Oktoberfest/Marzen, (6A) BeerSmith Recipe File
It’s with some trepidation that I take on a lager so early on in this grand endeavor. I attempted an Oktoberfest some years ago, and it was horrible: under-attenuated and bursting with diacetyl. It was undrinkable, and I had to dump it.
I have the equipment required: a dedicated fermentation fridge with digital temperature controller, and a big enough vessel for the yeast starter. For those brewers who haven’t brewed lagers before, I’ll quote my brewing buddy John, “Too much trouble for a meh beer.” We’re not trying to brew “meh beer,” but brewing lagers requires a near obsessive attention to detail, as there are very little fermentation esters to hide flaws. I heavily referenced New Brewing Lager Beer by Greg Noonan, and if you’re even thinking about brewing lagers, you need this book. Parts of the book can be a bit much for those without a semester to two of college-level chemistry, but there are important lessons to be gleaned about process that don’t necessarily require you to understand the ‘why.’ Don’t be intimidated; read the book and you’ll be a better brewer for it.
The recipe here is straight out of “Brewing Classic Styles,” mostly because I’m not sure my process will make the best lager; so I’m focusing less on recipe development. One of the most important parts of this brew occurs a week before mash in: the yeast starter. Lager beer, even when low gravity, requires more yeast than you’ve probably ever pitched. According to BeerSmith, I need 473 billion cells for my 1.055 OG lager wort, compared with the 303 billion required for Tripel Happiness, at an OG of 1.086. This required a 2.75 liter starter, which I prepared in a 3 gallon glass fermentor 12 days before brew day. After the starter activity was finished (the end of a mini primary at 52°), I cold crashed it to fully settle the yeast, so that I could decant the not-so-tasty beer before pitching the yeast cake. For an ale, I would just pitch the starter as close to full krausen as possible, but in this case, I’m trying to avoid ANY possible off flavors.
Also, I’m planning to perform a diacetyl rest during primary fermentation. (1) This requires more attention during primary than you would give for ales. I’m also pitching at the lower end of the recommended temperature range with plenty of yeast, so this 3-pronged attack should keep diacetyl within acceptable levels, as well as ensure proper attenuation.
Moreover, I’m doing a 90 minute boil with this recipe, to keep DMS under control, which while appropriate in some lagers, is not so here, according to “Classic Styles”.
Recipe (all German malts)
5 lb. Pilsner Malt
4 lb. Munich I
3 lb. Vienna Malt
1 lb. Caramunich Malt
Mash @ 152° for 60 minutes, single infusion (1.2 qts/lb), fly sparge with 4.7 gal @ 168°
Boil for 90 minutes
1.50 oz Hallertauer Hersbrucker (4.1%) boil for 60 minutes
0.5 oz Hallertauer Hersbrucker (4.1%) boil for 20 minutes
WLP820 Octoberfest/Marzen Lager, 2.75 L starter
Color: 10.9 SRM
Fermentation Temperature: 52° (with diacetyl rest @ 65°and lagering @ 41°)
No real events to report for brew day with one exception. We collected about 6.8 gallons of wort prior to the 90 minute boil, but we lost an awful lot of volume (more than normal) during the boil. After cooling to 56° (which took lots of ice, as 84° tap water doesn’t even get you to ale range, much less lager!), we transferred the wort to the fermenter and took a gravity reading. We discovered we had about 4.75 gallons of wort, with a gravity of 1.062. That final gravity is above the guidelines, so I elected to top up the fermenter to about 5.25 gallons with filtered tap water. The new gravity reading was 1.056 – within range. Even though I’ve added filtered tap water with good results all the time when I was still partial boiling with extract (4 years ago!), in hindsight I probably should have boiled and cooled the water before adding it, just to be on the safe side. The volume issue was also compounded by the amount of wort we left in the kettle; we elected not to siphon ANY trub (again, on advice from Noonan), which left a little more wort behind than normal. I’ll account for this in future lager recipes.
I also wanted to point out the aeration method we used here. I sanitize my bottling bucket, and after transferring the cooled wort from the kettle to the fermentor using a siphon (and leaving behind trub), I pour the wort back and forth between the two buckets about 10 times.
You can see from the foam level, it really aerates the living crap out of the wort. I think this is an easier way to aerate wort than the shaking method, and cheaper than the O2 bottle and stone method. Just be careful! I wouldn’t cry over spilt milk, but spilt wort might prove a more emotional experience.
The temp controller on the fridge was initially set to 52°. After 24 hours, the activity in the airlock was about 1 bubble/second, which was nice to see. According to Noonan, you should start your a diacetyl rest when the gravity is about 6 points above the target final gravity. (I should note that Noonan advocates far more traditional techniques of lager brewing; he suggests a primary of 47°-52° and a diacetyl rest temp higher than 52°. Of course the yeast producer, Chris White, says we should perform the rest at 65°-68° in his article in BYO.) I checked in on the ferment by opening the lid a crack (I primary in buckets) on day 4 and day 6. At day 6, the beer was at late krausen (meaning minimal yeast floating on top), so I took a gravity reading, 1.020. This is right around where I want to perform my diacetyl rest, so I set the temp controller to 65 degrees and left the fridge door open to allow the beer temperature to climb.
