Category Archives: Recipes

Tracing the origins of Vienna Lager

As an Austrian, I’m naturally interested in Austrian beer. One of the heritages of Austrian brewing is the Vienna lager beer style, a style that has actually long been forgotten in its country of origin, where the contemporary beer market has been dominated by beers that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike German and Czech beers. Austrian Märzen is less alcoholic and a bit paler than Bavarian one, Austrian Helles is hoppier than the Bavarian counterpart, and Austrian Pilsner doesn’t have the same flavour profile like German or Czech Pilsners. The only German beer that to me that has a flavour profile similar to Austrian beers is Rothaus Pilsner.

Only recently, Vienna lager has been rediscovered in Austria: Brauhaus Gusswerk produces a very nice one, and with Ottakringer’s “Wiener Original”, there is even a mainstream supermarket beer of that old style (for the record, it’s one of my favourite local beers whenever I’m back in Austria).

Outside of Austria, and that’s what most literature will tell you, Vienna lager survived by getting picked up as a beer style by Austrian immigrant brewers in Mexico, and from there it was subsequently picked up by the thriving US-American craft beer scene. That’s a reason why the beer style’s definition is very much dominated by an American view on it, like the BJCP definition and the Brewers Assocation Beer Style Guidelines. And that’s where the problems begin.

Both style definitions contradict each other, with BJCP describing it with “Caramel aroma is inappropriate” and “No roasted or caramel flavor”, while the BA says “malty aroma, which should have a notable degree of toasted and/or slightly roasted malt character”.

I’m not entirely happy with either definition, just like I’m generally not very happy with what the BJCP writes about some other beer styles. So I wanted to find out what Vienna lager was actually like, originally, and whether an authentic recipe can be reconstructed.

To start of, I first needed to find out what the beer looked and tasted like. Emil Leyser, in his book “Die Malz- und Bierbereitung” from 1900, wrote (I only have excerpts, sorry) that Vienna beers have a golden yellow colour, a very rounded and full-bodied flavour with a low hop bitterness. He also explicitly states that the beer does not have anything caramelly or “assamar” (roasted bitterness).

In his book “Decoction!” (p.29), Ron Pattinson lists some beer analysis results from Viennese beers from 1870. One entry in that table is particularly interesting:

  • Beer: Lager
  • Brewery: Schwechat
  • Where sample obtained: direct from the brewery
  • OG beer: 1017.60
  • Balling wort: 13.25°
  • Balling beer: 4.51°
  • Apparent degree of attenuation: 65.94
  • ABV: 4.6
  • Lactic acid: 0.13
  • Colour: 6.3

It’s not entirely clear what unit of measure colour is. I assume SRM, for one particular reason: beers of that colour are usually described as golden, which would match Emil Leyser’s description.

What’s also quite interesting is how low the attenuation is. I assume “OG beer” refers to the gravity points of the finished beer, “final gravity” in modern terms. Balling is the predecessor of the Plato scale, and 4.51° for the final gravity are relatively close to 1017.6 gravity points. Full-bodied, indeed.

When going further in finding some bits and pieces, I also looked at what Ottakringer is writing about their modern version of Vienna lager: they say they use Vienna malt, Melanoidin malt, and Saaz hops. Their original gravity is lower than the 1870’s analysis (12 °P), and the amount of alcohol is higher, as well (5.3 % ABV), so their beer would be a lot drier than the historic beer. The ingredients are notable, though: Vienna malt as the obvious choice for the malt (it’s the malt that was expressly developed for Vienna lager, after all), Melanoidin malt, presumably to add more colour and to imitate the additional melanoidin production of a proper triple decoction, and Saaz hops as a classic noble hop variety. Saaz is considered a Czech hop variety nowadays, but don’t forget that in the 19th century, Bohemia was part of Cisleithania, the Austrian part of Austria-Hungary. At least from a historic point of view, it is an absolutely reasonable choice in hops.

Saaz was not the only hop growing region in Austria, though. In Mühlviertel, the part of Upper Austria north of the river Danube, there’s been (and still is) an active hop growing industry, as well. It’s hard to tell which varieties were grown in the 19th century, though, as production had ceased during World War 2, and after the war, hop gardens were repopulated with German, Slovenian and British hop varieties. Hops were grown in southern Styria as well, which is now part Austria, part Slovenia, but the hops there were replaced after problems with diseases in the early 20th century, and Styrian Goldings, a Fuggle with local terroir, and other hop varieties  bred from Styrian Goldings are grown there nowadays.

