40 Years in Beer, Part Thirty-Two: Vienna’s “Old Whisky Malt Waltz,” a precursor of beer revolutions to come

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Cousin Don at Brauhaus Nussdorf on the day in question, 1991.
Brauhaus Nussdorf on the day in question, 1991.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Thirty-One: Euro beer travel 1991, as history ends and begins again.

In early 1991 I deigned to meet with the publisher of the New Albany Tribune, my hometown newspaper, to pitch a transformative idea—at least for me.

It’s not entirely clear in retrospect whether inspiration, desperation or even perspiration compelled me to approach the figurehead of a moribund entity that I’d never before hesitated to criticize—on occasion somewhat savagely—for its parochially limited horizons and characteristically low common denominators (“but Roger, we have no choice except to write at a 3rd grade level, believe me”), but nonetheless, I plunged straight into the heart of darkness and proposed that I be engaged to write dispatches from Europe for publication as guest columns in the ‘Bune (it’s what my friend Joe K., an ex-employee, called it).

To my mild surprise, the publisher agreed.

To no one’s surprise, he didn’t offer to actually pay me.

Nonetheless convincing myself that the exposure might prove useful in inflicting my opinions on others, I allowed the functionary to accept my offer.

Since there was no guarantee that I’d have access to a typewriter while overseas, the dispatches were to be written in longhand—or more accurately, I’d print them, having rejected cursive since the 4th grade, when I staged a brief hunger strike on soya burger day to protest cursive’s innate tyranny. The articles would then be copied and edited by a staffer, and sent to print at intervals.

Two weeks into the trip, while in Copenhagen staying with Allan, I borrowed his fancy pants word processor to prepare the first batch of columns, mailing them to the ‘Bune and buying a few weeks’ time to reach Košice, from where I punctually submitted a hand-printed (artisanal?) column every week to ten days. My friends back home clipped the completed columns and mailed them to me, and I’d read them to my students.

The first few essays were published without a hitch, but gradually their appearances grew erratic, and the texts became filled with mistakes. By Thanksgiving the project unceremoniously collapsed. It was only much later that I learned what happened. I hadn’t realized that the task of completing my submissions would be dumped by management on a single employee who already had plenty enough work to keep her busy. Neither publisher nor editor gave a damn anyway (presumably I exceeded their 3rd grade level) and no one else had reason to intervene, perhaps recalling the things I’d said about them in the past.

So much for olive branches and potential Pulitzer prizes, but the memory of wading into their ‘Bune/booby trap stuck with me until 2009 and a longer guest columnist stint enabled by different management (naturally with the same outcome).

The very first piece I wrote for publication was called “Vienna and the Old Whisky Malt Waltz.” Unfortunately you’ll not be reading it verbatim, as I’ve been unable to find the banker’s box where the text is hidden. The search continues.

In the meantime, it transpired that in July 1991 my cousin Don Barry and I chose a lovely summer’s day in the Austrian capital for a field trip to the outskirts.

(For me, the otherwise simple act of being able to say aloud “hey Don, let’s meet at 10 at the Mozartdenkmal,” and knowing both what it was (the Mozart monument) and how to find it (in front of the Hofburg, by the Ringstrasse) was a pure thrill unlike any other. It meant I was pretending to be a European in Vienna, and hours spent in Vienna were replete with possibilities.)

Vienna from Kahlenberg in 1985.

We quickly determined the correct bus route to the Vienna Woods (Kahlenberg, to be exact) on the north side of the city, with the stately Danube River ever visible to the east. The hilltop restaurant afforded wonderful views of the vicinity, offering succulent sausages and whichever of the ubiquitous Austrian golden lagers might happen to be pouring: Gold Fassl, Schwechator, Ottakringer, Puntigamer, Gösser or Zipfer.

Whatever our choice was, you can bet we downed a few.

In the absence of an Austrian Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law), the use of corn or rice as adjuncts was (and remains) customary in the country, and those everyday lagers were lighter and spritzier than their Bavarian counterparts; while utterly reliable, far less interesting overall. However one or two of them I actually liked, including Kaiser, which we’d been able to get in Indiana fairly often during my peak Scoreboard Liquors days peddling imported beers.

It was a simpler time.

