Two Amber Lager Recipes

Most homebrewers start by brewing ales. This is because it is not hard to find a cool room, or put a wet t-shirt over a carboy, and keep a fermenting ale in the proper temperature range. In contrast, for most people, holding 5.0-gallons (19 L) or more of beer at lager fermentation temperatures requires a fridge or freezer and an external thermostat. 

If you’ve decided to take the plunge in lagers, your next choice is what to brew. Obviously, the type of lager beer you enjoy the most should be at the head of the list. For me, any of the amber lagers — including Vienna lagers, Märzens, Octoberfests, American amber lagers, and even rauchbiers — would be on my short list. On a recent episode on James Spencer’s podcast, Basic Brewing Radio, we discussed how to put together an amber lager recipe. In my opinion, the top three requirements for brewing a great amber lager are running an ordered fermentation; using fresh, high-quality ingredients; and, as always, being scrupulous about your cleaning and fermentation. Running an ordered fermentation involves pitching enough healthy yeast into properly aerated wort and holding the fermentation temperature steady. 

On James’s show, we came up with two amber lager recipes that I’m sharing below. James has already brewed the first and a second brewer may try the second. (I’m going to be brewing a raspberry wheat beer from a previous show.) Here are the two recipes. 

 

Third Man in the Fourth Zone Vienna Lager 

Amber Lager (I), by Chris Colby

 

DESCRIPTION

This is a relatively dry, well-balanced amber lager. You could call it a Vienna lager, Märzen, or simply an amber lager. 

 

INGREDIENTS (for 5.0 gallons/19 L) 

Malts (for an OG. of 1.052 and 18 SRM) 

7.5 lb. (3.4 kg) Vienna malt

2.5 lb. (1.1 kg) light Munich (8–10 °L) 

2.0 oz. (57 g) black malt (dehusked preferred)

 

Hops (for 30 IBU)

2.5 oz. (71 g) Saaz hops (@3.2% AA) 

 

Yeast (for FG 1.011 and 5.4% ABV) 

lager yeast (your choice, slurry from 1.0-gallon/4 L yeast starter) 

 

PROCEDURES 

Mash in with 3.5 gallons (13 L) of water at 151 °F (66 °C) for a strike temperature of 140 °F (60 °C). Let mash rest at 140 °F (60 °C) for 15 minutes, then heat mash to 152 °F (67 °C). Stir as you heat. Raise temperature about 2 °F (~1 °C) per minute. Let rest at 152 °F (67 °C) for about 30 minutes, then mash out to 168 °F (76 °C). Recirculate and collect about 6.5 gallons (25 L) of wort. Boil for 90 minutes, to reduce wort volume to 5.0 (19 L) gallons. Add hops for final 60 minutes of the boil. Cool to fermentation temperature (which dependson the strain of yeast you have chosen). Aerate thoroughly and pitch yeast. Ferment until completion, allowing the temperature to rise to 60 °F (16 °C) at the end. After 3 days at 60 °F (16 °C), check to ensure that diacetyl is not detectable. Rack to a “secondary fermenter” or keg and store at refrigerator temperature for 4 weeks. Taste test and begin serving if the beer is no longer “green.” 

 

Backyard Cookout Amber Lager

Amber Lager (II)

 

DESCRIPTION

This is a full-bodied amber lager, in the style of many American amber lagers. It’s balanced and “quaffable,” as they say. 

 

INGREDIENTS (for 5.0 gallons/19 L)

Malts (for an OG. of 1.052 and 23 SRM)

5.0 lb. (2.3 kg) 2-row pale malt or Pilsner malt 

4.0 lb. (1.8 kg) light Munich (8–10 °L) 

6.0 oz. (170 g) crystal 40 °L

3.0 oz. (90 g) crystal 60 °L

2.0 oz. (57 g) black malt (dehusked preferred)

 

Hops (for 26 IBU) 

any relatively neutral strain of hops for bittering 

(for example  0.54 oz./15 g of Magnum at 13% AA)

0.25 oz. (7 g) any aroma hop without a strong varietal characteristic for aroma 

 

Yeast (for FG 1.013 and 5.0% ABV)

lager yeast (your choice, slurry from 1.0-gallon/4 L yeast starter) 

 

