserved for those who have a bit of experience.
If You’re Making Your First Beer, Go With an Ale
An Ale will simply be a better beer for the first try. It’s easier to get right, there’s less conditioning needed to really bring out the flavour, and it will be just as easy to drink and friends will enjoy it just as much, perhaps more.
Even those who prefer macro-brewed Lagers enjoy a Pale Ale from time to time, as larger breweries are trying to appeal to more varied tastes and are brewing for these tastes and a bigger market. So friends and family should still enjoy a Pale Ale made at home, even if the new home brewer is a novice beer drinker, as are there friends.
There are plenty of great Pale Ale extract kits out there. Often, especially for a simple first brew, it can be simple enough to just swap out a Lager yeast for an Ale yeast. If the home brew store won’t do this, just buy some extra yeast. Even a half decent one isn’t too expensive. It’s well worth it.
Go Ale on the first brew day. It’s the way to go.