While Vienna Lager had long been a stranger in its birthplace, there are signs of hope as the style is being embraced by a new generation of brewers. Though this rebirth may not be a precise re-creation of the original, it is nonetheless exciting to see Austrians once again giving attention to lager brewed with Vienna malt that is somewhere between a Helles and a Dunkel.
Vienna Lager transformed as it made its way from Austria to Czechia, Mexico, the United States and elsewhere. Using a variety of different malts, particularly Munich and Crystal, the style grew darker in color and sweeter in taste. Some of the new brewers in Vienna are also using a blend of malts, and nontraditional hop varieties, straying from the original style. What is the result? I cannot say from experience, but I am optimistic.
Is it appropriate to continue calling these beers Vienna Lager? Most that are identified as a Vienna Lager fall within the parameters set forth in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines. Yet, the guidelines for this style are not in keeping with the original version. If a lager is brewed with a majority of Vienna Malt, is roughly in the range of 5 to 5.5 ABV, finishes on the dry side, and falls somewhere in the vicinity of deep gold to amber in color, I’m fine with that being called a Vienna Lager. I’m sure others will disagree.
It’s worthwhile to note that Vienna lagers keeping with the original style can be found. The historic brewery Ottakringer makes a version that uses Vienna and Melanoidin malts, hopped with Saaz. Ottakringer has an offshoot brewery called Brauwerk, and they have a lineup consistent with American trends. Their “imperial Vienna lager” called Crown Princess, comes in at 7.2-percent alcohol, and has an added hop presence from a whirlpool addition.
The gypsy brewery known as Brew Age focuses on American style brews, but makes a Vienna Lager as they find it important to have a traditional beer as part of their core lineup. They chose Vienna because they did not want to make a Märzen (which in Austria is more like a helles), the ubiquitous and mass-produced brew.
“Malzstrasse”, or “Malty Way”, Brew Age’s Vienna, is what they describe as an “ode to malt”. According to brewmaster Johannes Kugler “we work with almost exclusively Vienna Malt and add only a hint of Caramel Malt. Compared to other Vienna Lagers in Austria, ours is much drier in taste and does not have an overly sweetish caramel character which some examples have. So a pretty quaffable beer, with still lots of malt character without being sweet. What is not exactly traditional in our version is the choice of hops. While Saaz would be the old school hop to go with, we decided to go with Hallertau Mittelfrüh, since we like the fresh flowery-citrusy quality of it.” The brewery is not targeting a specific demographic with this beer, and has found that out of all their releases, it has the widest audience.
Brew Age has a retail location in Vienna, but they make most of their beer at Brauhaus Gusswerk, just outside Salzburg. Gusswerk, while also making some modern, US-style brews, has more traditional products in their lineup. In addition to a Vienna Lager, they also make a steinbier (stone beer).
Muttermilch Vienna Brewery, located in a basement below the well-known store BeerLovers, is also making a blend of traditional and new. I love their design theme, including the one for their Vienna Lager, called Wiener Bubi (see above). Finally, 100 Blumen is also putting their subtle fingerprint on traditional styles like Vienna lager.
Back on this side of the Atlantic, it is also younger brewers that give hope for this style. Cerverza Minerva is keeping the Mexican tradition alive, while pFriem Family Brewers, Dovetail Brewery, and vonTrapp Brewing are making exceptional versions in the United States. Eliot Ness, the classic by Great Lakes Brewing Company, is also still alive and kicking. It’s pleasantly surprising to see that it has over 3,000 reviews on BeerAdvocate, with a rating over 4.0.
The 2015 Style Guidelines for the BJCP indicate that Vienna Lager is on the “watch list” for a potential move to the historical beer style category. The original Vienna Lager probably should be on this list. However, the modified version that many have come to know as Vienna Lager may be here a little while longer. Stay tuned, and drink lager. Light, dark, and everything in between.