Tracing the origins of Vienna Lager

As an Austrian, I’m naturally interested in Austrian beer. One of the heritages of Austrian brewing is the Vienna lager beer style, a style that has actually long been forgotten in its country of origin, where the contemporary beer market has been dominated by beers that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike German and Czech beers. Austrian Märzen is less alcoholic and a bit paler than Bavarian one, Austrian Helles is hoppier than the Bavarian counterpart, and Austrian Pilsner doesn’t have the same flavour profile like German or Czech Pilsners. The only German beer that to me that has a flavour profile similar to Austrian beers is Rothaus Pilsner.

Only recently, Vienna lager has been rediscovered in Austria: Brauhaus Gusswerk produces a very nice one, and with Ottakringer’s “Wiener Original”, there is even a mainstream supermarket beer of that old style (for the record, it’s one of my favourite local beers whenever I’m back in Austria).

Outside of Austria, and that’s what most literature will tell you, Vienna lager survived by getting picked up as a beer style by Austrian immigrant brewers in Mexico, and from there it was subsequently picked up by the thriving US-American craft beer scene. That’s a reason why the beer style’s definition is very much dominated by an American view on it, like the BJCP definition and the Brewers Assocation Beer Style Guidelines. And that’s where the problems begin.

Both style definitions contradict each other, with BJCP describing it with “Caramel aroma is inappropriate” and “No roasted or caramel flavor”, while the BA says “malty aroma, which should have a notable degree of toasted and/or slightly roasted malt character”.

I’m not entirely happy with either definition, just like I’m generally not very happy with what the BJCP writes about some other beer styles. So I wanted to find out what Vienna lager was actually like, originally, and whether an authentic recipe can be reconstructed.

To start of, I first needed to find out what the beer looked and tasted like. Emil Leyser, in his book “Die Malz- und Bierbereitung” from 1900, wrote (I only have excerpts, sorry) that Vienna beers have a golden yellow colour, a very rounded and full-bodied flavour with a low hop bitterness. He also explicitly states that the beer does not have anything caramelly or “assamar” (roasted bitterness).

In his book “Decoction!” (p.29), Ron Pattinson lists some beer analysis results from Viennese beers from 1870. One entry in that table is particularly interesting:

  • Beer: Lager
  • Brewery: Schwechat
  • Where sample obtained: direct from the brewery
  • OG beer: 1017.60
  • Balling wort: 13.25°
  • Balling beer: 4.51°
  • Apparent degree of attenuation: 65.94
  • ABV: 4.6
  • Lactic acid: 0.13
  • Colour: 6.3

It’s not entirely clear what unit of measure colour is. I assume SRM, for one particular reason: beers of that colour are usually described as golden, which would match Emil Leyser’s description.

What’s also quite interesting is how low the attenuation is. I assume “OG beer” refers to the gravity points of the finished beer, “final gravity” in modern terms. Balling is the predecessor of the Plato scale, and 4.51° for the final gravity are relatively close to 1017.6 gravity points. Full-bodied, indeed.

When going further in finding some bits and pieces, I also looked at what Ottakringer is writing about their modern version of Vienna lager: they say they use Vienna malt, Melanoidin malt, and Saaz hops. Their original gravity is lower than the 1870’s analysis (12 °P), and the amount of alcohol is higher, as well (5.3 % ABV), so their beer would be a lot drier than the historic beer. The ingredients are notable, though: Vienna malt as the obvious choice for the malt (it’s the malt that was expressly developed for Vienna lager, after all), Melanoidin malt, presumably to add more colour and to imitate the additional melanoidin production of a proper triple decoction, and Saaz hops as a classic noble hop variety. Saaz is considered a Czech hop variety nowadays, but don’t forget that in the 19th century, Bohemia was part of Cisleithania, the Austrian part of Austria-Hungary. At least from a historic point of view, it is an absolutely reasonable choice in hops.

Saaz was not the only hop growing region in Austria, though. In Mühlviertel, the part of Upper Austria north of the river Danube, there’s been (and still is) an active hop growing industry, as well. It’s hard to tell which varieties were grown in the 19th century, though, as production had ceased during World War 2, and after the war, hop gardens were repopulated with German, Slovenian and British hop varieties. Hops were grown in southern Styria as well, which is now part Austria, part Slovenia, but the hops there were replaced after problems with diseases in the early 20th century, and Styrian Goldings, a Fuggle with local terroir, and other hop varieties  bred from Styrian Goldings are grown there nowadays.