Now that we’ve generally established what malt and what hops would be appropriate, we still need to find the right yeast. Obviously bottom-fermenting, preferably Bavarian. Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayr had worked together in researching English brewing technology, and so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that Dreher would have gotten a bottom-fermenting yeast strain from Sedlmayr’s Spaten brewery.

Earlier, we already established the desired attenuation of only about 66 %. Wyeast has WY2308 “Munich Lager”, at 70-74 % attenuation, which is already pretty close to what we’re looking for. White Labs has WLP820 “Oktoberfest/Märzen Lager Yeast”, with an attenuation of 65 to 73 %. This looks much better already! They also offer WLP838 “South German Lager Yeast” (68-76 %), WLP860 “Munich Helles Yeast” (68-72 %) and WLP920 “Old Bavarian Lager Yeast” (66-73 %) that are a similar range of attenuation.

According to the Yeast Strain Comparison Chart, WY2308 is the same strain as WLP838, which apparently is the yeast strain “Wisenschaftliche Station #308” from Munich. According to the same chart, WLP820, the closest choice in terms of attenuation, is the “Weihenstephan 206” yeast strain, and the same as WY2206, which is specified to attenuate higher (73-77 %), though. Either the chart is a bit off here, or there has been some genetic drift in the propagation of one these strains. But for me, WLP820 sounds close enough.

So, based on this information, if I were to design a recipe for a Vienna lager, I would do it like that:

  • 100 % Vienna malt, enough to get a OG of 1053 (13 °P).
  • Ideally, a triple decoction mash.
  • A single bittering addition of Saaz hops, e.g. 3 g/l (3.5 % AA) for 90 minutes to gain 27 IBU*.
  • A cold fermentation with WLP820 yeast that should end up with a final gravity of about 1018 (4.5 °P).

(* I’d keep the bitterness at the higher end to counteract the very high final gravity)

Based on what I could find out, this would match the original beer style relatively closely. When you enter that into a recipe calculator, the typical colour you will get is about 6 to 7 SRM (about 12 to 14 EBC). This is much closer to how Vienna lager was described by Emil Leyser. It also is a lot paler than the style definitions of BJCP and Brewers Association, which specify a range of 10 to 16 SRM resp. 12 to 26 SRM.

(On a side note, the resulting recipe above is remarkably simple, in modern homebrewers terms, it’s a SMaSH (single malt and single hops) beer.)

Of course, this is not enough. A direct comparison with historic documents from the Klein-Schwechater Brauerei directly would be interesting, because this recipe is merely put together from bits and pieces, with plenty of (informed) guesswork to fill in missing gaps. If anybody has something like that, please contact me, as I would really like to see whether the historic original would confirm or deny what I put together here.

And of course, I haven’t brewed this beer yet. That’s an exercise for another time.

Designing simple beer recipes

Usually, people that are new to homebrewing start off buying a recipe kit, with ready to use ingredients, whether it’s malt extract or crushed malt, and will continue to do for a few more brewers. Then people get more interested, and start looking into taking existing recipes, tweaking them, and creating something new. And that’s what gets them hooked.

At least that’s what it was for me. The first three brews or so were fine, using existing recipes respectively kits. But then I got bold, and wanted to try out new stuff, and created an actually quite alright American IPA.

And after that first experience, people want to try out new ingredients, different malts, different hops, different yeast strains. And end up with beers with 10 different malts and 5 different hops. And all the flavours are muddy and the beer is full of disappointment.

There are different ways to counter that. The most extreme approach is SMaSH. SMaSH stands for “Single Malt and Single Hops”, and refers to the use of just one malt variety and one hop variety, with any mash and hop schedule that you can come up with. It’s absolutely minimalistic, because of so few ingredients that all have to shine, and it’s a good way to evaluate new ingredients.

There’s actually lots of beer styles that you can (but not necessarily have to) brew as a SMaSH:

  • Pilsner: 100 % Pilsner malt, 100 % Saaz hops with an aggressive hop schedule.
  • Vienna lager: 100 % Vienna malt, 100 % of a noble hop variety or related with a rather restrained hop schedule for bitterness only.
  • Munich Dunkles lager: 100 % dark Munich malt, 100 % noble hops, with very little hopping just for bitterness.
  • Munich Helles lager: 100 % Pilsner malt, restrained hopping for bitterness from 100 % noble hops.
  • Historically, English porter used to be brewed out of 100 % brown malt up to the 18th century (brown malt back then was very different from modern brown malt and had enough diastatic power to convert itself).

