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Ahhhh Vienna….
Is this your lager?

The story of Vienna lager

The joys of Vienna

A few times I have had the pleasure of travelling in and around Austria including cycling holidays along the banks of the Danube and the Salz rivers. It is a glorious mix of snow-capped Alps, green meadows and timber farm houses. It is such a clean and organised country, especially when swapping to and from the old east bloc countries like Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. They have their own versions of central European food with lots of creamy, savoury dishes with dumplings, potatoes and of course the greatest original schnitzels. The coffee is hit and miss in the fact there was no consistency across the country. A café melange ordered in Salzburg was a flat white while south of Vienna you got a coffee with whipped cream. The wrong guess and you could end up with a bowl of warm milk with a shot of coffee. It is a great country to cycle through as there is high quality paths known as Radwegs. They are mostly off road or back roads, generous and well kept. It is a great way to see the country and meet the people. Every town seems to have a flash swimming pool with a café selling beer and food so it is the ideal place to cool off.
The Austrians love their beer but seem to be hidden in the world by their more famous brewing neighbours. They have at least one beer to call their own. Vienna lager is not the standard euro lager the world buys in bulk. The rich, biscuity body and slight caramel flavour gives it a deep amber colour. It is not as refreshing on a hot day as the standard lager style but for a city a few hundred kms from the home of the ultimate lager style, Czech Pilsner, it has its common heritage. The original drop out dates Pilsner by about a year but uses the same base malts and yeast. Both beers are a result of modern kilning techniques. I went to Vienna and tried the Ottakringer Wiener Original and the Hubertus Green (label) lager (aka Marzen). I had the Hubertus after a morning of cycling from the Czech boarder and found it rather suited to quenching a thirst, and dulling the sore legs, with a pizza lunch. (I had had a week of deep fried everything, schintties and dumpling so a pizza was a relief). It had far more body than pilsner but the same saaz hop profile. The real difference is the richer, biscuity malt.
If you take time to read about Vienna larger, the story goes that this beer was developed by an Austrian brewer who inherited a brewery but was too young to run the place. He spent his youth travelling with another brewing mate to, amongst other places, Britain to look at modern brewing technology and took special note of the kilning. Britain had moved to using hot air rather than fire to kiln malt, which produced a much paler malt. This was used in his new beer, and was a style setter in the Austro-Hungarian part of the world. The story gets weird in that Vienna lager lost popularity to pilsner and was hard to find by the mid-19th century. The unlikely saviour of the style was Maximillian 1st who ruled Mexico for 3 years, he facilitated several European brewers to follow him to Mexico. In Mexico, Vienna lager survived as a style, the most famous example being Negro Modela, first brewed in 1926. Now here is where the American Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP), who are normally pretty solid, seem to lose the plot a little. Negro Modelo is darker and stronger than the original style but the BJCP list it as a commercial example of the Vienna lager style while no modern Austrian Breweries, who claim to use original recipes, are listed. Also, there is no style such as a Mexican strong lager or similar. Did I really drink Vienna Lager when I was in Vienna? Who knows?

If you want to make your own Vienna lager there are plenty of recipes and advice but the obvious key ingredients are Vienna malt, noble hops and lager yeast such as the ever popular Saflager S23. The water profile, according to the BJCP, is medium hardness, but that is more likely to reflect the water of Mexico than of Vienna. I can say that using shampoo in Vienna was a soft water experience. The story this beer tells is about the pale malt and the crisp lager yeast. The hops varieties you can use are Saaz, Hallertauer or Tettnanger although if you are trying to be historically correct, Tettnanger did not exist when Vienna Lager was first brewed. Hallertauer is popular in many German beers and style wise, you would be heading towards Oktoberfest Mazen instead. All three are noble hops from the region so will capture the profile. Mind you, the hops are mostly for bittering and a little bit of flavour to balance the brew. You can use local alternatives such as Ella or Nelson Sauvignon and few will notice.  Getting the malt right is the most important part. If you use Vienna malt you still need to add a small amount of something to give it a bit of depth and colour like 5% Weyermanns melanoidan or less of a roasted malt that is darker. Don’t overdo it as the beer is not meant to be dark, just not as light like pilsner.

To brew it you should mash low at about 63 degC to keep it dry. Let the malt do the work to give it body. Don’t go crazy sparging so you keep the SG up to 1.048 to 1.055. I prefer it on the high side to help differentiate it from other lagers. Fermenting should be low at about 11 degC with a Diacetyl rest at 18deg after 10 days for 48 hours. Diacetyl is not part of the style. If you want to do be authentic, traditionally it was brewed in March (Mazen) and stored though the northern summer to be drunk at the end of harvest in October. In the southern hemisphere, swap the months but make sure you keep it below about 12 degrees. Mind you, it doesn’t really fit an Australian context that well and we still have Oktoberfest in October so you work it out.  Anyway, it is a beer well worth making and is more complex and satisfying than normal lagers, so whether you make it yourself, head off to Vienna to try it, or just happen to be in Mexico, enjoy a Vienna lager.