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Vienna Lager: Fire in the Glass

This elegant beer with Austrian roots hides in plain sight pretty much everywhere except Austria. In this edition of Style School, Jeff Alworth explains how Anton Dreher’s 19th century creation is poised for a restoration.

Jeff Alworth Nov 30, 2020 - 9 min read

Vienna Lager: Fire in the Glass Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

A casual beer fan could be forgiven for imagining that the best place to find a style called “Vienna lager” would be—well, Vienna. Unlike some other beers named for their hometowns—Berliner weisse, Grodziskie—Vienna lagers are not especially rare. In fact, one of the best-selling American beers, Sam Adams Boston Lager, fits broadly within the style.

Nor was Vienna lager a footnote in the annals of brewing. Quite the opposite: One of the world’s first pale lagers, it was for decades spoken of in hushed tones as “liquid amber” and “fire in the glass.” The man who developed it, Anton Dreher, did so by the use of a pale malt that also bears the city’s name—still common today in brewing. He would go on to build one of the largest and most technologically advanced breweries in the world. For decades it was one of the most popular beers in the world.

But here two ironies emerge.

An example of the style is difficult to find in Vienna—or anywhere in Austria—and it has been since just after World War I. Austrians drink a style of lager they call märzen—it’s crisp, golden, and flavorful, something like a German helles. Local breweries have started to try to revive “Wiener lagers” in their hometown but so far haven’t found many takers. The style instead flourished abroad, principally in the New World, where it became a staple of brewing in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet in that second, expatriate life, Vienna lagers evolved away from Austria. They got makeovers—first by immigrant German brewers, then by American and Mexican brewers in the Industrial Age.

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When American microbrewers first began to revive the style, it had been so long since it was Austrian that the connection was severed. When he created Boston Lager, Jim Koch reached deep into the family archives—there are five generations of Koch brewers. Yet the beer he developed is made with German hops, American pale and caramel malt, and not a grain of Vienna malt. I’m not aware that Koch ever described Boston Lager as a Vienna himself, but Americans looked at its amber hue and lager crispness and declared it so. In much the same way, Great Lakes makes its Eliot Ness with similar malts (and no Vienna)—along with American hops.

By the 1980s, Vienna lagers had come to an odd place: They still flourished, but they could not be found in their hometown; where they could be found, they used little or none of the signature malt Dreher had invented when he created the style.

How did we get there?

Anton Dreher

Anton Dreher was the son of a brewer. Despite an affinity for poetry, he went into the family trade as a young man, apprenticing at another brewery. He didn’t inspire much confidence in the brewer there, but he made a friend in another apprentice from another brewing family, Gabriel Sedlmayr of the Spaten Brewery in Munich. The young men were ambitious and decided to go abroad to learn more about their craft—settling on a trip to Britain, which at that time was the most advanced brewing country on Earth.

The story of that trip, which lasted the better part of 1833, would make a spectacular novel or miniseries. Rebuffed by other breweries when they arrived in London, Dreher managed to get a job at Barclay Perkins long enough to study what was then one of the most impressive breweries in the world. The young men then managed to befriend Michael Thomas Bass, owner of Burton’s equally legendary Bass Brewery, and thus learned two key innovations that they would take back home. One was the English use of the saccharometer, which helped them brew more consistent beer. The second was the English practice of using indirect heat to malt barley, producing paler malts free of smoke or roast.

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It was the latter knowledge that Dreher would use to change the course of Austrian brewing. He took over the family brewery in 1836, but it was old and rustic. Over time, he would modernize it, adding a wort chiller and a new English-style kiln. It was an ale brewery then, with no lagering cellars for lagering, and Dreher built production making a Scottish-type ale. (At the time, strong pale Edinburgh ales were enjoying international acclaim.) Yet Dreher wanted to make lagers, so he ultimately came up with a clever work-around: he found Viennese taverns with cellar space and sent his young beer there to age. In 1841, he brewed the lager that would eventually become synonymous with the city.

The Original Vienna Lager

No brewing logs exist from Dreher’s day. The modern Schwechat brewery, southeast of Vienna and now owned by Heineken, has a few assorted logs; the oldest dates to 1894. They’re thrilling to see. The ingredients are remarkably simple. They were brewing two versions of the same beer, and both with a single malt—that pale malt that came to be called Vienna. (In the weaker of the two beers, an infinitesimal amount of farbmalz, color malt, was used to make the beers a consistent color.) The logs don’t specify the hop varieties, but the innovative Dreher purchased hop fields near Žatec in Bohemia. He did this to protect his supply of Saaz, a variety as prized then as it is today.

In the fashion of old logbooks, details on process are lacking. However, decoction mashing was the standard in the 19th century, and descriptions of the Schwechat brewery from the 1870s confirm that was their approach. According to contemporary accounts, the beer was fermented cold for a lager—no warmer than 44°F (7°C)—and lagered for often incredible spans of two months to more than a year. The brewery was proud of the long lagering times and touted them in advertisements.

It was a remarkably simple beer: Vienna malt, Saaz hops, decoction mashing, and long lagering times. It closely resembles the Bavarian and Bohemian lagers, its nearest cousins, but the key distinctive element is clearly the malt. Darker and fuller than their Bohemian counterparts, yet much lighter than the darker beers of Munich.

The Second Revival?

In 2016, on the 175th anniversary of Dreher’s first brew, the Schwechat brewery decided to reintroduce Wiener Lager. Brewmaster Andreas Urban experimented with different malt bills, settling on a 60 percent Vienna, 40 percent pilsner split. Even that ratio renders a deep amber beer with real mouthfeel and depth. The hops are stiff but not insistent, offering a soft herbal counterpoint to the malts. It’s an impressive beer. Other Austrian breweries have begun to experiment with the style as well, all leaning into their native malt. The formulations vary, as do the hopping levels, but the breweries are shooting for rich, robust beers that are authentic heirs to Dreher’s original.

In the United States, Vienna malt has been working its way back into Vienna lagers. Brewers familiar with Dreher’s story and his beer are pushing Vienna malt levels higher and higher; a few bold breweries have even chanced all-Vienna examples. If Samuel Adams and Great Lakes seemed robust to an earlier generation of drinkers, these newer (or is it older?) examples are pushing the envelope for the current one.

When he was searching for a description of Dreher’s original Wiener lager, Urban came across the phrase, “fire in the glass.” It was clearly written by someone inspired by the romance of this famous beer at a time when it inspired such ardor. If breweries start making examples that stir people to that kind of poetry, Vienna lagers may be ripe for a third revival—or perhaps even a restoration.

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