Tag Archives: vienna lager

Hops used in Vienna Lager

Two  years ago, I did some research to put together a recipe that was meant to closely match what a Vienna lager in the 19th century would have looked and tasted like.

About a year ago, I also discussed the state of Austrian hops and how the hop growing industry had changed over time. In that article, I mentioned that Kleinschwechater Brauerei used to own land in Michelob in Bohemia, close to Saaz, where the brewery grew barley and hops. Due to the geographical closeness, I made the point that most likely Saaz hops or a very closely related landrace would have been grown there.  But so far, I did not have any conclusive proof that Kleinschwechater (later Schwechater) Brauerei indeed brewed with Saaz hops.

That changed a bit when I visited the Schultze-Berndt library located at VLB and curated by the Gesellschaft für Geschichte des Brauwesens (society for the history of brewing technology) a few weeks. When doing some research for my English-language book on homebrewing historic beer styles, I stumbled upon a Festschrift regarding 100 years of brewing Vienna lager, aptly named “Schwechater Lager”. While not having that much content, it still had some bits and pieces that gave away some information, including the beautiful water colour illustrations.

One image in particular contained something very interesting: pictures of huge stacks of hop bales. 

These hop bales clearly show the marking “SAAZ”. Assuming that this picture accurately shows the hop storage facilities at Schwechater brewery, we now have a direct connection showing that Schwechater has been using Saaz hops. The text around it mentions that the brewery has been covering their demand using hops from Saaz, and praises Saaz as one of the best hop growing regions in the world. Unfortunately, no time frames are mentioned, so while all this information was certainly true for their brewing in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, we cannot yet make the direct connection that Vienna lager in the 19th century must have used Saaz hops.

So let’s go a bit further, into the less colourful but more number-laden territory of raw statistics. In 1891 (that’s the earliest that I could find), Bohemia had 10317 hectares of hop growing land, producing an annual output of 77540 Zentner (1 Zentner = 50 kg in Germany, therefore 3877 tons). At that time, the total hop growing area of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was 14850.5 hectares (divided into the regions of Bohemia, Galicia, Styria, Upper Austria, Moravia and Carinthia), and the total annual output was 117534 Zentner (5876 tons). So for the whole of the monarchy, Bohemia produced almost 66 % of all its hops, on almost 70 % of its acreage allocated to hop growing.

This trend of Bohemia being the dominant hop grower within the monarchy continued in the years after as late as 1918, and Bohemia’s dominance even grew larger as other hop growing areas declined further: in 1913, Bohemia’s hop output was 73.8 % of the monarchy’s total output, with 75.8 % of the total hop acreage, while in 1914 it was a staggering 87.7 % (85.2 % of the total hop acreage). The stark increase in share in 1914 is due to a complete failure in Galicia for that year, most likely due to World War 1 and Austria-Hungary losing the Battle of Galicia.

So, just by looking at the pure numbers, we can deduce that there was a very high likelihood that most breweries bought their hops from Saaz. Again, this is not definite proof, but it points even more towards the direction that hops from Saaz were used by Schwechater brewery, and possibly most other breweries at that time, especially since Saaz hops were the highest priced ones in Germany and Austria at that time.

On a side note, the hop production of Bohemia at that time up as late as the late 1930’s was so strong that Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 pretty much doubled Nazi Germany’s acreage and overall amount of hops produced.

Vienna Lager: the Aftermath

The result.
The result.

As blogged previously, I had looked a bit into the historic roots of Vienna lager, a beer style that was quite successful in the 19th century in Europe, but has since then been forgotten in its country of origin, and had only been revived through the US craft beer movement.

In April, I finally managed to brew the beer, and it fermented and matured in the weeks afterwards. It’s been lagering for a while, but a few weeks ago, it was finally ready and also finished carbonating (I had kegged the beer and force-carbonated it). The end result is a good, quaffable lager at 5% ABV, though a bit rough around the edges.