PROCEDURES 

Mash in with 3.3 gallons (12 L) of water at 163 °F (73 °C) for a strike temperature of 152 °F (67 °C). Let the mash rest for 45 minutes. Mash out to 168 °F (76 °C). Recirculate and collect about 6.3 gallons (24 L) of wort. Boil for about 75 minutes, to reduce wort volume to 5.0 gallons (19 L). Add bittering hops for final 60 minutes of the boil. Add aroma hops at knockout. Cool to fermentation temperature (which depends on your yeast strain). Aerate thoroughly and pitch yeast. Ferment until completion, allowing the temperature to rise to 60 °F (16 °C) at the end. After 3 days at 60 °F (16 °C), check that diacetyl is gone. Rack to a “secondary fermenter” or keg and store at refrigerator temperature for 4 weeks. Taste test and begin serving if the beer is no longer “green.”

Both of these recipes were formulated by James and I, and were not brewed at the time of our discussion. (They will be soon. And, they’re both very similar to two amber lagers in my recipe book, The HomeBrew Recipe Bible.) For yet another amber lager recipe, see also my Schell’s Firebrick clone. Firebrick is a beer I seek out whenever I’m in the upper midwest. It’s a wonderfully balanced beer, in my opinion.

Norwegian Holiday Beers

Norwegians take their winter beers seriously. Each year, there are over 300 different brands of juleøl for sale, with just under 200 of them brewed in Scandinavia. Winter and holiday beers are popular in the other Scandinavian countries and in northern Europe, so of course Norway imports many of these international beers as well. The word juleøl is a concatenation of jule — the winter holiday season — and øl, the Norwegain word for beer. Øl is pronounced like “pull” or “hull” in English, without the leading consonant. The whole word sounds like “you’ll ull.” In other words, the “j” is not pronouced as it is in “jitter” or “Jill.”

Norway has some restrictive laws pertaining to the sale of alcohol. Beer is expensive in Norway because the high tax rate on it is high. And discounts on alcohol are prohibited. Additionally, alcohol advertisements are also prohibited in Norway. However, Norway takes their freedom of the press very seriously and every year the Norwegian press prints lists of the best juleøls. So beer lovers have some ideas about what beers to search for. 

To buy juleøl, Norwegians must go to their local Vinmonopolet — the government-run liquor store for anything over 4.7% alcohol by volume (ABV). The word Vinmonopolet translates literally as wine monopoly as they are the only outlets from strong beer, wine, and spirits in Norway. Around Christmas, the usual beer selection will be scaled back, and the shelves filled instead with juleøl. While there, Norwegians may probably also pick up some glogg (mulled wine) or aquavit, the caraway-favored distilled spirit that’s popular year-round in Scandinavia. 

Juleøl is not style of beer in the sense of having to fall within certain guidelines. Any beer available during jule can be a juleøl. However, there are some characteristics most share. Juleøls — juleøler in Norwegian — are usually strong beers, albiet not insanely strong. Beers in the 6–7% ABV range are common, but a few are over 10% ABV. Many are amber or dark brown, although pale versions are not unheard of. Some are spiced although others aren’t. Common descriptors of the best juleøler include malty, dried fruit, and caramel. They are generally not heavily hopped. 

Homebrewers should feel free to make any beer they would enjoy over the winter and call it a juleøl. If you’re looking for some ideas, I was a guest on James Spencer’s podcast, Basic Brewing Radio somewhat recently (October 13). We discussed how to formulate a winter beer. Not specifically a juleøl, but it could be. I did publish a juleøl recipe in Mother Earth News a couple years ago. 

Octoberfest Season

Octoberfest beers are my favorite seasonal beer and I love Octoberfest season. In the US, Octoberfest beers begin appearing on the shelves in early September and remain available at least into early November. The actual German festival begins in mid-September, runs for two weeks, and ends on the first Sunday in October. German Octoberfest beers imported into the US are often of the Octoberfest Märzen type — malty, orangish-colored lagers around 5.5–6.0% ABV. However, you can also find imported Octoberfest beers in the ligher-colored festbier style. (Also note that German Octoberfests are almost always spelled with a “k” — Oktoberfest or Oktoberfestbier. Some US breweries also do this.) Of the German imports, Hacker-Pschorr — among the darkest and richest — is my favorite. However, as might be expected, there are plenty of German imports that are great and my preference is just a matter of opinion. Somewhat recently, US breweries have begun producing some spectacular Octoberfest lagers. These well-balanced beers taste great on a crisp fall evening. 

