Award winning Beer Writer Adrian Tierney-Jones explores the Central European 'Lagerlands' in a series of Euroboozer blogs: Part #1...
Here is an Austrian beer. Let us pour it into the glass and delve into the cultivated and elegantly clean nose with its cereal-like softness rising into the air. Take a sip: on the palate there is a whirl of bready malt and lemony hop while bitterness and sweetness cooperate in the finish. The glass is soon empty. Here is another beer from Austria. Deep golden in colour and glowing like the fabled gold and precious stones of the Nibelung, this is a smooth, full-bodied lager from one of Austria’s oldest breweries. The glass is once again soon emptied. There is more. This time, it is a potent and punchy Trappist beer produced by Austrian monks with lots of rum, raisin and chocolate notes; the ultimate collaboration beer that joins together the sacred world of prayer and contemplation with the profane one of brewing. Let us now taste a vintage beer, brewed annually and then lagered for nearly 12 months before going out into the world. This is the colour of a tanned, well-used pair of leather riding boots whose owner once kept a country pile in Styria. It has a whisky-like spirituality alongside plenty of rich malt and an Abbey beer-like candy sweetness in the finish. There are plenty of other Austrian beers to consider. These include darkly imperious imperial stouts, sprightly, luminous Helles and barrel-aged, wildly fermented, fruit-flavoured beers that defy categorisation. There is a whole world of beer in Austria, but all too often this small country of nine million people in the heart of Central Europe is often overlooked when it comes to the juice of the barley — it is time that this view changed.
After all, Austria, or more particularly, Vienna, was the home of Vienna lager, one of the three great lager beers that emerged in this part of Central Europe during the early 1840s — the other members of the trio being Pilsner and Märzen. Even though what is now known as Pilsner Urquell is often seen as the first on the scene, it was Vienna lager that appeared a year early in 1841. Coming in first was no guarantee of success though and within 80 years it had vanished in its home territory, though it was kept alive in both pre- and post-prohibition America as well as Mexico (a legacy of German brewers crossing the Atlantic with Mexico’s most notable example being Dos Equis). Vienna lager even had a role to play in the early years of the American craft beer revolution. Brooklyn Lager, writes the eponymous brewery’s brewmaster Garrett Oliver in his classic The Brewmaster’s Table, was based on Vienna lager. Meanwhile even though Samuel Adnams’ Boston Lager was not classified as one, it too was deemed to be a version of the style on its release. Yet back in its homeland, ignorance ruled.
‘When I was studying to be a brewer,’ says Karl Trojan, owner and head brewer at family owned Schremser Brewery, located in the north-eastern part of the country, ‘Vienna lager was brewed all over the world except for one country, Austria. If you would have asked me when I was a student what a Vienna lager was, I would probably have said a Märzen, brewed in Vienna, so it’s a Vienna lager.’
How did Austrian beer get overlooked? After all, flavour is not a stranger on the national table, if the country’s superb cuisine is anything to go by, with its influences from Jewish, Italian, Czech and Hungarian cooking. I have a theory, though, so let us go straight to the central nerve system of Austria and pay a visit to Vienna whose name down the centuries has been a byword for glitter, gluttony and going that extra mile when it comes to the secrets of the mind (though it also does have a history of rebellion and robust attitudes to those in power).
What we and the world call Vienna began life as a Celtic fishing village at a crossing of the Danube, emerging from the shadows several centuries before the start of the Christian era. The settlement was situated in a shallow basin (unsurprisingly now called the Vienna Basin) that separates the mountain chains of the Alps and the Carpathians. In this area a north-south trade route crossed the Danube, running all the way down from what would one day be named Scandinavia to modern-day Italy. Eventually, the Romans established a settlement called Vindobona, around which Vienna would grow. This is a city that has always been at a crossroads.
Keep that idea of a crossroads in mind, a crossroads over which many cultural influences have passed and then consider the beer culture of Austria: it too seems to have existed at a crossroads, a fixed point between the beers of its illustrious neighbours Bavaria and Bohemia, one known for Märzen and later on Helles and the other for Pilsner. These are the lagerlands of Central Europe, from where the world’s most popular beer, lager, initially emerged, slowly and considered, like a silkworm breaking out of its carapace, and when it finally broke free spread around the world with the quickening pace of a benign virus.
