Beer Tasting: Decoction Envy Vienna Lager

20161106_140947My first attempt at a Vienna lager has nicely cleared and conditioned, turning into one delicious beer! My overall evaluation is below.

  • The Basics
    • Original gravity = 1.055; final gravity = 1.014; abv = 5.4%; estimated IBU = 29
  • Aroma
    • Spicy hop note, really delicious, with a slight crackery aroma behind that for the malt.
  • Appearance
    • Light gold, crystal clear, with frothy white head that is incredibly persistent. The beer is definitely paler than a Vienna lager should be, though.
  • Flavor
    • Bready and crackery maltiness at the forefront; really, really nice. This is balanced against a decent bitterness. It comes across as a somewhat dry beer, which is within line for a Vienna lager. The finish is very clean; no abnormal esters or phenols on this thing!
  • Mouthfeel
    • Medium body, moderately dry on the finish, with moderate carbonation that seems about right for this beer.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • On its own merits as a beer, I’d give it a 9.5/10, but in terms of color it misses the mark for a true Vienna lager as defined by BJCP. If I do this again, I would add a slight bit of dark malt for coloration (maybe 2-3 oz. of debittered black malt), but maintain the overall process of decoction. The head and head retention are pretty amazing (almost too amazing–it’s hard to get a good pour!), and I would bet that is the result of the decoction process. I’m quite surprised that the beer didn’t darken up more during the decoction–maybe I should have boiled long enough, or didn’t boil intensely enough? The yeast I used on this one worked out really well, and the water build also seems to have been just the ticket.
  • Overall: 
    • 8/10

Decoction Envy Vienna Lager

Continuing my exploration of Vienna malt, I turned my sights onto the most Viennese of all Vienna malt-based brews: Vienna lager. This is my first time with the style, and only my third time brewing a lager beer, so I did a fair bit of research to flesh out the basics for this batch.

My recipe was modeled primarily on “Nothing But Vienna” from Gordon Strong’s Modern Homebrew Recipes. As the name implies, Strong’s recipe was a SMaSH, which appealed to me as a way to delve as deeply as possible into the mysteries of Vienna malt. The recipe from Modern Homebrew used a decoction mash to develop the rich amber color characteristic of the Vienna lager style, which meant a great chance for me to expand my techniques!

Vienna Malt

Once I had a base recipe in mind, I couldn’t resist the urge to modify it. Some of this was based on necessity, and some of this was based on my own inclination. The original brew called for whole Sterling hops; pellets were easier to track down. I also elected to use dry yeast, both for simplicity as well as to give dry lager yeast a try (in this case, the well-reviewed Saflager W34/70). Finally, I knew that I wanted to build up some water for this, but Strong’s water suggestion (RO water with just a bit of calcium chloride augmented by phosphoric acid) also departed from the “traditional” recommendation of a profile that matched some wells in Vienna itself (as listed in Noonan’s classic work). So, I modified that a bit too.

Based on my previous experience with a decoction mash, I knew that hitting mash temperatures after decoction additions was going to be a challenge. So, I adjusted all of my decoction volumes up. I got some assistance from the BeerSmith software on this. What I did was tinker with the step temperatures a bit. Let’s say my first mash step was at 144°, and my next step aimed for 150°. I knew that the mash would slip a bit below 144°–let’s say 138°–while I was doing the decoction. So, after I had the volumes for the 144° step, I changed the temperature target for that step to 138° (or whatever I thought the mash would end up at). I left the temperature for the next step the same. So, even though I was actually going for a 144°->150° mash temperature boost after the decoction, I told the software I was going for a 138°->150° boost. This upped the calculated decoction volume accordingly. As noted below, I ended up closer to my mash targets, but still not quite there yet. The main issue is that my temperature drop was more than expected, probably due to cooling in the mash tun as I strained out each decoction volume. Something to adjust for next time!

All in all, this was one of the most technically demanding (and fun!) brew sessions I’ve done to date. Here’s hoping the results match the effort!

Decoction mash in progress

Decoction mash in progress

Decoction Envy Vienna Lager

  • Distilled water, adjusted as outlined below
  • 10.5 lbs. Vienna malt (Weyermann)
  • 0.9 oz. Sterling hop pellets (8.1% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 0.1 oz. Sterling hop pellets (8.1% alpha), 10 minute boil
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet, 10 minute boil
  • 0.5 tsp. yeast nutrient (BSG Fermax), 10 minute boil
  • 2 pkg. Saflager yeast (W34/70)

Brewing Targets

  • Double decoction mash, with 20 minutes at 144°, 20 minute boil of decoction and raise mash to 154°, 20 minute boil and raise mash to 168°
  • Original gravity = 1.052 (actual = 1.055)
  • Color = 5 SRM (probably a bit higher due to decoction)
  • IBU = 29
  • 90 minute boil total


