Lager,  Marzen,  Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest / Marzen, BJCP Style 6A

I love German lager beers, and of the many German lager styles defined in the BJCP style guidelines, Oktoberfest / Marzen (BJCP 6A) is close to the top of my list. I first became aquainted with the style around 5 years ago when I would make regular day trips to Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen in Bellingham Washington and order a flight of whatever was new on tap. On one such trip Oktoberfest / Marzen was a featured seasonal brew, and after trying a sample I became enamoured with the malty, clean and brilliantly clear orange-amber lager.

A delicious Oktoberfest/Marzen by New Westminster brewery Steel and Oak.

As a Home Brewer, I’ve found Marzen to be a very difficult style to brew well. I’ve homebrewed several Marzens over the past couple of years, and on average they have received positive  comments and high scores from the judges. However, they have rarely medaled and I have yet to brew a gold medal winning example of the style. This is particularly vexing for me, as Marzens are generally judged in the same flight as other amber lager styles and alongside a relatively small total number of entries.

What should a Homebrewer do when a beer has been made that hits most of the style points, receives fairly high (35 – 41) scores in competitions, places occasionally yet fails to reach gold status? The usual answer is “mine the scoresheets for any clues that might suggest where the beer could be further improved, and do one’s best to fix those problems in the next brew”. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the quantity and quality of useable feedback tends to decrease as scores increase; past the 40 point mark, it becomes very tough for most judges to explain in writing why a beer isn’t worth 50 points. With not a lot of information to go on, the best the Homebrewer can do is make sure all parts of the process from recipe design through to packaging are planned and executed as carefully as possible, in the hope that the “intangibles” are improved and the beer is elevated into greatness.

The last Marzen recipe I entered into the BOTY circuit was brewed on May 10, 2017. I named this beer “Jodler Konig” after the late, great Bavarian Yodler Franzl Lang.

Octoberfest / Marzen (Jodler Konig Mk1)

Targets (74% BHE, 31L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):

PBOG = 1.042, OG = 1.059, FG 1.015, ABV ~ 5.8%

SRM = ~9.5

IBU = ~22

BU:GU = 0.38

Malt bill:

2.000 Kg Weyermann Barke Pils (36.4 %)

1.250 Kg Weyermann Munich Type I (22.7 %)

0.750 Kg Weyermann Munich Type II (13.6 %)

1.000 Kg Weyermann Vienna (18.2 %)

0.250 Kg Weyermann Caramunich II (4.5 %)

0.250 Kg Weyermann Carafoam (4.5 %)

Water Treatments: Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 1g SMB + 5g CaCl2 + 1g CaSO4 added to the mash.

Mash Profile: Protein rest @ 56.1C/133F for 20 minutes, alpha amalayse rest @ 67.8C/154F for 70 minutes. No mash out.

90 minute boil

Hops: Single boil addition, 13g 12.4% AA “Brewmaster” American Magnum pellets added at 60 minutes, for an estimated 22 IBUs.

Yeast: ~350 ml WLP833 German Bock Lager slurry from prior Vienna Lager, 3rd generation re-pitch

I brewed this version of Oktoberfest / Marzen on May 10, 2017. I designed the recipe with the intention to use as many authentic German ingredients possible – only the hops were not German as I was unable to source German Magnum at the time. As the hops were strictly for bittering I wasn’t too concerned. 

For the base malts, I started with Weyermann “Barke” pilsner to lay a clean pilsner malt foundation, then layered with Weyermann Vienna to bring the toasted malt flavours and accentuate the orange colour of the beer. I completed the base malt foundation with a blend of Weyermann Munich type I and type II, to bring the breadcrust and melanoidin flavours that are so essential to this style. A small proportion of Caramunich II was added to the grist to add just a touch of caramel sweetness and also to help boost the colour of the beer to the ~9.5 SRM target. Finally, I added an equally small amount of Carafoam for the purpose of aiding head retention – or so I thought at the time.

For water treatments, I used very little salts with a higher ratio of Calcium Chloride over Calcium Sulphate to favour the malt balance of the beer for which this style is known for. No acid adjustments were done to the mash.

Reviewing my brew day notes, I hit the mash temperatures I had intended. However, OG ended up at 1.052, a full 7 points lower than my target, although looking back I realize that target OG was not realistic. I also noted a lot of break material in the kettle after chilling that was unintentionally transferred to my fermentation vessel.

I chilled the wort down to 8C/45F, pitched the WLP833 slurry and oxygenated for a mere 60 seconds. 24 hours later I observed a healthy krausen. Nine days later I allowed the temperature to rise to 14C / 57F for a diacetyl rest, and ten days after that I slowly dropped the temperature down to 0C/ 32F over a period of 6 days before kegging, fining with gelatin and force carbonating. Final gravity was 1.010, on target despite the reduced OG. In my log book I noted “Super clean, malty sweet, delicious IMO.” After lagering in a keg for a couple of weeks, it was tasting fine and I began sending Jodler Konig into the BOTY competition circuit with high hopes.