Whenever the history of beer and the people who drove it on in this part of the world are discussed, the figures of Josef Groll and Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger (plus his father, Gabriel Sedlmayr the Elder) stalk the landscape of discourse like biblical giants, bringing with them their own personal legends. It is almost as if you can imagine tales told by the firesides of isolated country taverns of how the inhabitants of Pilsen were so disgusted by the locally made beer, that the city burghers hired Bavarian brewmaster Groll to fix things. He then proceeded to come up with the world’s first golden lager, which went global in its reach and influence, even if the majority of beers called Pils/Pils(e)ner have as much connection with the Czech original as a cow has with a cockerel. Let us also remember Spatenbraü’s Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger’s development of Munich malt, which led to Märzen, one of the most glorious beers in the Bavarian brewing canon, a beer that for decades was a staple at the annual Oktoberfest.
However, as I have already touched upon, there is another story to be told: the rise and fall of Vienna lager. Despite figures from 2020 demonstrating that Austrian adults drink on average 107 litres of beer per person annually, which in 2021 made them second in a table of the world’s most prolific beer drinkers, and incidentally a couple of places ahead of their neighbour, Germany, it is wine that is usually the prism through which the world views Austrian drink culture. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that beer is also important and it is time that the country’s crucial part in the history of beer was remembered and celebrated, its role as a crossroads of beer influence told to the world at large. This is the first of four articles that will investigate and illuminate the influence and the crucial role that Austrian beer has made on the brewing world. It will also ponder on whether Vienna lager didn’t disappear as completely as we thought — that the most popular beer style in Austria, which is known as Austrian Märzen, is perhaps closer to Vienna lager than we think.
As I wrote earlier, even though Groll’s gold-coloured Pilsner made its debut in late 1842 and is usually held up as the first modern lager, a year earlier Anton Dreher at Klein-Schwechat Brewery near Vienna had produced a bottom-fermented beer made with light coloured malt, making him one of the pioneers of Central Europe’s lagerlhands. He might have been even more of a pioneer as, according to Andreas Krennmair in his authoritative Kindle single Vienna Lager, Dreher had first tried making bottom-fermenting beers during the previous year. In order to brew his Vienna lager, Dreher’s innovation was to produce malted barley that was lighter in colour than the ones in common use as well as being free of the smokiness that was a characteristic of many malthouses. This he did with the aid of hot air kilns, which were smoke-free and nicknamed ‘English kilns’. He had observed them in action during a tour of British breweries in the 1830s with several friends, including Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger.
The use of this innovation saw him develop Vienna malt, which enabled him to make an attractive-looking beer that was gold to amber in colour, and also tasted delicious. For a contemporary account of the beer’s character, Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible quotes an Englishman who visited Vienna in 1866: ‘Above all, that, when poured into a glass fresh from a cask just brought up from the ice-cellar, it glows like fluid amber, and is crowned with a delicate beading of bubbles, which are true bubbles of the air, and not like the soapy foam of Scotch ale, bubbles of the earth. To sip from a glass of Läger, puffing wreaths from a cigarette of choice Latakia, while you gaze vaguely to a sky flaming with the gold and crimson of a Danubian sunset, and catch the rhythm of waltzes and mazurkas — this is the perfection of ignorant and mechanical bliss. And nowhere else is such blessedness so surely to be found. Cornhill Magazine Volume 14, 1866’
For a contemporary take on Vienna lager, here is Schremser’s Vienna IP, a Vienna lager that has been hopped like an IPA according to Karl Trojan. ‘I was at a festival at the old Truman’s Brewery,’ he recalls, ‘and opposite me there was a guy who had an IPL and so I went over and asked what an IPL was. I was told an India Pale Lager, so I did an India Pale Vienna, and decided to call it Vienna I.P. or VIP.’
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Light amber beneath a rocky off-white head of foam it has a belt of assertive citrusy notes on the nose, which collaborate with a zesty freshness. There is more of the citrus on the palate, followed by light toasty and bready notes, with a lingering bitterness and dryness in the finish. It is audaciously easy to drink with its pronounced malt character working in tandem with the flurry of citrus notes. Whether this would be recognised by the Englishman in Vienna is impossible to say, but I would like to think that a gleam of recognition might just shine in his eyes.
Given the friendship of Dreher and Sedlmayr the Younger, you could also say that the great developments of lager during this period happened as a result of a cross-fertilisation of ideas, a great exchange between like-minded souls, once more this idea of a crossroads. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Groll, whose father once described him as the most miserable man in Munich, so perhaps he stayed out of it but the Czech influence would have come another way. A factor we have to remember is that during this period Vienna was at the centre of the vast Hapsburg empire with different nationalities on the move, whether legally or not. During the 19th century there were a lot of Czechs in Vienna, usually working in service or trade, and surely some of them would have brought a thirst for the beers of their homeland with them, which piled more pressure on Vienna lager.