Now that we’ve generally established what malt and what hops would be appropriate, we still need to find the right yeast. Obviously bottom-fermenting, preferably Bavarian. Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayr had worked together in researching English brewing technology, and so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that Dreher would have gotten a bottom-fermenting yeast strain from Sedlmayr’s Spaten brewery.

Earlier, we already established the desired attenuation of only about 66 %. Wyeast has WY2308 “Munich Lager”, at 70-74 % attenuation, which is already pretty close to what we’re looking for. White Labs has WLP820 “Oktoberfest/Märzen Lager Yeast”, with an attenuation of 65 to 73 %. This looks much better already! They also offer WLP838 “South German Lager Yeast” (68-76 %), WLP860 “Munich Helles Yeast” (68-72 %) and WLP920 “Old Bavarian Lager Yeast” (66-73 %) that are a similar range of attenuation.

According to the Yeast Strain Comparison Chart, WY2308 is the same strain as WLP838, which apparently is the yeast strain “Wisenschaftliche Station #308” from Munich. According to the same chart, WLP820, the closest choice in terms of attenuation, is the “Weihenstephan 206” yeast strain, and the same as WY2206, which is specified to attenuate higher (73-77 %), though. Either the chart is a bit off here, or there has been some genetic drift in the propagation of one these strains. But for me, WLP820 sounds close enough.

So, based on this information, if I were to design a recipe for a Vienna lager, I would do it like that:

  • 100 % Vienna malt, enough to get a OG of 1053 (13 °P).
  • Ideally, a triple decoction mash.
  • A single bittering addition of Saaz hops, e.g. 3 g/l (3.5 % AA) for 90 minutes to gain 27 IBU*.
  • A cold fermentation with WLP820 yeast that should end up with a final gravity of about 1018 (4.5 °P).

(* I’d keep the bitterness at the higher end to counteract the very high final gravity)

Based on what I could find out, this would match the original beer style relatively closely. When you enter that into a recipe calculator, the typical colour you will get is about 6 to 7 SRM (about 12 to 14 EBC). This is much closer to how Vienna lager was described by Emil Leyser. It also is a lot paler than the style definitions of BJCP and Brewers Association, which specify a range of 10 to 16 SRM resp. 12 to 26 SRM.

(On a side note, the resulting recipe above is remarkably simple, in modern homebrewers terms, it’s a SMaSH (single malt and single hops) beer.)

Of course, this is not enough. A direct comparison with historic documents from the Klein-Schwechater Brauerei directly would be interesting, because this recipe is merely put together from bits and pieces, with plenty of (informed) guesswork to fill in missing gaps. If anybody has something like that, please contact me, as I would really like to see whether the historic original would confirm or deny what I put together here.

And of course, I haven’t brewed this beer yet. That’s an exercise for another time.

11 thoughts on “Tracing the origins of Vienna Lager”

  1. The colour isn’t SRM. I’m not sure what it is, to be honest. But I have other analyses from the same set that give a clue.

    Pilsner Urquell is 3.5, Berlin-brewed Ale 10, Berlin-brewed Porter 40, Bavarian Bock 14 to 16, Munich Salvator 41.

    The attenuation of 19th-century Lagers is almost always poor by today’s standards. Most are below 70% apparent.

    Dreher’s yeast did indeed come from Sedlmayr.

    1. Oh wow, the first comment in this blog, and it’s from Ron Pattinson! Cool! I’m a big fan of your work. 😉

      From what I could find, (modern) Pilsner Urquell has about 4 SRM, and assuming the recipe and the malt specifications haven’t changed drastically since then, SRM and this unknown unit should be relatively close, assuming they are in a linear relationship to each other.

      Also thanks for the confirmation about the Dreher yeast coming from Sedlmayr. I vaguely remember reading something about it, but couldn’t remember where, and couldn’t find it again.

  2. Nice blog site. I look forward to your English language brewing book. Were you able to find Austrian brewing records from the 1800’s? If so hopefully you can post some information from them.

    1. Agree with Brian, super interesting stuff! The Vienna Lager seems to be the beer equivalent of a lost language.

      Hopefully you find our proverbial Rosetta Stone. Ditto on the book update request, how’s it going?

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