Judgement, BJCP 6A “Jodler Konig”

The first competition I sent “Jodler Konig” into was the 2017 Members of Barleyment Homebrew Competition. It scored high right out of the gate, 39/50 and 41/50 and I received a bronze medal for it. In terms of feedback, both judges mentioned it was a bit sweet for style, and interestingly enough gave conflicting feedback on the appearance. The judge who gave the higher overall score gave full marks for appearance and commented that head retention was good, whereas the judge who gave the lower score wrote “fairly small off-white head, limited retention” and awarded the beer 2/3 for appearance.

A couple of months later I submitted my Marzen into the 2017 GTA Brewslam, where it was judged alongside 18 entries in the combined Amber Lager category. The judges scored it 34/50 and 35/50, mentioning poor head retention and that it was a little sweet for style were main issues. Both Judges also detected esters, one Judge quite a bit more so than the other describing the esters as “front and center”. The presence of detectable esters are the kiss of death for this style where clean lager fermentation character is a requirement, so I was not surprised that it didn’t medal. The odd thing is that the Judge who commented on the esters also wrote “Fermentation is quite clean, no obvious flaws” which I found confusing.

Finally, I submitted Jodler Konig to the 2018 ALES Open where it earned a bronze medal in the combined European Amber Lager category (13 entries in total) and received 36/50, 39/50 and 40/50 points. Two of 3 Judges noted poor head retention, two Judges complained about lack of malt complexity, and one Judge mentioned a slight soapy taste which I never noticed during the lifetime of this beer.

Main competition Feedback Take-Aways:

  • Lack of foamstand / head retention

BJCP guidelines for 6A calls for a persistant, off-white foamstand, and Jodler Konig did not have this at all. I suspect that the protein rest at 56.1C/133F followed by the 70 minute 67.8C/154F alpha mash rest was non-optimal for head retention, given the specifications of the malts used in the grist. In addition, I had used 5% carafoam in this recipe, which I now understand is foam negative and can hurt head retention, contrary to its name. 

  • A bit sweet / could be drier

I agreed with the judge’s assessments that Jodler Konig was quite well balanced, but just a little bit on the sweet side. This was not due to poor yeast performance as the beer attenuated well and finished at 1.010, and overall feedback regarding the fermentation was good, so more likely a recipe issue.

  • Intangibles

None of the scoresheets I received for this beer had the “wonderful” box of the intangibles scale checked off. Most either had no check marks at all or a check mark in the middle of the scale between “wonderful” and “lifeless”. To push my next 6A to the next level and (hopefully) reach gold medal status, I’ll use a number of subtle process and recipe changes which hopefully will sum up to a better overall beer with a higher chance of entering mini-BOS and medaling more consistently. These differences will be alluded to in the following section.

Revision and Re-brew

Marzen / Oktoberfest (Jodler Konig Mk2)

Targets (73% BHE, 31L boil, 24L wort in fermenter):

PBOG = 1.043, OG = 1.054, FG 1.011, ABV ~ 5.6%

SRM = ~9.8

IBU = 23

BU:GU = 0.42

Malt bill:

2.000 Kg Best Malz Pilsner (35.9%)

1.000 Kg Weyermann Munich Type I (17.9%)

1.000 Kg Weyermann Munich Type II (17.9%)

1.000 Kg Weyermann Vienna (17.9%)

0.250 Kg Weyermann Caramunich II (4.5%)

0.250 Kg Best Malz Red-X (4.5%)

0.075 Kg Weyermann Acidulated (1.3%)

Water Treatments: Same as Jodler Konig Mk1. Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 1g SMB + 5g CaCl2 + 1g CaSO4 added to the mash.

Mash Profile: 40 minutes at 62C/143.6F , 30 minutes at 71C/159.8F, 10 minutes at 76C/168.8F.

Hops:  90 minute boil, 15g 12.1% AA American Magum pellets added at 60 minutes (~23 IBU).

Yeast: 1 pure-pitch packet of WLP833 German Bock Lager, manufactured 31/03/2019. Stepped up 3 times with 1.036 oxygenated starter wort; 2L -> 2.5 -> 2.5 L. Cold crashed and decanted before pitching.

For this brew I would target an OG on the low end of the style guidelines, as I didn’t want the beer to end up too filling and hard to drink in quantity. Jodler Konig Mk1 was (unintentionally) slightly out of style at 1.052 OG, but the beer was very good and none of the judges complained that it wasn’t big enough.

