Tex-mex is hybrid style of cuisine, blending interior Mexican and Southwestern US (especially Texan) influences. Most Tex-mex dishes — including enchiladas, tacos, burritos (and chimichangas), nachos and fajitas — combine hard or soft tortillas and salsa with spiced meat and cheese. In central Texas, where I live, you can’t swing a duck (pato) without hitting a Tex-mex restaurant.
The beer menu at these places usually features a whole raft of Mexican beers — Bohemia, Carta Blanca, Dos Equis Special Lager, Modelo Especial, Pacifico, Sol, Tecate and, of course, the ubiquitous Corona.
These beers are all fizzy yellow lagers in the same basic Pilsner style that is sold all over the world. When I order beer at a Tex-mex place, I usually opt for a beer that is itself a hybrid — Negra Modelo, a Mexican Vienna lager.
“Negra Modelo” means dark Modelo, with “Modelo” being the name of the brewery that produces it (Cerveceria Modelo, Mexico City, Mexico). In Grupo Modelo’s promotional literature, Negra Modelo is alternately referred to as a Vienna-style lager or a Munich-style lager. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) pegs it as a Vienna lager, though, and so do most beer authors. Brewed since 1926, Negra Modelo was for many years one of the few existing Vienna-style lagers in the world. European breweries abandoned the style for Pilsner-style beers or — if an amber beer was to be brewed — for Octoberfests.
Another Mexican beer — Dos Equis Amber — is also described as a Vienna-style lager by its brewery (Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, Monterrey, Mexico). Bohemia, made by the same brewery, is sometimes described as a Vienna lager, but more closely resembles a Pilsner (although it’s deep gold color is a little darker than most).
A few American breweries have added Vienna lagers to their lineups. The August Schell Brewery (of New Ulm, Minnesota) offers a Vienna lager called FireBrick in their year-round lineup and Leinenkugel’s Red Lager is also sometimes described as a Vienna lager. Leinie Red is brewed by the Leinenkugel Brewery of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin — a subsidiary of SABMiller.
Brewing a Mexican Vienna lager — or an all-malt American craftbrew style Vienna lager — is fairly simple, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
The key ingredient in a Vienna-style lager is Vienna malt. This should make up the majority — if not the entirety — of your grain bill. Vienna malt is a 2-row base malt that is darker than most pale malts, but lighter than Munich malt. Pilsner malts, and generic 2-row pale malts, usually fall around 1.5–2 degrees Lovibond (°L). English pale ale malts usually rate around 3 °L. Vienna malt is typically rated around 3–6 °L, while light Munich malts rate from 8–12 °L and dark Munich falls around 20 °L. Homebrewers tend to think of Vienna as a extra-light version of Munich malt.
A beer made from all Vienna malt has a malty character, with a slight biscuity or nutty aspect, but that description really doesn’t do it justice. Just as Munich malt has a distinctive character that you can recognize once you’ve brewed with it, so does Vienna. Vienna and Munich have a similar malty/grainy flavor, but you can tell them apart without much trouble if you’ve brewed with them a couple times. Weyermann, Durst and Briess make Vienna malts that are available to homebrewers. Weyermann also makes a Vienna malt extract, called Vienna Red, that is made with Vienna malt, Pilsner malt and melanoidin malt.
Pilsner and Munich Malts
A Vienna lager may also contain Pilsner or light Munich malt. Adding Pilsner malt lightens the color and softens the Vienna malt profile while adding Munich darkens the beer and adds melanoidin-rich, Munich malt notes. Both may be added together, to “round out” the malt profile. As a rough guideline, I would say Pilsner malt could occupy up to about two thirds of the grain bill. The Vienna malt will still stand out against this background. A light Munich malt could maybe comprise up to around a third; more and it will overpower the Vienna malt flavor.
Some Vienna lagers are made from a mixture of Pilsner and Munich, with no Vienna in the mix. (Schell’s beer is made from Pilsner, Munich, CaraPils and caramel malt.) Although you can get the right color and a very similar flavor, I think Vienna lagers should contain Vienna malt — your mileage may vary.
Caramel and Color Malts
A small amount of crystal malt or caramel malts — including crystal malts from 30–60 °L as well as CaraVienne and CaraMunich® malts in the same color range — can be added to increase color depth and give a little sweetness to back up the malt character. Don’t overdo it, though — keep specialty grains under 0.75 lbs. (0.34 kg) per 5 gallons (19 L). At most, the specialty malts should accentuate the malty Vienna notes. They shouldn’t compete with (or overshadow) the Vienna malt.
Some homebrewers can’t seem to formulate a light lager recipe without including CaraPils malt in the grist (“for body”). And, you can add up to 0.5 lb.. (0.23 kg) of CaraPils if you want. However, your Vienna lager should have enough body if you’ve added a bit of medium crystal/caramel malt and keep your mash temperatures constant.
