BEER CLINIC :: The Land Where Beer Began Pt 2

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on September 10, 2014

Craft Beer, Hops, and the Beautiful Blue Danube

Craft beer in Germany? Craft beer in Austria? Why, I ask, would anyone bother, since the beer is already so good? In the US, the craft beer industry grew up as a grass roots movement, a reaction to the predominance of lower quality beer offered by large brewing conglomerates. By contrast, beer in the German-speaking countries is consistently of high quality, with many unique, regional beer styles. What, then, is the driving force for craft beer in places where the beer is so good? Because, thanks to US influence, craft beer is becoming an international trend, with consumer demand for small-batch, artisanal beers. It has become a “destination drink”, one that you seek out, like a fine wine from a small vineyard. American breweries have begun to seek out international markets; for example, California’s Stone Brewing Company recently announced plans to site a brewery in Berlin. It is no surprise that breweries like Austria’s Ottakringer are anxious to participate in this trend.

The Beer Doctor and Brewmaster Martin Simion, at the Ottakringer Brewery.

The Beer Doctor and Brewmaster Martin Simion, at the Ottakringer Brewery.

And here we are at the Ottakringer brewery in Vienna on a private after-hours tour, with Martin Simion, the new craft beer brewmaster. Martin, an energetic young man, has us running up and down multiple flights of stairs, from the now-defunct wooden barrels in the basement, up to the mash tuns and bottling area. He was almost apologetic for the large size of the brewery, but as he points out, Ottakringer is the largest brewery in Vienna, and it makes a lot of beer. We reach the well-appointed tasting room and start sampling.

The brews are glorious! We tasted everything from their lighter Helles, to the Dunkels, and Pils, and everything in between. Later, we had dinner with Martin and his girlfriend Carmen at the Apostelkeller, a wonderful old place tucked away in a cellar, which featured live music (strolling accordion and violinist), excellent Viennese food, and lots of Ottakringer to wash it down.

I asked the question that has been on my mind since we got to Europe — how can mass-produced lagers taste so good… especially in comparison to their American counterparts? The answer, according to Martin is simple– the German Beer Purity Laws of 1516, still in force in most of German-speaking Europe, which stipulate that beer can only contain malted barley, water, and hops. Ottakringer goes one step further, ensuring that it brews only with the highest quality, Austrian ingredients. No corners are cut, no additives or alternative grains are used. This sounds remarkably like the US craft beer philosophy.

The new Artisanal Beer unit at Ottakringer, in its final stages of completion, June 2014

The new Artisanal Beer unit at Ottakringer, in its final stages of completion, June 2014

Martin will be following the same philosophy as the master brewer of the new “craft beer unit” at Ottakringer though he prefers the term “artisanal beer” since the brewery is too large to brew “craft” beer according to standard definitions. He will, however, be brewing beer in small batches of 100 gallons. This enthusiastic young man is a good choice for the position. He has an excellent background for the job, having learned his trade at the Munich-Weihenstephan Technical Institute, one of the premier brewing schools in the world, and then working as a brewer at the Viennese landmark brewpub, 1516. Martin’s tour took us to the nearly-completed Ottakringer artisanal brewery, scheduled to produce its first beer (an American-style session IPA) in time for the annual Ottakringer summer beer festival in July, which we would miss by a week. Note the architecturally stunning cylindrical glass building, built to the same size and shape as the adjacent brewing tanks. The location will have a beer-garden feeling, and will feature events with local bands and guest brewers.

Can “The Lands Where Beer Began” challenge their 500-year old traditions and produce new styles to fill this demand, yet stay within the Beer Purity Laws? I have no doubt that the new wave of brewers like Simion will make excellent beer in the American craft styles. But can the Austrian and German palates learn to enjoy these beers, with their emphasis on ales, high alcohol levels, and flavorful hops?

Developing their consumers’ taste for hops is going to be the biggest challenge that Simion will face. Most beer drinkers in German-speaking countries are used to noble hops, such as those grown in Tettnang. Noble hops are bitter because they are high in humulene– which is responsible for their antibacterial properties–but low in beta acids. They don’t have the aromatic compounds responsible for the flavors that we love in IPAs: fruity, floral, citrus, pine. Ironically, noble hops were bred over the centuries to remove these flavors; American hops were bred from English hops to increase these flavors, and they are relative newcomers on the beer scene. There is no European tradition of their use.

Aromatic hops are an acquired taste, like juniper (gin), or peat (single malt). But once that taste is acquired through good experiences–often accompanied by good music and good times–you will seek it out. Worse yet, I’ve heard a few brewers say they don’t care for the taste of American hops; if that is the case, I imagine these poor souls will have difficulty brewing a good IPA, if they don’t enjoy the flavor themsleves. There is nothing more unpleasant that a badly-hopped, or over-hopped IPA. On the other hand, there is nothing more delightful than a good, hoppy ale where the flavors are in balance with the malt and alcohol.

We tried a few bottled IPAs during our European trip to see how they fared. Progusta is a craft IPA from the Bräufactum label, the artisanal subsidiary of Radeberger, in Saxony (noted for excellent Pilsner.) This is a heavy, malt-forward beer, 6.8% ABV, with an unfortunate hodge-podge of noble hops and some Americans: Magnum, Hallertauer, Mittelfru and Citra. It was bitter, and not well-rounded. As Rick put it, “drinking this beer is a lot of work. And even the name is a bad choice, it sounds like a medical condition, not a beer you want to drink.”

The Hopfenstopfer (nb This website is written in German) label, from HäfnerBräu in Bad Rappenau, did somewhat better. Their Comet IPA, at 6.8% ABV, is much more palatable. It boasts 55 IBU, but these are mostly noble hops (Hallertauer Comet, Hallertauer Saphir, and Hallertauer Taurus), resulting in a taste that is primarily bitter, without much citrusy taste; furthermore, it’s a bit on the light side. But it was smooth and much easier to drink than I expected.

Dark Red Temptation, with authentic Bavarian pretzels

Dark Red Temptation, with authentic Bavarian pretzels

The Hopfenstopfer Dark Red Temptation, on the other hand, was well put together. It is a double IPA, at 9.0% ABV and 50 IBU, hopped with Hallertau Taurus, with some Cascade hops used for aroma (I presume dry hopped). The Cascade added a great deal to the flavor. It’s heavy, with dense malts, giving it a red color, but we really liked this one. It went well with food, especially the traditional pretzels.

So Martin, the competition is not bad at all — yet.

Since I finished this article, Simion’s first artisanal beers have been released. His Session IPA was brewed with Amarillo, Citra and Centennial hops, with an ABV of 4.3%, and it was advertised to be “brewed with Love and Music.” Martin reported, “we started pouring our Session IPA… I expected it would be much more difficult to introduce people to those beers but they enjoy it straight away!”  Next up — a Belgian Blond.

I look forward to seeing how these beers fare. And I leave you with a tune that will stick in your head for a week, the sound of Vienna. Click the link for the Blue Danube Waltz, in its most memorable rendition:

Blue Danube Waltz

Also available from Dr. Westbrook: images


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Martin S. September 14, 2014 at 4:04 am

We are finally pouring our beers at our first beer festival and all three ( a belgian blond, an session IPA and a Porter) are very well received. Interesting times for brewers and beer drinkers alike!


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