What I do like about the beer is that it just puts the intense maltiness of Vienna malt in the foreground, accentuated by a bit of residual sweetness due to a very poorly attenuating yeast. What I don’t like so much about it is how the hops play together with this residual sweetness: even though I only used Saaz hops as the sole hop addition for bittering, the beer got a very spicy hop flavour. That would be great in a dryer beer, but with 4°P final gravity, it’s just a tad too sweet, and that just clashes a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good beer, and I’ll happily drink it, but the next one I’d do differently. Definitely a better attenuating lager yeast, and maybe a different hop variety. I think I really need to research Austrian 19th century hops wrt. to what Anton Dreher used in his beers. As mentioned in one of my previous articles, it’s very unfortunate that Austrian hop land races were (presumably) lost either due to illnesses (which ultimately brought us Styrian Goldings) or a forced stop of any hop-growing activities by the Nazis (as it happened in Mühlviertel, Upper Austria).

Another lesson that I learned was that the WLP820 yeast strain, at least in its first fermentation, is extremely slow. I even employed a quick lagering schedule with which I had had success in previous beers, but it still took 3 weeks until fermentation completely stopped. At least it behaved pretty much as expected, and was only a tiny bit more attenuative than its historic predecessor. Starting at 13°P original gravity, it fermented down to 4°P, while brewing records show something closer to 4.5°P to have been the beer’s final gravity. That’s fine with me, really.

All in all, it was definitely an interesting exercise, with a tasty outcome, and I really learned what works and (more importantly!) what doesn’t with Vienna lagers.

Brewing a Vienna Lager

About a month ago, I posted about some things I found out about Vienna lagers, and how the historic original probably was like compared to modern versions of that style.

So yesterday, we finally got around to brewing it on my own. I compromised a bit in the whole process, though, just to make a few things a bit easier for me. In particular, I decided not to do a decoction mash.

I use a Weck preserving cooker as a mash tun, as it can contain plenty of liquid for the mash, and it’s electrically heatable, allowing to go through specific rest temperatures without having to resort to having to add hot water later. Just don’t trust the internal thermostat, and use a proper food thermometer instead.

I used 20 liters of water at 66 °C, and mashed in 5.3 kg of Vienna malt. The resulting mash was at 62 °C, and from there on I did a simple Hochkurz infusion mash:

  • 30 minutes at 62 °C
  • 20 minutes at 72 °C
  • 10 minutes at 78 °C

For modern malts and a high degree of diastatic base malts (like 100% in this case), that’s good enough to fully convert all starches.

After an iodine test showed that all starches were indeed converted, we continued with lautering. For that, we use a simple bucket from my preferred homebrewing online store, with a Mattmill false bottom.

For sparging, we always employ a colander with a food container lid set in the middle, to sprinkle hot water on the mash. BTW, my hot water is… my boiler. My flat contains a large boiler that actually delivers 80 °C hot water. Perfect for sparging.


The collected wort showed a pre-boil gravity of about 12 Brix, which later turned out to be probably not quite exact. I think I need to recalibrate it with distilled water. *sigh*

Anyway, we boiled it for 90 minutes, with 60 grams of Saaz hops for bittering, and no other hop addition.

After a whirlpool, I moved the wort to a fermentation bucket, and cooled it down to 20 °C with an immersion chiller, then moved it to my keezer to further cool it to 11 °C.

The hydrometer showed a bit more than 13 °P as original gravity, while the refractometer showed 14 Brix. A recalibration really seems necessary.

Finally, in the evening, I pitched a starter of WLP820 yeast. That should give a low attenuation comparable to the lager yeast that was used in the 19th century in Anton Dreher’s brewery. The beer is going to ferment in the next two weeks or so. I’ll use Brülosopher’s quick lagering method, as I’ve had some good experience with it in previous batches of lager brewing.

As soon as the beer is finished lagering and carbonating, I’ll post a report about the final result.

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.