If you’d like, you can add a very small amount of a dark malt — such as chocolate malt or Carafa® malt — to add a touch of color and change the hue of the beer from reddish to coppery. You don’t want to add enough dark malt that you can taste any roasty notes or make the color too deep, however. A good rule of thumb is to keep color malts under 0.75 oz. (21 g) per 5 gallons (19 L) of beer.
Most Mexican Vienna lagers contain some corn in their formulation. As a homebrewer, you could add up to 20% corn — in the form of grits, flaked maize or brewers corn syrup — to your Vienna lager. You’ll need to perform a cereal mash if you use grits, but flaked maize can be stirred right into the mash and brewers syrup can be added in the boil. Adding this adjunct will lighten the color and body of the beer compared to an all-malt beer.
When formulating your Vienna recipe, keep it simple. Although I have outlined a few options to accent the Vienna malt, all are optional. And personally, I don’t think Vienna lagers benefit from adding a bit of this and pinch of that for complexity — start with a base of Vienna malt and maybe add one or at most two other grains to tweak the flavor.
Extract brewers should either use a Vienna malt extract as their base, or use pale malt extract and steep (actually partial mash) as much Vienna malt as they can manage.
Any hop without a strong varietal character will work as a bittering hop in a Vienna lager. Any hops, such as German noble hops, that traditionally appear in Octoberfests are a good choice. Domestic hops such as Willamette, Mt. Hood or even Clusters should be OK, especially for Mexican Vienna lagers, which are typically hopped less than American craftbrew versions. The slightly “spicy” Tettnanger is one of my favorite hops for this style.
As with everything else in a Vienna lager, the hops should support the Vienna malt, not compete with (or overshadow) it. A dose of bittering hops that yields 20–25 IBUs is what you should be shooting for. Too little bitterness and the beer will be too sweet; too much and you will obscure the Vienna malt character. If you simply must, you could add up to 0.25 oz. (7 g) of flavor hops for the last 15 minutes of the boil, but a single addition of hops for bittering is best.
Any lager yeast will work for a Vienna lager, but those that are typically used in malty styles will do best. Octoberfest yeast strains are an obvious choice, but strains designed for bocks and Bohemian Pilsners will work well, too. I personally like White Labs WLP920 (Old Bavarian Lager) yeast because it’s a little more aromatic than other lager yeasts.
In order to run a good fermentation, make a yeast starter big enough to get the fermentation started within 12 hours and adequately attenuate the beer, but not so big that it will dry the beer out excessively. A 3 qt. (~3 L) yeast starter at a starting gravity of around 1.030, well-aerated, is optimal for 5 gallons (19 L) of beer.
If you can’t maintain lager temperatures, you can still make a Vienna lager. A little-known fact about lager yeasts is that they can be used at ale temperatures. Your beer will be more estery than a standard lager, but will still taste like lager beer. Many times homebrewers who wish to replicate a lager beer at ale temperatures are told to use a clean ale strain (or a “steam” beer strain) of yeast. However, a clean ale does not really taste like a lager. A “dirty” lager, however, will still taste lager-like — it will just have more yeast-derived aroma.
If you do use a lager yeast at ale temperatures, you must make a starter and aerate your wort well. Low pitching rates and low aeration levels contribute to ester production as well as temperature, so you need those other two variables taken care of. I would actually make a larger starter than normal for an ale-temperature lager fermentation — 4–5 qts. (~3.75–4.75 L) per 5 gallons (19 L). And, of course, get the temperature as low as you can steadily hold it.
You can brew a good Vienna lager with almost any kind of water. Moderately hard, moderately carbonate-rich water is best, but unless your water is very soft or very hard, you’re probably fine. For very soft water, add a half teaspoon of gypsum (calcium sulfate) and one teaspoon of chalk (calcium carbonate) per 5 gallons (19 L). For very hard water, “cut it” with some distilled water.
As with almost all modern malts, a single infusion mash is sufficient to completely convert all the starches in Vienna malt. And, you can make a Vienna lager from a single mash. However, you will probably yield better results with a step mash. You can rest in the beta glucan range (121-131 °F) for about 15 minutes, then perform one or two rests in the starch conversion range. For more body — as in an American craft brew style Vienna lager — a rest around 154 °F (68 °C) will work well. For a little less body — as would be appropriate for a Mexican Vienna lager — a rest at 148–150 °F (64–66 °C) followed by a rest at 158–162 °C (70–72 °C), will yield a somewhat more fermentable wort. For an even drier beer, a rest around 140 °F (60 °C) could be added, but this could make the beer too thin. (Long rests — up to a couple hours — in this range are employed when making light American lagers.)
You could also do a step decoction mash, if you’d like. A single decoction from a beta glucan rest to around 154 °F (68 °F) is what I’ve done when I’ve made my Vienna lagers. Whether a decoction mash provides any flavor benefits is a matter of debate — I just do it because it I tried it once and liked the results.
For stovetop extract brewers, partial mashing a small amount of Vienna malt and using an extract late procedure is the best approach. A partial mash can be performed exactly the same way specialty grains are steeped as long as you keep the temperature and amount of water in appropriate bounds. The hops can be boiled in the wort from the partial mash (and perhaps some light dried malt extract) and the remainder of the extract — liquid Vienna malt extract — can be stirred in at the end of the boil.
