I’m on a quest to perfect a Vienna Lager. It’s a style I love, and I think is a bit misunderstood. It’s also fairly difficult to find a good example of the style, so judging it can be difficult.
In preparation for entering the beer in several competitions I’m going to review the changes to the BJCP guidelines from the 2008 version to the 2015 version, and give a little commentary to hopefully dispel some of the common misunderstandings.
The full guidelines can be found at http://bjcp.org/stylecenter.php
I think the 2015 guidelines are a little better organized, so I’ll be following the format from the 2015 guidelines and comparing the equivalent section of the 2008 guidelines with the 2008 guideline section presented first.
2008 Overall Impression
Characterized by soft, elegant maltiness that dries out in the finish to avoid becoming sweet.
2015 Overall Impression
A moderate-strength amber lager with a soft, smooth maltiness and moderate bitterness, yet finishing relatively dry. The malt flavor is clean, bready-rich, and somewhat toasty, with an elegant impression derived from quality base malts and process, not specialty malts and adjuncts.
The 2008 guidelines don’t really describe anything. If a BJCP candidate used the words “elegant maltiness” on their exam, they would probably be dinged points for using generic terminology. The overall impression of the 2008 guidelines boils down to “not sweet”, which is also, “not helpful”. The 2015 guidelines actually do a pretty good job of describing the beer. It’s moderately malty, moderately bitter, and relatively dry. This tells me it’s a well balanced beer with neither bitterness or maltiness really sticking out. The flavor is bread-centric. Toast, malt grain, and I assume a whole range of bread related flavors such as dark bread, biscuits, crackers, and more would be acceptable, and since it’s “rich” that the more complexity in that regard, the better.
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.
Moderately-intense malt aroma, with toasty and malty-rich aromatics. Clean lager character. Floral, spicy hop aroma may be low to none. A significant caramel or roasted aroma is inappropriate.
The major thing to note here is that references to specific, but sensory neutral descriptors are avoided in the 2015 guidelines, at least outside of some regional-specific styles. So references to “German malt” are gone. Also, comments relating to other styles has been moved to the new “Style Comparison” heading. The major sensory note here is that the “light toasted malt aroma” from 2008 is gone from 2015. This seems to be a reference to Negra Modelo, which was kind of the benchmark for the 2008 guidelines. Negra Modelo has been dropped completely from the 2015 examples, and based on this and other changes, should not be considered a hallmark example of the style. Also, note “roasted aroma” is now inappropriate, again, see Negra Modelo.
Light reddish amber to copper color. Bright clarity. Large, off-white, persistent head.
Light reddish amber to copper color. Bright clarity. Large, off-white, persistent head.
Nothing earth shattering here. Do note that brown color is unacceptable for both guidelines. Again, see Negra Modelo.
Soft, elegant malt complexity is in the forefront, with a firm enough hop bitterness to provide a balanced finish. Some toasted character from the use of Vienna malt. No roasted or caramel flavor. Fairly dry finish, with both malt and hop bitterness present in the aftertaste. Noble hop flavor may be low to none.
Soft, elegant malt complexity is in the forefront, with a firm enough hop bitterness to provide a balanced finish. The malt flavor tends towards a rich, toasty character, without significant caramel or roast flavors. Fairly dry, crisp finish, with both rich malt and hop bitterness present in the aftertaste. Floral, spicy hop flavor may be low to none. Clean lager fermentation character.
Again, ingredient recommendations are avoided in the 2015 guidelines outside the ingredients section. Major thing to note is that caramel flavor in 2008 was inappropriate, but in 2015, it shouldn’t be “significant” which would indicate that some is allowed. Also, the malt character tends towards rich and toasty, not “some toasted character”. This is a bit of an odd choice of words, because it doesn’t provide a flavor level indication like “moderate” or “high”. It also kind of ignores the fact that vienna malt just doesn’t taste that toasty. At least, to my palate it doesn’t. I’d need to use some sort of specialty kilned or roasted malt like amber, biscuit, brown, or even some dark roasted malt to get something like that. This seems to be a little more reminiscent of the 2008 guidelines trying to peg Negra Modelo, but doesn’t really rule out the better examples like Devil’s Backbone Vienna lager which doesn’t have much in the way of toast to my palate. Like in the overall impression, dry but rich finish with malt and hops. Lager character is specified in the 2015 guidelines, which is a good addition.
