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Vienna Lager Train! Woot! All Aboard!

Wait, what?

Slow down there mister.  Vienna Lager?  Aren’t you Mr. Look-at-all-the-barrels-I-have?  Mr. Sours?  Mr. “Infection is Sacch in Your Beer”?  What is going on? 

I’ll tell you what’s going on, and that is the Vienna Lager train.  All aboard this choo-choo as we head to crushable flavortown.  I’ve jumped on and so should you.  Here’s why.

Vienna Lager is a really delightful style of beer whose origins are somewhat all over the place, although there are clues here and there that eventually take us back to Austria.  Before we dive in though, the question that needs to be answered is why are we looking at this kind of beer?  First and foremost is flavor.  Vienna Lager is a well balanced, crisp, clean, easy drinking beer that almost anyone will enjoy.  More complex than a Pilsner, without the over-malted tones of an Oktoberfest/Märzen.  Most of us have had an Oktoberfest beer, think of Vienna as being along the same track, but with much more hop-balanced, subtle flavors.  I’m not the first to mention that this is NOT a mini-Märzen.   It is a lower strength beverage, but the malt/hop profile is different than an Oktoberfest – which makes it an even easier beer to sip.  Your Budweiser drinking buddies will think they’re having some succulent craft beverage.  Hipsters will love it because most have never heard of it.


Why else would a sour-beer loving soul such as myself recommend a Vienna Lager?  Its palate cleansing goodness.  As much as I love sour and wild beer, sometimes its nice to have a break to refresh.  Whether it’s enjoying a clean Vienna between sampling sour brews (and Zantac), or even taking a few weeks between some low pH pounders, it’s great to give your mouth a chance to relax and establish a baseline.  I find that even though I’m drinking lots of sour beer, my in-between go-tos are Vienna Lagers and fresh IPAs.  I’m no expert in Vienna Lagers, but here’s what I’ve learned over the last year or so.

A traditional Vienna Lager would have been made in Vienna almost exclusively with Vienna malt.  Nowadays they are slowly working back to this tradition, but for a while were influenced by beers of a similar name coming out of Mexico.  Back in the early 19th century, malt was kilned using direct fire.  This is akin to putting your meat on the grill directly over the coals: the malt (just like the meat) became a dark color very quickly.  It was the travels of Munich Brewer Gabriel Sedlmayr (Spaten Brewery) and Vienna Brewer Anton Dreher (Dreher Brewery) that shed some light on another method of kilning malt: indirect fire.  Think putting the coals on one side and meat on the other.  Result?  Lighter, brown coloring and less char.  Enter lightly toasted malts.

Sedlmayr and Dreher brought this malting technology back to their hometowns (along with a few stolen samples.  Yes, they actually had a cane made for their journey fashioned with a metal tube designed for stealing wort and yeast.  Sedlmaryr is often quoted as saying, “It always surprises me that we can get away with these thefts without being beaten up.”).  Dreher kilned his malt in Vienna to a similar toast we are familiar with, and Sedlmayer toasted his at a slightly higher temperature and for a bit longer, hence the Munich malt having stronger flavors.

It was in 1841 that Dreher showcased his new beer in Vienna.  Much of the research about color and flavors are somewhat unclear, but one thing is for certain: Dreher wanted his beer to be bright.  From all accounts I have read, many of the beers of that time were darker: brown and red.  The impression I get is that a Vienna lager in Dreher’s day is much lighter than the commercial examples we’ve come to know.

So… Mexico?  Quick version: Mexico stopped paying money to Europe, Napoleon III invades, and an Austrian was declared Emperor of Mexico.  Enter German immigrants and all sorts of tradespeople, including brewers – one Santiago Graf – and the delicious Vienna elixirs.  Slowly though, Vienna lager begins to fade from the scene, being replaced by darker lagers – some even still identifying as the  Vienna style.

I jumped on the Vienna Train when my blogging internet friends started talking shit about how good their Vienna Lagers were.  Like me, your first step is disbelief.  Suuuurre Captain Pedio, those beers are probably “okay”, but don’t stand up to other, more “complex beers.”  Wrong.  The second step is to playfully start talking shit back about how good of a Vienna Lager you’re going to brew.  Third, frantically research what a Vienna Lager is (I’m helping you out on this one).  Fourth, brew it.  Try some commercial examples (I drank a lot of Devils Backbone at HomebrewCon this last year).  Drink your brew, and try again.  This is my fifth batch of Vienna so far and it’s definitely a contender for the best one.  I’ve tried this recipe, one from Derek over at Five Blades Brewing, a triple decoction 100% Vienna malt, and a few variations on going as close to all Vienna as I can.

I opted for using Tettanager instead of Hallertau or Saaz, and only added dashes of melanoiden and carafa II (for a slight color change).  I wanted it to be as close to 100% Vienna as I could, but found in a previous batch that a little color and melanoiden was pleasant.  I chose to do a faster lager fermentation.  I pitched at 50F, held for a couple days, then ramped it up a couple degrees per day until I hit the mid 60s.  After five days at 66F, I lowered it to 33F, kegged, fined, and served.  What a gorgeous beer this turned out to be.  Not as dark as some commercial examples that use darker malts (Backbone!  Ahem!), but really a pleasant beer.


Other than brewing Viennas, I’ve been working on my NEIPAs and blending/fruiting lambic beers from 2013/2014.  If you follow my homebrewery regularly, you’ll find there has been more action on the ‘social media’ websites than the blog.  Part of that is the simplicity of posting a photo with a tagline, part of it is the lack of time I have for articles now with an additional child in the house.  I’m working on getting a few more articles ready, including more NEIPA thoughts, a few foodie recipes, more bread, eventually some “Milk the Funk” wiki writing, and tentatively a few short webisodes showing “how-to’s” and other fun stuff.  In addition to all that, I’m brewing beers for discussion here for our local brew club meetings, getting ready for winter, and parenting to the maximum.  If you want to follow along more with what happens, I’m pretty sure the social media buttons work.  Contact me here or there!  Cheers!

Hollow Cane

Recipe Details

Batch Size Boil Time IBU SRM Est. OG Est. FG ABV
5.5 gal 60 min 23.8 IBUs 8.9 SRM 1.050 1.011 5.1 %

Style Details

Name Cat. OG Range FG Range IBU SRM Carb ABV
Vienna Lager 7 A 1.048 - 1.055 1.01 - 1.014 18 - 30 9 - 15 2.5 - 3 4.7 - 5.5 %


Name Amount %
Vienna Malt 10 lbs 98.04
Carafa II 1.6 oz 0.98
Melanoiden Malt 1.6 oz 0.98


Name Amount Time Use Form Alpha %
Tettnang 1 oz 60 min Boil Pellet 5.5
Tettnang 0.5 oz 15 min Boil Pellet 5.5


Name Lab Attenuation Temperature
Mexican Lager (WLP940) White Labs 74% 50°F - 55°F


Step Temperature Time
Mash In 150°F 75 min

Aroma is light and malty, less so than the Paulaner Oktoberfest I drank earlier.  Light hop spiciness.  Clean, no off flavors.

Appearance is crystal clear.  Not as dark as many commercial examples, but still lovely looking.


When it comes to flavor, this beer is on the lighter scale of commercial Viennas I’ve tried… it’s an edge above the widespread pale lagers, with medium maltiness.  A light toastiness follows the malt character, then a balanced hop flavor and clean lager finish.  No caramel, no roast.   Finishes dry.  More body than a Pilsner.  Exceptionally easy to drink.


  1. How big of a starter did you use? Was thinking of a doing a vienna style, and stumbled upon this… Will brew it this weekend.

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