Brew Comp Prep - An In-Depth Look at 2 Classic Styles

ale, altbier, competition, german, lager -

Brew Comp Prep - An In-Depth Look at 2 Classic Styles

If you follow us on social media channels and are wondering about the 2 styles that you can brew for the Atlantic Home Brew Competition from Gahan - here is some more information.

We recently posted some very basic recipes for the two styles, but want to remind people that there is some creative input allowed with these two styles, and you can still meet the Reinheitsgebot qualifications...or not! We won’t judge! For the competition, there are no strict parameters, so maybe you want to brew with adjuncts, use other bittering ingredients, spices, use processed sugar if you are really looking to turn some heads, better yet use some wheat and Kveik yeast.

The two styles offer the malt or hop lover a bit of freedom to experiment within some parameters, but please remember that some tested traditions of trial and error are proved, so there is not much need to re-test them. They can be quite boxed in, but there is no saying you can not reinvent things on a small scale. Such is the beauty of home brewing. On a small scale there is is a smaller price to pay for failure, or a lower cost to making an off beer, but we still don’t want that.

Brewing for competitions is a little different so we may suggest sticking to the tried practices of making beer with quality ingredients, doing it right, and keeping it classy. There is a big flavour difference between a beer that has spice additions and a beer that has a slightly different lagering or fermentation profile. Maybe a pseudo lager with Kveik yeast instead of lager works awesome, but reinventing the lager process will fail to fulfill a style’s true luster. Let’s look first at the styles separately and then look at some of the similarities to take into consideration when brewing a German Pilsner or Altbier. 

GERMAN PILNER is a classic style that is hoppier than most pilsners, but maintains a clean profile and malt crispness. Taken from Czech pilsners, but made in Germany - because mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, this beer cranks up the hops, just a bit more, but enough to notice.



One thing you will really notice about German Pilsner is the simplicity of the recipe. Low colour means that roastier malts do not fit. With the malt you can often go 100% Pilsner. We recommend for this beer to use the widely available Weyernmans Pilsner, or other German malted Pilsner malt to be true to the style. North American or English varieties may be slightly
more robust and may not lead to that crisp dryness you are looking for in this beer. That being said you can use whatever you want as there are several different malthouses producing great products.

In our recipe, we added a small amount of Carafoam to help boost the head of the beer. Designing this recipe we also assumed one major thing - most home brewers tend to do a single infusion mash. In other words, grist is added and steeped in one step. This is how most modern breweries are going, as it saves time, cost, energy and with modern malting science the sugar in the barley is highly modified, so it is very accessible to the brewer, so there is often little need to do a step or decoction mash to get efficient mashing. If you would like to stick to Pilsner malt only, we suggest decoction style mashing - which is more true to the style, but also by removing some of the wort, boiling it and returning it to the mash it will help with head retention in the beer.

When it comes to hopping the beer, water profiles will be a big determinant of the overall outcome of the hops presenting them as soft or bitter. Northern and Southern German Pilsners present differently because of their water profiles much like you might find if you brew from hard well water, or you are in a city like Saint John which takes it’s water from the surface (a lake) with low hardness.

We also left an optional 15 minute addition of hops, which of course is the aroma addition toward the end of the boil. This is sometimes added to Pilsners, but if you are looking only for the bitterness and flavour of the hops you can forgo this final aroma addition. If you decide to do the addition, remember this is not a juicy IPA, so keep the addition small. You should only
receive a whiff of the hop character. The focus of hops in this beer is more on the bitterness of the additions towards the beginning of the boil. Also be cautious with these early additions, as you do not want to over-bitter the beer and turn it into a tastebud killer. You want the refreshing cleansing bitterness that comes with a pilsner of any type. Hops should stand out, but not overpower all of the malt character in this beer. 

ALTBIER is a Rhine Valley Ale - is a close cousin of the Kolsch brewed around the Cologne region in Germany. The trick to brewing this style well is in restraining the chocolate or coffee-like maltiness that often comes in brown ales, but achieving the red or deep amber colour without crossing into the brown threshold. And yes, it is an ale, but a clean ale, keep the yeast clean and in the background of the flavour.




There are several ways you can construct the malt profile of this beer, but generally there are 2 ways to get the colour correct. The first way is to brew the beer is with a very basic malt profile, such as 95% German Pilsner and add in a 5% addition (depending on the exact malt) of a very dark or highly roasted malt, such as roasted barley, chocolate malt or black malt. Small
additions of highly roasted malts will impart colour and a slight flavour, but ensure you do not go overboard and end up with a dark brown beer or chocolatey flavours. The second approach is to layer the malt - which is what our provided recipe suggests - by adding small additions of increasingly roastier malts, but staying away from high Lovibond dark malts. This method is kind of playing it safe, but also it will help in achieving a more complex tasting beer and will help improve head retention, increase the body slightly and help support the hop character.