Medium-light to medium body, with a gentle creaminess. Moderate carbonation. Smooth. Moderately crisp finish. May have a bit of alcohol warming.
Medium-light to medium body, with a gentle creaminess. Moderate carbonation. Smooth.
2008 guidelines seem to be either way off or making a huge concession to Great Lakes Eliot Ness with the alcohol warming note. Glad that’s gone. There should be no alcohol warming in a 5.5% max beer. Note on crisp finish was moved to flavor, which is fine.
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.
A standard-strength everyday beer, not a beer brewed for festivals. American versions can be a bit stronger, drier and more bitter, while modern 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 Amber/Dark International Lagers. Regrettably, many modern examples use adjuncts which lessen the rich malt complexity characteristic of the best examples of this style. This style is on the watch list to move to the Historical category in future guidelines; that would allow the classic style to be described while moving the sweeter modern versions to the International Amber or Dark Lager styles.
Comments in the 2015 guidelines make more sense to me, with the exception of the potential move to Historical. This style is seeing a bit of a revival with many small craft brewers making the style and Sierra Nevada has begun bottling and nationally distributing their example, which is quite a good example of the style too IMO, it’s also the second rated Vienna Lager on BeerAdvocate’s list. Which is especially noteworthy because number 1 is Eliot Ness, which is pretty much ruled out in these guidelines due to its strength and bitterness. I think the style should probably stay where it is and the adjunct laden Mexican Vienna Lagers should move to International Amber or Dark as appropriate. This is really the only spot where the 2015 guidelines get fuzzy on whether Negra Modelo should still be considered a Vienna lager for BJCP style purposes. The comments seem to indicate it still belongs here, but the rest of the style description makes it seem quite out of place. My favorite part of the new comments is the first line: “A standard-strength everyday beer”. If you’ve ever had Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager, that description hits it on the nose. If you look at some of the BeerAdvocate reviews of that beer, you’ll see several comments to that effect.
The original amber lager developed by Anton Dreher shortly after the isolation of lager yeast. Nearly extinct in its area of origin, the style continues in Mexico where it was brought by Santiago Graf and other Austrian immigrant brewers in the late 1800s. Regrettably, most modern examples use adjuncts which lessen the rich malt complexity characteristic of the best examples of this style. The style owes much of its character to the method of malting (Vienna malt). Lighter malt character overall than Oktoberfest, yet still decidedly balanced toward malt.
Developed by Anton Dreher in Vienna in 1841, became popular in the mid-late 1800s. Now nearly extinct in its area of origin, the style continues in Mexico where it was brought by Santiago Graf and other Austrian immigrant brewers in the late 1800s. Authentic examples are increasingly hard to find (except perhaps in the craft beer industry) as formerly good examples become sweeter and use more adjuncts.
No changes of note here
Vienna malt provides a lightly toasty and complex, melanoidin-rich malt profile. As with Oktoberfests, only the finest quality malt should be used, along with Continental hops (preferably noble varieties). Moderately hard, carbonate-rich water. Can use some caramel malts and/or darker malts to add color and sweetness, but caramel malts shouldn’t add significant aroma and flavor and dark malts shouldn’t provide any roasted character.
2015 Characteristic Ingredients
Vienna malt provides a lightly toasty and complex, Maillard-rich malt profile. As with Märzens, only the finest quality malt should be used, along with Continental hops (preferably Saazer types or Styrians). Can use some caramel malts and/or darker malts to add color and sweetness, but caramel malts shouldn’t add significant aroma and flavor and dark malts shouldn’t provide any roasted character.