According to Andreas Krennmair in Vienna Lager, ‘the boost in popularity of Bohemian beers showed in the following years and even managed to take market share away from the big Viennese breweries, in particular Klein-Schwechater and Mautner, to an extent they had cellars full of unsellable beer…The continued success of Bohemian beers emboldened the editor of The Bohemian Beer Brewer (a German-language trade publication published in Prague) in 1875 to print a polemic titled The Bohemian Beer Invasion in which the imminent downfall of Viennese lager and its replacement by Bohemian pale lagers was predicted: while the influx of cobblers and female cooks from Bohemia into Vienna couldn’t turn the city Bohemian, people had started to reject Vienna lager and devote themselves to Bohemian lager. The success of Bohemian beer at the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris started a conquest that eventually made the Bohemians occupy the Viennese beer cellars and “the Czechs now rule Vienna”.’
Vienna lager seemed to lose its way during and after World War I with pale lager beers becoming more and more popular. This has remained the case ever since with Austrian Märzen (a slightly different beast from its Bavarian neighbour) and, to a far lesser extent, Helles nowadays being the most popular styles of beer drunk in Austria.
However, paradoxically, if you try looking for a Vienna lager in the land of its birth today, apart from Schremser Brewery, chances are it will be a smaller ‘craft’ brewery upholding the tradition as Salzburg-based Stiegl Brewery’s Export Manager Thomas Necker explains.
’We don’t make a Vienna lager,’ he says, ‘this is because we believe that Austrians wouldn’t know what it is. For instance, we are huge beer drinkers in Austria but a big percentage of these drinkers would not know about the ingredients of beer. Ottakringer produce a Vienna lager (Wiener Original), while you will find some craft brewers in Austria making a Vienna lager, but the other brewers for the time being will not make one because they believe people would get confused.’
Maybe Vienna lager is in a similar state that IPA found itself in during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the country of its birth, perhaps you could argue that Vienna lager has become a forgotten hero, or maybe a legend that once upon a time during the Austrian empire helped put the country’s brewing industry on a par with Bavaria and Bohemia. However, somehow both brewers and drinkers forgot about Dreher’s work, even though there remains to this day a large brewery named after him, which can be found in Hungary.
Beer styles can vanish as well as also emerge, but how they do this has always been a mystery. As far as I know, no brewer ever jumped out of their bath and dashed down the street naked shouting ‘Eureka!’ because they’d discovered porter or IPA. There is no brewing equivalent of Francis Crick’s announcement in a Cambridge pub that he and James Watson had discovered DNA. Beer styles seem to develop with a glacial slowness until one brewery and then another and then another begin to announce a new kind of beer for their customers’ delectation. The avalanche can then begin and porter or IPA spread throughout the land enchanting every beer-drinker in their paths.
So it was for Vienna lager. There was no fanfare, no accounts of Dreher punching the air or whatever passed for triumph in the early part of the 19th century. The beer simply made its way into local pubs and began its glittering progress, first of all through Vienna and then through the rest of Europe. In their 2014 Kindle single, Gambrinus Waltz, Ray Bailey and Jessica Boak wrote about the 1867 L’Exposition universelle d’art et d’industrie, a kind of world fair that was held in Paris, and focus in on a bar that was set up by the Dreher Brewery. They feature a quote from the London Daily News, which remarks on the popularity of Vienna lager: ‘A Viennese brewer, named Dreher, besides the space he occupies in the gallery, has erected in the Park an immense Bier-Hall, which recalls those to be met with so frequently in the suburbs of Vienna. There one can enjoy curious Austrian and Hungarian dishes wash down…with the excellent beer brewed by the proprietor.’
By then Anton Dreher, who developed Vienna lager, was dead but this brewing landmark of Austrian beer was a noted beer style (though both brewers and drinkers of the time wouldn’t have used the phrase). However, its decline after World War I, during which Austrian breweries had to use substitutes such as potato syrup, broad beans and wheatgrass due to a shortage of barley and hops, could perhaps be put down to changing fashions in beer and the dominance of Pilsner. Another factor could have been the rocky ride the new republic experienced with revolutions and uprisings and eventually the Nazi takeover making life very difficult for breweries.
‘Our family brewing books start in the 1920s,’ says Karl Trojan, ‘and you can see the volumes going up and down. During the Austro-Hungarian empire, they were producing between 4/5000 hectolitres, but it went down to 1500 in the 1930s. I think they only brewed one beer, a lager.’
