Tradition on Tap

A staple of dining here since the 14th century, Austrians drink over 850 million liters a year, second only to the Czechs

News | Joseph D. Rollwagen, Justin McCauley | October 2010

Who knows if it’s the sound of the bottle opening, the gurgling rush of frothing liquid it makes when poured, or if it’s simply the golden color that’s so mesmerizing. One thing is for certain – the tradition of great beer, wherever it may be, is captivating.

Austria, like any country proud of its brewing heritage, boasts a near-unparalleled love for both the making and consuming good beer. The difference between Austria’s claim and almost every other is that the statistics consistently back them up. According to the most recent statistics of Kirin Holdings (2004) about 108.3 the statistics consistently back them up. According to the most recent statistics of Kirin Holdings (2004) about 108.3 liters of beer was consumed per person, ranking Austria fifth in the world.

And it’s on the rise: In spite of, or perhaps because of, the financial crisis, beer consumption in Austria has been increasing in the last few years, says Markus Liebl, the general director of Brau Union Österreich. In 2008, 860 million liters of beer was consumed, making Austria second only to the Czech Republic among European beer lovers.

But this is not news: Beer has been a celebrated beverage in Central Europe since the earliest times, in Danube Valley settlements predating ancient Babylon. By the Middle Ages, the principle purveyors of beer were Europe’s Catholic monks, who mastered the art of brewing. Inevitably, though, the fermentation process occasionally went wrong, producing a bad batch, leading the monks to the conclusion, according to legend, that the Devil had gotten his dirty hands on their concoction and "interfered with the miracle of beer."

By the 14th century, beer was already a staple of Austrian dining; the earliest recorded Viennese brewery dates back to 1384, and as all loyalists know, Saint Arnold, the Patron Saint of Brewers, was an Austrian. Born during the Dark Ages, Arnold joined an order of monks in France, where he frequently warned people about the dangers of drinking water. Beer, however, was another story, and he is credited with the insight that "From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world."

From the 15th century onward, Austria has been producing bottom-fermented beers (the method for producing all lagers), and along with the Czechs and Germans, they form a triumvirate of ancient, venerated beer makers. The first modern lager was the work of Viennese brewer Anton Dreher, whose Schwechater Lagerbier debuted in 1841, predating the birth of the Czech Pilsner by one year.

Today, beer is still a cornerstone of Austrian tavern culture. The traditional Austrian Bräu is a popular tourist attraction for travelers but often far better known to the locals. Many of Austria’s more beloved dishes are best complimented with tall, cold Willibecher of Märzen. Märzenbier, a full-bodied lager, is Austria’s staple brew, much like Pilsner in the Czech Republic. With hundreds of smaller regional and local breweries, as well as large celebrated national ones, beer is a ubiquitous element of Viennese and Austrian life.

However, sales of beer of labels under the Brau Union have fallen slightly over the past year. The Union reported a seven percent decrease in sales, translating into a €4 million loss in profits between 2008 and 2009. Despite the losses however, the streets and grocery stores are still booming with beer marketing. Austrian brewing culture remains pervasive, with billboards and television commercials aimed at maintaining the link between beer and all levels of Austrian identity.

The mainstays of Austrian beer are visible on the shelves of the stores. Gösser, Zipfer, Stiegl and Ottakringer just to name a few. All of these use ads to capture a clear demographic or group. Gösser, brewed in Leoben, boast that it is "Österreichs bestes Bier". Its marketing campaign often uses the Alps as its backdrop, invoking a seminal Austrian theme – mountains. The implication is, Austrians ski in the mountains, Austrians climb mountains, Austrians drink beer in the mountains. In short, drinking Gösser is Austrian.

Stiegl, the celebrated Salzburger beer, uses stylish nightlife montages and good old-fashioned sex appeal to promote its brew. It usually costs a little more (though not too much), and its presentation embraces the more elegant of tastes. The point is clear: Stiegl is the class act of Austrian beers.

Vienna’s own Ottakringer is the working class hero’s beer. Vienna’s Rapid football club stars are the faces of Ottakringer’s advertisements, combining the thrill of sport with drinking beer. This is an appreciation of the blue-collar ethos that all that is needed after a hard day at work is a mixture of masculinity, sports, and the joy of beer.

The Lower Austrian Wieselburger Bier employs a minimalist approach: a panning camera shot, up a dewy bottle of beer – pure silence. All of a sudden there is the natural sound of the top popping open, the cool, condensed air wafting from the mouth of the bottle and the fizzing noise of a freshly oxygenated beer. The message that Wieselburger seems going for is, "the beer speaks for itself."

All beers, in fact, must speak for themselves and here the message seems to come through loud and clear: The quality of the Austrian brewing tradition is never questioned. Though often overshadowed by Germany’s legendary reputation and the innovative brewing culture of the Czech Republic, Austria can hold its ground in any battle of the beer. The country’s long and dedicated love affair with the art of brewing still thrives today in Beisl and Wirtshaus, and even in hard times, few belts will be tightened around the beer belly of a satisfied Austrian.

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