Saturday, May 15, 2010


European lagers are generally divided into three classes— pale (pilsner, Dortmunder, & helles), amber (Vienna, Märzen, & Oktoberfest), and dark (dunkel & schwartz).

It is common to see the abbreviation “VMO” in brewing literature when referring to the German amber lagers.

The helles, Märzen, Oktoberfest, and dunkel are all associated with the city of Munich, but Vienna plays an integral role in the development of the VMO.

Ray Daniels explains:
From its beginnings as a Roman outpost, Vienna struggled along for many centuries before becoming a city in its own right during the thirteenth century. The first brewery— associated with a hospital— was noted not long after, in 1296. For several centuries after this, beer was the underdog in a running battle with wine. Grapes grow well in the Vienna area, and the landed parties who produced wine demanded protection of their product from the competition posed by beer. It was not until the sixteenth century that brewing was widely licensed to convents, castles, towns, and marketplaces.

By 1732, fourteen breweries operated near Vienna. They produced one or two types of oat beer, three varieties of wheat beer, and five varieties of barley beer.
Gabriel Sedlmayr was a brewer from Munich that toured England in the early 19th century. At that time, the English brewers had developed more technologically advanced methods than were in use on the continent. Sedlmayr is credited with bring the use of the thermometer and hydrometer to German brewers as a result of this trip.
It was the professional relationship between Sedlmayr and Vienna’s Anton Dreher that gave rise to the Vienna lager style.

Dreher came from a brewing family and studied with Sedlmayr in Munich as a young man before taking over the family brewery in Vienna. Early along, Dreher combined the Munich bottom-fermentation yeast with Vienna malts and brewing procedures to create the Vienna style of lager. The Märzen style produced in the same breweries was nothing more than a stronger version of the Vienna brew.

It appears that the Munich Oktoberfest style was an imitation of the Viennese Märzen beer. Interestingly enough, it was Gabriel Sadlmayr’s son who is credited with brewing the first Vienna-style Oktoberfest beer. [This was in 1872-- M.]
Dreher introduced Vienna lager in 1841. By the 1870’s, Vienna beers had won great acclaim. There were three distinctive styles of Vienna lager at this time— Abzug, a low-gravity variety roughly 3/4 the strength of the standard; Lager, which refers to Vienna lager roughly as we know it today; and Märzen, a slightly stronger version of the lager. There is one brewery that also produced a Doppelmärzen, which was stronger still. The primary difference between these styles was the gravity.

The Viennese brewers used a decoction mash, after the German tradition. This is a step-mash, where the temperatures are raised to engage enzyme activity through a succession of temperature ranges. In a decoction mash, the grist is drawn off of the mash, boiled, then returned to the mash. It’s a bit tricky, and there are certain formulae to follow as to raise the temperature of such-and-such volume at such-and-such density by so-many degrees by such-and-such volume of a boil; the boil being the constant (212F).

Wahl & Henius reported in 1908 that the Vienna beers are hopped at a rate of
30 percent less than those for Bohemian beers, about 30 percent more than those for Bavarian beers.
The hops were mainly Czech Saaz and Styrian Golding.

Now, the truly distinctive part of the Vienna lager is in the malt. This is a pale malt that is kilned a bit higher than other pale malts, which gives it a bit of toasty, nutty flavor. A good Vienna lager is a malt-forward type of beer.

A Viennese brewer by the name of Santigo Graf brought the style to Mexico in the 1880’s. It is from the Mexican brewers that the style is most evident today. Negro Modelo is considered the standard of the style, although the Dos Equis amber is a much better beer, IMHO. The Schell Firebrick, from New Ulm, Minnesota, is a step above the Dos Equis.

