I love the Christmas holiday season, and not just because I get lots of time off work—it’s how I use that time. Throughout the fall, I’m usually brewing beers for the holiday parties (which I now get to drink, so that’s nice) or brewing the bigger/darker beers that people will want when we get snowed in. But around Christmas, I get to go back to brewing whatever I feel like brewing, and a perennial favorite is the Vienna lager. Partly, I love it because some beers just stick in your head (I can’t forget, for some reason, that this beer was invented by Anton Dreher in the 19th century), but mostly I love it because it delivers the toasty malt flavors I love with a dry and clean background. It’s also a low-ABV beer that holds up beautifully to age, so if it ends up waiting in line to get on tap, I still have a great beer ready to go.
Although it bears some superficial resemblance to Oktoberfest, the Vienna lager is a distinctly different animal. Both are amber lagers of Germanic origin, but the Vienna is much more sessionable than the Oktoberfest. “But wait,” you’re thinking, “don’t they drink Oktoberfest by the liter?” They do indeed drink liters of beer at Oktoberfest celebrations, but the beer you’re most likely to get today when it’s labeled “Oktoberfest” is much richer and caramel-heavy than what they’re downing in Munich. That beer is actually much more akin to a Helles with a more floral hops nose, whereas most domestic “Oktoberfest-style” beers have more in common with bock than Vienna lager.
The Vienna is lighter (in body, color, and ABV), slightly more bitter (or at least seems so), and lands in a place where it’s toastier than the pale German lagers but nowhere near the caramel and melanoidin-heavy richness of “modern” Oktoberfest. The best examples of Vienna Lager are like drinking a liquid version of dry toast. Another way to conceptualize it is as a German lager version of special bitter, but with more carbonation and less sense of humor.
Some people seem to think that just because a beer is European that it must contain Pilsner malt. Nonsense. Heck, two of my three Pilsner recipes don’t even contain Pils malt. In this case, we want as much toasted character as we can get, but we don’t want sweetness—and I’ve always found that Pilsner malt imparts a honey-like sweetness on my palate. So, this recipe is top-to-almost-bottom darker base malts, with just a touch of dark malt for color and bit of drying.
In that spirit, start with 4 lb (1.8 kg) of 9 Lovibond Munich malt and 3 lb (1.4 kg) each of Maris Otter and Vienna malt. Each will add light character-malt flavors like bread and toast, but none will get you all the way to “rich” or “caramel.” In fact, this beer contains no crystal or caramel malts at all. What you will add, though, is a dash of dark malt (3 oz/85 g)—and here, you have a choice to make. The safe route is Carafa II, a dehusked chocolate malt that will mostly just add color. But if you’re feeling more adventurous, and/or you’ve made this beer and it still seems a little sweet for whatever reason, you can go with the same amount of chocolate malt (350L). In multiple renditions of this beer, the chocolate malt version holds up far, far longer than the Carafa II version—something about that slight tinge of roast just seems to set up the drinker to think “dry” but doesn’t seem to make him/her think “roast,” and it simply lasts longer. When I’ve gone with Carafa II, I get a few weeks of crisp, dry beer—but then it starts to turn melanoidin-heavy and slightly sweet. Roll the dice with the chocolate malt, just this once, and see how it works for you. You can always go with the Carafa II next time!
You’ll also want a healthy bittering charge. We’re only offsetting about 45 points of gravity, but since you’ll have a lot of alcohol sweetness (as there’s nothing to get in its way), you should add more bittering hops than is typical in a lighter German lager. Shoot for 25 IBUs from a 60-minute addition, which will get the job done. Then add another 0.5−0.75 oz (14−21 g) of a good, noble hops variety (Mittelfruh is my current favorite, but I’ve always wanted to try Styrian Goldings in this recipe—maybe this year?) with about 5 minutes left in the boil, to add some floral and earthy notes in the nose. You should end up with about 28 IBUs.
Finally, for yeast, I go with Wyeast 2206 (Bavarian Lager). It’s a good attenuator, it’s clean, and although it’s described as producing “rich” and “malty” flavors, there’s not much here to make “rich.” I’ve read good things about the cleanliness and attenuation in the White Labs German Lager yeast as well, but I’ve never used it, so I can’t speak to how it would work here. What I can say, though, is that you’re generally looking for higher-than-average attenuation, so avoid strains that leave sugars behind.
Being a lager, you’ll obviously ferment this one cool (start at 50°F/10°C). But more so than other lagers, you’ll want to walk the temperature up steadily. We want a well-attenuated beer, but not a thin one: avoid the temptation to mash cooler to yield a more fermentable wort, since doing so might result in a beer that just tastes “thin.” We’ll get where we want to go by making sure the yeast does a thorough job, and for that, we want a fermentation that starts cool and rises steadily from initial fermentation temperatures to about 60°F (16°C). Start increasing your temperature on day three, and about 4−5 days later you should hit your target. At that point, you can just hold the temperature there until primary fermentation is complete, and you should have a very clean, very well-attenuated beer. You can cold-crash to clarify it, but time will do the job on this one—this is a beer you can, and should, lager for at least 6 weeks before drinking, and by that time it should be bright and clear.
This recipe produces a beer that is a bit darker than most, and a bit more bitter, but believe me when I say that it has tons of toast character and it lasts forever. Store it at fridge temperatures, and I swear it will basically never change in flavor. I’ve had this recipe win medals more than 14 months after bottling. I like to think Anton would enjoy it if I could bring him back to life—once he stopped marveling at the televisions and airplanes.