There was more turmoil to come. In the years after World War II, part of the country was occupied by the Soviet Union for ten years, who took away machinery, raw materials and even barley as compensation for the destruction the Nazis had wrought on their country. According to Karl Trojan this even led to the suspension of brewing at the family firm during the first three months of 1946 because there was not enough barley. Again, as was the case before the war, only one beer was made, simply termed as a lager. ‘We had a lighter wort,’ he says, ‘and the original gravity went down at the end of the 1940s according to what my father told me.’ It wasn’t until the mid 1950s onwards that Austrian breweries had the resources and finances to start producing more than a single beer, with one of them being what we now call an Austrian Märzen.
Modern-day Austrian beer is dominated by Helles and Märzen, with the latter, according to Thomas Necker, ‘having a different taste profile and also a difference in alcohol to a Bavarian Märzen. If you look at the Bavarian one it is much higher in alcohol and much more intense in flavour, so I would say that the Austrian Märzen is somewhere between a Bavarian Helles and Märzen. Its alcohol strength is usually around 4.8-5.2% but it has a very rich full-bodied taste and it fits perfectly with our traditional dishes. This means it would be a traditional drink at the dinner table. I think the Märzen has developed independently, because in the past everything was small and almost everyone brewed their own beer. However when you are sitting in Vienna or lower Austria of course the closer you get to the border the more the mix of beer styles but this is not always the case if you go to the western part. Over the border in Bavaria Weiss is still very popular, but in Austria Weiss consumption is only 2%.’
Karl Trojan has a similar view of the emergence of Märzen, saying that the style ‘developed after World War II, when it became a name for a pale lager here in Austria. I see it as a style very similar to a German Helles, rather than the traditional Märzen. In Germany Helles developed as the so-called beer, when you ordered a beer you got a Helles. And you got a Märzen in Austria and nobody knows why. Of course if you order a Märzen in Germany or all over the world, it is 13˚ plus, the alcohol 6% plus, and it is up to an amber colour. Austrian Märzen is not a Helles it is a more full-bodied Helles, with bitterness around 20 IBU.’
Other examples of this ubiquitous style as well as Trojan’s include Stiegl’s Goldbräu and the Märzen from Hirter Brewery, located in the district of Upper AustriaCarinthia in Southern Austria. Goldbräu is a deep gold hue, resting beneath a firm collar of foam, the colour of a fresh snowfall in the Alps. On the nose there are light bready/grainy notes, reminiscent of breakfast cereal. There is more of the breadiness on the palate, a hint of lemon citrus, a fullness and smoothness in the mouthfeel with a clean finish boosted by a refreshing dryness. There’s also a gracious mid-palate bittersweetness, which completes the attraction of the beer. On the other hand, the Märzen from Hirter is a paler gold in colour, and has an ethereal nose of citrus and crisp graininess. It is full-bodied on the palate, snappy in its carbonation, delicately hopped and ravishing with its clean dry finish. Both examples of the style demonstrate its excessive drinkability.
In trying to tease out information about how and why Austrian Märzen developed, there is little to go on but stories, anecdotes and speculation, with Karl Trojan engaging in the latter when it comes to the beer styles origin story.
‘After World War II, when Austrian Märzen developed, what we are perhaps looking at is a memory of quality, with the beer style getting its name as a marketing point of view. Perhaps if you are starting to brew good beer again, then the breweries start to market it as Märzen again. That was my what my father told me, that Märzen was a name for high quality beer.
‘We have labels from the 1930s and 1940s when it was just lager, but it changed to Märzen in the 1950s in our brewery. When they called it lager or Helles in the 1940s, it was a really thin beer, but as soon as they got more barley and hops they wanted to give it a different name, so that is why some breweries called it Märzen, because the name was known as a high quality beer. That is what my father told me but it is not written down, so who knows?’
There could be an element of truth in this, especially if we take the example of the origins of the term noble hop. Even though it sounds like something that originated several hundred years ago, it in fact came into use in the 1970s, as part of a marketing campaign in the USA. It was an attempt to distinguish several European hop varieties, to give them a gravitas and a sense of quality. Could the same thing have happened with Austrian Märzen?
Whatever the truth about Märzen’s emergence and the banishment of Vienna lager, Austrian beer remains a vital and creative presence at the crossroads of Central Europe’s lagerlands, it is high time this lesson of life and vitality was recognised, inevitably with a glass of one of the country’s beers to hand.
The next feature will focus on Bavarian Märzen and the man who is associated with it, Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger.