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I have a curious attraction to Vienna Lagers, a style that all but disappeared off the face of the earth, save for a handful of breweries in Mexico. If you do not know the story, it goes a little something like this: in the early/mid 1800’s a fellow from Vienna by the name of Anton Dreher formalized the process we know today as lager brewing with a beer he called Märtzen. At the time the “pale” malts were significantly darker than they are today and produced a beer that was a coppery reddish-brown with a significant amount of toasty melanoidin character. Flash-forward to the late 1800’s and an Austrian immigrant to Mexico by the name of Santiago Graf (whom little is known, unfortunately) opened a brewery using the traditions he brought from home, with the addition of a small percentage of roasted malt to compensate for the alkaline water of the region. Thus, as Vienna-style lagers began to disappear in their homeland (favoring pale Pilsner style lagers), the style lived on in a handful of breweries in Mexico.
My own interest in Vienna Lagers is due to San Diego’s proximity to Mexico: we are too far from Europe to easily get any interesting European imports, so in the bad old days before craft beer took over there was only bland macro lagers or a handful of Mexican imports to choose from. If you were lucky, a restaurant or supermarket would have Negra Modelo available; a fine beer and just about the perfect pairing for Mexican food. To this day, if I go somewhere that has Negra Modelo on draught I will likely choose it 80% of the time. Now that San Diego is a craft beer mecca it has gotten harder and harder to find any Vienna-style lagers (or lagers in general), so I have decided to take matters into my own hands.
Truth be told, this is actually the second incarnation of this recipe. The first incarnation, made almost two years ago, holds the distinction of being the first lager I ever brewed; a batch I made as a birthday present for my Negra Modelo loving father-in-law. WLP940 Mexican Lager had just been released as a year-round strain so I decided to go “full Mexican” and lean toward the Graf-style Vienna. I was really into wheat and chocolate malt at the time so it was a bit of a mess, but I think it turned out pretty decent, all things considered. The process, however, made me realize 1) I really love Vienna Lager and 2) I am really interested in nailing this style!
I have decided that Pilsner malt has no place in a Vienna Lager and this recipe reflects that. After all, the style is named after the malt (or was that the other way around?), so do not be shy in going strong with the Vienna malt. I added a little Munich in this recipe for some extra richness and a dash of Caravienne because, well, I dunno, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Some Pale Chocolate adds some good color and a nice toastiness that I really dig. Otherwise, WLP940 Mexican Lager is my go-to lager strain and is 100% awesome and appropriate in a Vienna Lager. Hallertauer hops round out the hop bill–there really is no substitute for classic noble/floral character.
A note on my lagering schedule: I pitch at 48ºF and set the regulator to 50ºF. The first morning after a full day (usually about 36 hours after pitching) I raise the temp 1ºF. Every morning thereafter I raise the temp 1ºF until I start seeing the krausen start to deflate, and begin raising the temp 1ºF every 12 hours. By the time krausen has completely fallen (about a week) I am usually at 65ºF and I will leave it there for three or four days. I will then start lowering the temp 5ºF every 12 hours until I reach 35ºF; total time should be about two weeks. You can use gelatin finings now, or just transfer to keg and lager as long as you can handle.
Follow along with the BJCP guide for Vienna Lager.
There is a rich maltiness here, slightly toasty and just the slightest bit caramelly; it reminds me of a German-style dark bread (colloquially it is known as Squaw Bread around San Diego, which has fallen out of favor because some consider it offensive; it is also maybe known as “Sweet Prairie Bread”). The malty character is no where near as intense as a Munich Dunkel or Oktoberfest/Märzen, but it is assertive. The aroma is a bit maltier than I was shooting for, which I imagine is due to the Caravienne and Munich malts.
In the background there is a light floral noble hop aroma that blends into a rich kind of chocolatey/cocoa character. No ester character, no diacetyl.
A brilliantly clear copper color with a not-quite off-white, not-quite light tan head. Pours a couple of fingers of luscious, creamy head that slowly recedes to a persistent half-finger. Though some folks *cough* /u/rayfound/ *cough* give me grief for adding a small amount of Carafoam in my lagers, I really cannot complain about the results. I typically find 2.5% of Carafoam + 2.5% of Melanoidin give me some nice head retention and a bit of malt complexity without distracting from the primary malt flavors. The two are a combo I use in almost all of my lagers, I recommend you check them out!
Even in my lagers I use gelatin to fine, though a few weeks/months/whatever you can stand of lagering does a great job of producing crystal-clear beer. It is a bit darker than I was anticipating, but still just on the dark edge of acceptable for the style (thanks Negra Modelo!).
A lightly sweet, malty-breadiness dominates the flavor and blends nicely into toasted-bread from the Vienna and Pale Chocolate malts. Is the malt character “soft and elegant?” Sure? The BJCP guide keeps staying that a Vienna Lager should be “characterized by soft, elegant maltiness,” but I guess my palate is not quite trained enough to translate that into something I grok. The malt character is smooth and well balanced with the bitterness, so I will call it a win.
Otherwise, the hop character has mellowed to exactly where I wanted it. Home Brew Mart had some weird strain of higher alpha Hallertauer hops so I decided to spread them out over the boil instead of the the 1.5 oz at the start and .5 oz at the end like I was originally planning. When the beer first carbed up there was maybe a hair too much floral noble hop character, but after the month or so of lagering it has faded to just the right amount of background character to balance the malt.
Medium body and carbonation with a nice, rich creaminess. Smooth and dry despite a small amount of sweetness. No astringency or alcohol heat. I think I pretty well nailed the mouthfeel on this one.
This is a good beer, but it is still not quite the beer I am looking for. It is not Oktoberfest rich, but it is still too rich for my tastes; I have decided what I really want is an amber, toasty almost-Pilsner instead of a kinda-dryer Oktoberfest. Next time around I think I am going to ditch the Munich and Caravienne and just go all-in on the Vienna malt. The Pale Chocolate is still a good choice for a bit of color and toasty character and of course I will keep my standard Carafoam+Melanoidin addition. Otherwise, if you are looking for a Vienna that leans a little closer to Oktoberfest I think you would be really pleased.
Also, I do not know what the deal is with the color. According to BeerSmith it should be SRM ~11 (think dark Pale Ale), but it is closer to SRM ~16 (think American Amber). I must have added a hair too much Pale Chocolate, a little bit extra goes a long way!
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