A Few Words on Austrian Beer

Beaver Brewing Company

Vienna

Austria is a country the physical size of South Carolina with a population of New Jersey. The outsized role it—and especially its capital, Vienna—have played in history belie how modest its size and population are today. It also sits just south of Bavaria and Bohemia, which accounts for why, in beer terms, its profile is also modest. And yet, there are some particularities about Austrian beer and brewing I was surprised to learn.

Overview

As an overview, it’s worth noting that Austrians love their beer, consuming more per capita than all but the Czechs. I toured the Schwechat Brewery (Anton Dreher’s old place, owned by Brau Union, in turn owned by Heineken), and the managing director there, Andreas Urban, told me that this number is not in decline as it is nearly everywhere else. He was quite bullish on Austrian beer, which was refreshing to hear. Given that almost all of it is the kind of beer his company makes, he ought to be.

The standard style of beer here is—I don’t mean to startle you—a pale lager of around 4.5 - 5%. In a lineup with lightly hopped German pilsners and helleses, the average American would be hard-pressed to distinguish it. Curiously, the Austrians call this beer a märzen. I found no good explanation why this would be. I assumed it followed the lightening that happened in German beer over the past thirty years, but when I suggested this to Andreas, he said. “To me, that is not correct.” He’s been brewing since the early 1990s, so he ought to know.

A classic Austrian märzen.

And here’s the thing: the bog standard mass market märzen here is good. These beers are brewed with both quite a bit of malt and hop character—far more than is typical for most countries. I didn’t get to do a survey of the different major brands, but of the three or four I tried, I noticed differences in the balance of the elements. One was spicier, one softer, breadier and more malt-forward, one more sparkling and effervescent. They were all accomplished and perfectly clean and well-made. They would stand as hallmarks of “craft lager” (an absurd name and invented category) were they brewed in the US.

There are three malthouses in the country, but two, accounting for 90% of the malt produced, are owned by one company. There are also hop fields, which are little-discussed outside Austria. They fly under the radar, I suspect, because there’s no extant landrace variety here. (At the link you can read more.) They’re also not sufficient for the entire industry, which also imports Czech and German hops.

If the Schwechat brewery is typical (and I believe it is), Austrians brew much in the German mode. Schwechat has a mash filter, which may not be common, but otherwise the practices, including touches like filtering with kieselguhr (diatomaceous earth) and CO2 recapture, were exactly like German breweries. (Schwechat uses a Ziemann system.)

The mash filter in action.

Craft Brewing

As in nearly every country, there has been a burst of new breweries entering the market over the past decade. Salzburg is more the seat of brewing in Austria than Vienna (despite the legacy of Anton Dreher), but there are quite a few new breweries in Vienna as well. They generally follow the American craft brewery model, and Austrians are quite up-to-speed on trends. There aren’t just IPAs or hazy IPAs here—I even tried a kviek-fermented IPA.

1516 Brewing, in the heart of the old town

The problem, from the perspective of small breweries, is that no one is particularly clamoring for American IPAs. The standard lagers made by the big breweries are so good and flavorful that there’s no backlash against them. (If a drinker gets tired of märzen, there are quite a few kellerbiers and pilsners to be found as well—and even weissbier.) That has left small breweries struggling to break through.

Xaver Brewing’s miniature 2-hectoliter system. They have equally charming mini-horizontal tanks.

Two breweries I visited had to scale back their ambitions. Brew Age was founded as a contract brewery, with plans to build their own place last year. Johannes Kugler, who oversees brewing, told me they had gotten pretty far down the road to opening a place when they decided to scrap the plans—sales just didn’t justify the enormous expense.

Brew Age makes a range of nice beers, including a Vienna lager. Their range largely tilts toward the US, though, and I especially liked their Brett IPA. Below is the kviek IPA, which is called “eggbear”—some kind of insult among Austrians.

Another brewery, Xaver, is trying to sell after six years. It’s a tiny two-hec system in a brewery with a 50-square-meter footprint. It’s totally turnkey, and quite sophisticated, and I was impressed with the beers. A North German pils we tried from the tank was especially tasty. But despite decent sales, it could never get over the hump. (Holler if you want to own a Viennese brewery—I can get you quite a deal.)

Vienna Lager

Skipping Austria during research for the first edition of the Beer Bible left me feeling a bit anxious: what about Vienna lager? The truth is, it has been extinct for a long time in its homeland. Andreas Urban suggested the world wars as the era Vienna transitioned away from the native style, and based on brewing logs from 1926, that seems like a good hypothesis.

In 2016, Schwechat celebrated the 175th anniversary of Anton Dreher’s first batch of Vienna lager with their own revival, and that seems to coincide with an effort to revive the style—though I don’t think theirs was the first example. It’s totally amazing to me, but Vienna malt is no more prevalent here than anywhere; it’s a specialty malt used in small amounts for color and flavor, as elsewhere. The idea of using a large percentage in the grist seems radical to Austrians, and I doubt any are making all-Vienna malt versions (Schwechater Vienna uses 60%, with 40% pils malt).

Andreas Urban and freshly-poured mugs of Vienna lager.

The reason is simple: people aren’t particularly interested in them. They’re too thick and rich, and if people are drinking lager, they want märzen. Over the course of my visit, I found no one who enjoyed them or thought they were anything but a curiosity.

Against the advice of pretty much everyone, I went to Vienna instead of Salzburg for one reason: I wondered if there were any Dreher-era brew logs. The “archive” at Schwechat is a locked filing cabinet with odds and ends collected over the decades. There were two sets of brewing logs—the 1926 and a ledger from 1894. That significantly post-dates Dreher, whose first Vienna lager was brewed in 1841 and who died in 1863, but it ain’t nuthin’. And although I don’t know entirely how to read old records, it seems pretty clear the brewery was making a Vienna lager then, either at two strengths or a strong beer that was slightly different from the classic. Both beers appear to be made from a sole malt, with just a tiny bit of color malt (farb-malz)—way less than 1%—in the stronger beer:

The story of Vienna lager is one I don’t have time for here. It’s a fascinating tale of a beer living as an expat for decades, now trying to find its way home. I wouldn’t bet on a transformation of the market any time soon, though; märzen isn’t going anywhere.

Austria doesn’t make many people’s short lists of brewing countries to visit, but it should. Few countries have extant brewing traditions as old as Austria’s, or contain the fixtures of historic brewing countries (hop fields, malt houses, a distinctive local beer). It’s also one of only three countries on the planet, along with Germany and the Czech Republic, where the standard mass market lager is equivalent in quality and flavor to so-called craft beers elsewhere. And as in Germany, that has created an interesting dynamic worth experiencing.