While imbibing at Kahlenberg, I studied my glistening new edition of the Schuster & Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer, a slim volume with tiny print written by Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson, taking a comparative look at the old-school paper city map that was available free of charge at any Vienna hotel or tourist office, and proclaiming to Don that there was indeed a new-wave brewpub down in the valley, by the river, in the Nussdorf neighborhood.

From there we could take a tram back into the city center, but only after judiciously sampling the liquid wares, which Jackson praised.

Don probably thought I was crazy, but neither of us minded a vigorous walk, which proved to last around 45 minutes headed straight downhill through a beautiful vineyard-strewn, semi-rural setting amid the terrain of Vienna’s famous Heurigen, or wine taverns (we stopped at only one) until the urban sidewalks began emerging, and soon enough we were at the door of the Brauhaus Nussdorf.

Jackson wrote that the brewery’s owner was a baron with “a brewpub in the wine cellars of his schloss,” with these grounds having once housed a large commercial brewery. So it was, founded in 1819 and subsequently to become an accredited purveyor of beer to the royal Habsburg court. Some buildings dated to a Jesuit school in the 1600s; later the brewery expanded into the adjacent manor, gardens and outbuildings.

Henrik Freiherr Bachofen von Echt, whose predecessors had taken a financial stake in the 19th century brewery (it lasted until 1950), chose the street-facing structure on acreage nearest the river for his start-up brewpub, which debuted in 1984. Above the entrance was written Österreichs kleinste kleinbrauerei, or “Austria’s smallest small (micro) brewery.” Apparently Brauhaus Nussdorf was a pioneer; Fischerbräu in the Döbling neighborhood came on line in 1985, and nowadays Vienna has a great many small brewery options.

Also claiming to be first, Fischer.

Brauhaus Nussdorf’s prevailing color scheme was my personal favorite: standard-issue, Habsburg-legacy mustard yellow and dark green, although the beers were mostly top-fermented ales stylistically drawn from various non-Austrian traditions: Nussdorfer Doppel Hopfen (pale ale); Nussdorfer St. Thomas Bräu (Altbier); Sir Henry’s English Stout; and Nussdorfer Old Whisky Bier, the latter a higher-gravity sipper similar to Old Ale, made with a proportion of peat-smoked Scotch whisky malt.

View at Brauhaus Nussdorf in 2003, with both Schloss and bearded “old Austrian” mascot.

We strolled inside and spent the next few hours experiencing Brauhaus Nussdorf at its artistic peak (1), as well as glimpsing the embryonic beginnings of beer tourism as we soon would come to know it. In short, Jackson’s English-speaking readers knew about Old Whisky Bier, even if many Viennese didn’t; while the establishment undoubtedly was a neighborhood hangout, information was arranged for multinational ease of consumption with Jackson’s worldwide product introductions in mind.

Baron von Echt’s decision to revive the old Nussdorf brewery’s historical identity by means of front-of-the-house design and imagery, though not with a concurrent reversion to its previous stylistic orientation in the brewhouse, strikes me as emblematic. This was a shift in thinking, and an important lesson at the time: We could restore old beer ways and innovate new ones in equal measure.

Newer-Wave breweries could be about any brewing tradition, not merely the one existing outside their front doors.

Our first Brauhaus Nussdorf visit was stellar. During future trips to Vienna I always rode the tram out to Nussdorf at least once to enjoy an ale or three. Unfortunately, the passing years proved unkind to Baron von Echt’s creation. Even as those numerous other Viennese brewpubs commenced their merry proliferation, the house beers in Nussdorf declined to the verge of being barely drinkable. My final stop at the brewpub came in 2003, when the tottering quality situation provided a sobering reminder of how difficult it can be to sustain excellence.

My friends Randy, Don, Bob and Craig at Brauhaus Nussdorf in 2003. Fun, but the beer had declined.

I aimed to check back again in 2006, but the Internet warned me that Brauhaus Nussdorf had closed in 2004, and to judge from Google street views, the site has remained in a state of neglect and dilapidation until recently, with new signage indicating that urban renewal finally is imminent in the form of an upscale housing development.

Isn’t it always an upscale housing development?

