On Dancing In The Brewhouse – Juggling Pots and a Step Mash

Last winter, I got my house in order, both mentally and physically, enough to brew a series of real cold-conditioned lagers. Like many home brewers, I had mostly avoided lagers in general, unable to control the temperatures well enough in my brewing area to assure consistent cold. But rearranging rooms and furniture some enabled me to keep a back room right around 42 – 44°F during the winter (it gets up to nearly 60 in the summer).

I brewed a Pilsner, a Bock, a Rauchbier, a Munich Dunkel and a Helles, a Dortmund, a Schwartzbier… One brew I was not particularly happy with however was my Vienna. It was OK, drinkable, but had no character. Making it worse, as Spring came around, my friend Walter won big with his Vienna at a state-wide competition. I had to try again, but I had to wait for cold. Well, it’s mid-November and I have a room at 45°F. Time for another try.

Normally, for almost every brew, I use a simple infusion mash. One temperature, one mash-in, nice and simple. With modern malts, this is generally fine for all styles of beer. But since I wanted this Vienna to be a little special, I decided to try a (still simple) step mash. The first step is a combination protein and saccharification rest, the second is for dextrinization. In other words, the production of fermentable sugars is separate from the unfermentables (dextrines) that contribute to the body and mouthfeel. I wanted this brew to have a strong malty character, so this mash schedule (as well as the addition of melanoidin malt to the grain bill) should help. A long boil is essential also to caramelize and sweeten.

The biggest challenge? Timing and having enough pots. I had to heat three separate quantities of water, to different temps and all pretty much at the same time.

Vienna Lager
5 gallons, all grain


  • 9 lbs. Weyermann Vienna malt
  • 1/2 lb. melanoidin malt
  • 1/2 lb. 150°L crystal malt
  • pinch black malt
  • 1/2 oz. Sterling hop pellets (@7% aa)
  • 1/2 oz. Perle hop pellets (@8.3% aa)
  • White Labs Old Bavarian Lager yeast (WLP920)
  • 2/3 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Crush grains. Heat 12 quarts water to 142°F. Mash in grains, hold 15 minutes at 135°F. Heat another 2 quarts water to 172°F. Add to mash, add heat and raise temperature of whole mash to 160°F. Cover and hold at 160°F for 45 minutes. Heat 14 quarts water to 170°F. Transfer mash to mash/lauter tun. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting approximately 26 quarts sweet wort. Bring to boiling, add 1/4 oz. Sterling pellets. Boil 30 minutes, add 1/4 oz. Perle pellets. Boil another 30 minutes, add 1/4 oz. each Sterling and Perle. Boil 30 more minutes (90 total), remove from heat and chill to 80°F. Take a hydrometer reading, pitch yeast and seal. Ferment warm (65°F) for three  days, then move to a cooler spot (50°F) for a week. Rack to secondary, condition cold (38 – 42°F) for four to six weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and age warm for three days, then move bottles to cold for three weeks.

OG: 1060
IBU’s: 23

Notes on style: This is an old story to most beer geeks, of course, but the Vienna style is all but extinct in Austria. In fact, Walter, who is himself Austrian, had never heard of the style until moving to the States and beginning to brew at home. But, the story goes, when Mexico was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, brewers were brought from Austria to keep the Mexican Austrians supplied with beer. One of those breweries, established in the mid-1800’s, was Modelo, whose Negra Modelo is probably the best remaining example of the Vienna Lager style. (Dos Equis is another example, although a bit less authentic.) Deep amber to almost reddish brown, Vienna Lagers emphasize clean malty flavor with bitterness only serving as a contrast. They are somewhat similar to the Märzen/Oktoberfest style, although generally lower in gravity and a bit more bitter.

Notes on step mash: The recipe above probably doesn’t seem that much more complicated than a normal infusion mash. I am happy to say that, in the end, it probably only took me an extra 20 minutes and did seem to work. I won’t know for sure how the beer came out until January. Hmm… maybe I’ll do a decoction next time?

Notes on yeast and pitching: The yeast used here is one of White Labs’ Platinum Series, a rotation of seasonal yeasts. This one is recommended for dark lagers. I will probably re-pitch it in a Munich Dunkel next week, barring any weirdness in this batch.
I wanted to make sure it got a good start, so I did make a larger slurry (over the course of three days I fed the yeast small doses of weak wort); here again, timing was crucial, and when I pitched the yeast it was incredibly active in the jar.

