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 1918. Although Austria was quick to establish its own identity after its split from the old German empire, it took Germany another 65 years before it formed its own new empire, the Second Reich, in 1871—this time under the guidance of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, with the Prussian House of Hohenzollern on the throne and Berlin as the new capital.

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. See dreher, anton, märzenbier, spaten brewery, andvienna lager. The first pilsner beer style, too, brewed by Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll at the Burgher Brewery of Pilsen, in Bohemia, in 1842, has a decidedly Austrian component, namely its German branding. Bohemia was then part of the Austrian Empire; thus, whatever happened in the land of the Czechs also had to have a name in the official Austrian language, which is German. This is why the beer that was destined to become the model for perhaps 9 of 10 beers brewed in the world today was—and still is—known worldwide as Pilsner Urquell and not by its native designation of Plzeňský Prazdroj. The Dreher operation was also one of the world’s first breweries to install Carl von Linde’s revolutionary invention of refrigeration for lagering tanks. See linde, carl von. Although the Spaten Brewery of Munich was the first to take delivery, in 1874, of von Linde’s original “cold machine,” Dreher’s brewery in Trieste was the first to take delivery of von Linde’s second-generation “improved ice and chilling machine,” in 1877. That machine ran in Trieste for the next 31 years.

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 1492 and now makes more than 1 million hl (852,168 US bbl) of beer per year. Next to the Märzen, Stiegl makes a large portfolio of beer styles including a popular pils, as well as such specialty brews as brown beer, Altbier, red ale, Christmas honey beer, and stout. Brauunion (BU), which is owned by the Heineken Group and holds more than 50% of the Austrian beer market, produces a popular Märzen too, under its Gösser brand. Another BU brand, Zipfer, considers its Urtyp, a pilsner style, its most important beer. Another BU brewery, Hofbräu Kaltenhausen near Salzburg, makes Edelweiss, which is Austria’s leading weissbier.

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. See reinheitsgebot. Among Austria’s smaller breweries, perhaps the best known internationally is Schloss Eggenberg, the producer of the legendary high-alcohol Samichlaus lager. See eggenberg brewery. Also well known is Trumer, a pils brewery in Salzburg, which has a subsidiary in Berkeley, California, which makes an identical pils. Among the specialty beers produced by Austria’s small breweries, one notable oddity is a kübelbier (literally, “bucket beer”) made by the Hofstettner Brewery in the Mühlviertel region of upper Austria. This beer is fermented in open troughs made of granite that was quarried nearby. A new creative wave of Austrian brewing is typified by the Viennese brewpub 1516, named after the year the German Beer Purity Law was promulgated. The name seems more a taunt than an oath of Austrian fealty to German brewing culture, especially because the brewpub produces everything from American-style India pale ales to beers made from quinoa.