These are the tasting notes from the GABF:
Beers in this category are reddish brown or copper colored. They are medium in body. The beer is characterized by malty aroma and slight malt sweetness. The malt aroma and flavor should have a notable degree of toasted and/or slightly roasted malt character. Hop bitterness is clean and crisp. Noble-type hop aromas and flavors should be low or mild. Fruity esters, diacetyl, and chill haze should not be perceived.
The BJCP has more detailed notes:
Aroma: Moderately rich German malt aroma (of Vienna and/or Munich malt). A light toasted malt aroma may be present. Similar, though less intense than Oktoberfest. Clean lager character, with no fruity esters or diacetyl. Noble hop aroma may be low to none. Caramel aroma is inappropriate.
Appearance: Light reddish amber to copper color. Bright clarity. Large, off-white, persistent head.
Flavor: Moderately rich German malt aroma (of Vienna and/or Munich malt). A light toasted malt aroma may be present. Similar, though less intense than Oktoberfest. Clean lager character, with no fruity esters or diacetyl. Noble hop aroma may be low to none. Caramel aroma is inappropriate.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light to medium body, with a gentle creaminess. Moderate carbonation. Smooth. Moderately crisp finish. May have a bit of alcohol warming.
Overall Impression: Moderately rich German malt aroma (of Vienna and/or Munich malt). A light toasted malt aroma may be present. Similar, though less intense than Oktoberfest. Clean lager character, with no fruity esters or diacetyl. Noble hop aroma may be low to none. Caramel aroma is inappropriate.
Comments: American versions can be a bit stronger, drier and more bitter, while European versions tend to be sweeter. Many Mexican amber and dark lagers used to be more authentic, but unfortunately are now more like sweet, adjunct-laden American Dark Lagers.
It should be noted that the modern Märzenbiers are derived from the Munich interpretation of the style. The shift occurred at some time between 1955 and 1970.

Now, there is a forum that I frequent which focuses on brewing, and that’s sort of what this is about, really. (Never let it be said that I failed to provide sufficient background information.) There was a fellow there looking for a recipe for a Vienna lager, something along the lines of Brooklyn lager or Short’s Noble Chaos. I happened to have made a Vienna lager that received very good reviews, and so I posted the recipe there.

Now, the fellow that lives upstairs from me is a chef that writes a column on food and beer pairings. We sometimes trade beer and food back and forth. He said that this was my best one yet. He said that it should be sold commercially, but I am content with a small production. (I have other things I do for business.)

Vienna lager
This was a step-mash (122, 144, 152, 162) with a kölsch yeast. It came out a bit stronger than I had intended due to the mash efficiency.

The backbone is the Vienna malt, with a bit of two-row for the increased enzyme activity for the mash. Victory is the American version of the Belgian biscuit malt. It is included here to provide a bit more toasty, nut-like complexity. The caramel malt, crystal 120, has a warm, pleasant toastiness to it. So, the malt bill is all about toastiness.

Perle is a German hop that has a bright evergreen flavor. Spalt is a noble hop, the one used in Budweiser, and it has a strong flavor for a noble hop. Mount Hood is also a noble hop, but is much softer than Spalt. Perle for bittering, Spalt for flavor, and Mt. Hood for aroma. That's the hop schedule.

Exactly as George Fix phrased it:
elegance and softness as well as a measure of complexity.
A fine beer, indeed.

Another fellow at the forum saw the recipe there, and decided to try his hand at it. He modified the original a bit, including some muscovado sugar and some malt extract, adding more bittering hops, and used a Trappist yeast. He aged it in an oaken barrel. This appears more like the historical Märzen to me than a Vienna lager, though the Belgian yeasts are known for high ester production (It’s the esters that’s the real difference between an ale and a lager.)

Richie's Vienna Belgian
He was so pleased with it that he sent me a couple of bottles to thank me for the recipe. These are my trophies.

This the first time that anyone else has ever used one of my recipes, that I know of. I keep trying to push my extract recipe for a Southern English brown ale (SEBA), but most people that brew tend to like enormous amounts of hops rather than something heavily malty with low hops.

Here are some photos with my crappy cell phone cam:

My own Vienna lager alongside the trophies from an admirer.

I will enjoy this beer while I watch Mr. Deeds Goes to Town this evening.

I do wish you could enjoy one of these beers with me. I hope you have enjoyed the history, and that it made you thirsty for something darkly malty.

(And a big ‘Hello!’ to Lindsay along the Danube. I hope you have time to find something a bit more authentic than my humble brew on your journey.)