It’s not a tent in Munich, but I like my beer garden. Despite the name, Live Oak’s Oaktoberfest does not have any oak character. My arm has some poison oak character in this photo, unfortunately.

The best Octoberfest beers are malty, without any caramel or biscuit notes — just a smooth maltiness that mostly comes from Munich malt. (10 °L). The malty character may be accentuated by dark Munich malt (20 °L), melanoidin, or aromatic malt. Also, some Vienna malt (6 °L) — which is intermediate in kilning between Pilsner malt (2 °L or lower) and the Munich malts — may be present. However, a fantastic Octoberfest can brewed from a grist if 100% Munich malt. Neutral hops — noble hops in the case of actual German beers — provide just enough bitterness to make a well-balanced beer. The beer is not sweet, but it isn’t dry either. It has just enough body to feel a little more filling than a Pilsner, but not by much. Festbier types, brewed with mostly Pils malt, are generally a bit drier. The level of carbonation is within the usual range of lager beers. Overall, the Märzen style of Octoberfest is a malty lager beer with a bit more color and “heft” than a Pilsner, and with less hop bitterness. 

Another great local — or at least regional — Octoberfest lager.

US craft brewers have came a long way when it comes to producing Octoberfest beers. In the late 1980s through the early 2000s, most US “Octoberfests” were amber colored ales made with crystal malt in the grist and often showing a strong biscuit malt character. Sadly, some breweries still produce this type of beer. Many of these were also over-hopped, based on the target style. The best US breweries, however, started making lager beers that aligned with the traditional Octoberfest Märzen style and now there are many great examples. I live in Texas and the regional breweries Live Oak, Karbach, and Real Ale all make excellent interpretations of the style. (For what it’s worth, Real Ale was never a real ale brewery in the sense of brewing cask conditioned ales. They make both ales and lagers, including Hans Pils — which is one of my “go to” beers.) From discussions on social media, many homebrewers report local and regional breweries near them producing fine examples. 

For me, Octoberfests are an “indicator beer.” If a brewery or homebrewer can produce a nice Octoberfest, I have some confidence that the rest of their beers are decent. If you are brewing an Octoberfest, here is my advice. First, be fanatical about cleaning and sanitation. Even a hint of contamination — below the level that noticable off flavors are produced — can rob a malty beer of its malt flavor and aroma. Secondly, run an orderly fermentation — pitch enough yeast, aerate adequately, and hold the fermentation temperture in the proper range. Thirdly, if you are brewing an Octoberfest on the darker end of the scale, adjust your water chemistry. Make your water with just slightly more bicarbonate than the color would indicate is optimum. Not enough to throw your pH out of whack, just a bit. If you calculate residual alkalinity (RA), shoot for 1.3–1.4 for a beer that’s 13–15 SRM. Add calcium chloride such that you have 100–150 ppm calcium ions. Taste your treated water to ensure that it tastes good  — and of course eliminate any chlorine compounds through carbon filtration or with Campden tablets first. And finally, use  fresh, high-quality Munich malt.

With Octoberfest season winding down, winter warmers are up next. Prost!

Contest Karate (IV)

This is part four in this series — part one, part two, and part three can be found by following the appropriate links. in it, I examine ways to increase your chances of winning medals at homebrew contests. It all starts with brewing good beer, but for the brewer who really wants to make a splash in his local homebrew circuit, there’s more to it than that. 

There are different levels of contest competitors. Some brewers simply want to brew a few beers and win some hardware at their local competition — and maybe send a beer or two to the National Homebrew Competition (NHC). Other brewers may wish to enter several competitions or compete in a “circuit” of homebrew competitions. In a circuit, brewers score points for every beer that medals at each circuit competition. At the end of competition season, there are awards for the brewers who scored the most cumulative points. No matter how competitive you wish to be, a little planning can go a long way.