I’ve not mentioned Vienna-style lager, primarily because the city’s namesake beer was seldom seen there during my youthful travels, apparently having long since been declared unfashionable even then. The beer’s disappearance was an ongoing conundrum, given that Vienna was one of the foundational Central Europe locales defining the lager brewing revolution during the 1800s

The malt-accented and subtly spicy amber beer that lager brewing colossus Anton Dreher first released in Vienna in 1841 bore the stamp of cutting-edge, European-wide brewing developments and ingredients:

  • Lightly-kilned malt resulted in an amber-gold beer, which bore the influence of maltsters in both Britain and Moravia, the latter then part of the Habsburg Empire.
  • Saaz hops from Bohemia, also a Habsburg domain.
  • Quick cooling to improve the hygiene and stability of the beer, a technique Dreher learned in Britain.
  • Bottom-fermentation and several weeks of lagering, a testament to the influence of brewers in Munich/Bavaria.
Ambier, as it appeared circa 1988-1990.

My initial encounter with a Vienna-style lager, identified as such, probably came circa 1988 while working at Scoreboard Liquors in New Albany. One Saturday morning on a purchasing expedition to the wholesaler I saw an hitherto unfamiliar case of Ambier, which is unlikely to have made an impression on me had Emperor Franz Joseph’s familiar mutton chop whiskers not been staring back at me. At the time Ambier was contract-brewed by Huber in Wisconsin, and it had won several awards.

I bought a case for the store, drank most of it myself, and of course never saw Ambier again in Southern Indiana or Louisville, which is too bad, because it struck me as solid. I can recall my verdict quite clearly: “Damn, this doesn’t taste like Dos Equis at all—it’s way better.”

Therein lies one of the oldest of an old beer drinker’s fabrications.

Then as now, home and abroad, the most commonly regurgitated “fact” about Vienna-style lager—that Mexican beers like Dos Equis and the slightly darker Negra Modelo were directly inspired by it—isn’t accurate at all, and I guiltily (and sheepishly) concede that you can find me among those perpetuating it.

Let’s set this Vienna-cum-Mexico record straight (2).

As the “40 Years in Beer” series has endeavored to demonstrate, I’m chronologically a part of the first generation of modern American beer enthusiasts, with a birth date of August 3, 1960. This means I began learning about beer in the late 1970s and early 1980s, precisely at the juncture when lager beers from Mexico were becoming mainstream. They invariably were light, golden, crisp and exhibiting characteristics of wet air (read: watery) and adjunct (redolent of corn).

Think Corona, Tecate, Sol, Carta Blanca, and countless others.

But Dos Equis and Negra Modelo always were intriguing outliers, a shade or two darker and a tad fuller-bodied than the others. Considering that most of us in Southern Indiana were first exposed to Mexican culture via a local restaurant called Tumbleweed, which at its most presentable served Tex-Mex food absent the participation of actual Mexican people, then Dos Equis or Negra Modelo were infinitely preferable in terms of pairing with these meals, especially when served naked (i.e., no superfluous limes, lemons, oranges, kumquats or whatever other inappropriate objects Americans insist on perching where they don’t belong).

Our persistent belief during the Reagan years was that Dos Equis and Negra Modelo were to be regarded as examples of Germanic brewing philosophy, specifically the Vienna-style lager, as brought to the New World, presumably lightened, reformatted and otherwise bastardized through long decades, because after all the same oblivious people who insisted on ice cold glassware bearing citrus slices seemed also to demand beer that was tantamount to sex on a beach (wink wink, nudge nudge).

The reconstituted original from Vienna, 2021. Delicious.

But why was Vienna, as opposed to Munich, Pilsen or Copenhagen, the source of original know-how for Dos Equis and Negra Modelo?

Anton Dreher, yes, but more so owing to the Austrian Habsburgs, who until World War I were the rulers of a vast Central European empire, and in particular, spotlighting the strange historical figure of Maximilian (1832-1867), the younger brother of the long-serving Emperor Franz Joseph.

This requires a brief digression. Bearing no hope of succession to the throne, and relegated to relatively lesser sinecures (rear admiral in the Austrian navy, governor of the Habsburg Empire’s provinces in today’s Northern Italy), Maximilian was ripe for exploitation by the more conniving power-brokers of the day, like the French emperor Napoleon III.

