The wizards of Aus

It may be the beer equivalent of the Kardashian whose name you can’t remember, but Austrian brewing more than holds its own alongside Germany and Czechia, writes Adrian Tierney-Jones

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Let us suspend reality for a moment and turn Austrian beer into a person. Next we will put them on the therapist’s couch and the first question to be asked in the manner of that great Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud will be: do you feel in the shadow of the beer culture of your great northern neighbours Germany and Czechia? 

Being a proud Austrian, the patient might shrug their shoulders, smile wistfully and reply in a voice stern in its pride: no. After all, our imaginary person should be proud of the Austrian version of Märzen, which, according to Karl Trojan, owner and head brewer at family owned Schremser, ‘developed after World War II, when it became a name for a pale lager here in Austria. I see it as a style very similar to a German Helles, rather than the traditional Märzen’.  

Then, our hypothetical patient will point out that Austria (or the Austrian part of what would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire) was responsible for one of the great beer styles of the 19th century. This was Vienna Lager, which emerged into the world courtesy of Anton Dreher in 1841 (you can read more about this style in Andreas Krennmair’s marvellous Kindle single Vienna Lager). Incidentally, that was a year before a Bavarian brewmaster in Pilsen brought forth a magnificent gold-coloured lager named after the city in which it was first brewed. At this point Austrian beer will spring off the couch, satisfied with the latest session and go out and order a beer, hopefully a revitalised Vienna Lager or a fresh-faced Märzen.

This little fantasy demonstrates how easy and lazy it is to see Austrian beer as nothing more than an offshoot of its neighbours’ brews. When we think of the landlocked country that looks a bit like a smaller Italy lying on its side, it is wine, schnitzels, sugary cakes in Viennese cafes, Mozart, merry widows and The Sound of Music that spring to mind, but hardly beer. This is a mistake as we should pay a lot more attention to the contemporary beer scene in Austria, a playful scherzo of a creature both emboldened by and free of its past. Even though 60% of its volume is produced by a huddle of breweries beneath the Heineken umbrella of Brau Union, there remains a lively collection of long established family brewers and more recent craft practitioners to get excited about.

For some background I turned to beer sommelier Markus Betz, with whom I have drunk and judged beer in Belgium and the USA: “In 2018, there were 278 breweries in Austria (150 commercial and 128 pub/home breweries), but currently we have 318 (195 commercial and 123 pub/home breweries). This means that there are more breweries than ever before! There is currently one “beer manufacturer” for every 27,000 inhabitants, which means that Austria has one of the highest brewery densities in the world! Naturally, here it is still all about the Märzen beer style. However, newer breweries like Bevog and Bierol are also focusing on styles like pale ale, IPA etc, but in the end the Austrians still want their Märzen the most. Bevog, for example, has also launched a really great Helles this year.’

Examples of this ubiquitous style include Stiegl’s Gold and Beer52’s Trumer Obertrumer Marzen-Zwickl (both are based in lucky old Salzburg). These beers are a lighter gold than their German counterparts and possessed of a slightly more bitter and hoppy character. Gold is smooth and full-bodied with a softly spoken hint of citrus in the finish. Trumer’s is also generous in its mouth feel and finishes with a gracious bittersweetness. The Austrian Märzen is now a separate beer category in competitions around the world, partly thanks to the work of Austrian beer sommelier and brewmaster Jens Luckhart.


Gold is 90% of Stiegl's production and, incidentally, the best selling independently owned beer in Austria

Trumer is notable for having a parent brewery in California, where its pristine beers are brewed for the US market, while an entirely coincidental American connection is revealed with the fact that Stiegl’s foundation date is 1492. Even though Gold is 90% of its production and, incidentally, the best selling independently owned beer in Austria, Stiegl has also developed its own tasting cellar with a pilot brewery. Here, monthly and seasonal specials are produced plus special beers to be put into barrels that once contained various wines and spirits. I would have loved to try the double chocolate oatmeal porter they’d put into a Schnapps barrel, while recently a saison was aged within a Tokay one. Another brewery worth checking out is Schloss Eggenberg, southwest of Linz, brewer of the legendary Samichlaus, and let’s not forget Engelszell Gregorius Trappistenbier, a punchy Trappist quad with lots of rum, raisin and chocolate notes.  

