Entrepreneur. Cocktail and spirit champion. Old world wine provocateur.
Often times when people think about lagers they think about light beers and light beers only. It’s a common misconception that lagers need to be light. Some of the greatest lagers out there are often amber (like the Vienna lager), dark brown or ruby (like a doppelbock), or even deep sepia and nearly black (like a schwarzbier).
Vienna lager, referred to as the original amber lager, is an often overlooked style. It’s not as popular as your ipa and isn’t brewed by every craft brewer in America. The style was developed by a brewer named Anton Dreher in the 1840’s in Germany. Although it was created in Germany, it is no longer a very popular style in Germany or Austria, although it remains popular in Mexico, of all places. This style was brought to Mexico by Austrian brewers when they emigrated there in the late 1880’s and the style has thrived ever since.
The Vienna lager is a low alcohol beer, typically between 4.5% and 5.5% abv, weighing in at about 25 ibu’s on average. It is characterized by a soft and elegant malt complexity. I like this style because it has some bitterness that helps to really dry it out on the finish, but it doesn’t come in nearly as bitter as a German pilsner. It has a richer body than many pilsners and is well balanced, although it typically leans more on the malts than on the hops.
The lager has a rich malt aroma from the loads of Vienna malt that is used (Vienna malt can often make up 100% of the grain bill). Vienna malt is a kiln dried malt that imparts a noticeably toasty and rich, biscuity flavor to the beer. It is cured to a slightly higher temperature than a pilsner malt which can give it hints of toffee. It has a softness and a complexity while retaining a strong malt backbone.
The Vienna lager typically has no esters and a very clean flavor. It’s malt complexity is balanced by hops on the finish, but not overwhelmed by them. You can get some toasted flavors, but there shouldn’t be any roastiness or caramel flavors. These beers are usually light red to copper in color with great clarity (it is a lager, after all).
So, you’re intrigued now, I see. I’m sure you’ve had a Vienna lager at some point and not known it. The most common ones around these parts are Sam Adams Boston Lager and Dos Equis Amber. Another nice example you can find is Blue Point Toasted Lager from Long Island, NY. You won’t find a ton of other commercial examples, but some small craft breweries are starting to make this style, so keep your eyes open and you might find something great!