  • To 6 gallons of distilled water, I added 5.1 g of gypsum, 1.5 g of calcium chloride, 5.4 g of chalk, and 1.5 mL of 10% phosphoric acid, to approximate the Vienna water profile. I note that the chalk didn’t really dissolve much, so for future brews I’m not really sure if this is a worthwhile addition.
  • I mashed in with the water at 151°, to hit a mash temperature of 145°. The mash at this point is quite thin.
  • After 25 minutes, I withdrew 5.5 quarts of thick mash, raised the temperature to 158°, let the mash sit for 15 minutes, and then boiled for 20 minutes.
  • I added the decoction back to the mash tun, which raised the mash temperature to 147°.
  • After 15 minutes, I removed 2.675 gallons of thick mash, raised it to 158° for 15 minutes, and then boiled for another 20 minutes. I added this back to the mash tun, which raised the overall mash up to around 150°.
  • After 10 minutes, I vorlaufed and drained the mash tun. I added 4 gallons of sparge water (adjusted with phosphoric acid and other minerals to match the Vienna profile) at 190°, which raised the mash water to 174° or so, but put the mash bed at 170° on the dot. After a few minutes, I collected the remaining wort.
  • Overall, I collected 8 gallons of wort with a starting gravity of 1.045. Wow! The efficiency was through the roof at 89%. To compensate for the high volume, I decided to boil down the wort for 30 minutes before adding the hops.
  • After 30 minutes of a very vigorous boil, the wort volume was down to 7.3 gallons and 1.049 gravity. After 60 minutes or so of boiling, we were at 6.5 gallons with a gravity of 1.053. At this point, I dialed back the boil a bit, so that I wouldn’t overshoot my target gravity. At 8 minutes to go, I added .25 gallons of tap water (with Campden tablet shaving) to lower gravity a bit; prior to this, the gravity was at 1.055 and thus the absolute outside limit of the Vienna lager style. The water addition brought it down to 1.053.
  • I added all hops and other additions per the recipe, with a total 90 minute boil.
  • At the end of the boil, I turned off the heat and cooled the wort down to 80°. At this point, I transferred it to my fermentation chamber and set it to cool to 55°.
  • Once the wort reached 55°, I sprinkled the yeast into the fermenter.
  • I brewed this beer on 3 September 2016. Visible signs of fermentation were apparent by the next morning.
  • I’ll be fermenting at 55° for 10-14 days, before raising the beer up to 68° for a diacetyl rest. After a few days of that, I’ll crash the beer to around 32° for a few days and then transfer to the keg.

Lithographica Pilsner

Hobbies have a way of sneaking up on you. My homebrewing started in earnest nearly eight years ago, when I bought some basic equipment and ingredients for a red ale. For the next few years, things chugged along with various recipes–all extract-based, and some pretty decent. Then I moved into a larger place with a dedicated garage and utility sink, and before I knew it I was expanding to full volume boils and all-grain batches. Add in temperature-controlled fermentation and a kegging setup, and things have really taken a turn for the serious.

When I started brewing, each of those subsequent technique and equipment additions were unimaginable. I didn’t have space for many things, and it was taking a good bit of energy to keep on top of the very basics of sanitation, wort chilling, and bottling. Techniques like all-grain brewing seemed like way too much hassle for my time and available facilities. Then, I got practiced, and I got space. As the basics started to become second nature, they also got a little mundane. I wanted some spice in my brewing life, and suddenly all-grain brewing didn’t seem so intimidating after all. I added all-grain brewing to my tool-kit, and have spent more than two years learning and perfecting that. Many aspects of the process are second nature now…which means I’m in a headspace where I can think about adding even more tools to my brewing toolkit.

And here I am staring down at decoction mashing.

Pilsner Malt

Decoction mashing is a long, intimidating process, and quite frankly unnecessary in many cases. Yet, it is also a deeply traditional part of brewing, and for some malts and some recipes may indeed add a bit of flavor and body not possible with infusion mashes.

I recently decided to do another pilsner, and a Bohemian pilsner seemed like a good match. I researched and designed a recipe, aiming to incorporate authentic Bohemian ingredients wherever possible. It was quite a brew day–nearly eight hours–but worth the experience and hopefully worth the beer.

I chose the name “Lithographica Pilsner” owing to a special connection between paleontology and brewing; more on this in an upcoming post!

Lithographica Pilsner

  • 10 lbs. Floor-Malted Bohemian Pilsner malt (Weyermann)
  • 3 oz. Saaz whole hops (2.7% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 1 oz. Saaz whole hops (2.7% alpha), 30 minute boil
  • 1 oz. Saaz whole hops (2.7% alpha), 10 minute boil
  • 1 oz. Saaz whole hops (2.7% alpha), 5 minute steep
  • Pilsner Lager Yeast (WLP800, White Labs), prepared in starter
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet (10 minute boil)
  • 0.5 tsp. yeast nutrient (10 minute boil)

Saaz Hops


    • Four days in advance, I prepared a 2.25L yeast starter, with 233 grams of dry malt extract. I ran it for two days until it fermented out, and then cold-crashed it until it could be decanted and pitched.
    • I used two 4.5 gallon volumes of water — 4.5 gallons for the mash, and 4.5 gallons for the sparge. Each 4.5 gallon measure started as distilled water, with 0.5 g of calcium chloride.
Mash during the acid rest.

