A Bit of Blood, Plenty of Sweat, but no Tears: Brewing My First Lager

Vienna LagerI had a lot of fun brewing my German weizen this past fall, and decided I wanted to try and squeeze in another beer. The weather was getting progressively cooler and another ale wasn’t really an option, so I investigated lager styles. Lagers are a bit more finicky and complex to brew due to the cooler fermentation temperatures and cold storage lagering. However that cooler fermentation does make them a bit better adapted to winter brewing. Most housing here in Japan lacks insulation and central heat. That means that your apartment can be quite chilly, too cold for ale yeast to do their thing, but hopefully just right for making a lager. I looked hard to find a style that would let me dip my toes into lager brewing, something I could make without too much trouble. I ended up with my most complicated beer yet, a partial mash Vienna lager.

Vienna lager originated in the early 1800s in Austria. It was one of the earliest lager styles, created soon after the isolation of the bottom fermenting lager yeast. The beer is a light amber in color, and has a wonderful malt dominated flavor. It exists in a middle zone between the crisp hoppy pilsners and the darker roasted dunkels. Interestingly enough, the Vienna lager is almost extinct in continental brewing. Brewers in Austria and Bavaria took instead to the stronger oktoberfests, which are very similar but have a higher alcohol content and a darker color. The Vienna lager has been kept alive by American craft brewers and by the legacy of Austrian immigrants to Mexico. Even today Negra Modelo is one of the most widespread examples of a Vienna lager. Other examples you can find fairly easily are Samuel Adams Boston Lager, (Ironically the style post dates the lifespan of the real Samuel Adams) and Yebisu Kohaku (in the red cans). For the home brewer lagers can be difficult to brew, their light body and clear flavors don’t leave much room for problems to hide. If anything goes wrong in the brewing process here, the flaws will be readily apparent. I picked this particular style because it is a bit maltier than a standard pilsner, so there could be a bit more space for off flavors to hide. Not very much space though, it is a pretty clean and simple flavor profile. I also wanted a beer with a low abv. The higher the alcohol percentage, the longer you have to lager, and I wanted to keep the cold storage period to a minimum.

All of my previous beers had been brewed using malt extract with steeped specialty grains. With this method, I put a bag of grains in hot water to make a sort of tea, and then add malt extract to make up the bulk of the fermentable sugars. You can make beer at home with only the malt extract, but adding the specialty grains gives you a more complex and better flavor without adding much work to the  brewing process. While that method has served me well for several years, I had to level up my brewing a bit for this beer. To make a proper Vienna lager, you need to use Vienna malt. However I couldn’t get any Vienna malt extract here in Japan. So if I wanted to make a beer in this style, I would have to mash some Vienna malt.

Mashing is one of the major steps in creating beer. It is a longer, more precise version of the specialty grains steep. To mash is to mix hot water and malted grains together. The hot water seeps into the grains and activates enzymes which break the complex grain starches down into sugars that the yeast can eat. I went with a partial-mash plan, where half of the fermentable sugars would come from mashing Vienna and Munich malts and half from liquid lager malt extract. This let me make a Vienna lager, but without the difficulty of mashing all of the grains required. Many homebrewers do all grain brewing without any problems, but given the space constraints that come with living in Japan that is not something I wanted to mess with.

Once the actual brewing and fermenting is finished you have the lagering phase. This is an additional step, and involves storing the beer at a very cool temperature for weeks to months. My hope had been that the weather would naturally keep my apartment cool enough for lagering, but the late November temperatures simply weren’t quite cold enough so I had to improvise. I stuck the beer in the bathtub in an ice water bath. This kept things cold enough, but it was a lot of work. I had to keep swapping out frozen 2 liter jugs to keep the temperature at the appropriate level. After a week of that I was pretty ready to be finished lagering! While I had originally intended to lager for two weeks, I managed to split that up so that one week was in the tub, and then I bottled the beer, carbonated it, and finished with a week in the refrigerator. While that is not the ideal method, in this instance it worked out just fine. The last thing we needed was a name. Originally I had intended to name it Vivid Vienna Lager, as I have an adoration of alliteration. However during the brewing process my good friend and beer ally The Mad Capper had a minor bike mishap while handling several kilograms of block ice. In honor of his drawn blood in the name of brewing, I dubbed the brew Heartsblood Vienna Lager.

While this was a much more complicated project than past brews, I learned a lot more about brewing by doing it. It was fun, interesting, and the end result was well worth it. The beer that comes out of these bottles has a rich malty flavor and is very easy to drink. The biggest problem it has is a slight under carbonation, which is something to note for next time. Overall it felt really good to stretch myself, and to be rewarded for doing so. I am not sure what my next brew will be, but there will certainly be more!

Do you homebrew? Have you ever made a lager? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “A Bit of Blood, Plenty of Sweat, but no Tears: Brewing My First Lager

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