I also didn’t want to radically alter the grain bill for this recipe as it seemed to hit most of the style points, so I kept the relative proportions of Pilsner, Munich and Vienna malts nearly identical to Mk1  and I also kept the amount of Caramunich II the same. I did swap the Weyermann Barke Pilsner for Best Malz pilsner, which to me has a better flavor than the Barke pils, and I replaced the Weyermann Munich Type II with Best Malz Dark Munich, at a slightly higher percentage. Instead of adding the (foam negative) Carafoam this time around, I replaced it with an equivalent amount of Best Malz Red-X.

Best Malz Red-X is a wonderful, unique malt that to me resembles a cross between Vienna and Dark Munich malts. It makes a fantastic lager when SMaSHed with Saaz hops, and in small amounts it contributes to colour and adds a subtle melanoidin component to the finished beer.

I also added acidulated malt to drop the mash pH by around 1 point, to keep it between 5.3 – 5.4, as predicted by the Brewer’s Friend Mash Chemistry calculator which I’ve found to be very accurate. Without this addition the predicted mash pH  would be between 5.5 and 5.6 and although Jodler Konig Mk1 was a fine beer, the hope was that this small pH adjustment would help to further focus and sharpen the flavours, and perhaps also benefit processes downstream of mashing and improve the finished beer.

I would use American Magnum Hops again, but this time increasing the (calculated) IBUs slightly to 23 from 22 to counteract sweetness ever so slightly. This would likely be likely an imperceptible change to the average palate, and if anything a guardband to keep bitterness inline with Mk1.  

To help fix the foamstand / head retention issues that took points away from Jodler Konig Mk1, I would revise the mash schedule to better suit the specifications of the base malts. I was able to find these specifications online, and I used them to estimate an average Kolbach Index and average total protein in the grain bill.

The ratio of the soluble to total protein in the grist AK.A. “Kolbach Index” is a measure of protein modification performed during the malting process. A general rule of thumb is if the Kolbach Index is greater than 40%, protein rests in the range 45C/113F – 55C/131F are unnecessary and can damage body and head retention. Given the estimated average Kolbach Index for this grainbill, I would skip the protein rest altogether and use a Hochkurz mash profile with rests at 62C/143.F and 71C/159.8F. I wasn’t concerned about protein haze as the overall average protein was not particularly high.

I had originally planned to limit the 62C/144F beta-amylase rest to 30 minutes. But after discussing my recipe and mash schedule with Artisan Maltster and brewing process expert Mike Doehnel, I was reminded me that the diastatic powers of the darker kilned Munich and Vienna malts were quite a bit lower than the pilsner malt, and I may want to dwell a bit longer in the beta rest to make sure the beer dried out appropriately.

I chose the 168.8F/76C alpha rest temperature to encourage the formation of medium-weight proteins and hopefully improve the body, foam and head retention of this beer.

For this iteration of Jodler Konig I would use my spunding valve to carbonate the beer, a traditional German brewing technique that involves fermenting under pressure towards the end of fermentation to capture the CO2. Benefits of this technique are zero oxygen in the finished beer, and supposedly a finer and more persistant foam stand as a result of yeast exuding foam-positive glycerin when fermented under pressure.

I brewed Jodler Konig Mk2 on Saturday, May 11 2019, almost 2 years to the day the last version was made.

I used my Grainfather as a precision recirculating step mash vessel, first pre-boiling the mash water and then quickly cooled it to the first mash rest temperature to minimize oxygen in the mash. Once the mash and sparge was done, I pumped the wort into my brew kettle and completed the boil using my propane system, as I didn’t want to deal with the unpredictable performance of the Grainfather electric boil.

Pre-boil gravity was slightly lower than expected, and at the end of the boil the OG was 1.052, 2 points below target but the same as MK1. The colour and flavour of the wort was very good, so I didn’t panic.

I siphoned the chilled wort into a SS brewbucket, leaving as much trub in the kettle as possible, and continued to chill the wort down overnight to achieve my pitching temperature 9C/48.2F. The following morning I decanted my WLP833 yeast starter, pitched the yeast and oxygenated the wort. I reserved enough yeast slurry for a fast ferment test using some wort leftover from the previous brew day. I’d use the final gravity results of the fast ferment test to decide when to transfer the fermenting beer into a keg and attach the spunding valve. This should be done with 4 points / 1P of fermentable extract left.

My plan is to cold ferment this beer through fermentation, to produce as clean a lager as possible with no off-flavours or esters, spund and then lager in the keg for several months. Hopefully, I’ve addressed the main issues that affected Jodler Konig Mk1 with this Marzen brew, but we’ll find out when I send this beer into the fall competition circuit.

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