There is also a thriving craft beer scene in Austria, with Markus Betz citing Bierol, Alefried and Bevog as breweries to investigate. “Bierol is from the Tyrol and very innovative and successful and brew a lot of different styles of beer,” he says. “Meanwhile Alefried is the only Austrian brewery that has completely dedicated itself to wild fermentation. They experiment a lot with fruits and ingredients from the Austrian forests and barrel-aged beers are also one of their specialities. Then there is Bevog. I often talk with owner Vasja and I can taste his passion not only in his beers but also through our conversations. He is very innovative and really only brings the beers to the market when he is 100% convinced of them himself.’

Betz originally introduced me to Bevog’s beers several years back when we were judging together at the Brussels Beer Challenge in Belgium and I was immediately enchanted, especially with Ond Smoked Porter. This delightfully dark beer had gentle yet persistent aromatics of roasted grain, wood-smoke and milk chocolate emerging from the glass, while each sip plunged me into a deep rich and roasty character on the palate with accompaniments of caramel, chocolate, smoke and dark fruit. As I wrote then, this was a beer to ponder about and muse on. 

When I mention my introduction to their beers to founder and brewmaster Vasja Golar, he recalls that Ond was the brewery’s first bottled beer. “This might be a bit of surprise,” he says. “If you would go out and talk to the public and ask what beer they would like to drink I am pretty sure smoked porter would be a very rare answer, if at all, but the fact is that I love smoked beer and therefore we started with it.’

Golar’s background is a familiar one across the world of beer. He was a home-brewer and decided he wanted to go pro, and in November 2012 the first kegs were sold. He is Slovenian, but for various reasons the brewery is based in Austria and he says that he is still getting to know the national beer scene. Maybe that is a good thing, as for him, inspirations for beer come from many sources. 

“It can be a beer that I drunk somewhere on my trips or from my cellar,” he says, “or it could just be a spark I get from a picture or description of a beer in a book or on the internet for instance and so I start to paint the taste in my head. I like to eat good food and also to cook so I also get ideas there.’

For Beer52’s Robust Porter, he brewed it with “the idea of having a nice solid malt backbone with just enough bitterness from hops and roasted malts to keep all in check. For finishing hops we used American Cascade which brings a touch of something extra into the whole picture. There is also some oatmeal to round the mouth feel a bit. Let’s call it a modern tradition approach.’

Obviously Austrian beer has been hit hard by COVID, while the stranglehold Heineken has on beer is also deleterious to the indie sector, but the independents are not content to sit back and do nothing. For instance, Schremser along with eight other family brewers founded a group (privatbrauereien.at) with the aim, as Karl Trojan says, of “being stronger in facing the superiority of the big international players. We saw that people did not know if they were drinking a beer from an independent brewery or not. So we tried to find both small and bigger private brewers to launch the "independent label" and sign the beers with it. For the future we plan a lot of activities.’

Austrian’s brewing tradition is rich and characterful and shouldn’t be ignored any longer. There are jaunty Märzens that sing and ring on the palate, sombre barrel-aged experiments that give cause for celebration and contemplation and a whole raft of modern, hop-centric pales, IPAs and even the odd sour that thrills the palate with its tartness and juiciness. 

“The nice thing is that the beer industry is so open and helpful to each other and everyone helps and supports each other,’ says Markus Betz. 

The spirit of adventure is alive and well in the land of Märzen, while back on the couch, our hypothetical patient nods in agreement as they tell you they have definitely stepped out of the shadow of their northern neighbours.

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