There is a hard-to-brew and uncommon lager style which, when brewed to authentic replication, is one of the tastiest, most satisfying brews to be found. It pairs perfectly with everything from rabbit stew to beef roulade. I’m talking about Vienna lager. It’s most worthy of seeking out authentic examples. And no, it is not the misnamed fizzy yellow muck served up by large scale corporate brewing, nor is it one of the brown-tawny coloured, dried malt extract commercial brews coming out of Mexico. Authentic Vienna lager is a lush but delicate red-copper brew of deep refinement, created by one of lager beer’s great pioneers in 19th century Austria, Anton Dreher. It migrated with Austrian aristocracy to Central America and Mexico. The style and its brewing secrets died with Dreher and authentic Vienna lager went extinct on the continent, with only the Austrian brewing enclaves in Mesoamerica keeping it alive. Retracing the history and brewing alchemy of Dreher’s red-hued creation is a treasure hunt worth the time, so I will trace it as the best I can with limited column space.
Chasing Down the Style
The origin of Vienna lager rests in advanced malting science, selective barley breeding, cold brewing technology and Anton Dreher, an innovating master brewer from Klein Schwechat outside Vienna. He travelled widely, studying the methods and innovations of other brewers in Europe and the UK. Back home in Vienna Dreher created a lightly-toasted red malt that we now call Vienna malt. It made a lighter, more delicate beer that was reddish-amber in hue, a vast departure from the dark beers popular at the time. Dreher showcased his invention to royalty in 1841 as Schwechater Lagerbier. Its popularity swept the Austrian royal court and the Austrian empire and became known as Vienna style lagerbier.
Later in the century Vienna lager brewing went extinct with Dreher’s death, and after being eclipsed by the new light hoppy Bohemian Pilsners. However, the style survived by migrating to America. In 1864, a member of the Austrian royal family, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Josef Habsburg was enthroned as Emperor of Mexico. This brought an inflow of Austrian and German immigrants to Mexico, which included master brewer Santiago Graf. He and other Germanic migrant brewers introduced the Vienna lager style to the new world. Mexican breweries have kept the style alive (although it has slowly decayed due to poor water and malt, and corporate brewing short cuts). The new craft brewing industry in North America showed interest in replicating this forgotten, venerable Austrian brew.
The first challenge replicators face is creating or locating the proper malt. Vienna lager beer is red-hued because it’s made from a specially kilned Vienna malt. Vienna lagerbier has a malt-forward character, with a slight biscuity-nutty aspect, but that description really doesn’t do it justice. Vienna and Munich malts have a similar malty/grainy/toasty flavour, but you can tell them apart without much trouble if you’ve been exposed to real Vienna beer and Munich Marzen.
Water is an important element of authentic Vienna red lager brewing and one which usually makes many reproductions fall short. Original Dreher recipes call for moderately-hard, high carbonate water with high amounts of calcium, sulfate, and bicarbonate. Debates rage about whether Dreher brewed with Vienna groundwater or from water melting down from the Alps. It is known that many Vienna brewers back then “conditioned” their water by simply boiling it to drop the temporary hardness, so modern artisanal brewers use a “boiled Danube water profile” by using hard well water, heat conditioning it then adding a small addition of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), to replicate Danube brewing water.
Aroma: Moderately rich Vienna malt aroma. A light toasted nutty malt aroma more subtle than Oktoberfest. Clean lager character, with no fruitiness or buttery caramel aromas. Noble hop woody-earthy-spicy tones. Appearance: Light reddish amber to reddish copper colour. Large, off-white, resilient head. Flavour: Soft, elegant malt complexity is in the forefront, firm enough hop bitterness to provide a balanced finish. Some toasted nutty character from the use of Vienna malt. No roasted or caramel flavour. Fairly dry finish, with both malt and hop bitterness present in the aftertaste. Noble hop presence in the background. Mouthfeel: Medium-light to medium body, with a gentle creaminess. Moderate carbonation. Smooth. Moderately crisp finish.