Mash during the acid rest.

  • I added 11 quarts of water at room temperature, to hit the dough-in temperature of 72°. I let this sit for 30 minutes, before proceeding to the next step.
  • Next, I added 1.6 gallons of water at 176°, to hit the acid rest temperature of 105°. I let this sit for 10 minutes, and checked the pH. At room temperature, the pH was about 5.8, so it needed to come down slightly. I added phosphoric acid in two 5 mL increments and a final 10 mL dose (20 mL total), to hit a mash pH of 5.1. I remeasured again after 30 minutes, to see the pH had stabilized at 5.3. This mash at this point had a very milky color in the thin portion, likely due to the high amount of starch.
  • Next, I pulled a 1 gallon volume of thick decoction (most of the liquid drained off), and brought it up to 158° over 10 minutes. I let it sit for another 10 minutes, and then brought it up to a boil while stirring constantly. After a 5 minute boil, I added the decoction back to the mash. This raised the mash temperature to 122.4, a little below my target protein rest of 124°. Owing to this lower mash temperature (due to thermal loss in the mash tun), I increased the volume for the next decoction.
  • Decoction in ProgressI pulled another thick decoction (2 gallons), brought it up to 160°, let it sit for 10 minutes, and then brought it up to a boil. After 5 minutes of boiling, I added this back into the mash.
  • The mash temperature was raised up to 145°, well below my target mash temperature of 154°. So, I added 0.4 gallons of boiling water, which raised the mash temperature to 149°. I then added another 0.4 gallons of boiling water, to raise the mash to 152°. This happened over the course of 20 minutes.
  • After 1 hour, I did an iodine test, and saw full conversion.
  • I pull a third, thin decoction (basically, just mash runnings) of 4.5 quarts, and brought it to a boil for 5 minutes. I added this back to the mash, which raised it to 162°.
  • I stirred, let it sit, and pulled the first runnings. I then added 4.5 gallons of water at 180°, which brought the mash temperature to 170°. I let it sit for 10 minutes, vorlaufed, and collected the second runnings (a portion was left in the mash tun).
  • All told, I collected 7.6 gallons of wort with a preboil gravity of 1.042–84% mash efficiency!
  • After bringing the wort to a boil, I boiled for 90 minutes. Hops, Whirlfloc, and yeast nutrient were added per the schedule in the recipe.
  • After the 90 minute boil, I added the final hop addition and chilled the wort down to 85°. My ground water is fairly warm now, and I had to chill the wort down to pitching temperature overnight anyhow, so I turned off the chiller and transferred the wort to my fermenter.
  • 5 gallons of wort went into the fermenter, with a starting gravity of 1.053.
  • I let the wort sit overnight in my fermentation chamber, to bring it down to pitching temperature. Due to the positioning of the temperature probe, the wort itself only got down to around 65°. It wasn’t ideal, but it was close enough to my pitching temperature (and I didn’t want to let the wort sit any longer). So, I pitched the yeast culture after decanting most of the spent wort. The wort was down to the target temperature within a few hours.
  • This beer was brewed on Thursday, June 2, 2016, and the yeast was pitched on the morning of Friday, June 3, 2016. Subtle signs of fermentation were visible by that evening, and a nice krausen had developed by the following morning (~24 hours later).
  • The fermentation chamber is set for 54°, and I’ll be following the Quick Lager schedule publicized by Brülosophy. At the moment, my plan is to:
    • Ferment at 54° for five days, and check the gravity. If I have passed 50% attenuation, I’ll move on to the next step.
    • Next, raise the temperature to 66° for a week or so.
    • Next, crash the temperature to 34°. When the temperature passes below 50°, I will add gelatin for fining.
    • After 48 hours, I will keg and carbonate, while lagering at around 34°.
  • When I checked the gravity on 7 June 2016, the beer was at 1.028, around 46% apparent attenuation. So, it needs to ferment out a few more days. The temperature was raised up to 66° on 11 June 2016.

What Did I Learn So Far?

  1. Decoction mashing is easier than I thought. This is not to say it is easy necessarily–it’s a lot of work, and adds time, but nothing about the process was really outside my comfort zone or ability. I won’t be doing it for every batch, but I’ll definitely be trying it again.
  2. Decoction mashing is a bit exhausting. It’s a lot of time stirring over a hot kettle, and you really do have to stir continuously. My arm was sore. But, it was worth it!
  3. Temperature targets are hard to hit exactly. I did find–as I had read elsewhere–that I ended up a few degrees shy of my targeted temperatures later in the process. This is probably due to thermal loss in the overall mash. So, I will have to adjust my calculations and take a larger decoction volume for each step. Lesson learned, and easy enough to incorporate next time I decoct!