I went back and looked at my brewing notes from last year and it turns out that of the batches I made, 84% of them were lagers. That's a little surprising, but I do enjoy making Pilsners, Oktobers, Marzens, Viennas, Bocks, Red Lagers and Amber Lagers in general. Since I started brewing, I wanted to get down a routine for making high quality lagers. These are some of the most delicious beers in the world and the profile that you get from certain lager strains of yeast simply cannot be duplicated with ale strains. There is a bit of extra work, but I have found some painless ways to make consistently good lager beer and this is possible regardless of your experience level or whether you brew with extract or all-grain.
Cold storage space always seems to be at a premium which is why you occasionally see forum discussions about the guy who built a walk-in cooler in his basement. For those who do not have this option (married!), we will have to find another way. I currently have some refrigerators dedicated to brewing and one of them is used for the primary fermentation of lagers. I have 2 draft fridges, another full-sized fridge in my bar that holds bottles and another spare fridge in my "beer bunker" holds cold, carbonated kegs. I will say right now that a fridge or temp-controlled freezer is your best bet if you want to make some good lagers. But if you can't go that route, someone on one of the forums mentioned the swamp cooler:
With this inexpensive plastic tub filled with about 10 gallons of water, I can ferment lagers at 45-50°. It helps if you live in an area where your basement floor remains cool, but using frozen water bottles and rotating them occasionally helps to maintain cool temps. I used this setup for quite some time in both winter and summer and made some very good lagers. I will also use this setup for ales in the summer or beers like Kolsch or Steam Beer which are meant to be fermented in the 50s. My experience is that if the primary fermentation is done properly, the secondary (lagering) phase is less-critical. I say this because I have had some lagers go from primary into secondary where they sit on my basement floor (50-60°) for a few weeks, then go into a keg where they are carbed at 35° and sit for another 2 weeks and are then served and the beer is great. I have also had lagers sit in secondary at 35° for 6 months and while these beers were also very good, I did not notice a dramatic improvement in the beer because the beer was lagered for extended periods.
The trick is to use a good volume of active, healthy yeast, oxygenate your wort properly, pitch the yeast into wort that is at or below the temperature you want to ferment and keep the primary at a consistent, proper temperature throughout the primary. You can also do a diacetyl rest at or near the end of primary. This allows the yeast to clean up certain flavors (buttery, for one) that are produced during the cool primary. All that is required for a d-rest is moving the primary from the cooler (~50°) spot and into a warmer spot (~60°) for 1-2 days when primary fermentation is done or almost done. Not all strains of lager yeast require a d-rest, but it's a simple enough procedure that it works well as an insurance policy that your lager will turn out great.
When you make your lager starter, leave it to build up at room temperature. As has been mentioned numerous times by many lager brewers, you are making yeast, not beer... so leave the starter to do its important work at room temperature. Some people will cool it down after it has grown properly, decant the liquid off the yeast and then pitch the yeast cool. There is nothing wrong with this approach, it's just something that I have not done. Also, I do not bother to decant the liquid in the starter unless it's a GIANT amount of liquid. If I have adequate yeast with just a few ounces of wort, I pitch the whole thing.
Keep in mind that a lager primary will be a little less active than an ale primary. There will probably be less kraeusen on top of the beer and the whole process will seem a bit more subdued. This is normal. You will also hear people say that they like to leave their lagers in primary for 10-14 days because of the slower nature of the fermentation. It's very possible that with a large, healthy volume of yeast, you can have a lager ferment to FG (or close) in 4-5 days. I had an email conversation with Greg Noonan who told me that homebrewers are consistently leaving their lagers in primary too long. I don't believe that leaving a lager in primary for 10-14 days will have a huge negative impact, but it may not always be necessary. As for any other beer, let your hydrometer tell you when it's done.
Some lager yeasts will produce a sulphur-like aroma towards the end of primary which should not carry over to your glass of beer. This is especially true of some of the strains designed for pilsner production like White Labs 830, Wyeast 2278, Budvar strains, etc. The aroma should begin to fade during the secondary phase and disappear altogether by the time the beer is served. There have been a number of lager brewers who have described how their wife or girlfriend have gone down to the basement only to come back saying, Honey, the basement smells like farts! Yep, it sure does. But it won't for long.
If you decide to save your lager yeast and use it again, it's important to store it COLD. I learned this the hard way by storing my lager yeast in my spare fridge when it was set to 40-50° (lager primary temps). If lager yeast is stored at this temp, it remains active and will not go dormant. It can mutate or be a victim or autolysis which will produce a rubbery or wine-like flavor in the beer you use it in next. My spare fridge is now set to 34-35° and I have 8-10 strains of ale and lager yeast stored there. I have reused many of the lager strains over & over with great results. I also highly recommend that you plan a second lager for when a lager is coming out of primary. It's the prefect time to use all of that active, healthy yeast and get your next lager off to a rocking start. If you can't do this, save it carefully and use it again in the next week or so (no starter would be required) or use it again in the next 1-2 months and make a starter for it... it will kick in quickly.
As far as the actual lagering phase goes, once I have a vacancy in my spare fridge (which houses cold, carbonated kegs), I would move a lager that has been sitting in secondary on my cool basement floor into a newly emptied (cleaned & sanitized) keg, get it cold in the spare fridge (~35°), force carb it and then leave it until I have a vacancy in my draft fridge. This can be days, weeks or months and it all seems to be good, no matter what. I like the idea of storing the beer cold, carbed and kegged and the beer will lager or condition this way with no problems. I have had a few that went from secondary on the floor to the fridge in a keg and then to the draft fridge in 1 week and the lager was delicious as I expected.
One last thing about pitching into cool wort: When I first started getting into lagers, many brewers would suggest pitching into room-temp lager wort and wait for visible activity and then lower the temp to 45-50°. When the lager yeast has contact with warmer wort, even for 24 hours, it can produce off-flavors and esters that will detract from the flavor of your beer. This goes back to my email conversation with Greg Noonan who emphasized the importance of lager yeast only having contact with wort that is at or below the ideal primary fermentation temperature. I also do this with other cool-fermenting ale or hybrid strains like 2112 or 2565. Even if I use White Labs 01, Wyeast 1028 or other ale strain, I never pitch into 85° wort assuming that the temp will drop and everything will be okay... pitch into the proper temp wort. Below... Cabana Lager.