Ever wondered if you have tried a Vienna Lager? Not sure if you know what a ‘real’ Oktoberfest beer is? Then read on…
First we will cover the history of the category, then take a look at the specifications of each style highlighting the similarities and differences. We then sample a commercial example or two of each style.
The Vienna Lager beer style takes its name from the method used for malting the barley i.e. Vienna malt. This amber lager uses a lager yeast and is now hardly brewed in its area of origin, Austria, but is brewed in Mexico thanks to Austrian immigrants in the late 19th century.
The Oktoberfest beer style is in effect an adaptation of a Vienna Lager which was brewed from around 1840 onwards for the Oktoberfest celebrations held in Southern Germany and Austria during September/October time.
The annual Oktoberfest that is held in Munich is not actually held in the month of October as most people believe, and as the name suggests, but is a 16 day event that finishes on the first weekend of the said month. The beer that is now served at most Oktoberfest events tends to be produced by one or more of the big six** breweries based in Munich and is not a true Oktoberfest but is more of a Munich Helles which is both lighter and not as malt forward.
According to Jamil Zainasheff in his book, Brewing Classic Styles, both of these beers are malt-focused with low hop character and should be clean and easy drinking lagers. The Oktoberfest will be slightly ‘bigger’ with more maltiness and malt sweetness than the Vienna Lager. Traditionally these beers are brewed in the winter months and then lagered at cool temperatures until the Fall/Autumn.
The following table* shows how the 2 styles of European Amber Lagers vary:
|1.046 – 1.052
|1.050 – 1.057
|1.010 – 1.014
|1.012 – 1.016
|ABV (alcohol %):
|4.5 – 5.5
|4.8 – 5.7
|18 – 30
|20 – 28
|10 – 16
|7 – 14
The above table shows that Oktoberfest tends to be slightly higher is alcohol strength and uses a bit more grain as shown by the higher Original Gravity yet generally is not quite as dark in color as the Vienna Lager. Both have similar hopping levels as shown by the IBU’s.
In the following sections we will look in more detail at each of the above Beer Styles.
Commercial examples of this style include Boulevard Bobs 47 Munich-Style Lager, Negro Modelo, Old Dominion Aviator Amber Lager, Gordon Biersch Vienna Lager, Capital Wisconsin Amber, and Olde Saratoga Lager. We decided to try Great Lakes Eliot Ness and Penn Pilsner.
Great Lakes Eliot Ness has the following characteristics which are towards the top of the range for bitterness and rather strong for the style in alcohol percentage:
- ABV = 6.2% (max ABV is 5.2%)
- IBU’s = 27
This beer has a great caramel and malty flavor that is balanced nicely by moderate hopping. The above style alcohol level also helps with the flavor. A quality beer by Great Lakes Brewing out of Cleveland, Ohio.
Penn Pilsner has the following characteristics which are at the top of the range for bitterness and within style in alcohol percentage:
- ABV = 5%
- IBU’s = 30
The initial appearance of this beer compared to Eliot Ness is that it is much lighter in color. The aroma is more like a German Pilsner but after tasting it there is some caramel flavor. Overall this falls short of the Great Lakes version but is truer to style. We thought the choice of name is rather misleading given the beer style it fits into – once you know it is a European Amber Lager then your expectations might be more accurately set.
Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include:
- Vienna malted barley with some caramel and/or darker malts to add color and sweetness.
- Continental hops (preferably noble varieties).
One fact that many people are probably not aware of is that Sam Adams Boston Lager is in fact a Vienna Lager.
Commercial examples of this style, which is also called a Märzen or Maerzen (German for March beer), are generally German or American and include Paulaner Oktoberfest, Ayinger Oktoberfest-Marzen, Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest, Hofbrau Oktoberfest, Victory Festbier, Great Lakes Oktoberfest, Spaten Oktoberfest, Capital Oktoberfest, Gordon Biersch Marzen, Goose Island Oktoberfest, and Samuel Adams Oktoberfest. We decided to sample Beck’s Oktoberfest and Brooklyn Oktoberfest.
Beck’s Oktoberfest has the following characteristic which is within style for alcohol percentage:
- ABV = 5%
We could not find the IBU’s on Beck’s web site but through other sites the consensus seemed to be that this figure was 20 which is at the bottom of the range for this style.
The aroma was typical Beck’s and once you have sampled a few you will know what we mean – perhaps this comes from the Noble hops used? For the taste we were not fans and in fact found it to be rather disappointing. One observation we did make is that this beer ‘Originates in Bremen, Germany’ but is the ‘Product of St. Louis, Missouri’ so it would seem now that Anheuser-Busch and Becks are both part of Inbev, the production for the North American market has been moved from Germany to A-B’s facility in St. Louis thus this beer is not an import! Does this affect the flavor? It would be interesting to do a side-by-side a comparison to find out…
Ideally we would have preferred to taste a real Bavarian Oktoberfest but unfortunately with the time of year being mid-winter and residing in the USA obtaining one of these was not feasible.
Brooklyn Oktoberfest has the following characteristics which are within style:
- ABV = 5.5%
- IBU’s = 25
This beer tasted a bit better than the Beck’s offering – it was slightly malty, had high carbonation though perhaps a little thin on mouth-feel. Our verdict on the Oktoberfests is try and find one from Bavaria otherwise go for Sam Adams Oktoberfest which is easy to obtain for the whole of Fall in the North-East of the USA. Sam Adams’ has a great malty taste and good overall flavor.
Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include:
- Vienna malted barley with some Munich malt, Pils malt, and possibly some Crystal malt.
- Continental hops, especially noble varieties, are most authentic.
According to the BJCP guidelines “a decoction mash can help develop the rich profile”. Decoction Mashing is a traditional German method of mashing whereby the temperature of the mash is raised through a number of steps (or rests) by taking a portion of the mash (about a third of the grain and liquid) out of the Mash Tun and placed into a separate Boil Kettle and then heated until boiling whilst being stirred constantly. This not only heats up the mixture but also causes some caramelization (avoiding burning). The decoction is then reintroduced into the Mash Tun and stirred in. This whole process is usually carried out 2-4 times and makes the Mashing process a longer process.
Our next article will look at BJCP Category 4, ‘Dark Lager‘, where we will examine the three styles making up this category.
If you have any questions or comments about this article, please do not hesitate to contribute to the discussion below.
* Beer Styles’ data is courtesy of BJCP.org.