Major note here that water specs have been removed. I assume as the style gains popularity among craft brewers all sorts of water profiles are being used to make this beer. Interestingly, this is the first mention of sweetness from caramel malts. The impression from the rest of the style is that caramel malts are basically inappropriate, but here they can add sweetness. I think the main takeaway from this and the Comments section is that you can add some caramel malt, but you must do so cautiously so you don’t make the beer too sweet overall.
2008 Style Comparison
2015 Style Comparison
Lighter malt character, slightly less body, and slightly more bitter in the balance than a Märzen, yet with many of the same malt-derived flavors. The malt character is similar to a Märzen, but less intense and more balanced. Lower in alcohol than Märzen or Festbier. Less rich, less malty and less hop-centered compared to Czech Amber Lager.
I’m so excited that they added this section in 2015. It really helps you draw a line between styles, and also helps you hone your focus on a style you aren’t that familiar with by giving you some nearby style landmarks that you might be more familiar with. If you are familiar with the 2008 guidelines for Vienna and Marzen, you probably have noticed how much overlap those styles had in some sections. The 2015 guidelines draw a line in the sand and say that Vienna is the same general profile as Marzen, but not quite as intense, and more balanced with hop bitterness, which is a perfect way to put it. This also edges out examples like Negra Modelo, which really don’t have much in common with Marzen. I’m not totally convinced that the differentiation with Czech Amber Lager actually exists. The styles seem to overlap completely, but Czech Amber is allowed to be bigger and much more hop forward. Maybe that differentiation is between the best examples of both styles? I’m not sure.
2008 Vital Statistics
OG: 1.046 – 1.052
IBUs: 18 – 30
FG: 1.010 – 1.014
SRM: 10 – 16
ABV: 4.5 – 5.5%
2015 Vital Statistics
OG:1.048 – 1.055
IBUs:18 – 30
FG:1.010 – 1.014
SRM:9 – 15
ABV:4.7 – 5.5%
Some small tweaks, but the one that stands out is the single digit lower SRM value in 2015. Devils Backbone Vienna is 8 SRM and listed as the premier example of the style, so I would have expected that they would go to 8 SRM, but maybe that data wasn’t available at time of publishing.
2008 Commercial Examples
Great Lakes Eliot Ness (unusual in its 6.2% strength and 35 IBUs), Boulevard Bobs 47 Munich-Style Lager, Negra Modelo, Old Dominion Aviator Amber Lager, Gordon Biersch Vienna Lager, Capital Wisconsin Amber, Olde Saratoga Lager, Penn Pilsner
2015 Commercial Examples
Cuauhtémoc Noche Buena, Chuckanut Vienna Lager, Devils Backbone Vienna Lager, Figueroa Mountain Danish-style Red Lager, Heavy Seas Cutlass Amber Lager, Schell’s Firebrick
Finally, we see why I’ve been harping on Negra Modelo this whole time. It’s the 3rd example in the 2008 guidelines, but unlisted in 2015. It’s a blackish-brown beer that has too much roasty/toasty character, and doesn’t display much, if any of the rich maltiness of the style. It’s also worth noting that all the examples have changed from 2008-2015. Eliot Ness is gone because it is too strong and too bitter, but I’m not sure why Bob’s 47 is out. I’ve never had that beer, but maybe it’s more of a mediocre example of Marzen than it is a good example of Vienna. I have not had Noche Buena, but I suppose I’ll be looking for it in the Winter when it is seasonally available. If I’m ever in the PNW I’ll look out for Chuckanut Vienna. I’ve heard good things about that brewery. Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager is the beer that got me into this style. When I was able to drive through the Virginia countryside to Devil’s Backbone and try this beer, it was the shining star from their brewpub. Anytime I’m in that area I look out for this beer because it’s so tasty and drinkable. They graciously provided the recipe for their Vienna Lager to AHA members as part of their NHC 2014 presentation on lagers. The only disappointing aspect is that they use the Augustiner Lager yeast, which isn’t available to homebrewers. The recipe is definitely worth checking out in their presentation.
Hopefully this will help you on your path to creating a great Vienna Lager, unless your name is Marshall Schott or Derek Springer, in which case, keep making lousy Negra Modelo clones while I crush you in NHC 2016.