How To Brew Pre-Prohibition Lager

by Steve Thanos Updated on August 10, 2021 Historical Beer Brewing Recipes

Pre-Prohibition Lager is a clean, refreshing, bitter pale lager. Often it showcases a grainy sweetness that comes from corn.

The high bitterness level is what differentiates this style from the modern mass-produced pale lagers.

John Wagner

John Wagner, a Bavarian brewer, arrived in America in 1840. He did not come to America empty handed either. With a supply of lager yeast in hand from the motherland of Bavaria, Wagner was was ready to continue brewing beer.

Prior to Wagner’s arrival, the city of Philadelphia had been brewing beer for some 160 years.

However, the beer drunk in Philadelphia and the rest of America was nothin close to what was being offered in Germany. 

Six-Row Malt

Much of America’s barley was a variety called six-row, as opposed to the German two-row that was being used. Six-row tends to contain more protein and is gummier than two-row. This makes it extremely difficult to brew as the beer results in liquid that is much too thick. 

As a way to combat these new-found brewing difficulties, these German now American brewers started using lower-protein grain such as rice and corn. This closely emulated the German lagers that were brewed across the pond. 

Prohibition

Word was out about this beer and soon the beer was spread up and down the East Coast and eventually across the country.

By 1920 the start of Prohibition killed Wagner’s dream. This left a handful of domestic brewers that ruled the brewing in America. This was usually the larger breweries that began pumping out consistent beers on a mass-produced scale.

Overtime, more and more rice and corn was being used in the grist. This was a way to save money, but it did hinder the taste of the beer. 

Style Profile for Pre-Prohibition Lager

Appearance

Pre-Prohibition Lager is yellow to deep gold color. Long lasting, substantial head. Bright clarity to the beer. 

Aroma

The aroma is low to medium grainy, corn-like sweetness. Medium to moderarrely high hop aroma that ranges from floral to herbal/spicy.

A citrusy or fruity modern hop character is inappropriate for the style. Clean lager character is evident. Low DMS is acceptable. Some yeast character may show through in this style.

Flavor

Medium to medium-high maltiness with a prodominate grainy flavor. A corn-like impression of sweetness may also show. A substantial hop bitterness stands up to the malt.

The hop bitterness also lingers through a dry finish. The all malt and rice based versions of this style will be crisper, drier, voided of the corn-like flavors. Medium to high hop flavor with a rustic, floral, or herbal/spicy character being noticed.

Medium to high hop bitterness, which should not be overly course or have a harshness in the aftertaste. Some lager yeast character, but should be fairly neutral. 

Mouthfeel

Medium body with a rich, creamy mouthfeel. Smooth and well-lagered. Medium to high carbonation level is appropriate for the style. 

Tips for Brewing your own Pre-Prohibition Lager

Grain

The grist for this style is pretty straightforward. Starting out with a 50/50 split of Czech floor malted Pilsner and Maris Otter.

If you wish to use corn in this recipe, a pound of flaked corn should do it. Also, to add roundness to the malt, a hald pound of Carapils can be added. 

Hops

Hops are fairly important for this style, as the IBU range is 25-40. Cluster hops are a good choice. This will give the spicy and floral aromas with some fruity notes that will do well in this beer.

Crystal will do much of the same in terms of flavor. It will also give the woodsy flavor that this style is known for. No matter which hop is chosen, a ounce to an ounce in a half at 60 minutes, an ounce at 10 minutes, and then a hald ounce to an ounce at flame out should be just right. 

Yeast

There is a wide selection of yeast to choose from for this style.

They include the following: 

  • White Labs: Pilsner Lager Yeast (WLP800), American Lager Yeast (WLP840)
  • Wyeast: Pilsen Lager (2007), American Lager (2035), Bavarian Lager (2206)

Pre-Prohibition Lager By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 3 – 6 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.044 – 1.060 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.015 FG
  • IBU Range: 25 – 40
  • ABV Range: 4.5 – 6.0% 

Martin Keen’s Pre-Prohibition Lager Recipe

Grain

  • 85%              8lbs 8oz       Six-Row Pale Malt
  • 10%              1lb                Flaked Corn
  •   5%              8oz               Carapils

Hops

  • 1 oz         Cluster – Boil – 60 min
  • 1 oz         Cluster – Boil – 15 min
  • 1 oz         Cluster – Boil –   0 min

Yeast

  • 1.0 pkg   Pilsen Lager Ale  Wyeast #2007

Transcript: Today, I’m brewing a pre-prohibition lager, and I’m going to ferment it warm and under pressure in a spike fermentor.

