How Long Should We Age Lager, Brewers?


Time in A Bottle

This is a follow-up to my post of yesterday discussing Horlacher Brewery’s Perfection Nine Month Old Lager, introduced in the immediate pre-craft brewing era (1976-1978).

Wahl & Henius’s American Handy Book Of The Brewing [etc.] Trades (1902), at pp 758-759, reviews ageing of beer. The authors set no fixed period but refer to the benefits as increased clarity due to settling of yeast and proteins and increased stability especially where beer is to be pasteurized. This last reference means, IMO, that beer is less likely to cloud and spoil after pasteurization if it was permitted to age long enough first.

Early articles in brewing literature attest to pasteurization sometimes making beer cloudy and liable to oxidize (oh irony): I have experienced this myself with at least one well-known American beer although recent bottlings are better and the problem presumably licked.

Wahl & Henius also state that “chips”, e.g., the beechwood chip aging method Budweiser has always used, permit shorter lagering. Other writers have said it too and it is because the chips afford a greater surface area for yeast contact with the beer. This emulates to a degree the effect of the yeast over a longer period, permitting the beer to ferment out and become “cleaner”.

Wahl & Henius also confirm what lager brewers had noticed many years earlier, that long aging reduces hop bitterness. This was also noticed by brewers in England for ales and porter long-stored.

Now let’s go to 2016. In this link, a brewer from AB InBev takes questions from readers. He referred to advances in yeast understanding and materials which 1800s brewers hadn’t known. He states:

When I homebrew a lager, I generally ferment at 52-54F to target gravity, diacetyl rest at 60F (3-5 days typically), and lager at 34F. I’ve been able to make very good lagers in 3.5 weeks with this method.

This absolutely requires that you have good temp. control if you’re homebrewing – repurposing an old fridge to serve as a fermentation and lagering cellar is a good way to do this.

Trying to parse his method, if he fermented in 7 days we allow three for the diacetyl rest, he was lagering only 10-12 days.

One of the posters linked another homebrewers discussion from earlier this year where a detailed description was given of similarly short method. The comments there are very interesting, too.  Basically it was suggested excellent results were obtained although one reader who tried the method said the beer wasn’t as clean as it could be.

Some points which stood out for me: In the early days, to attain “CO2 saturation”, long lagering was necessary. Today this can be achieved through force-carbonation as I said yesterday, and also krausening or bottle-conditioning (not usual for lager but sometimes done).

There is also the importance of yeast strain. Some bottom yeasts will produce clean beer – no off-tastes – at higher temperatures than others. It’s always a question of producing to the limit of a yeast’s ability in this sense. The higher the temperature, the faster the fermentation and more quickly the beer can go from grain to glass.

Higher temperatures are more efficient, but it is important not to pass the point where off-tastes result from stressed yeast. In this regard, starting gravity is important too, too high and a faster fermentation may create off-flavours.

There are trade-offs, but if you can increase temperature and save on storage time and overall energy while preserving good taste, why keep the beer for longer?

The point also came out that lagering for “too long” can produce off-flavours, which Wahl & Henius suggest as well by reference to the danger of bacterial contamination.

The list of bacteria is formidable, lactic and enteric types are just the start of it, and that doesn’t account for wild yeasts. One can see that in a former time with wooden vessels and non-sterile plants, the risk was probably greater than today.

I wrote earlier that Schaefer Brewery in New York tried to re-introduce beer aged 7 months in the 1870s. Drinkers rejected it because it was too sour. This probably is an example of what the brewers of 1902 and today were concerned about.

I took it from the discussions that today, typical lagering time for American adjunct lager is about three weeks, probably less in some cases, with grain to glass in approximately one month. Homebrewers traditionally have gone higher, five-six weeks lagering, but as mentioned above some get good results in a commercial time frame.

Some craft breweries add extra weeks for lagering. An example is Anchor Brewing’s California Lager, aged 28 days in secondary fermentation (see its website). Adding primary fermentation and the racking and packaging phase, total production time is probably about six weeks. Anchor’s Steam Beer, a lager fermented relatively warm, is stored in secondary in 10 days.

Yet even a full month’s aging is much less than for Horlacher Perfection in 1976 and what American and German brewers typically did c. 1850.

I would love to have tasted the Horlacher beer. Produced in the period it was, one can be certain it wasn’t lactic or otherwise off-tasting. How did it compare to a similar beer packaged at four weeks, or two months?  Were the extra 10-11 months a waste of time? Were they actually counter-productive? Only a taste test could tell. Written opinions are great but the final proof is one’s own palate.

Craft brewers: put away a batch of pale lager at 5% abv, perhaps hopped a little more than you normally do, keep it near freezing for 9 months and let’s see. Sam Adams Boston Lager would be a good beer to try this with given its mid-1800s heritage and firm hopping.

Finally, you can lager beer yourself, I once tried this with the Keller version of Creemore Lager given the residual yeast content. I wasn’t sure if the yeast count was high enough, but tried it anyway. Isn’t a small can just like a closed fermenting tank?  I didn’t wait nine months but rather five or six.

The beer was very good I thought, cleaner than regular Creemore. I need to try it again and more methodically, e.g., taste it against a fresh can.

Note re draft: The image shown is from the former Gerke Brewery in Cincinnati, OH, part of the impressive vaulted lagering cellars (later-1800s era). It was obtained from the website of the Master Brewers Association of Americahere.  Image is property of its lawful owner or duly authorized licensees. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.