OctoberTest

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Chris McQuistion measuring dry yeast to prime our bottling sugar mixture. This was the special sideways room that defies gravity so it facilitates great yeast growth. Uh, actually we had no way to turn the picture here at PGA, so just blame it on us.

Written by Jerry Buckley

jerryIt has been well said and oft repeated that “necessity is the mother of invention”. It may also be fairly postulated that “laziness is the mother of discovery”. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy brew day: the pre-game putting together of the grain bill and the coming together of a plan; the soothing smells of grains mashing and wort boiling, the feel-good mojo of creating an enjoyable end product from scratch. But at another level, I don’t wish the brew day experience to be any more time-consuming or difficult (not to mention expensive) than needs be.

And so began the quest to find the most preferred dry lager yeast for the home brewer; and please don’t lecture me about the superiority and greater selectivity of liquid lager yeasts, I concede the point “nolo contendere”. However, the brewing of ales, porters, and stouts has spoiled this homebrewer in regards to the ease, simplicity, and economy of pitching dry yeast strains. And since I have embarked upon a quest to successfully home brew German and continental style beers, I found myself searching all the available sources for dry lager yeasts.

A rather tedious internet search netted six available dry lager yeast varieties, one of which, SafLager 23 I had already utilized in a mediocre Marzen; and so I wanted to take an opportunity to experiment with the other five varieties. (You would be surprised at how inexpensively these products can be purchased and send to your home, since they can be slipped into a regular envelopes and mailed via USPS.)

The five dry lager strains ordered are as follows.

SafLager 34-70 (Westphalian)
SafLager S-189 (Swiss)
Mangrove Jack M-84 (Bohemian)
Mauribrew 497 (Australian)
Brewferm lager (Belgian)

The idea was to do a science experiment style head-to-head (pun intended) comparison of the five products. I posted a “help wanted” appeal on our homebrewer group’s social network page, in effort to enlist a lab partner; hopefully one with more experience and greater proficiency than myself. I was not disappointed when fellow brewer Chris McQuistion responded that he was “all in”; and so the lab partnership was in place; and so began our “OktoberTest”.

Between the two of us, Chris and I pulled together all the necessary ingredients and equipment to do a controlled experiment; Chris’ snazzy garage based brew-in-bag electric system was supplemented by my turkey cooker and brew pot set-up, so that two 5.5 gallon batches could be boiled and then co-mingled to achieve uniformity. Our vehicle of choice was a simple Oktoberfest; utilizing Pilsner, Munich, and Vienna malts for the backbone of the grain bill, supplemented with a kiss of Crystal 30, and a smack of red wheat malt for head retention.

With the object of keeping it simple (stupid) we moderately hopped the wort with old reliable Hallertauer pellets, according to Hoyle. The resulting eleven gallons of wort, clocked in at an original gravity of 1.055, and was then pitched 2.2 gallons of wort using “no chill” methodology into five matching three-gallon better bottles; and fermented in a controlled chest freezer for two weeks at 53* – followed by five days step-up diacetyl rest between 63* and 65* – before racking into secondary confinement in food grade plastic jugs for an additional four weeks, ramping down temps from 65* to 35* over the duration of the lagering phase schedule.

It was noted, when dry pitching the yeast packets, that the SafLager products were lighter in color than the other three strains which were of brownish hue. In fact the SafLagers were faster starters and also whipped up more krausen than the other three brands. Lagging behind by about three days, and exhibiting lower levels of krausen throughout the ferment; we discovered the other three to be productive workers, albeit late risers. (See notes below.) We suspect that the SafLager strains were infused with better yeast nutrients by the manufacturer; therefore more conducive to dry pitching; and furthermore, that the Mangrove Jack, Mauribrew, and Brewferm strains would benefit from rehydration prior to pitching.

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Secondary ferment tanks

Hydrometer readings upon racking into secondary revealed that the two SafLager strains had attenuated down to 1.014 (very close to their final gravity of 1.012), while the other three strains each punched the clock around 1.020, causing some trepidation on our part. It turned out however, that the late risers were still chomping at the sugars well into secondary; and that all three finished with a respectable final gravity of 1.014. So in a very real sense, it was a tortoise vs. hare situation.

When bottling day rolled around, Chris prepared a priming sugar mix of 1.75 oz. corn sugar per each 2.2 gallon batch, infused with a small amount of S-05 yeast to facilitate a quick bottle-carb process. The general appearance of the beer at this stage was that of a clean, slightly cloudy amber lager, with subtle tints of copper tincture.