The latter gazed upon Mexico as low-hanging fruit ready to be plucked during the period when America was divided and distracted by the Civil War, but a pliable royal Euro stooge was needed for plausible deniability. Enter Maximilian. Encyclopedia Britannica’s introduction is sufficiently terse to chart the dimension of the ill-fated Maximilian’s unfortunate career choice in Mexico.

Maximilian, in full Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, (born July 6, 1832, Vienna, Austria—died June 19, 1867, near Querétaro, Mexico), archduke of Austria and the emperor of Mexico, a man whose naive liberalism proved unequal to the international intrigues that had put him on the throne and to the brutal struggles within Mexico that led to his execution.

Napoleon III is nowhere to be found as Maximilian prepares to meet his fate.

Returning to the 1980s, and my cohort of American beer nerds eager to learn why almost anything tasted better than lightweight domestic beer, the connection was obvious.

Dreher had pioneered the amber Vienna-style lager in his native Austria at roughly the same time as Maximilian’s journey to Mexico took place. Naturally the new (world) emperor would have taken a brewery with him, and just as predictably these brewers would have recreated Vienna-style lager, hence the legacy of the Dos Equis and Negra Modelo available in bottles at our Tumbleweed Tex-Mex taco and burrito emporium in 1985.

It’s a great story, and highly problematic. Our contemporary point of view persuades us that any Austrian brewers brought along to Mexico City with Maximilian’s imperial entourage would have been without refrigeration, presumably convincing them to fashion top/warm fermented ale variants, and not lagers.

Their maltings would have been rudimentary at best, and while it may have been possible to plant barley in Mexico as a crop, it takes several years for hops to mature, assuming the climate was even suitable for their cultivation in the first place (turns out it is, just barely, although only in a few choice locales).

Consequently most available testimony indicates that brewing in Mexico as we know it today did not take root until the arrival of German brewers in the late 1800s, when lager brewing techniques were further along in the process of conquering the planet, and economic conditions in Mexico had improved sufficiently to permit capital-intensive production and ensure a larger, more receptive market.

Obviously Maximilian’s Austrians and ancillaries (interestingly a contingent of Belgian troops accompanied him) were long gone by this time, literally and figuratively.

Stylistically, it would appear that turn-of-the-century German brewers in Mexico drew most heavily from the experiences of their brethren across the border, those earlier brewing arrivals in the United States, when it came to formulating their North American adjunct lagers. In other words, the DNA (as it were) of the malt bill for Dos Equis and Negra Modelo might have conceptual roots in Vienna, but it had traveled in altered circumstances to the USA before migrating to Mexico decades later.

This helps to explain why in 2023, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) classifies Dos Equis (and also everyday Yuengling!) as an “International Amber Lager,” not as a Vienna. Here is the BJCP’s overall assessment of an International Amber Lager, regarded as such because it represents an “original” beer style that has undergone modification in the course of being brewed in modern times on an industrial scale:

A well-attenuated malty amber lager with an interesting caramel or toast quality and restrained bitterness. Usually fairly well-attenuated, often with an adjunct quality. Smooth, easily-drinkable lager character.

As a postscript, allow me to state that Maximilian’s single greatest achievement in life was NOT trundling off to Mexico to introduce amber lagers to North America prior to his inconvenient demise, but leveraging his family’s considerable dynastic wealth into the construction of the Miramare castle on the Gulf of Trieste in present-day Italy. We toured Miramare in 2019, and while in Trieste, had a spectacular pizza accompanied by Theresianer Antica Birreria di Trieste 1766 – yep, it’s a Vienna-style lager brewed dead to style.

Traveling full circle in a mere 28 years?

Priceless.

Next time: Herzlich Willkommen in der Weltbierkulturerbe-Stadt Bamberg.

NOTES

(1) Subsequently this vintage bearded Nussdorder beer drinker came very close to being declared the Public House’s official symbol.

(2) Conrad Seidl is the Austrian “Bier Papst” (Beer Pope) and his short video offers a solid introduction to Vienna-style lager. There’s also a delightful, detailed read by Franz D. Hofer at his A Tempest in A Tankard website: A HEAVENLY DRINK, LIKE CONCENTRATED SUNSHINE”: VIENNA LAGER PAST AND PRESENT.”

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