Tag Archives: upper austria

Why There Is No Farmhouse Brewing Tradition in Austria

Beer is a common people’s drink, and in quite a few countries all over Europe, it was brewed at home, by farmers, which led to all different kinds of farmhouse brewing traditions, like the origins of the Belgian/French Saison style, or the farmhouse brewing still practiced in the Nordic countries and Lithuania. There is so much diversity in farmhouse brewing that you can literally spend years on research and writing about it.

Since beer in Austria has such an importance, I always wondered whether there was any farmhouse brewing tradition there. I asked my grandmother whether she remembered in her childhood and youth, and she said there was absolutely nothing like it. On the other hand, producing Most (pretty much like cider) from apples and/or pears seems to have been more prevalent, especially in rural areas of the region where I come from. But it was nothing I put more thought into until I stumbled upon a series of books from the 1930’s describing the history of brewing and hop growing in Upper Austria.

These books give an interesting insight into how brewing was organized since the middle ages: hop growing has been documented since the early 13th century near the monastery of Wilhering. The hops grown actually had to be delivered as natural goods, which was called “Hopfendienst” (literally “hop service”). And beer brewing was very similar: the monastery of St. Florian documents 27 surrounding farms between 1378 and 1445 that had to do “Bierdienst” (“beer service”).  At that time, it was already possible to pay money instead of delivering beer, which suggest that there may have been a time where there was no alternative to delivering beer.

But it also shows that beer brewing by farmers was on its way out: at that time, the right to brew was shifting from farms towards cities and market towns. Cities like Linz, Freistadt and Enns received the privilege of “ban miles”, which prescribed that no other pubs and no brewing were allowed in a certain distance around these cities. Brewing became a privilege of the citizens, which often formed brewing communes or took turns in brewing through a publicly organized lot system. With this also often came restrictions on the sale of imported beer, which ensured that local beer was consumed locally.

Besides the cities and towns, monasteries also brewed beer: Wilhering used to have its brew house, which even burned down and had to be rebuilt in the 17th century, and so did the monastery of Schlägl. This brewery still exists in this day and age, but historic records before the 17th century were lost due to a fire in 1626.

In one case, the old concepts of brewing communes also survived into the modern era: the city of Freistadt not only has brewing privileges at least since 1277, it also has the last brewing commune in Austria. In the 18th century, its citizens decided to build a brew house and concentrate the brewing efforts. This brewery, Freistädter Brauerei, still exists today, and so does the ownership structure: every house within the city walls comes with shares of the breweries, and the right to a certain amount of beer every year. If you buy a house in Freistadt, you also become a co-owner of the brewery.

So, for centuries, brewing in parts of Austria has been absolutely dominated by cities and market towns, which had exclusive brewing rights. Already towards the end of the middle ages there were efforts to stop farmers from brewing beer, and since no farmhouse brewing is recorded since then, it seems like it was quite successful.

Of course it is too simple to say that there was no farmhouse brewing at all in Austria. There are actually records of a farmhouse brewing tradition in certain parts of Austria, in particular in Carinthia. There, stone beer was brewed by the local farmers, from oats, barley and wheat, employing hot stones to heat the mash in simple wooden mash tuns, without boiling the wort. When the Austrian government tried to supplant this very traditional beer style with modern brown barley beer, the lawyer of a Carinthian abbey gave his expert opinion, in which he stated that stone beer was the only drink available to field workers on the farm, and taking away their beer would deny them their refreshments after a week of hard work. He also stated that only oats and low-quality wheat were used instead of high-quality ingredients.

This is probably the only record of a brewing tradition (and possibly right) outside of cities and market towns that can be truly considered to be farmhouse brewing. I am not a really sure why the specific rights of Carinthia and Upper Austria differed so much, but my guess is that Carinthia and Upper Austria were simply governed differently: even though they were both in the sphere of influence of the Habsburgers, they were still legally separate duchies resp. archduchies.

Interestingly enough, descriptions of this Carinthian farmhouse brewing tradition seem remarkably similar to elements of other European farmhouse traditions: the use of juniper (which is a huge topic on its own), the use of hot stones for mashing in primitive wooden mash tuns, and unboiled wort.

To summarize, we can certainly that due to power structures in large parts of Austria, brewing outside of cities and market towns, in particular by farmers, was actively discouraged and regulated through brewing rights. The only well-known exception to this is Carinthia, where a unique stone beer tradition was alive until the early 20th century. But even this tradition has long died out, which is way we can definitely say that there is no more farmhouse brewing in Austria, and there hasn’t been any in most parts for at least 500 years.

If you want to read more on this, the Upper Austrian state library has the multi-volume work “Brauwesen und Hopfenbau in Oberösterreich von 1100 – 1930” (brewing and hop-growing in Upper Austria from 1100 to 1930) freely available in digitized form.

The Demise Of Upper Austrian Hop-Growing

In a previous article, I discussed the history and current state of the hop-growing industry in Austria. Recent finds in the Upper Austrian state library allow me to expand on this topic, in particular on hop agriculture in Upper Austria, in particular in Mühlviertel.

Hop-growing has a great industry in Upper Austria. The earliest mention of hop-growing dates back to 1206, and there’s always been hop-growing all over the country, but especially so in the Mühlviertel, the northern-most part of Upper Austria, and the Innviertel, the western-most part which used to belong to Bavaria until 1779 and was heavily influenced through the hop-growing industry there. Even though Austria was always overshadowed by the much larger hop-growing regions in Bavaria and Bohemia, Upper Austrian growers managed to produce good quality that at least was able to satisfy local demand, and export to a certain extent. One source mentions during the time of the American Civil War, hop exports from the US to England essentially ceased, which allowed some Upper Austrian hop growers to enter the English market at least temporarily.

But the dominance of Bavaria and Bohemia got bigger and bigger, while the crop areas in the Mühlviertel kept shrinking quite massively: while in 1927, there were still 307 ha of hops being grown, it was a measly 32 ha in 1936. Attempts to counter this in the 1920’s failed due to lack of funding, and also due to difficulties to compete with Bavarian and Bohemian hop products.

In the previous article, I mentioned that in 1939, the remaining hop gardens were ordered to be uprooted by Berlin. Without context, it may seem nonsensical to just get rid of a local agricultural industry, but there’s actually a geopolitical reason behind it.

After the “Anschluss” of Austria, the Upper Austrian hop-growing industry actually hoped to be able to revive and increase the acreage of hops with the help of the German beer industry. But in October 1938, the Sudetenland, the then mostly German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia, were annexed by Nazi Germany after the Munich Agreement. Since this included the hop-growing regions of Saaz/Žatec and Auscha/Úštěk, Germany suddenly had an absolute over-abundance of high-quality hops for its beer brewing industry.

This was the demise of hop-growing in Mühlviertel: with the vast majority of European hop-growing regions under German control, it made at that point no sense to further invest into the Mühlviertel, and so it was decided to end hop-growing altogether there.

In some ways, the Munich Agreement was the demise of Upper Austrian hops. With it, the land races of that area were lost. Only after World War 2, hops were reintroduced, but this time, English and later German varieties. Nowadays, Malling, Styrian Golding, Aurora, Perle, Tradition, Spalter Select and Saphir are being grown there.