Either approach works, so choose one and roll with it. Once again, be cautious not to over-colour and darken the beer too much. Once you go too far there is not really a good way to turn back. When it comes to hopping the beer we suggest sticking to the classic time additions of 60,30,15 and stick with noble flavours that come from Saaz, Tettnanger or the like. This beer also should be bitter, so the additions match the malt intensity and should balance the beer out. For our recipe we chose to add 2 hop varieties, which is a personal choice mainly because we love late additions of Saaz hops in everything. Tettnanger provides a better support for the clean bitterness of the beer, while Saaz gives the classic herbal, woodsy whiff which will be supportive of the yeast and malt aromas in the beer.

First we can discuss the differences in the beer. There is the obvious difference in the malt profile of each, but also do not forget the yeast. Altbier is an ale, German Pilsners is a lager. This means difference yeast and different fermentation temperatures and profiles. If you are entering the competition, you will need to take this in to account, as several home brewers do not have the luxury of being able to ferment their beers at low temperatures (under control).

Lager yeast will ferment at room temperature, but often the yeast character will overpower the delicate maltiness of a German Pilsner and you will end up with off flavours from the yeast or malt that are undesirable like creamed corn, popcorn, or sulphur.

There are options out there, which are often called pseudo lagers, that are often fermented with Kveik strains that can ferment at room temperature or above, and can ferment exceptionally clean tasing beer. Whichever route you choose, be sure to keep an nose out for off-flavours as they may be easy to identify when being judged against other similar beers. If you are staying true to each of these styles, the Altbier should be fermented with ale yeast, but will be fermented at the lower end of the temperature range for ales for a longer period of time than what you may be used to. This is to keep the yeast characteristics restrained in the overall presentation of the beer. If the yeast you choose has a fermentation range of 15-23C, you want to be closer to the 15C.

Fermenting the German Pilsner should occur at even lower temps if staying true to the style. Lager yeast characteristics should not be detectible in the finished product if done well, so it should be fermented at 12-15C. Using ale yeast at this temperature range will likely shut down fermentation. Lager yeast also needs to be pitched at higher rates, so also take that into consideration when purchasing your yeast. Either beer is possible to make at home, many home brewers have a cold area of their house which works well to ferment lagers in the winter. Similarities in the brewing of these two style exists, so if you are brewing either the ale or the lager you can benefit from brewing them similarly. First and foremost, the mash temperature for both of these beers is similar. You are shooting for 62-64C for mash temperature for the styles. This will keep the body of the beer lighter if you are doing single infusion mashing - as most home brewers are set up for.

Decoction mashes can be done, but often require more equipment. Decoction works for both styles as well. We won’t go into this as, this often depends highly on equipment. One other key similarity is lagering the beer. Although Altbier is an ale, it also benefits from a period of cold storage - similar to what the German Pilsner would undergo. This step is often unnecessary for American style or British Ales, but for German Ales it can be the difference between a good beer and a great beer. Many Belgian Ales also do some lagering to bring it all together.

The extended aging allow for the flavours to come together, the beer to become crystal clear and for any off flavours to subside. Once again, this can be done artificially with products like Biofine, Clarity Ferm or other haze reducing products, but time can not be engineered into a product that helps the hops, malt and yeast flavours to glue together.

Finally, a quick overview of the key information for the competition for those who are entering either style. The final date for entry is March 03, 2023 and the beer will be accepted at any of the Gahan house locations across the Maritimes. The winner of the contest will be awarded $500 and your beer will be produced on a larger scale and released as a limited edition through Gahan. The winner will be announced on March 20th, 2023 after the judging
has taken place. Entrants need to submit 3 bottles of beer (minimum 355ml size). Two beers for judging and the third is a backup if one of the bottles is oxidized or there are off-flavours. More details can be found by following Gahan’s instagram account or by going online to the Atlantic Home Brew Competition site (found through Gahan’s main site).

Overall this should be a fun and challenging competition! Please let us know if you need any help in sorting things out. We don’t have all the details at this point, but to brew either of these styles well it would be good to brew them shortly to give time for the beer to age properly.

Good luck to everyone! All the best! Cheers!
-Derek & Christian


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