Homebrew Recipe: Oldtoberfest Smoked Rye Lager

Homebrew Oldtoberfest

This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.

Real talk, citizens: I had my first seasonally-released pro Oktoberfest of 2014 (Summit; in a can) way back in July. Tasty, and one of my all-time favorite styles, but it stole my thunder. I was totally going to brew one myself, but now… why bother? What can one homebrewer do in the face of such reckless seasonal creep? Drink more Oktoberfest from cans and color outside the lines in the carboy, I guess.

Malty amber lagers are a fixture of the autumn craft beer season, an echo of the traditional Festbiers of Germany: a little stronger and a little tawnier than an everyday lager, with a historical tie-in to the harvest and fall festivals. Oktoberfest as we know it is an all-barley beer, and a showcase for that famous Bavarian malt character: clean and bright, filtered to brilliant clarity.

But back in the day, this almost certainly would not have been the case. The ancestral Landbier of the village brewery would have been a chewy-textured, brownish-red affair, rich with grain and yeast, and almost certainly brewed with malts from a variety of cereals, which would have been dried over a smoky fire.
This month, we’re going to take an amber lager apart and put it back together in a way that’s historically inspired, even if not perfectly historically accurate.

Going by numbers

Today’s Oktoberfest is brewed to a starting gravity of 1.050 to 1.057, yielding an alcohol by volume that runs from roughly 5–6% (although, as you might expect, some American craft brewed versions blow right past that and approach 7% ABV). In typical Bavarian lager fashion, hopping is restrained, lending some balance to the malt but never verging on the bitter; IBUs range from a modest 20 to a still-pretty-modest 28. The use of higher-kilned base malt like Vienna or Munich gives these beers a color of 7–14 SRM, falling somewhere on a spectrum between very deep gold and an autumnal orange-red.

What makes it tick

For our throwback lager, we are pretty much going to stick with those numbers (although to achieve them we’ll make use of some anachronistic hops and yeast, and enjoy our highly consistent modern malts).

A hefty percentage of malted rye in the grist will build in a complex bready, earthy, slightly spicy flavor, as well as create a terrific density and texture. A small percentage of smoked malt will add just a suggestion of woodsy warmth (it’s going to be subtle, but if you just can’t stand smoked beers, feel free to sub it out for more Munich malt—see Key Points, below). I’m calling for Weyermann Rauchmalz, which is smoked over beechwood logs at their plant in Bamberg as it has been for hundreds of years. Beechwood-smoked malt is a tradition in the lagers of Franconia, so that adds a whiff of authenticity to our recipe, although at a much, much lower flavor and aroma intensity than at a brewpub or Ausschank in Bamberg. The remaining color malts—some crystal, dark crystal, and roasted rye—will make up the remainder of the color and bring in notes of toffee, breadcrust, and light coffee.

Just to keep it mixed up, we’ll make use of newer, higher-alpha German hop varieties (brewer’s choice!) to hit our IBU target with less vegetal material in the kettle, and a new world lager yeast (cold ferment not required—after all, ye olde village brewery didn’t have glycol cooled tanks).

A recipe to try:

Oldtoberfest Smoked Rye Lager

Five Gallons, All Grain
Target OG: 1.053
Target IBU: 28–30

Shopping list:

  • Grain
    • 5 lbs Weyermann Rye Malt
    • 4.5  lbs German Munich Malt
    • 10 oz Weyermann Rauchmalt (beechwood smoked)
    • 6 oz Weyermann CaraMunich II
    • 2 oz Weyermann CaraAroma
    • 1 oz Weyermann Chocolate Rye
    • A couple handfuls of rice or oat hulls (optional—see Key Points, below)
  • Hops
    • 1 oz of your choice – German Opal, Perle, or Tradition hops (or the equivalent)
  • Yeast
    • Wyeast 2112 California Lager

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