All right, pop history quiz.

Who were Gabriel Sedlmayr and Anton Dreher, and what was their contribution to brewing science. You have five minutes.

No, sorry, that’s Dreher, not Durer, and anyway I’m pretty sure Durer never drew any beer labels. But at least you’re in the right country.

Time’s up. If you said that Sedlmayr and Dreher were responsible for the first commercial production of lager beers, you were correct. Sedlmayr in Munich and Dreher in Vienna essentially created the lager industry, beginning with their introduction of lager yeast and cold fermentation in 1841. Their beers (and the lager beers of Pilzn, which began using the yeast the following year) met with immediate success throughout Central Europe.

The two brewers not only had their own genius working for their success, but history favored them as well. In 1841 the Austrian Empire still ruled much of central and southeastern Europe, including the extremely valuable regions (from a brewer’s perspective) of Bohemia and Moravia, home to some of the world’s finest hops and malting barley. To the north Prussia was starting to stretch its borders and beginning the unification of Germany. There were no geographic barriers to the spread of the new beers and the new brewing technologies.

While Sedlmayr’s Spaten brewery was producing dark, malty lagers (the simplest to brew with Munich’s water), Dreher started producing a copper-colored beer, malty yet crisp, that rapidly became identified as “Vienna lager.” In the next decades he also applied the “Märzen” approach: laying the beer down during spring (March) in ice caves and leaving it there to mellow, blend, and clear until the cool days of autumn. Eventually, in the 1860s, Dreher and Sedlmayr introduced some of the first systems of artificial refrigeration, probably the single most dramatic technological achievement in brewing history.

The Märzen beers emerged from their caves just in time for Oktoberfest, a huge party originally held in 1810 to celebrate the Bavarian crown prince’s nuptials. The Vienna-styled beers Sedlmayr introduced in Munich (using the Vienna malts Dreher had developed) have been known by that appellation ever since. In fact, Märzen/Oktoberfest beers are among the few surviving versions of the style today.

Although Vienna lagers enjoyed a tremendous popularity throughout Europe during the latter part of the 19th century, they rapidly disappeared in the 20th in the face of competition from the new, paler styles such as pilsners and Dortmunders. It’s also likely that history, once again, played its part as the Austro-Hungarian empire crumbled and Vienna’s influence waned considerably.

As George and Laurie Fix point out in their thorough study of Vienna lagers, Märzen/Oktoberfest/Vienna, the style made a valiant attempt at survival in Mexico and Texas of all places, under the supervision of a Mexican brewer, Santiago Graf. Graf went so far as to import both his malts and hops from Europe, having found nothing suitable in the New World for the production of quality lagers. Elsewhere in the US, the use of poor-quality domestic hops and six-row barley (which makes poor Vienna malt) ensured that the style never gained a foothold in the North.

Prohibition in Texas and political turmoil in Mexico led to the destruction of Graf’s efforts, but remnants of the style have survived in Mexico, in bottles of Noche Bueno and Negra Modelo. Throughout the rest of the world, the Vienna lager has fared poorly, except in Bavaria where Märzens are still produced, along with Oktoberfests and Festbiers.

So what is a Vienna lager? Consider this tantalizing lead from Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion. “For mouthwatering succulence, there is no type of beer to compare with the Vienna style: the amber-red, bronze, or copper-colored lager with the soft maltiness of aroma and palate.” It certainly sounds wonderful, but finding commercial versions to taste is tough.

In Munich the “Märzenbiers” or “Märzen/Oktoberfest” beers tend to be closest to a “pure” version of the original style. Others, known simply as “festbier” or “Oktoberfest,” may be paler and less malty.

Some of the versions appearing from American microbrewers, while tasty, tend to overplay the hops. They are generally closer, however, than the many “amber lagers” appearing all over the US these days. These beers, which may be worthy enough in their own right, lack the elegant balance and fine ingredients that mark the true Vienna lager. They likewise tend to be, well, boring, which a good Vienna is definitely not. While it is important to have a balance of hops and malt, balancing zero with zero (or very little with not very much) can only result in a bland beer.

The alcohol content of the purer form is slightly above what we consider an “average” beer, with a starting gravity ranging from 1.050 to 1.055 (12.5° to 13.5° Plato), with some of the Oktoberfests ranging up a bit higher. Their finish is paradoxical: malty yet crisp and dry. The bitterness contributed by the hops is tightly controlled, merely enough to allay the sweetness of the malts and never overpowering.

Needless to say, these are always all-malt beers; no corn or sugar need apply.

Although distinct variations appear among these beers, there are some clear standards. Neither heavily malty, like the dunkels and bocks of Munich, nor heavily hopped, like pale, sharp pilsners, Vienna lagers are artfully balanced, with subtle contributions of fine malts and noble aroma hops.

They can generally be defined as copper in color, although some Oktoberfests are paler and some of the Mexican versions are considerably darker. As Vienna lagers are among the world’s finest, they are likewise among the more difficult to brew. The Fix book stresses the vital importance of quality ingredients and bemoans the lack of a truly high-quality Vienna malt.

Dreher’s original beer was produced from a single, amber malt, but today’s brewers must gain color and flavor from the use of fine Munich, caramel, and lager malts. Brewers should pay particular attention to hops, using only the finest: Czech Saaz, German Hallertau, Styrian Goldings, or some of the new American replacement varieties such as Mt. Hood or Liberty.

It is absolutely essential to use true lager yeast at the proper temperatures, so the beer must either be brewed in winter or refrigeration is necessary. The original Märzens were cold-stored from March to September, but a lagering period of six weeks will certainly suffice.

Here is a style in which homebrewers can readily exceed the quality of commercial versions; many of the commercial beers are disappointing, and even the finest ones tend to be in poor condition by the time they reach us.

Vienna lagers require a lot of careful attention, but the rewards are tremendous. Some of the best homebrewed beers I’ve ever had were Vienna lagers produced at home by people such as George Fix and Wisconsin’s Steve Klafka, and as Michael Jackson noted, a fine Vienna lager is a truly amazing beer.

These are not necessarily for the new brewer, but with time and patience, they will be worth the effort.

Issue: August 1995