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.
One thought on “Why There Is No Farmhouse Brewing Tradition in Austria”
Very interesting work, Andreas! However, I’m not convinced we can conclude this quickly that there was no farmhouse brewing in Upper Austria. I saw in Westphalia that there was a tax system whereby farmhouse brewers could brew if they paid a certain tax.
Given the extent to which beer writers tend to ignore anything other than commercial brewing I don’t think this proves there was no farmhouse brewing. Ideally, one would want to see ethnographic works that cover all of rural life, and see what they say about brewing.
It would be interesting to know if the farmhouse brewing was replaced by the communal brewhouses, or what it was that really happened.
It’s possible that the difference between Carinthia and Upper Austria is that the former is much less densely populated. I suspect that once there aren’t enough people near the towns, and some live too far away from the towns, a “brewing tax” of this type doesn’t pay much, and becomes hard to enforce. Transportating beer in Carinthia in the 18th century cannot have been easy.