Monday, January 23, 2012

The Lion's Roar

The decision was taken on a whim, the cellar was sitting at about 55º and I thought to myself "what the heck, let's just give it a whirl". Some mild indecision followed, I knew the hops had to be Saaz, the base malt Bohemian Pilsner, but should I brew a pale or a dark beer? Dark beers tend to be more forgiving and so I took the plunge and brewed my first lager, a tmavé.

If you've read Fuggled for a while you will know that in 2010 I designed and brewed a tmavé with Devils Backbone, and my plan was to create something very much in that beer's ballpark. Given the short notice of my decision I was well aware that I would have to use pretty much whatever malts were available at our local Fifth Season, and so I ended up with a grist of:
  • 74% Bohemian Pilsner
  • 11% Munich Malt
  • 11% Caramunich I
  • 4% Carafa III Dehusked
From that little collection of grains I got a starting gravity of 1.058, about 14.5º Plato, putting the beer firmly in the realms of a "Speciální Ležák". Into the wort I chucked in 25 IBUs worth of Saaz hops and then had a mild panic. I had a packet of Saflager S-23 yeast that I was planning to use, but a few online conversations later I decided to change tack and head off to Fifth Season to check out their lager yeast range. A range, that day, of 2, one of which was Wyeast's Staro Prague yeast, sourced from Staropramen back in Smíchov. With the yeast suitably pitched I went about the rest of my day, and when night came the temperature in the cellar plummeted to 35º and in the carboy, no life stirred.

In an attempt to insulate the carboy from the chill of the cellar, I wrapped a old lambswool sweater around it, and yet the carboy remained still. I read forums, realised I had pitched too little yeast and hoped that everything would sort itself out, while in the carboy the dark liquid sat. A day passed and on the advice of Kristen England, and to be fair Mrs V, I bought the carboy in from the cellar and sat it next to the double doors that lead to our "patio". There it remained, at 54º, for a couple of days. By last Thursday I was ready to make a starter with the Saflager S-23 and repitch.

Getting ready for work that morning, listening to the BBC World Service, seeing to our dog and getting my breakfast, I had put my dark problem to the back of my mind. It was only when I went to get my coat that I noticed the tiniest smudge of foam in the carboy. Was it an illusion, a trick of the light, a mirage, the fevered imaginings of a homebrewer so keen to have his first lager not be a wild flop? Sure enough, on closer inspection, it was the merest hint of the beginning of life, and a bubble forced its way from the blowoff tube. I went to work with hope renewed. 8 hours later my hope was assured, as krausen sat on top of the wort and the blowoff bubbled regularly, and the temperature was 56º, just outside the optimal range of 45º to 55º for the Staro Prague yeast but nothing I am planning to worry about. As I say, dark beers tend to be more forgiving.

This morning the krausen has sunk back and the bubbles are fewer. I will let it sit for another few days before I move it outside again to start the gradual lowering of temperature before preparing my lagering tank in the back of our fridge. The beer will sit there for 45 days, for no reason other than that's what I want to do, if I were to be really traditional it would sit there for 14 weeks, 1 for each degree of Plato.


Originally I was going to call the beer Marzenna, in honour of the Morana tmavé from Devils Backbone, Marzenna being a variant name of the goddess Morana. I changed my mind though as I was looking through some pitures of Prague and was reminded of the old brewery on Karlovo náměstí, just a few steps from where Mrs V and I tied the knot, and so the beer became Černý Lev, or Black Lion.

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