I had the pleasure of participating in the Pilsner Urquell Master Homebrewer Competition last night. The competition guidelines were pretty simple; brew a Bohemian Pilsner (also known as a Czech Pils or Bo Pils) as close to style as possible and then provide a few bottles for judging. The grand prize winner gets a trip to Plzen, Prague to brew a batch of Pilsner Urquell. I won’t keep you in suspense, I didn’t win, but I did have a great time brewing and learning about the Czech Pilsner style. Here are the NY 2012 winner:
1st Place – William Pozniak
2nd Place – Philip Jensen
3rd Place – Alistair Hewitt
I knew that I would need a very specific type of yeast to brew a Bo Pils. This brew was a perfect candidate to split ten gallons into two carboys and pitch different strains to have some options for entering. After much deliberation I chose to use the two Pilsner Urquell strains that Wyeast offers, 2278 Czech Pils and 2001 Urquell Lager. The yeast character in this style is subtle, but more present than most other lager styles in my opinion. Slight yeast fruitiness and a noticeable level of diacetyl are signatures of a true Bo Pils.
I could only get a hold of one packet of the Wyeast 2278 Czech Pils (despite working at a homebrew shop) so I had to do a step starter. To make a normal yeast starter you first mix extra light dry barley malt extract (DME) with water in a 1:10 ratio. For example, I’ll often make a 1 liter starter so I’ll mix 100 grams of DME with 1000 mL water in 2L erlenmeyer flask. I’ll throw in a stirbar, a pinch of Wyeast nutrient, and a few drops of fermcap to prevent boilovers and boil the whole thing for 15 minutes. I then quickly transfer the flask to an ice bath and chill down to 65-75°F. Then I’ll position the stirbar in the center of the flask and put it on the stirplate for 12-24 hours. If I do this far enough in advance and the yeast starter is complete before my brew day, I put it in the fridge and allow the cold temperature to drop the yeast out of suspension. The big difference in a stepped starter is that you do the whole process twice, doing the second starter after the first has be cold crashed and the cleared starter liquid is decanted from the yeast slurry.
Once I had the yeast ready, I set out on the brew day. What makes a Bo Pils so different is that it’s highly hopped with traditional noble hop varieties (most often Czech Saaz) and the soft water profile of Plzen allows high levels of noble hop bitterness without a harsh lingering aftertaste. Lucky for New York City homebrewers, we are blessed with unusually soft water that makes brewing pilsners and other light beers very easy. I did end up cutting my sparge water with four gallons of distilled water to make it even softer so I could hop burst it with tons of hops at the end of the boil.
One slipup I had was that I fermented slightly too warm by starting fermentation at 50F. The ideal range for 2278 is 50-58F and for 2001 48-56F and even though I was in the low range, most brewers start fermentations in the low 40s. My beers had just a bit too much fruitiness from the yeast, especially the 2001 which threw off some banana, pear, and bubblegum like esters. I also think I could have hit it with more hops, and it would have helped to chill down the wort much faster to trap that late hop aroma. I brewed during the summertime and the ground water was only coming out around 62F, so chilling took longer than expected.
I did a lot of research by purchasing any and all examples of Czech Pilsners I came across. I even did a tasting at Brooklyn Homebrew with all of them to help me choose which strain to enter, but it eventually came down to me tasting my two homebrews along side a bottle of Pilsner Urquell thirty minutes before I had to drop them off and pulling my hair out with frustration. I ended up going with the 2278 because it seemed more crisp and dry compared to the subtle fruit character and roundness of the 2001. I was also happy to learn that I do enjoy this particular style and would love to put my stamp on a version (rather than cloning Pilsner Urquell) sometime in the future.
Recipe after the jump.