Something New’s Brewing in Vienna’s Pubs
The Austrian capital revives its lost tradition of specialty beers, spurring an explosion of niche manufacturers across town
Scan the emblems on taps in a Vienna bar, and you’re likely to see the usual beer spectrum: Stiegl, Gösser, Wieselburger and Ottakringer. In a city known for wine Heurige, the hoppy alternative seems reduced to a choice between the red one, the green one, the blue one or the yellow one.
Yet, a look beyond this aluminium rainbow reveals an emerging beer-brewing culture that is increasingly worth noticing for those who confess to holding up a mug of beer to the light and smelling its bouquet.
Innovative brewing techniques are not new to Vienna. At his brewery in Schwechat in 1840, Dr. Anton Dreher invented his malty and copper-coloured Wiener Lager, which thrived for decades. While it was extinct in Austria by 1900, the recipe had already been exported and lives on as North American brands like Sam Adams Boston Lager and Negra Modelo. In recent years, the Wiener Lager has made a cameo appearance as Stiegl’s Beer of the Month, and if you can find it, Ottakringer’s Rote Zwickl maintains Dreher’s original flavour.
As tricky as it may be to find a Vienna lager in Vienna, modern Braumeisters have gradually turned the city into a panoply for the beer palate. Just ask Conrad Seidl, the self-proclaimed Bierpapst (beer pope), often seen in his signature outfit: Lederhosen shorts and suspenders, a loden Tracht with a leather hat and aviator goggles (just in case the beer-tasting causes the barstool to levitate).
In the last 20 years, "more and more breweries can afford to brew beers that don’t really taste like what you expect," Seidl explains in his "Austrian beer bible", the Bier Guide, in which he reviews 200 beer haunts in Vienna alone. "Whoever really wants to can even find beer brewed with fir cones."
Although there is little fir cone beer in the capital, a tour of the craft breweries and brewpubs will offer more than enough variety.
A hop around the highlights
The first stop on any craft beer tour of Vienna should begin at 1516 Brewing Co. (www.1516brewingcompany.com) in the 1st District, the most daring and popular of the brewpubs. The four staple beers – a Lager, Weizen, a stout, and the Hop Devil India Pale Ale, brewed by Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing Co. – accompany two to three special varieties proposed by brewers-in-residence. Most recently, one was a Savinjski Imperial Pale Ale stored in Seguin Moreau wooden kegs previously used at French and Italian vineyards and a Scottish whisky distillery. Good luck finding that anywhere else in Austria!
The name of the pub refers to the Purity Law, or Reinheitsgebot, of 1516, which dictated that beer can only contain hops, water and barley. With the advent of the European Union, the law was lifted in 1988, allowing for the experimentation. Nowadays the 1516 law is nothing more than a fancy designation; most beers already have more than just water, barley and hops.
Most craft brewers in Vienna still stick to the adage, "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." Around the corner at Stadtbrauerei Schwarzenberg (www.stadtbrauerei.at), this homey Bierbeisl (beer tavern) has the usual suspects on tap: Helles, Dunkles and Märzen, the three most common varieties in Austria. Brewer Andy Hartl offers seasonal bock beers and has plans for one of the few Honey Ales in Vienna. Its unique table with built-in tap can be reserved for special occasions, while savouring the chef’s Alt-Wiener cuisine with Bohemian accents.
While in the area, you might also visit the Salm Bräu (www.salmbraeu.com). Named for Niklas Graf Salm, the saviour of Vienna during the first Turkish siege, the Salm brewery is one of the few places in Vienna to view an extensive network of vaulted storage cellars. Located below the Belvedere palace, it adroitly absorbs a crowd of tourists. Nonetheless, explore the beer food variety, as well as the cellars. Pils, Helles, Märzen and Weizen beer comprise the regular offerings, and seasonal experiments include a Guarana beer, Cerveza Mexicana and one of several bock beers.
Also while there, notice the Salm kettles (Sudhaus), also used by several other brewers in town, such as the popular Wieden Bräu (www.wieden-braeu.at). Known for its shady Biergarten in the courtyard, and its mid-afternoon Happy Hour when beer is half-price, the brewers at this 4th District haven have beer down to a science, listing percentages of Stammwürze – original gravity, or a density ratio before fermentation that helps determine alcohol content – instead of alcohol percentage. The Märzen here is malty, the food hearty, and the beer garden shady on hot summer afternoons.
Founded in 1994 just off the narrow lanes of Spittelberg, the 7 Stern Bräu (www.7stern.at) brewmaster Sigmund Flitter claims "we were the first!" to experiment with beer. Already boasting a successful array of flavours, Flitter’s now more likely to alter the hop farmer than risk new varieties. His Stammkunden (regulars) come for the Hanfbier (hemp beer, which is after all in the same family as hops), and the Chilibier with its kicking capsaicin. The potent Rauchbier (smoke beer), the India Pale Ale brought over by an American brewer-in-residence, and his rotating seasonal strong lagers round out the menu. And there’s even a beer machine in the entry to take one home.
Specialties in Währing and Floridsdorf
The Währing district offers two craft brewers a short walk from one another: the Highlander (www.the-highlander.at) and Lichtenthaler Bräu. The former is a familial gastropub that, in addition to 1516, serves one of the few year-round stouts. This stout is no Guinness, but a lighter variety with just as much robust flavour, perfect for a summer day on the leafy Sobieskiplatz.
Just around the corner, the Lichtenthaler Bräu (www.lichtenthalerbraeu.at) offers unique taste experiments by students at the nearby University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (aka "BoKu"). Don’t worry, the results are remarkable. Special brews have included Weizenbock, red lager, oatmeal stout, and a Pale Ale with Bravo hops.
Instead of saving the best for last, you may want to devote an entire evening to the Kadlez Bräu (www.kadlez.at) in Floridsdorf. Well worth the trip across the Danube, Christian Schneider’s creations have won numerous awards since 2004. Proud of his pure-bodied Pils, he also brews smooth and full-flavoured Zwickl and a filtered Helles using clean, mountain-fed Vienna water, producing a remarkably fresh finish. Consider yourself lucky if you catch his thick-headed Florida Pale Ale.
Lastly, for a jaw-dropping selection of craft beers from all around Austria and beyond, the Känguruh Pub (www.känguruh-pub.at) located a short walk from the Westbahnhof has likely the best in Vienna. The church altar-style bar seems like a shrine to good flavor, as the list of numerous Austrian craft beers like the Forstner Brauerei in Styria, and no less than 130 bottled Belgian beers should keep your taste buds occupied.
Given these highlights, there is surely something new a-brewing in Vienna. But as with many things, it’s best to find out for yourself.
by Conrad Seidl