After only 2 hours, during which the beer temperature rose from 54° to 58°, there was significant activity in the airlock. This means that I timed the rest perfectly and the yeast quickly responded to the temperature change. After 36 hours, airlock activity was back to pre-rest levels – the beer was at 65°. Since the rest visually appeared to further attenuate the beer and I have to take a reading when I transfer to the keg for lagering, I decided against taking a gravity reading reading at this time. With confidence in my process, (I assumed the beer would be very close to target FG) I began lowering the temp 2 degrees every 12 hours until I achieved the target lagering temp of 41°. On day 12, I took a gravity reading of 1.014 (nailed it!), and transferred the beer the keg for lagering.
The beer was lagered much longer than normal, more out of scheduling than anything else (I brewed it for a party that was some months away).
Side rant: if you look at the White Labs website for the Octoberfest yeast strain, you’ll see many home brewers lamenting/advising that this yeast takes well over 2 weeks to complete primary fermentation (one brewer even wrote that he/she pitched just the one vial at 76°… I sentence you to death by lagering, may Michael Jackson have mercy on your soul!). As we saw here, however, my primary fermentation was 6 points above FG after only 6 days, and was at FG after 12. Now, of course the primary times for lagers will typically be longer than those of ales, but nearing 3 weeks seems way too long to me. This is indicative of either under-pitching or under-aerating, both major problems in home brewing in general, and big mistakes when brewing lagers. Now that the horse is dead, for the love of all things malty, please prepare a huge yeast starter and aerate your wort properly when brewing lagers!
I enjoyed brewing this beer, and I almost enjoy drinking it. I think the malt flavors come off a little bit one dimensional to me, but I could just not have the right idea for what lowly hopped Oktoberfest is supposed to taste like. I think I detect a slight hint of diacetyl, which drives me mad considering how obsessive I thought I was being about controlling it. I’m not sure what more I could have done to banish it… maybe a longer diacetyl rest. It is super malty, that’s for sure. There is just something slightly off about it to me; something is missing or something more is needed. And for that we need The Stig.
It’s time to turn the beer over to our Team Tasting/Imbiber. Some say that he can carry 6 beer wenches in one hand during Oktoberfest, and that he has a closet dedicated to his custom lederhosen. All we know is, he’s called the Stig!
Aroma: Toast, Toffee, Banana Bread… DMS and Diacetyl, fairly high amounts of each.
Appearance: Clear, Light amber ~ 12 degrees SRM. Off white head with good retention and some moderate lacing.
Flavor: Scorched caramel, toasted honey wheat bread. Astringent and overly bitter.
Mouthfeel: Over carbonated and too bitter/astringent for the style. Pleasantly warming.
Overall Impression: Too flawed. A great lager is pristine, and elegant… naked. With the off flavors and esters, along with the biting carbonation and astringency, this beer is just not clean enough.
So I was right about the diacetyl, which makes me mad. I did what I think is everything I could to keep it down, and it was still there. I made a huge starter at lager temperatures (cold crashed and decanted the liquid after it finished primary), I properly aerated my wort and pitched cold, I even did a fairly long diacetyl rest. A longer rest perhaps? Diacetyl can be caused by contamination, so perhaps that is the culprit here? That honestly seems more likely than anything else, especially considering how bananas I was going about controlling diacetyl. I have confidence in my sanitation, but no program is perfect and perhaps I missed something. Hmm.
The DMS is downright puzzling, because I did a 90 minute boil and cooled quickly (I think). How could DMS be making it into my beer?
The astringency is something I’ve long suspected from other batches to stem from my sparge. I think that when brewing with filtered tap water, my mash pH gets too high during sparging, and I’m extracting tannins. As of now, I feel much more in control of my water chemistry than I did when I brewed YourmomToberfest, so this shouldn’t be an issue in future lagers.
Too biter? No idea, the IBUs are 22, and the lower end on the Guidelines is 20. Personally, I don’t think the beer has virtually ANY bitterness.
The easiest flaw to address is the over-carbonation. I was struggling with some equilibrium issues in my kegging system that I have since solved, mostly by a closer management of pressures.
So, my first lager: a swing and a miss.
After writing this, I talked at length with The Stig about lager brewing. First, He assured me it would be damn near impossible for me to brew a great lager. He doesn’t think home brewers posses the necessary process precision. Cooling: the cooling of the wort has to happen at lightening speed. My immersion wort chiller, ice bath and 85° tap water simply isn’t cutting it. The cooling rate isn’t fast enough to prevent further DMS formation even though boiling has ceased. Fermentation temperature: taping my probe to the outside of the fermentor isn’t giving me good enough process control. The system is too slow to respond to real time changes in fermentation temperature, and I need to fix this before attempting lagers again. Fermentation temperature control was something I thought I had down before this project, but The Stig’s professional pallet has revealed that I have some significant room to improve on this front. I wonder how many other home brewers really truly have temperature control down pat. My guess is VERY few.
Books I referred to for this recipe
BJCP Guidelines. 2008.
Noonan, Greg. New Brewing Lager Beer. 1996.
Palmer, John & Zainasheff, Jamil. Brewing Classic Styles. 2007.