By Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint
A phenomenon of human migration is that traditions, customs, and cultural idiosyncrasies may be retained in the adopted land long after they have died out in their place of origin. A good example of this is the archaic version of the German language still spoken by the Amish of Pennsylvania. And so it is with Vienna lager.
Once one of the biggest beer styles in the German-speaking realm, its popularity gradually faded. By the early 20th century it was no longer being brewed on the continent. But a mid-1800s exodus of Germans and Austrians to the new world allowed the style to survive in Central America. It has since been rediscovered and revived by American craft brewers.
The development of Vienna lager lies in advances in malting technology and the friendship of two brewers—Gabriel Sadlmayer of the Spaten Brewery in Munich and Anton Dreher of the Dreher Brewery in Klein Schwechat outside Vienna. Prior to the first part of the 19th century malt was dried in direct-fired kilns. This resulted in grains with a high degree of toast, creating beers that were dark in color. By the early 1800s the British were using kilns that used indirect heat and hot air to dry the grain. They were creating malts for their pale ales that were significantly lighter than those found in Europe.
In the 1820s Sadlemayer and Dreher set off on a six year journey to study brewing techniques, as was the custom of the day for apprentice brewers. They traveled to Prussia, Bohemia, Austria, Switzerland, Baden-Wurttemberg, the Rhineland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the British Isles, secretly pilfering wort along the way with a special hollow cane that they had commissioned just for that purpose. Of their thievery Sadlemayer wrote, “It always surprises me that we can get away with these thefts without being beaten up.”
While in England the pair discovered the new malting technologies. Dreher applied them back home to create a lightly toasted malt that we now call Vienna malt. It made a beer that was reddish-amber in hue, much paler than the brown beers that were otherwise being brewed. Dreher debuted the beer in 1841 as Schwechater Lagerbier. Eventually it became known simply as “Lager Vienna Typ,” or Vienna style lager.
Sadlmayer’s version of this new malt was kilned to a slightly higher degree. We now call it Munich malt. His pale lager beer, a bit darker in color and with a richer malt profile, was originally called “Märzen gebraut nach Wiener Art,” or March beer brewed in the Viennese way. It is the style we now know as Märzen/Oktoberfest.
Vienna lager’s introduction to Central America is attributed to an Austrian brewer named Santiago Graf, about whom little is known. When the president of Mexico suspended interest payments to European creditors in 1860, Napoleon III ordered his armies to invade. After a long and bloody campaign they took Mexico City. In 1864, a member of the Austrian royal family, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Josef Habsburg, was installed as Emperor of Mexico. Although his reign lasted only three years, it brought an influx of German speaking immigrants—Santiago Graf and other brewers among them. They introduced the Vienna lager style into their new homeland. By the time it had become extinct in Europe, the style was just gaining traction in the New World. By the 1930s, breweries like Cerveceria Modelo were exporting the beer to the United States where in the 1980s it was embraced by the bourgeoning micro-brewing movement.
Vienna lager is a reddish-amber colored, malt-forward beer that showcases the toasted flavors of Vienna malt. Hop bitterness is just high enough to balance the malt’s sweetness without overshadowing the flavor. The spicy flavor and aroma of European hops may be present but usually at only very low levels. It finishes dry and crisp with lingering toasty malt character and bitterness. According to the BJCP guidelines, “American versions can be a bit stronger, drier, and more bitter, while modern European versions tend to be sweeter.” Many of the Mexican versions that saved the style have become adjunct-heavy brews more akin to dark American lagers.
Examples: Schell’s Firebrick, Capital Wisconsin Amber, Great Lakes Eliot Ness Amber Lager (unusually strong for the style), Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Negra Modelo, Dos Equis Amber Lager, Abita Amber, Snake River Lager