My name is Martin Keen, and I’m taking the Homebrew Challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. I’m brewing a lager. It has been so long since I’ve brewed a proper lager.

When I first started out with the Homebrew Challenges, pretty much all I did; lager after lager. And then since then, it’s pretty much just being ale.

So let’s get this mashed in. Now, when I say I’m brewing a proper lager, and this is all related to the fermentation temperature that I’m going to be using here. Now lagers, as you probably know, are usually fermented much cooler than ales that’s because lager yeast works best at cooler temperatures, maybe 50 Fahrenheit, something like that.

The thing with fermenting at lager temperatures is the yeast do take longer to complete their fermentation. So what I’m going to do today is try to speed things along. Look, I only have two spike fermenters, and I’m brewing every week.

I can’t be having my beer sat there, lagerring away for too long. I need to keep things moving. So the way I’m going to do that is I’m going to ferment at a warmer temperature than usual.

So I’m going to be fermenting at an ale temperature using lager yeast. Now, what that would typically mean is I’ll get some sort of esters and phenols from that yeast because I am fermenting it warm. And those are the sorts of things that we don’t really want present in a lager.

So what I’m going to do is ferment under pressure and because the yeast is fermenting under pressure, that should suppress some of the phenols and esters and give us that clean lager taste.

Now, as for this beer, I am mashing at 152 Fahrenheit, 67 Celsius for about an hour.

How to brew a pre-prohibition lager?

Well, I’m shooting for an original gravity of 10 48. So about a 4.7% beer. The main base malt I’m using at 85% is 6-row pale malt. And I think this may be the first time I’ve used six row in any of my beer recipes, but it is traditional for the style.

And that 6 row is going to help convert the second ingredient, which is corn, specifically flaked corn at 10%. And the flaked corn is going to contribute to the lightness of the beer. This beer is incredibly light. It’s going to have an SRM of 3 and then rounding out the ingredients at 5%, I’ll be using Carapils.

I have two fermenters here, both from spike brewing. I have the CF5 and the flex plus, and these are both pressure rated up to 15 PSI, which seems like I should be able to perform pressurized fermentation fairly easily.

Now these things come with a gas manifold attachment that you can add. And this has, um, a PRV, a pressure relief valve rated up to 15 PSI. So once the pressure in the fermentor builds beyond 15 PSI, it’s going to be relieved by this pressure relief valve.

So perhaps one thing I could do is use this PRV, um, as like my spunding valve. And once my fermentor gets above 15 PSI it would just bleed off the remaining pressure. Well, spike brewing, do not want you to do that. You can tell because on this gas manifold, it says exactly that not for pressure fermenting, not for spunding.

And that’s because this pressure relief valve could easily get blocked up with the krauzen and from the fermenter and so forth. And if that happens, there’s no way for the pressure to escape the vessel. And you got a bomb on your hands.

But I’ve been chatting with Ryan from spike brewing. And I think there’s a pretty awesome solution to this.

Now this is the lid that comes with the CF5 and the flex plus you can see it’s got the, uh, the big hole here, the big port. This is where I put my cooling coil. And then it has one other smaller, 1.5 inch port here for a TC clamp. And this is where I normally put my blow off valve and then switch that out for the gas manifold.

As you can see, there is nowhere else to put a spunding valve in this lid, but this is the new lid Spike have sent me and you can see there are two additional 1.5 inch ports here. In fact, they have labeled them. So there is a blow off, a hop edition, and a PR V.

So this is really quite handy. Having more ports is always good. It means that I could do things like dry hop or add in my gelatin additions here without having to take other stuff off of the lid.

I really think I’m going to get a lot of use out of these extra ports. And what I need now is a spunding valve that will fit on one of these ports. Well, it just so happens that I have one. This is from SS brewtech. This is their spunding valve, and it fits on the 1.5 inch TC port.

Now this spunding valve it’s nice and big. It’s not going to get easily blocked with krauzen. And, and I can set this to the PSI that I want to pressure ferment at. And in addition, I can have that gas manifold with its PRV, which will blow if anything did go wrong with this at 15 PSI.

Now this is quite a hoppy lager. I’m aiming for an IBU of 36, seems that the universal opinion on which hops to use is Cluster. I’m using cluster for everything. This is a really nice hop. It’s got a high alpha acid content of around 10%. So it’s great for bittering, but it also has flavors and aromas that are spicy floral and it says on the packaging here, earthy black, current as well.

So I’m going to be adding this in at 60 minutes, then another charge of cluster with 15 minutes to go. And then the final charge of cluster at flame out.

The history of pre-prohibition lager can be traced back to bavarian brewer John Wagner, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1840. John and his fellow German brewers found that US barley was often the six row variety rather than the two row that they were used to using. And as a result, the beers came out gummirr, and thicker.

Corn was added to get beers back closer to the German lager styles. The beer style gained popularity, particularly along the east coast right up to prohibition in 1920. After prohibition was lifted, mass produced lagers took over, but pre-prohibition lager lives on particularly among us homebrewers.

I’ve put the fermentor lid on with all the bits on top. Walk through that in a second.

Time to add the yeast, I’m using wyeast 2007 Pilsen lager. And wyeast recommend fermenting this at low temperatures. So between 48 Fahrenheit and at 56 Fahrenheit, however, my wort is it 65 Fahrenheit and that’s where I intended to leave it.

So I’ve got my gas manifold here with the pressure relief valve. I’ve got this port here, which I was just blocked off, just blanked it out. And then I’ve got my spunding valve and I’ve added some sanitized water into this. This will sort of act as the airlock. Now I’m going to add 10 PSI of pressure.

Okay. So that’s 10 PSI. I have the spunding valve currently fully closed, and I’m just going to open it enough so that I start to see some bubbles here, which would indicate that I will be spunding at 10 PSI. It’s fast. It’s a very small amount of turning to go from nothing to explosion. Okay. I think that’s about it.

So I can just see some bubbles escaping. I’m just going to tighten just a touch. Okay. That’s it. So I’m at 10 PSI and now no more bubbles escaping. I think if I go over that at all, we’ll start to see some bubbling. So let’s try that out. I’m going to just add a tiny bit more pressure. Yep. And that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s bubbling away to back down to 10 PSI.

So as the fermentation happens and more pressure is created, it’s going to be exhausted through this spunding valve. See how it works out.

This is Norm, and this is very exciting because since the first time, since the pandemic, we’ve actually got to bring someone in from the outside, fully vaccinated. It’s great to have you, uh, in person as opposed to in the YouTube comments.

I’ve been looking forward to this. So let’s see what we’ve got for you today. We have a lager, let’s take a look. First of all of the appearance of this bear really is super light, very clean, uh, no haze at all. It’s not, you’re not getting a hoppy smell from it. Um, smells a little malty, um, kind of, um, uh, kinda like bready if you will. Um, kind of like a baked good?

Those are really good descriptors because I got to say, if you actually put your nose in it and like kind of breathe in all the way with your nose in it, you can smell all of this.

All right. Let’s give this a try. Okay. That’s crushable really, really drinkable. You could quaff it in big gulps. Um, it’s um, it’s not one that you need to sip. It would be really good around a pool on a hot day because it’s a sort of refreshing beer. It’s not, not particularly heavy. Yup. Um, yeah. This is one that would be easy to drink fast.

With 5%. I mean, that’s kind of low in my eyes to start with, but being so drinkable, like this could be kind of deadly.

Yeah. It’s uh, I think everything we picked up on the aroma, graininess, a little bit of sweetness. It does taste a bit sweet to me. Um, but nothing too much or anything like that. Yeah. Very, very easy to drink. Yeah.

Um, so with, with this beer, um, how many, how much of this would you do? Would you typically brew? I’ve I watched the videos and I’m wondering what the yield is. Are we talking a couple of six packs? Are we talking two cases?

So I brew typically three gallons. Okay. So if you were doing pints, it’s two pints to a quart, four quarts to a gallon. That’s eight. So you’d have 24 pints from a three gallon batch.

I’m still not. Okay. All right. Which is the equivalent of about 30 something pounds? Many PBR cases is that? Okay.

This is delicious. Well, thank you very much. Both of you for giving this beer a try. We didn’t share with cheers before we tried it. We can do it now.

We gotta, you gotta do it. You, yeah. That’s every stop.

Steve Thanos: Former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.