The craft beer industry in the United States has done a phenomenal job of bringing quality and variety back into beer making. Through creativity and experimentation, the industry has expanded the horizon of beer like no one could have dreamed of twenty plus years ago. Something else that has been overlooked is how it has saved certain styles of beer from virtual extinction. Take the case of Vienna Lager. One would expect to find the birthplace of the famous lager, Vienna, Austria, to be its ultimate caretaker. Not so, the style all but disappeared in Vienna and only recently have small breweries there attempting to bring it back. Of all places, Mexico has been the region that has keep it on life support for decades. Brands like Dos Equis Amber, Victoria Lager and Bohemia Clara all come to mind. Craft breweries here in the United States have also taken up the cause and have done a masterful job of producing quality replicas. Let’s take a look at the historic style through three versions.
Vienna Lager is very much a relative of the popular Marzen style of beers. Malt forward, amber to dark amber in color with characteristics of noble hops balancing malt sweetness. The main differentiator is Vienna Lager tends to be a little more balanced with bitterness. Think of it as between Marzen and Czech Amber Lagers in malts/hops balance. Here is how the BJCP breaks down the basic style characteristics:
Aroma: Moderately intense malt aroma, with toasty and malty-rich aromatics. Low floral, spicy hop aroma. Significant caramel or roasted aroma is inappropriate (think porters and stouts).
Appearance: Light reddish amber to copper color. Bright clarity. Should exhibit a large, off-white head (three fingers tall is a good benchmark).
Flavor: Malt forward complexity. Firm hops bitterness for balance; but not overwhelming. Rich and toasty. Floral, spicy hops flavors can be noticeable to none. Finish should be dry, crisp and balanced between bitterness and sweetness.
Mouthfeel: Smooth medium-light to medium. Gentle creaminess with low to moderate carbonation.
Ingredients: Vienna malt provides the main color (it lands between pale Pilsner and Munich malt). Darker malts can be used to add color; but should not add significantly to aroma and flavor. Mild Continental/European hops are the norm, Saazer or Styrian preferred.
Now, let’s take a look at some specific examples.
Samuel Adams Boston Lager – 5.0% ABV
It’s interesting that the average beer drinker out there has no idea they are drinking one of the most significant historical beer styles when they drink a Boston Lager. Samuel Adams began brewing Boston Lager in 1984. Full flavored, smooth and complex, Boston Lager as grown to be one of the most popular craft beers in America. Due to its widespread availability, it is a good place to start when looking for a quality representation of Vienna Lager.
Aroma: Hallertauer Mittelfrueh and Tettnanger hops provide floral and herbal aromas. Pale malts give it a characteristic bready aroma.
Appearance: Clean lager profile with added Caramel 60 malt gives it a clear, amber color. Head is off-white and mousse-like, with excellent retention.
Flavor: Hint of mild herbs. Bready and medium-low sweetness. Restrained bitterness.
Mouthfeel: Smooth, semi-dry with a medium palate carbonation. Balanced, medium length finish.
Bottom line: Samuel Adams Boston Lager nicely checks the style boxes. They have produced an excellent representation of Vienna Lager that is pleasant and enjoyable to drink. I recommend it for a place in your fridge.
Arches Brewing Mexican Empire – 5.2% ABV
Arches Brewing has developed a reputation for expertly crafted lagers and small batch beers in the Atlanta area. The Hapeville brewery, located a few miles north of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, has developed their reputation through careful attention to details like water chemistry. When they design a beer to replicate a regional/local style, not only do they replicate the grain bill and hops, they also replicate the water profile. A perfect example of this attention to detail is their Mexican Empire Vienna Lager.
Aroma: Hallertauer and Hersbrucker hops contribute mild floral/herbal aromas. Vienna and Carafa malts provide bready/toasty aromas.
Appearance: Clear, deep amber color. Mousse-like, tan head three fingers tall with tiny compact bubbles.
Flavor: Malt forward with medium sweet backbone. Magnum hops presents crisp, but restrained bitterness for balance. Subtle toast and herbal flavors.
Mouthfeel: Medium bodied. Semi-dry, short finish with medium carbonation. Crisp bitterness at the end that is notable, but not overwhelming.
Bottom line: Arches Brewing has produced an outstanding Vienna Lager in Mexican Empire. Through expert attention to detail, they have done a nice job of pulling off a darker looking beer with complex malt and hop flavors while staying within the style. It may look full-bodied, but is pleasantly light on the palate. Mexican Empire is one of the best Vienna Lagers on the market. While mostly available in the Atlanta area, beer enthusiasts wanting to sample Arches lineup of craft beers can find the brewery located just a few minutes north of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. If you have an opportunity to, I highly recommend you try it. You’ll be glad you did.
Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager – 5.2% ABV
So what happens to a craft brewer after it’s been gobbled up by Big Beer? In the case of Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co., you keep making great beer. Devil’s Backbone, based in Roseland, VA, opened its doors in 2008 and the very next year won four medals at the Great American Beer Festival. One of those beers was their Vienna Lager. In 2016 it was purchased by Anheuser Busch. Fortunately, there does not seem to have been a drop off in quality since that change of ownership. Regardless of how you feel about Big Beer, Devil’s Backbone crafted Vienna Lager long before 2016 and it is still a quality representation of the style.
Aroma: Saaz hops deliver herbal notes. Vienna and Pilsner Malts deliver a bready aroma. Dark Munich Malt adds a toasty note.
Appearance: Clear, medium amber color. Mousse-like, tan head three fingers tall with large bubbles and lengthy retention. Addition of Dark Munich Malt darkens the amber color.
Flavor: Malt forward with medium sweet backbone. Slight herbal flavor. Northern Brewers and Saaz hops provide a restrained bitterness.
Mouthfeel: Medium body with light carbonation on the palate. Finishing soft with a short bitter note at the end.
Bottom line: A well crafted beer, Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager provides another solid example of the style that can be found nationwide. It has continued to win beer festival awards since its introduction in 2008.
There are many more excellent examples across the country. The Mexican versions are also well done and provide a welcomed change of pace from the more well know pale lagers from south of the border. Unfortunately, many of the Mexican Vienna Lagers, like Dos Equis Ambar, have added adjuncts like corn syrup, so they are a little less representative of the historical style. Nonetheless, Dos Equis Ambar, Victoria, and Bohemia Clara are all quite enjoyable, so a special thank you is in order to our neighbors to the south. Do you have a local craft version of Vienna Lager you would recommend? I would love to hear about it.