All-grain brewers should boil their their wort for 90 minutes, adding the hops with an hour left in the boil. This boil length will ensure a good hot break and better beer clarity. A pinch of calcium at the beginning of the boil may help drive the post-boil pH down, especially if your water is soft.
Extract brewers should boil part of their malt extract for 60 minutes, adding the remaining for the final 15 minutes of the boil. (Alternately, you can add it at the end of the boil and let it steep for 15 minutes before cooling).
For best results, homebrewers should cool their wort all the way down to fermentation temperature. For brewers with tap water above 45 °F (7.2 °C) or so, this will require a little extra work. But, there are a few options to explore. All begin by using an immersion chiller and chilling the wort as much as possible with tap water.
After the initial cooling, you can use the immersion chiller as a pre-chiller leading to a counter-flow wort chiller. The pre-chiller is immersed in an ice bath leading to the water input of the counter-flow chiller. By measuring the temperature of the wort exiting the chiller and restricting its flow if needed, you should be able to hit your target temperature. When using a counter-flow chiller, you may want to collect the wort in a sanitized bucket first, then rack it to your primary fermenter once the cold break settles out. If you have a cylindrical-conical fermenter, just dump the cold break at your earliest possible convenience.
A second option is to circulate ice water through your immersion chiller once your tap water is no longer effective for cooling. A simple way to do this is make an ice bath in a 5-gallon (19 L) pot or picnic cooler. Connect two relatively short lengths of hose or tubing to your immersion chiller. Use a drill pump to push cold water through the immersion chiller and direct the outflow back to the ice bath. Since the wort has already been cooled with tap water, the ice will not melt immediately and can knock the temperature of your wort down to your target quickly. Once the wort is cool, let the cold break settle in your kettle before racking (relatively) clear wort to your fermenter.
A third option is to put the immersion chiller in an ice bath and siphon your wort through the immersion chiller. You will need to have cleaned the inside of your immersion chiller well before doing this. It will become sterile when submerged in wort for the initial chilling with tap water.
The final option is to cool the wort as much as possible with tap water, then siphon it to your fermenter (or a settling bucket). Cool the fermenter in a “swamp cooler” — a picnic cooler filled with ice water — until you hit your target temperature. This method works, but can be fairly time consuming.
Pitching and Fermentation
Before pitching your yeast, you will need to cool it down to near fermentation temperature. At room temperature, your yeast starter will be about 20–25 °F (11–14 °C) above the temperature of your wort. Pitching the warm yeast into cool wort can shock the yeast and should be avoided. The simplest way to cool down your yeast starter is to place it in a refrigerator earlier in your brewday, perhaps at the end of the mash. A “temperature strip” stuck to the outside of your starter container will allow you to ascertain the temperature of your yeast.
During fermentation, keep the temperature constant until the fermentation is almost over. I like to ferment my Vienna lagers at the high end of their temperature range (or even slightly over) to get as much character from the yeast as possible, but you can ferment at the lower end of the range if you like cleaner lagers.
Next, let the temperature rise to 60 °F (16 °C) if your yeast strain requires a diacetyl rest. After the diacetyl rest, rack the beer to secondary as quickly as possible to get the beer off the sedimented yeast. Unlike with most ales, which can sit on yeast for awhile with no ill effects, lagers will pick up off flavors from flocculated yeast fairly quickly. Cornelius kegs make a nice secondary fermenter or conditioning tank for lagers as you can blow off yeast sediment as it sediments during lagering.
If you ferment at (or slightly over) the high end of your yeast’s range, the fermentation will go quickly (for a lager), a shorter diacetyl rest will be necessary (if at all) and you can quickly rack the beer off the yeast and into secondary and start lagering the beer. With an adequately sized starter, primary fermentation may take as little as a week.
Vienna lagers don’t need to be lagered (cold conditioned) for a long time. Less than a month is common for commercial Mexican Vienna lagers. Bigger lagers such as Octoberfests and bocks may benefit from up to 3 months of lagering, but a Vienna lager will likely be ready in about 2 months, if not sooner. If you fine the beer with Polyclar AT in secondary, just before racking it to your serving keg (or bottling bucket), you may shave a week or so off this time.
If you replaced the words “Vienna malt” in this article with “Munich malt,” you would have a pretty good description of how to make a Märzen — a style that, like Vienna lager, can be thought of as a “little Octoberfest.” Throw in some dark Munich malt and just enough chocolate (or Carafa®) malt to get a hint of roast and you’re on your way towards a dark Munich-style lager.
Vienna lagers are a great everyday beer. They’re also a great “everyone” beer — appealing both to beer fans and folks who think of beer as fizzy, yellow water. The recipe for Vienna lagers is simple — as simple as Vienna malt and one hop addition — and your success in brewing one will come from your skill as a brewer, not from a complicated recipe.
Chris Colby thinks chimichangas (deep fried burritos) are the best culinary idea of all time.