Austria was once a world superpower. That was in the late Middle Ages, when, from its capital of Vienna, the Austrian dynasty, the House of Habsburg, ruled not only what we know as Austria but also virtually all of Europe—with the exception of France, Britain, Russia, and Scandinavia. As a result, German beer history and Austrian beer history are inextricably intertwined.
Politically, the stories of Austria and Germany began to diverge only in 1806, when, following a debacle against Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, the last Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation, the Habsburg Francis II (1768–1835) renounced the crown. This ended 844 years of the First German Reich. Importantly, it also meant the beginning of an Austrian empire, with the former Francis II of Germany metamorphosing into Emperor Francis I of Austria. The new empire immediately went on an expansion spree, mostly in an easterly direction, soon adding most of the Balkans, as well as Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary, and even parts of present-day Ukraine, Romania, Poland, and northern Italy to its realm. In 1867, the new entity became the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted until the end of World War I, in
As much as Austria went its separate ways politically after the Napoleonic Wars, it was not able to break loose from German beer culture. In fact, one can argue that Austria continued to contribute as much to the German beer culture as it borrowed from it. In 1841, for instance, the Schwechat Brewery outside Vienna brought out the Vienna lager, which was—next to the Märzen brought out simultaneously by the Spaten Brewery of Munich—the first systematic attempt at brewing an amber lager. The Schwechat Brewery was owned by Anton Dreher, who also had major facilities in the Hungarian capital of Budapest and the Italian seaport city of Trieste at the Adriatic Sea.
Today, there are some 70 packaging breweries in Austria as well as more than 100 small breweries and brewpubs. Most of them are concentrated in upper Austria. Austrians drink as much beer per capita as do their German neighbors—roughly 1,00 l per year. The Austrians and Germans are surpassed only by the leading Czechs. The most popular beer style in Austria is “Austrian Märzen,” a filtered lager that holds about 60% market share. Austrian Märzen ought not to be confused with Bavarian Märzen, however. Whereas the latter tends to be malt accented, amber to copper in color, with an alcohol by volume (ABV) between 5.5% and 5.9%, the former is more like a Munich Helles with a golden–yellow color, with a balance of malt and hops, a gentle to moderate bitterness, and an ABV that tends to stay below 5%. Märzen is the most important beer style for just about every brewery in Austria, just as pils is the most important beer style for virtually every brewery in Germany. Austria’s largest privately owned brewery, Stiegl of Salzburg, makes a Märzen called Stiegl Goldbräu, which is Austria’s most popular bottled beer. Stiegl was founded in
The structure of the Austrian brew industry is very decentralized and half of it consists of small, regional brewers. In this respect, Austria resembles Germany. This structure sets both Austria and Germany apart from North America, where only a few brewing giants tend to dominate the overwhelming share of the market. In Canada, perhaps 9 of 10 beers consumed are made by either Molson or Labatt; in Mexico, they are made by Modelo or FEMSA; and in the United States, perhaps 8 of 10 beers are made by Anheuser-Busch, Miller, or Coors. The presence of many mid-size and small breweries makes for a great diversity of beers in Austria, probably more so than in Germany, because Austrian brewers are not restricted in their ingredients the way German brewers are by virtue of that country’s Beer Purity Law.