And some professional brewers are going for that as well. Vagabund Brauerei here in Berlin have done several SMaSH ales which were clearly interesting, some were pretty good, some not so great.

But at some point, you just reach an end. There are just some things that you can’t brew as a SMaSH. And so Drew Beechum came up with an interesting extension of SMaSH that he aptly named “brewing on the ones”.

(slides here)

Instead of just limiting to one malt and one hop, you’re limited to

  • one base malt
  • one specialty malt or adjunct
  • one brewing sugar
  • one hop variety
  • one spice

Of course you can leave out stuff (not every beer needs to be spiced, thankfully!), but this suddenly gives a lot more freedom: you can brew Hefeweizen (>= 50 % wheat malt, the rest Pilsner malt), Tripels (100 % Pilsner malt, Candi syrup), any strength of English bitter or Pale Ale (Pale malt with some crystal malt; e.g. Fullers even use one mash, collect different runnings, and blend them to produce three different beers, that is Golden Pride, ESB and Chiswick Bitter), etc. etc.

And when you have brewed like this, it gives you a good perspective that good beers don’t necessarily require a complex grain bill or a complex hopping schedule. Some beers are just about simple ingredients and the brewing process done right.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should brew all your beers like that. But it definitely helps to not just put together as many malts or hops, but to think about every single malt what function it’s supposed to fulfill. Like do you really need these barley flakes? Why do you put them in anyway? What about these two types of caramel malt of very similar colour? Chocolate malt and black malt? Do 5 % wheat malt really make a difference? You get the gist.

In my own beers, I usually try to keep things simple, two to three different malts, for more malt-focused beers just a single hop variety for bittering and very little aroma, for hoppy beers one bittering hop and then one to three hop varieties. Three is even a bit on the edge, but fine as long as flavours don’t go muddy. With that rule of thumb I managed to produce some quite alright beers in the past. And of course, rules are sometimes meant to be broken. 😉

Stone Pale Ale: then and now

Stone recently published a homebrew version of their recipe for Stone Pale Ale. Stone had announced that they would decommission their Pale Ale, to make way for other, new beers. Of course, this got people upset, and so somebody asked them for the recipe so that the beer at least survives for homebrewers. So Stone delivered. And the internet was happy about it.

The thing is: it’s not the first time Stone published their Pale Ale recipe. In 2008, the released a whole bunch of their recipes scaled down for homebrewers in BYO magazine. A bold move, certainly.

But there’s a catch: they’ve changed the grain bill and their hopping a bit.

In the 2015 recipe compared to the 2008 recipe, they’ve scaled down the crystal malt a bit. But even in the newer version, that’s a lot: 13% in the 2015 version, and a whopping 15.8% in 2008! Combined with a mash temperature of 69°C I wonder how this beer does not turn out to be cloyingly sweet.

The hopping changed as well, but not too much. They obviously changed the bittering hops. This might be just due to availability or cheaper prices. From what I’ve heard, Magnum is such a cheap source of alpha acid, some German hop growers even have problems shifting all of what they grow.

Unfortunately, the aroma hopping is not directly comparable as they deliberately changed the 2008 recipes under the assumption that homebrewers don’t do a whirlpool. At least they stuck with the same hop variety, which I think is quite an interesting choice by itself. Ahtanum hops have been around for quite some time, but have never gained quite the attraction or notoriety like the “C” hops, or Simcoe or Amarillo.

All in all, both versions of the same beer give an interesting insight how one of the big craft breweries in the US designs recipes, and at least to me, it was a bit of a surprise.

One thing that is mentioned on the side is the yeast strain. According to Stone themselves, they got their house strain from a defunct Canadian microbrewery, and is similar to WLP007. In the 2008 recipe, they use WLP002, though. There are some rumours that WY1217 might be Stone house strain, but there is no further evidence other than Wyeast’s claim that it’s from a “well-known San Diego brewery”. Stone themselves keep their yeast with White Labs, their yeast strain is WLP5036, and (obviously) not publicly available.