The following specific observations relate to the finished beers, prior to carbonation.

SafLager 34-70 FG 1.012 The flavor was a good balance between sweet and bitter.
SafLager S-189 FG 1.012 The flavor was very similar to 34-70; slightly more flavorful
Mangrove Jack M84 FG 1.014 Slightly more translucent than SafLager; dry in back of throat
Mauribrew 497 FG 1.014 Subtle fruity smell; smooth flavor with subdued bitterness
Brewferm Belgian FG 1.014 Very clean / translucent. Slight smell and flavor of ripe fruit

After one month of bottle conditioning we convened a couple of small, informal, and by no means scientific taste test to access the success of our science project. Give or take some personal opinion and prejudices, here are our overall impressions of the finished products.

In general, there was not much variance in appearance or flavor between the top three finishers from among the five batches. That is not to say they were identical; but more along the lines of “variations on a theme”. Overall our Oktoberfest was a medium bodied brew, with a malt forward flavor – and little in the way of hop-forward profile – which tended to finish cleanly on the back of the throat. As a rule the brews kicked up only a moderate amount of bubbly head, which tended to dissipate rather quickly. Three of the five lots were refreshing and drinkable beers and relatively true to style expectations; but none of them proved to be “outstanding”, to our way of thinking. The other two strains, (the Bohemian and the Belgian) produced drinkable beers; but the final products were somewhat off kilter according to style expectations; with fruity flavor profiles and harsher overtones, not expected for an Oktoberfest.

Specific notations:

SafLager 34-70 …. This was one of the tastier batches of the lot; a good balance between sweet and mild bitterness, with only a slight touch of fruitiness. It was however, a bit cloudy, and the thin head dissipated very quickly. “Thumbs up!”

SafLager S-189 …. Similar in flavor to the 34-70, tending toward slightly more fruitiness. A slightly bigger and bubblier head, which also dissipated rather quickly. The two SafLager batches ranked a close first and second place in “flavor”, by consensus. “AOK”

Mangrove Jack M84… The jury is still out on this one. The verdict was split regarding the flavor in comparison to the two SafLager strains. Some were less impressed with the M84 as tending toward harshness and displaying some metallic overtones; while others found it acceptable. The appearance however was clearly best of show, with noticeably more translucence and a longer lasting, creamier head. “Some like it hot, some like it cold.”

MauriBrew 497… This one was yet more fruity tasting by comparison, and in-between the SafLagers and the M84 in translucence. It formed a bubbly head which vanished quickly; and had a mildly phenolic palate. The fruitiness is out of character for the style, but all thing said and done, it proved to be an enjoyable beer. “Take it or leave it.”

BrewFerm … The Belgian strain was the most ripe-fruity tasting of the lot; almost to a fault. It evidenced medium translucence and moderate “Belgian lacing” in the glass. If you like Belgian flavor profiles, then you may prefer this one; but it was not our particular cup of tea. “Thumbs down!”

In the final analysis; we felt that three of the five yeast strains performed admirably in fermenting the wort to yield a good drinkable malt-forward brew with a clean finish. The flavor profiles for our top three finishers were within a narrow range of flavor, yet none were especially outstanding. The general consensus was that the SafLager 34-70 (Westphalian) and the SafLager S-189 (Swiss) were the top two strains, followed by the MauriBrew 497 (Austrailian). The Mangrove Jack M84 (Bohemian) and the BrewFerm (Belgian) missed the mark as far as profile. The biggest general disappointment for us, was the lack of head formation and retention among the lot; which may well have been influenced more by our grain bill than by the yeasts themselves.

All-in-all we must conclude by conceding what we already knew: that there is a trade-off in utilizing the dry lager yeasts in comparison to some of the top-shelf liquid yeast strains on the market. Sure, there are the advantages of ease and convenience to talk about; and the longer shelf life of the dry strains; and sure enough, all of these turned out to be drinkable and enjoyable beers. But I venture to bet, we could have crafted better beers by pitching a starter, and going with one of the more notable liquid lager yeast strains. But on the other hand; these five offerings were, as my grandmother was fond of repeating…… ”good enough for who it’s for”.

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Jerry Buckley lives in Middle Tennessee, is a homebrewer, member of Music City Brewers and has occasionally written for PGA and The Music City Brew-Score. We also hear he’s written a great book called Roll the Gospel Chariot about a very special character