If your main concern is your local homebrew contest, you will know (at least roughly) when it is held each year. If you have your sights set on more than one contest, you should likewise determine when they are held. Most contests are held in the spring while the fewest are held in summer. Thus, many of the contests you wish to enter may be relatively close together. How does knowing this help you? It gives you time to plan your brewing. [Read more…]

Contest Karate (III)

In the first installment of this article, I discussed brewing quality beer and entering as many beers as possible as ways to use “contest karate” to win medals at homebrew contests. In the second installment, the metaphor somehow changed to Sun Tzu’s opinions on waging war and I stressed the importance of brewing your beer to stand out in a flight of similar beers. In this installment, I’ll inexplicably switch to talking about — oh, why don’t we make it ninjas? — and give further advice on entering homebrew contests. [Read more…]

Contest Karate

These beers may win a medal at a homebrew contest. How will you know? If you can snatch one before I make them disappear, the answer will come to you. (If you were smart enough not to punch a hole in your computer screen, trying to grab one of the beers in the picture, you are ready to begin your journey.)

This is an article about how to increase your chances at winning medals at homebrew contests. At this point, a very valid question you may have is, “How the hell would Chris know how to win medals?” Well, I used to enter contests fairly frequently. And, towards the end of my contest-entering phase, I did fairly well. Not ludicrously well, but I won a few medals. Much more importantly, I’ve judged and otherwise helped out at numerous contests, and seen how things work behind the scenes. My homebrew club (the Austin ZEALOTS), also has a pile of guys who are big into the competitions, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume you want to enter contests and win medals. If you simply want to continue brewing the beers you like, and occasionally enter a couple, that’s great. The point of homebrewing is to have fun. But this article is meant for someone who is looking to have fun by racking up a huge medal count and is willing to put the time and effort into doing it. So grasshopper — or cricket, or katydid, or whichever insect term you prefer — let’s begin your training. [Read more…]

Should I Dump It?

One of the most-asked questions on homebrewing forums is, “Should I dump it?” And, we’ve all likely been there. Something seems wrong with a batch and you are starting to fear that the worst has happened. With experience, you can learn which warning signs point to real trouble and which do not. For new brewers, however, unusual aromas, sights, or flavors can cause a panic. Here is a quick rundown of situations that lead brewers to ask this question, and what they should do. [Read more…]

A Surefire Way to Improve Your Beers . . . And Why You Will Ignore This Advice

I once met a fellow brewer who had built his own RIMS system. He had two temperature probes in his mash vessel and had fiddled with the engineering of the heating loop and wort return. He had also tweaked his process, varying how the wort was heated, his pump speed, etc., and finally arrived at a point that he was proud of. He could hold his mash temperatures steady, within only 0.5 °F (~0.25 °C) over time or between different places in the mash (except for inside the heating loop, obviously). He could program virtually any step mash into his controller and the rig would carry it out. He was very proud of his accomplishment (as he should have been) and he offered me one of his beers. It was contaminated. [Read more…]

Time to Get Happy

Grapes rotting — er, I mean turning into wine — in a pot.

OK, it’s time for me to get happy. And to do so, I’m going to brew another version of one of my favorite beers — Ancient Sumerian Happy Juice. Several years ago, I read the English translation of the poem Hymn to Ninkasi. This poem praises the goddess Ninkasi, who the ancient Sumerians believed watched over beer production. From the poem, I came up with a “beer” recipe. The beverage contains honey and fruits, as well as grains, so it’s really a hybrid beer, wine, and mead. The basic idea was that dates were crushed and made into wine. Barley was milled and mixed with honey and baked into bread, which the poem called bappir. Malted grains were then mashed along with the bread. The wort from this was boiled and then cooled and the fermenting date wine was added to it. I used some smoked malt in the recipe as I figured that ancient malting techniques may have yielded malt tainted with smoke.  [Read more…]

20 Brewing Questions

So you think you know brewing, huh? Well step up to the plate and try to answer these 20 brewing questions. If you can pick the right answers from the wrong answers, the doubly wrong answers, and the answers that are so wrong that they just might be right, you will have our undying respect. This quiz is meant to be challenging, but also fun. And, given that you’ll score it yourself, you can still score 100% no matter what you answer (you know, like most online quizzes). If you’re brave, post your answers — that you gave without Googling — in the comments section. I’ll post the answer key with explanations of everything — and hopefully better jokes — on Thursday. So, grab your #2 pencil, then set it back down because you shouldn’t draw on your computer screen and . . . begin the quiz! [Read more…]