When you think of an underrated and underappreciated beer style, what do you think of? How about Vienna lager. This beer style should be appreciated for both its history and it’s straight up drinkability. But somehow it gets lost in between all the IPA variants, industrial brews, and fruit beers that are so popular these days. Craft beer drinkers who have not tried out these wonderful amber lagers are really missing out. Let’s take a look at its interesting history and then how it has evolved in the modern era of craft beer.
We have to reach back to the late 1830’s when two friends, Austrian Anton Dreher and German Gabriel Sedlmayr were endeavoring to learn new malting brewing techniques. After a stint in England, the two returned to their respective homelands and began experimenting with what they learned in England. Dreher, in particular, zeroed in on using new kilning techniques with a malt that would eventually yield what is now known as Vienna Malt. In 1841, Dreher unveiled what is believed to be the world’s first pale lager. This was not pale in the manner we are used to describing today; but was lighter in color that the traditional dark beers that dominated most of Central and Eastern Europe. Sedlmayr, shortly thereafter, come out with his version of the amber lager. His delicious version would eventually become known as Marzen.
Both amber lagers were greeted with early success; however, Dreher’s earlier jump helped his version to become one of the most popular and imitated beers of its day – Vienna lager. This beer style ballooned in popularity until it began to decline in the early 1900’s. Just as fast as its meteoric rise, it nearly disappeared not only from Europe, but especially in its birthplace of Vienna. It survived extinction when, after Napoleon II invaded Mexico in 1861, he brought Austrian royalty to rule over the country. With them came Austrian brewers and the Vienna lager style of beer.
In my view, the curious thing about this style is how it has essentially diverged into two different versions; the historical “original” and the modern, what I will dub, North American style. The difference primarily being the makeup of the grain bill. The historical version, developed by Dreher, is almost non-existent today. Its grain bill would be 100% or very close to 100% Vienna Malt, with Noble hops used for aroma and bitterness. You would not recognize it as a Vienna due to its much lighter amber color (a nine or lower on the SRM color chart). As Jeff Alworth put it in his book The Beer Bible – “If a brewery submitted a beer like the one Dreher brewed to the Great American Beer Festival, it would lose points for not tasting like a Vienna lager”.
Contrast that to the modern North American style. This version was keep alive in Mexico with American craft brewers picking up on it and adding their own tweaks. In Mexico, Dos Equis Amber and Victoria are the two most well know examples. One side note, many incorrectly identify Negra Modelo as a Vienna lager when it is actually a Munich Dunkel. What makes the North American versions different is often they use Vienna Malt in conjunction with larger amounts of other malt varieties such as Munich and Caramel malts resulting in a slightly darker version that may have a deeper grainy, malty and caramel flavor, as opposed to a more grainy, less malty like flavor. It can be a subtle, yet detectible difference. Mexican versions have also added flaked corn adjuncts to impart a little more sweetness. Of the American craft versions, Arches Mexican Empire (rated 97 by Beer Connoisseur) is the closest to the historical version I’ve found. It has a mostly Vienna malt grain bill; but adds enough Carafa malt to darken it a bit. Their Noble hops additions are spot on; however.
KC Bier Co.’s award winning Festbier (rated 96 by Beer Connoisseur) might be one of the closest to the historical beer made in the United States by a craft brewery. Festbier’s grain bill is Vienna and Pilsner malt and utilizes traditional Noble hops
Perle and Hallertau Mittelfrüh . Their founder Steve Holle studied brewing in Munich and, I dare say, knows old world brewing techniques well. I’ve never had the pleasure of sampling this beer; but imagine it’s pretty outstanding (would love to hear from anyone that has).
Vienna lager is a beer style worthy of preservation. It along with Munich Dunkel, Marzen, Doppelbock and other dark lagers dispel the common myth among many beer drinkers that lagers a pale, watery and boring beers. So, I salute the American craft brewers who are keeping this style alive. Hopefully, as new beer drinkers tastes mature and develop, more will come to appreciate the Vienna lager and other varieties of lagers.
Thanks for reading and until next time…Let Us Drink Beer!
The Beer Bible, Jeff Alworth
Using Munich & Vienna malts: Tips from the Pros, Thomas J. Miller, BYO.com
Vienna Lager: Style Profile, History & Brewing Tips, Nick Carr, kegerator.com
Geburtstagsparty – “Traditional” Vienna, Five Blades Brewing, Derek Springer
Tracing The Origins of Vienna Lager, dafteejit.com, Andreas Krennmair
Special thanks to Andrew Zender, Director of Marketing at Kansas City Bier Co.