Tasting Notes – New Lagers

So what does a home brew guru do in between brewing sessions? Well, there’s racking and bottling, cleaning and organizing, of course, but I also get to try out new beers. Since I brew more or less weekly, I get a new beer “on-line” almost as frequently. One of the things I like about home brewing, especially the way I do it, is that I always have a variety of brews to taste. Variety is my ideal, and if I have two or three beers in an evening, it’s always two or three different styles.

Last night I decided to compare my three latest brews. Since the weather turned cold, I have been brewing mostly lagers. I have a room at the back of the house which is shut off and not heated during the winter (Yankee frugality or Scottish cheapness? or home brew guru cleverness? You decide…). In the dead of winter, when the rest of the heated house is between 60 – 65°F, and it’s anywhere from 20° down to -10°F outside, my back room stays a pretty constant 40 – 45°F. Perfect for lagering the way I do it.

First, a note about tasting. I am a BJCP-certified National Beer Judge. You laugh, but there’s actually a fairly rigorous training and educational program, culminating in a 3-hour exam. You need to know a little micro-biology, a little physics, a little chemistry, some math, some history… and you have to train your taste buds to pick out certain flavors, aromas, etc. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. You can get more information on the program, or see the style guidelines we use to judge in competitions on the BJCP website.

There are basically four tangible components to tasting.

  • Aroma – does it smell right? do you smell malt, hops, yeast, something else?
  • Appearance – is it the right color? is the head the right color and consistency? is the clarity or lack of it appropriate?
  • Mouthfeel – can be thick, thin, anywhere in between, but this also refers to carbonation level and certain texture factors.
  • Taste – there are lots of different flavors potentially in any given beer – with the style guidelines in front of you, do you taste what’s supposed to be there, and are the off-flavors and inappropriate tastes not there? aftertaste? bitterness and sweetness?

Generally speaking, the method is:

  • Pour an appropriately-chilled beer into a clean, clear glass. Different beers are served at different temperatures for optimum flavor. A dirty or greasy (or soapy) glass will interfere with carbonation level, head retention as well as aroma and flavor.
  • Swirl the beer gently, place the beer under you nose and inhale.
  • Look at the beer, with a light source behind it. Note the color, clarity, head, carbonation in the beer itself.
  • Take a sip. Let the beer sit on the back of your tongue for a few seconds. Note carbonation, mouthfeel in general; allow the aroma to rise up into your sinus passage. Is the beer sweet/ bitter? Note all the flavors, good and bad, you notice. Now swallow. Is there an aftertaste? a different flavor or aroma after the liquid is gone?
  • Repeat the last step to confirm your impressions.If tasting another beer, cleanse your palate with a cracker or piece of bread.

So, in the order in which they were brewed, going back to November, here is what I thought of my three newest offerings.

Hellespont Munich Hell (brewed November 5 2009)
In the tradition of the original Munich golden lagers (“hell” in German means “light”, as opposed to “dunkel”, “dark”…) such as Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner and Löwenbräu.

Dark gold (possibly too dark for style), pale head, thinnish – not fully carbonated yet, perhaps. Aroma is malty, sweet, no obvious hop aroma, mildly alcoholic. Medium-to-full-bodied, slightly lacking in carbonation. Nice bitterness on the back of the tongue. Rich malty flavor, some alcohol. Will improve with age, more carbonation. B / B+

Innsbruck Vienna Lager (brewed November 12 2009)
This style is no longer really brewed in Austria, or if it is, it is not exported. Instead, the best known examples are from Mexico – Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. These breweries date back to when Mexico was part of the Austrian Empire.

Deep amber, vaguely reddish, crystal clear. Light beige head, well-developed and persistent. Caramel malty nose, slight toasted notes. Full bodied and smooth. Sweet malty finish, background bitterness in balance, mild hop flavor up-front. Very clean beer, no notable alcoholic flavor or aroma. no diacetyl. B+/A-

Black Bridge Schwarzbier (brewed November 24 2009)
Also known as a Schwarzpils, this style is dark (“Schwarz” is “black”), but more crisp and clean, like a good Czech Pilsner. Not many good examples known in the US. Ayinger makes one, Köstritzer is probably the most revered. Saranac’s Black Forest Lager is quite good.

Dark brown, not quite black. Slightly cloudy/muddy appearance. Beige head, full and thick. Much diacetyl in the nose – not appropriate for style, maybe, but yummy butterscotch and roasty notes. Flavor is roasty/malty, grain bitterness but also well-balanced hop bitterness and flavor. Alternating bitter / sweet / bitter flavors. A little out of style, too sweet, too much diacetyl, but a delicious beer. May dry out and be more in line after a few more weeks in the bottle. B / B+