European Beer Guide
Austrian Beer


Austria is a country often undeservedly neglected by those in search of good beer. Partly, it seems, because of the Reinheitsgebot, which leads many to believe that its beers must be of lower quality than those of Germany. Of course, this view is pure prejudice. Only when considering lager does the Reinheitsgebot take on such paramount importance. In the great ale countries - Great Britain, Belgium and Ireland - almost no-one adheres to it and it isn't taken as a sign of low quality. In fact, most of the classic ales could not be produced according to its strict rules. Unfortunately, as many of the Austrian beer styles are closely related to those of southern Germany , it is only too easy to start making disparaging comparisons. In order to appreciate the beers of Austria fully, it's a good idea to throw off the mental straitjacket of the Reinheitgebot and judge them on their flavour. Beers are brewed in Austria in a wide range of styles and, in many of the smaller breweries, with a good deal of skill and care.

Overall, the country has 65 to 70 breweries, with the number having slightly increased in recent years due to the establishment of a few micros and several brewpubs. While still to undergo the sort of new brewery revolution underway in the USA and the UK, the tren is till encouraging. The greatest concentration is in Oberösterreich, which has almost a third of the total. It borders Bavaria and has many historical and cultural links with it, so it shouldn't be so surprising that it should have the strongest beer tradition of any region of Austria. Here there is still a reasonable number of local and regional breweries. In the eastern an southern parts of the country, there are fewer producers and they tend to be larger and more industrial in character. Although both Vienna and Graz have recently-established brewpubs.

There are beers produced in a wide range of styles, encompassing most of those from South Germany, though often with subtle differences. There are also a couple specific to Austria, though there are no real examples of the classic Vienna amber lager, developed by Anton Dreher in the 19th Century. Beers are only considered full-strength if brewed to at least 12% plato. Average beer strengths must be amongst the highest in the world, with almost nothing under 5% and beers of over 4% labelled as 'leicht', that is light.

The everyday beer of most breweries is Märzen or simply Lager. In Austria, this signifies a malty, golden beer of 12-13% plato or 5-5.5% alcohol. It is roughly equivalent to a Bavarian Helles, but with perhaps a slightly less pronounced malt flavour. They are relatively mildly hopped.

The next commonest type, especially on draught, is Pils. These are pale yellow and very light in body, being brewed to 11-13% but fermented almost fully out. This leaves them rather thin, but relatively high in alcohol for the gravity. They have an aromatic hop flavour, leaning towards spiciness rather than straight bitterness. They are generally closer to the North German style rather than the true Czech one.

A relatively recent development are Gold beers, of around 12-13% plato with a powerful aroma of Saaz hops. These are slightly fuller in body than the usual Austrian pilsners and more akin to the Czech style.

Next up in terms of strength is Spezialbier. These are 13-14%, pale yellow and along the lines of a Bavarian Spezial. That is, full bodied and malty but with a good hop character.

At the top end of the strength scale is Bock. These are amber or pale brown, of 16-17% plato (6.5-7% alcohol) with a very full body with a bittersweet flavour. They are most commonly sold around Christmas and Easter.

The most disappointing style generally is Dunkle or dark lager. These are dark brown beers of around 13% plato but often only 4.5% alcohol which leaves the taste tooth-achingly sweet. They often claim to be Munchener or Bavarian in style, but are far too sweet and unsubtle to really come anywhere close.There are a couple of good examples, but if you don't like your beer too sweet, you should be very careful when trying them.

There are a few examples of Weizen-or Weissbier brewed in the West of the country. They are around 12% plato (5% alcohol), either pale yellow or amber in colour and top-fermented. The flavour is light and spicy with a very mild hop taste. Stylistically, they are indistinguisable from the their South German counterparts. Though wheat beers were brewed earlier, they seem to have almost died out during the 19th Century with the upsurge of bottom-fermenting beers. As in germany, the style has seen an upsurge in popularity recently, encouraging more breweries to produce examples. Many Austrian pubs sell imported German wheat beers, especially the omnipresent Erdinger products.

In the last few years several breweries, including some large industrial ones, have introduced Keller or Zwickl beers. These are unfiltered lager beers, served slightly cloudy, with a stronger, more complex flavour than the filtered varieties. Generally, they are well worth trying, if you can find them. The breweries often restrict their distribution to pubs with a high turnover and skilled cellarmen as they are more perishable and require more care than the standard beers.

There are a few oddities and one-off beers, such as Roggen (rye) beer, Whisky Malt beer, stout and the weird Kölsch style beer produced by Amadeus-Bräu.

Austrian pubs are similar in nature to those in the Czech Republic and Bavaria. Simple, unpretentious boozers with pine tables, tiled floors and vaulted ceilings, used by a broad spectrum of society.The food they sell is based in the same central European culture - hearty, filling meals of pork, potatoes, dumplings and the like. Very handy, especially the bread dumplings, for soaking up large quantities of beer.

Thankfully, in most towns there are pubs selling beer from a fair number of different breweries, without the local monopolies which can be so frustrating. This extends as far as having beer available from all parts of the country in decent-sized towns. This makes it relatively easy to sample beer from a good range of breweries even on a short visit of limited geographical extent.

One black point, is the manner in which beer is served. Unfortunately, draught beer is often ridiculously over-carbonated through over-enthusiastic application of CO2 top pressure. In case anyone out there isn't aware of it draught beer, with the possible exception of wheat beer, should never fizz in the glass. This sort of treatment completely destroys the aroma and any smoothness which the beer may have. In common with many other parts of the world, serving temperatures are often well below what they should be, again robbing the beer of its flavour. But this trend is so strong everywhere that it seems almost impossible to resist. Just remember this, beer should never be cold. Cool, yes, below 8 degrees C, never!

Here is a selection of documents about Austrian beer:

Pubs in Salzburg

Pubs in Linz

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© Ron Pattinson