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If you have spent even a little time reading my blog you know I am a big fan of Vienna Lager. Something about it strikes all right right chords for me: crisp, clean, full-flavored, well balanced between malt and hops, and just uncommon enough that I feel motivated to brew it consistently. Also, if you consume as much Mexican food as I do you know there are few beers that are as appropriate as a Vienna Lager to pair with a burrito. 🙂 My enthusiasm is infectious enough that now even my Internet buddies Marshall & Ray, Dan, Brian, and a few others have all jumped aboard the Vienna-train for NHC this year. I like to think I am doing my part to keep this style from getting dragged into the historical category.
The last time I wrote about Vienna Lager (Fiesta Cumpleaños) I came at it from the angle of a Mexican interpretation of the style, which tends to be a bit darker and with a lightly sweet/caramelly character. After publishing the article I got into correspondence with Andreas over at Daft Eejit Brewing (who has a great series on Vienna Lager) who convinced me to try brewing a more “traditional” version, consisting of mostly Vienna malt and just enough roasted malt for color. Well, I am convinced: I have brewed this “traditional” version a few times now and have been very pleased with how it turned out. I can hardly even think of things I would want to tweak with this recipe besides making more of it!
Read on for the recipe and some thoughts on making great Vienna lagers.
Needless to say I have quite a few opinions on Vienna Lager, lots of folks try to over-complicate things or just plain miss the mark. I will start start by saying what a Vienna Lager is not:
- Vienna Lager is not a “Baby Märzen.” In my opinion Märzen is over-sweet, over-rich, and lacking in hop balance. A Vienna, while toasty and rich, does not cross into the malt-bomb territory and should be well balanced by hop character.
- Vienna Lager is not caramelly or sweet. Mexican lagers have descended down that rabbit hole and are a pale shadow of their former glory. The finish needs to be crisp, dry, and toasty–the opposite of caramel character.
- Vienna Lager is not a showcase for every type of base malt. There is no need to add Pilsner, Vienna, and Munich malts in the same batch. Simplicity is key and Vienna malt will get you as far as you will let it take you. If you are concerned with being over-rich just blend in some Pilsner malt.
That said, in my opinion these are malts that should never be in a Vienna lager:
- Munich malt – Vienna malt is already plenty toasty and melanoidin rich, adding Munich malt will only make it over-rich and push you into Dunkel or Märzen territory.
- C-malts – Just say “no!” Vienna does not need or require any caramel character and Crystal/Cara malts will make it overly sweet. I find with higher percentage of high-lovibond base malts (Vienna, Munch) add a non-trivial amount of not-caramel, not-ester pseudo-fruitiness that is plenty enough character to satisfy your C-tooth.
So, what is a Vienna Lager? To call it the Vienna malt equivalent of a Pilsner sells it a little short, but also is not entirely inaccurate: Vienna Lager is a showcase for Vienna malt, plain and simple. All you really need is just enough of your favorite roasted malt to get the color right (and you sure do not need much) and you can just let Vienna malt do its thing. Add a clean, low-sulfur lager yeast and enough bitterness to balance the malt and baby, you got a stew going!
One important note on Vienna malt: understand which Vienna malt you are using. Vienna malts can vary anywhere between 2.5 L on the low end anywhere up to 7 L on the high end (looking at you, Gambrinus). The color greatly affects the toasty character and high Lovibond malts like Gambrinus’ are practically Munich territory. I am personally a fan of Weyermann Vienna, which is right in the “Vienna sweet spot” for me: not too light, not overly toasty. Try to find something in the 3-4 L range and I think you will be very pleased with the character!
This recipe is my “all-in” Vienna malt version and is one of my simplest recipes. It descended from my Mexican style Vienna I brewed for my father-in-law’s birthday and has shifted more and more Continental, hence the transition from a Spanish name to a German one.
Since malt is such a prominent feature of this beer it is important to get the best quality Continental Vienna malt you can get your hands on. I have been tempted to go 98% Vienna and 2% Blackprinz–I probably will next time I brew it–but this time I went with my standard mix of Carafoam and Melanoidin to replicate decoction. Otherwise, I am bonkers for the floral and slightly spicy character of Hallertauer hops and WLP830 German Lager is about as classic of a lager yeast as you can get.
Right now my lager schedule looks like:
- Pitch at 48ºF.
- Set to 50ºF before bed.
- Set to 51ºF the next morning.
- Set to 52ºF the morning after that.
- Set to 55ºF morning after that.
At this point krausen is starting to fall and I bump up temp 2ºF every 12 hours or so. Until I reach 65ºF. Leave it there for a week then start crashing, 5ºF every 12 hours.
Follow along with the BJCP guide for Vienna Lager [PDF].
Moderate/high toasty-rich malt dominates the aroma with a low amount of spicy/floral noble hop in the back-end. Clean and crisp with no sulfur or caramel notes. A dash of honey-like character in the far background which is similar to some of the classic Munich lagers I sampled fresh.
A crystal clear reddish amber that is on the lighter side of the style than you might find with common commercial examples. A fluffy off-white head that persists and leaves excellent lacing in the glass. This beer looks so good I am tempted to throw up NSFW tags. 🙂
Rich, elegant toasty malt reminiscent of crusty artisanal bread dominates with a soft, moderate bitterness which gives just enough balance to prevent it from being a malt-bomb. Low spicy/floral hop character and no esters, sulfur, or caramel. Balancy is malty/bitter and finishes clean and dry.
Medium/light body and moderate/high carbonation. There is a dryness that is juuuuust on the right side of astringent. The carb is maybe a tad too high, so I will try to off-gas it a bit before bottling. This should help round out the mouthfeel a little too.
This might literally be the best beer I have ever brewed (or a close tie with the Kumquat Lambic I served at NHC in San Diego). It hits all the right stylistic notes and I personally can not get enough; I am a little worried I might drink it all before I get the chance to bottle some up for competition! This beer is crisp, clean, and poundable like a good sessionable lager should be.
If I were to change anything up I would maybe shoot for a point or two higher finishing gravity so I am not dancing right on the edge over-dry. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and try to go as all-in on Vienna malt as you are willing to let yourself go: absolutely ditch the Munich and Cara-malts, you just do not need them!
A funny aside: as I took the glass outside to take pictures in the sunshine it achieved just enough skunky character that the sample was the most perfect example of a Mexican lager that I have ever tasted made this side of the border. If I had not been in possession of the glass the entire time I would have bet you money that someone had replaced it with XX Amber. So, I guess if you are looking to go the Mexican-style Vienna route just make a nice clean traditional Vienna and skunk it up a little. 😛
Check out the rest of my recipes in the index.