Beer – the delicious and refreshing drink has a longstanding tradition in Austria. Since the 14th century, breweries in Austria have been producing this popular drink which consists of water, hop and malt. Around nine million hectoliters beer were consumed in Austria in 2012, which is 107,7 litres per person per year. The excellent quality of water that Austria is cherished with has a significant influence on the quality and taste of the beer. With one brewery per 56.860 inhabitants, Austria has the biggest density of breweries in Europe. Our more than 140 smaller and bigger breweries produce more than 600 different beers.
Beer straight from the tap
The whole world seems to assume that Austria is a land of wines. That the Austrians actually drink far more beer than wine can be confirmed not only by statistics, but a tour of the many beer establishments and beer gardens. Among those in the know, Vienna is famous as the origin of the Viennese lager beer. This is proof of the rich Viennese historical beer culture — which continues to bring forth frothy innovations in new small breweries.
Not much is said about beer in places where good beer has always been a matter of course. The quality of beer goes without saying and it is rather futile to ask a Viennese what is special about Viennese lager. The truth is that the style of beer brewing that was responsible for the global reputation of the royal capital and seat of government, Vienna, has essentially died out. We are referring to a beer that is prized throughout the world: a bernstein hue with a light aroma of hops, fully flavored but rounded off with a slightly bitter palate of hops. This is Viennese lager as it was intended to be — and this was the beer that the young brewery owner Anton Dreher cultivated in his small brewery in Schwechat near Vienna at the beginning of the 1840’s. This was the beer that attained worldwide fame.
Of all places this beer fell out of favor in Austria. Only in recent decades have young ambitious brewers harked back to the old tradition and are producing this true Viennese beer once again. Examples are the unfiltered ”Rotes Zwickl” from the Ottakringer brewery, the ”Hadmar Biobier” (”Hadmar organic”) — from the beer workshop in the small town of Weitra in the forest quarter of Austria. Early on the ”Siebensternbräu” in the Viennese seventh district joined the trend to reintroduce old and even forgotten styles of beer brewing.
The owner Sigi Flitter can even sometimes be found at the beer vat when the basis for the black — and, in contrast to most of the other dark beer varieties, not at all sweet — ”Prager Dunkel” (”Prague Dark”) is prepared. His personal favorite is smoke beer, for which he himself procures bags of gently dried malt from a Bamberg malt factory.
To learn about the different malts — and in general how beer goes from wheat stalk to the beer mug — you can travel to Salzburg. The Stiegl brewery has turned a former malt production building into the largest beer museum on the continent. ”Stiegl’s Brauwelt” documents wheat growing, brewing techniques, the craft of the coopers and barrel makers, as well as the connection between beer consumption and development of society. Since we are in Salzburg Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of course, is involved; he is known to have savored beer from the Stiegl brewery. In the basement, on the old malting floor, there is a small brew house providing the opportunity to compare its product with that of the large brewery next door.
Brew master Ernst Schreiner carefully attends to every detail: in this case the highly successful Goldbräu from the large industrial brewery, to a red ale from the Brauwelt that is distributed to interested friends of the brewery craft as beer of the month. Specialty beers distinguish themselves from mass production: many beer drinkers have no idea what they are missing if their taste extends only to Pils, the traditional lager or even wheat beer.
Specialty beers are seldom produced by the large breweries; they need to cater to the tastes of restaurants and beer gardens that serve beer in large quantities. The birthplace of the Viennese lager, the Schwechat brewery half way between Vienna and Vienna Airport, is still one of Austria’s largest breweries — the beer they produce there, however, has little resemblance to the original Viennese style of Anton Dreher. On the international scene light, easily consumed beers are in demand, whether from large beer concerns or from moderately sized breweries. And Austria is no different: the most common beer in Austria is called ”Märzen” (pronounced ”mair-tsen”), a light lager beer with five percent alcohol content and with a mildly bitter taste.
The small and smallest breweries, however, are intent on providing alternatives. Gerhard Forstner, for instance, has set up a ”hand brewery” in the village Kalsdorf south of Graz: as he guides a group of bicyclists through his miniature ”Hofbräu” he explains, ”I call it ‘hand brewery’ because I have to do everything myself, even filling the bottles.” A bicycle path goes past the entrance to the brewery — anyone who wants to stop by Forstner’s can treat himself to absinthe beer, a Styrian ale, or even ”Brewsecco,” bottled in a champagne flask.
Other brewers have been inspired by this creativity. One of them is Horst Asanger who runs the ”1516 Brewing Company” in Vienna’s inner city, arguably Austria’s most international beer restaurant. In addition to the light and dark lagers, American ales and Irish stouts are brewed in front of the eyes of the patrons. The traditional Austrian toasts of ”zum Wohl” and ”Prost” are heard next to ”cheers” and ”slainte,” turning beer into a common link among peoples of the world.
Courtesy: Austrian Tourism Office