Vienna Beer Today

Piccadilly Johnnies, 1904.

Our ebook, Gambrinus Waltz, is available from the Amazon Kindle store.

As the 1860s turned into the 1870s, absolutely the trendiest thing to drink in London was Vienna beer, aka Vienna lager — the pricey imported ‘craft beer’ of its day.

It seems to us that it was not so much a ‘style’ as the product of a single brewery — Dreher, of Klein-Schwechat, Vienna — with a few imitators trying to muscle in on the market it had created.

It appealed to Piccadilly Johnny — the hipster of his day –because:

  • It was served cold.
  • It had higher levels of carbonation.
  • It was paler than Munich Dunkel. (Though not as pale as Pilsner.)
  • He believed it wasn’t ‘intoxicating’. (We think this was psychological.)
  • ‘German’ stuff was fashionable, while English stuff was considered inherently naff.

Now, almost 150 years later, though there aren’t many descendants of Dreher’s Vienna beer, they are at least relatively easy to find, and not just in the West End of London.

Even near us, in deepest Cornwall, there are several pubs selling kegged Brooklyn Lager (5.2%), while bottles can be found in your local Wetherspoon, and most supermarkets. It’s one of the first self-declared ‘craft beers’ many people drink — it certainly was for us. Is it a convincing Vienna beer? Without going back to 1870, we can’t be sure, but we can’t believe its flowery hop aroma is remotely authentic. It is Dreher’s beer, via the 19th century New York beer hall, via the ‘real ale revolution’, via US ‘craft beer’.

Another widely available example is Negra Modelo (5.4%) from Mexico. In production since the 1920s, it is a lingering reminder of the country’s historic connections with Austria. It’s been a while since we drank one but our recollection is of a lager already lacking bitterness into which someone had then stirred a teaspoon of refined brown sugar. The brewery themselves sometimes call it a ‘Munich Dunkel’ — it is certainly darker than amber.

Finally, there’s Thornbridge’s Kill Your Darlings (5%), a case of which we have been working on for a couple of months. Smooth and clean almost to the point of blandness, it certainly tastes authentically Continental, and makes a change from pale lager while offering a similar kind of straightforward refreshment. It, too, is perhaps rather too Munich-dark to be quite authentic. Still, we’d like to drink a pint or two of this at the Craft Beer Co in Covent Garden, which isn’t far from the Strand — epicentre of the original Vienna beer craze.

On balance, the least authentic of the three, Brooklyn Lager, with its distinctly English dry-hopping regime, is probably the tastiest.

One of the projects we’re working on now is about lager in London in the 19th century — probably for a short e-book. In the meantime, we wholeheartedly recommend Ron Pattinson’s book Lager.

9 thoughts on “Vienna Beer Today”

    1. They don’t seem to call it one themselves, but commentators do. Perhaps a result of the tendency for judges/raters to categorise? Will have a nosy round.

  1. So a Vienna lager would be like a lager but a) slightly darker, maybe reddish in colour, and b) slightly sweeter and maltier.

    Have you tried Point Amber Lager?

    leaving the colour aside, how would it compare in your opinion, flavourwise, to other “like lager but maltier” beers like koelsch or alt?

    1. We haven’t really got to the bottom of the historical taste yet. 19th century flavour notes are so vague — “creamy” etc.

      Based on not much, as yet: maybe less bitter and fruity than Alt.

      A few contemporary commentators compared it to Burton pale ale, which makes us think it must have been not *that* much darker than pilsner. Orange rather than yellow, but not brown.

      Haven’t tried the Point, I don’t think. That might fit.

  2. The arguments around lager not being intoxicating were the subject of many court cases in the US like this one from 1862. We have to recall that beer and ale at least over here were still commonly 8-10% so that a 3.5-5% drink was a real shift. It was also tied to a wave of central European immigration with all the associated cultural conflict. German beer was scientific beer and, soon, public health temperance beer. It was both modern and a rejection of the moral order.

    1. There’s one article which states that lager had about the same ABV as pale but was nonetheless ‘lighter’. The suggestion seems to be that alcohol alone is not the cause of intoxication.

      People also seemed to feel that, as they’d never seen a German staggering drunk and behaving rowdily, that it must be a magical property of the beer, rather than a magical property of Germans.

  3. Could be. Likely also big difference in perceptions of new people and things Teutonic both UK v. US as well as 1850 v. 1880.

  4. Signature Brews ‘Doctors Orders is a great beer. Don’t know how true to style it is but I would definately place it over thornbridge’s kill your darlings. Worth checking out.

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