Vienna Lager is an amber-reddish Austrian beer style that closely resembles the golden-amber Märzen style of Munich, Bavaria. Both the Vienna lager and the Märzen were first brought to market in 1841. To put that date in perspective, the world’s first golden blond lager, the pilsner, was developed in Plzen, in the Czech Republic, a year later, in 1842. The concurrence of the introduction of the Vienna and Märzen lagers was no accident, because the two brewers who created these styles, Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayr, were close friends and had cooperated in their development. Dreher was the owner of the Schwechat Brewery near Vienna, which was part of his family’s vast brewing holdings, the largest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with sites from Trieste on the Adriatic to Budapest, Hungary.
While the Märzen beer is still fairly popular in much of the modern world, the Vienna lager is now rarely brewed, even in the city for which it is named. Strangely, this beer style is perhaps most popular nowadays in Mexico, where somewhat bowdlerized versions are made on an industrial scale. This may well be a result of the odd period from 1864 to 1867 when Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph of Austria ruled as Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico. In the United States, too, Vienna lager has found a solid following among craft beer aficionados.
In central Europe, virtually all beers prior to the appearance of the Vienna, Märzen, and pilsner lagers in the 1840s were some shade of dark brown. This is because the malt kilns in use in those days were direct-fired, with the combustion gases from the kiln’s fuel drying the malt. The resulting malt tended to be rather uneven, with some kernels barely dried, and others soundly roasted, and even scorched. In Britain, on the other hand, in the early 1800s, a new, indirect-fired kiln had come into use. It dried the malt using heated air, not fire. This allowed for the reliable production of pale malt, which, in turn, gave rise to a new beer style, the pale ale. Dreher and Sedlmayr became interested in this new British brew and in 1833 they set off on a fact-finding mission to the United Kingdom to learn all they could about making this pale beer. In fact, some beer historians accuse the two friends of outright industrial espionage. Upon their return, they each adapted the progressive British ale-making techniques to their own lager-making, which resulted in the revolutionary Vienna and Märzen lagers.
Both brews were of medium body and, in typical Central European fashion, had plenty of malty notes. However, they also differed from each other. The brew from Munich had a slightly, but not cloyingly, sweet finish, while the one from Vienna finished much drier. The Munich brew—like the prevailing dunkel of the age—placed less emphasis on up-front hop bitterness than did the Vienna brew. Still today, the IBU-values of an authentic Märzen generally range in the low 20s, while those of a Vienna lager range in the high 20s. The lingering hop-aromatic finish, on the other hand, tends to be more pronounced in the Munich than in the Vienna lager style. Technically speaking, the color of a classic golden-amber Märzen tends to be around 18–25 EBC (9–13 SRM), while that of the reddish Vienna lager might be around 22–28 EBC (11–14 SRM). The dominant dunkel lagers of the early 19th century, by comparison, had a typical color rating closer to 40 EBC (20 SRM). In alcohol by volume, the brew from Munich was also a bit stronger than that from Vienna. While the strength of the Märzen was close to 6 ABV, that of the Vienna lager was around 5 ABV, similar to that of a Munich export lager.
The revolutionary aspect of the two new lagers was based on their malts, which were kilned the British way, over hot air instead of direct heat. These malts have survived to our day and are now universally known as Vienna malt and Munich malt. Vienna malt makes up the majority of the grist for a true Vienna lager, which should display some toffeeish, bready flavors.
Both the Schwechat and the Spaten breweries are still in existence today. The Schwechat Brewery, which was founded in 1632 and purchased by the Dreher family in 1796, is now part of the Brau Union Österreich AG conglomerate, while the Spaten Brewery, which can trace its origins all the way back to 1397 and was purchased by the Sedlmayr family in 1807, is now part of the Belgian–Brazilian–American Anheuser-Busch InBev concern.