Examples of the Style Today
There are a few examples of Vienna styled lager crafted locally such as King Vienna lager (rebranded as Thornbury Jubilee Amber Lager) and Great Lakes Brewing Red Leaf Lager. Both are available everywhere and are fine burger beers, but are simplified versions of a proper Vienna. LCBO Mexican imports that approximate the style (but lack refinement) are Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo. Closer to style are some US craft Imports available at the LCBO like Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Brooklyn Lager which, while excellent amber lagers, still are deviations from the refined Dreher Vienna. Chicago’s Great Lakes Eliot Ness lager, is the closest I have tasted to the Dreher formula. It seems that authentic crafted Vienna has become all the rage in Denmark where some of the best examples come from. I will be watching both the local and import scene to update you as these appear.
The Malt Monk’s Recommendations
These tastings are a vast departure from the Lager theme, but what a wonderful way to finish up this great November/December warm spell — with two late summer import arrivals from Germany’s premier wheat ale craft brewer, Schneider, continuing its specialty releases (“Tap X”) with two specialty delights for the
confirmed bottle-conditioned Hefeweiss fancier. I paired up these two late season Schneider-Weiss releases with an impromptu early winter BBQ of fresh salmon and venison chops. These beers really set off the terroir of the wild game meal — bright, fruity, summery hellerbock (Matilda Soleil) with the cedar plank salmon and the more substantial barreled weizen doppelbock (Cuvee Barrique) with the pimento marinated venison.
Schneider Weisse Tap X Aventinus Cuvée Barrique (lcbo# 426700) — Schneider Weisse Tap X Mein Aventinus Barrique is aged in four different oak barrels. French Oak chardonnay barrels provide dry fruity and fresh aromas supported by fine tannins. Then the beer rests in American oak which once housed German pinot noir. This adds powerful aromas of dark berries, paired with elegant roasty notes, toffee and a nutty character. American oak of cabernet franc provides balance of dry berries and smoky hints. Finally this beer sees German new oak, giving robust tannins which bring forth fresh fruity aromas and add wonderful smoky notes. Full points on this offering.
Schneider Weisse Tap X Mathilda Soleil (lcbo# 423095) — Schneider Weisse presented this special brew at Braukunst 2015 beer festival in Munich. This limited release wheat beer is the brew master’s tribute to the former head of the brewery, Mathilde Schneider, who oversaw production of Bavaria’s first wheat doppelbock in 1907. The Schneider wheat beer brewery in Kelheim continues her pioneering tradition and uses a new variety of hop which is grown in small quantities for this special edition weizen heller bock. The result is a sparkling summer wheat beer, spicy and nutty, with a refreshing fruity note of apples, pears and quince. Light on the palate but substantial in flavour. A great brew to pair with oily sea foods or meats.
Big Rig Brewing — Double Chocolate Milk Stout (on tap at your local beer bistro or at the brewery) — This comes from an up-and-coming Ottawa region craft brewer that has been producing a series of very good seasonal releases. This latest, a cocoa-infused double milk stout, really caught my palate by surprise when I paired it with a hot plate of steamed mussels. The experience reminded me why milk stouts were so popular in the British Isles outports.
My draft sample tapped a lustrous deep brown with a lofty mocha cap. Aroma of fresh cocoa nibs, coffee roastiness with an underlying lactose sweetness. The body is sturdy with a silken creamy mouth feel. Flavour is rich in big roasty-coffee malts and the Belgian coca plays off against the lactose on the palate. The whole gustatory modality is quite pleasant, then it goes to a roasty, dry, lightly bittering finish where the hops show up to compliment some sour lactic tones. A really decent milk stout — flavourful, satisfying and great to pair up with shellfish or Lapin à La Cocotte.
The MALT MONK is the alter ego of D.R. Hammond, a passionate supporter of craft beer culture. He invites readers to join in the dialogue at maltmonksbeerblog.wordpress.com