Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book Review: Vienna Lager

 A few months ago I bought "Historic German and Austrian Beers for the Home Brewer" by Andreas Krennmair and have thoroughly enjoyed dipping and and out of the book for inspiration and plans for the upcoming winter lager brewing season. It was on the basis of having enjoyed it so much that I ordered his latest book, "Vienna Lager", from Amazon within moments of him announcing it's release on Twitter.

A few days later it dropped through the door (figuratively speaking), and just last night I finished it. Sure it is not a weighty tomb, but I have read it in snatches as life allows, even so, a month is pretty good going by my standards these days.

What we have here is the life and story not just of the Vienna Lager style, but also a deep dive into the life of it's creator, Anton Dreher - he who went wandering around British breweries with Gabriel Sedlmayr, filching samples with Bondesque contraptions as they went. Scion of a family of innkeepers and brewers, Dreher built the largest brewing company on mainland Europe in the 19th century, at its height boasting 4 breweries, one each in Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, and Italy.

Andreas then follows Vienna Lager on its journey from its Austrian homeland to the New World, as it became an established part of the German brewing world in both the US and Mexico, and thence onward to its acceptance within craft beer.

While being focused on Dreher and Vienna Lager in particular, the book gives the reader an insight into the massive changes wrought on the European brewing industry in the second half of the 19th century. Not only are we talking about the introduction of three of the most influential beer styles, but also the introduction of English malting techniques that allowed maltsters to create consistent pale malt, and thus the world was set on the path of pale lager domination.

Andreas' book is full of fascinating technical detail, the kind of thing that very much appeals to the technical writer in me. At the same time he succeeds to keeping the technical details accessible and not overwhelming. An added bonus for homebrewers, and possibly commercial brewers looking to re-create history, is a selection of recipes for Vienna lager through the ages, naturally the early ones of just Vienna malt and Saaz hops appeal to me most of all, and perhaps this winter will finally see me take the plunge into decoction mashing.

What Andreas has done here is write the definitive guide to Dreher and his Vienna Lager, and made a valuable contribution to knowledge of the development of pale lager in general. It is an excellent read, go and buy it, now.

Monday, August 10, 2020

To Helles and Back

If you've been paying attention these last few years, you'll know that pale lager is my thing. Whether we are talking světlý ležák, Pilsner, helles, or even Dortmunder, I probably drink far more pale lager than anything else. In my world, the path to brewery greatness is paved with golden lager and if a brewer can knock out a good one then I am more likely to try their other wares, while coming back to the pale stuff regularly.

Returning from a recent sojourn to South Carolina, as I mentioned a few posts ago, I stocked up on Olde Mecklenburg beers, their altbier, pilsner, and the seasonal helles specifically. I had it in my mind that I wanted to include it in a three way tasting with Von Trapp Helles from Vermont and Virginia's Port City Helles, which is their current seasonal as well.

There was only one problem, the seeming ambivalence of central Virginia's supermarkets when it comes to lager -  seriously, most of them will have the complete range of Port City but not the Downright Pilsner, or they'll stock everything from Tröeg's except Sunshine Pils. Having been back from South Carolina for well over a month now, I only got round to the tasting this weekend due to the hassle of finding the Port City Helles, having scored a case from the ever reliable Beer Run.

With the runners and riders in place, I dived on in...


Port City Helles - 5.2%, bottled June 8, 2020
  • Sight - clear light golden yellow, half inch white foam that leaves nice lacing
  • Smell - floral hops, light bready malt, lemon, hay
  • Taste -  subtle wildflower honey, nice light crustiness, lemongrass
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
A lovely, lovely beer. Supremely balanced with a medium dry finish that just leaves you wanting more, nice and clean. Port City have a wonderful way with lager beers and this year's Helles is up there with the best of their range. Beer this good makes the Virginia summer almost bearable. With the lemon and grass thing going on, I wonder if they use Saaz for the hopping?


Olde Mecklenburg Mecklenburger Helles - 4.9%, canned July 2, 2020
  • Sight - crystal clear yellow, thin white head, visible carbonation
  • Smell - cereal grain, lemongrass, wildflower meadow
  • Taste - water biscuits, citrus (lemon and key lime), subtle spice note
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Another very moreish beer. Finishes really clean though maybe just a touch on the dry side, which brings the hops slightly to the fore. Delightfully well balanced.


Von Trapp Helles - 4.9%, best before September 29, 2020
  • Sight - golden yellow, excellent clarity, half inch of white head that lingers, tracing a fine lacing on the glass
  • Smell - citrus, freshly microplaned lemon zest, all flavour no pith, freshly baked southern biscuits
  • Taste - crackers, lemon, wildflower honey, elegant herbal notes
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
The finish on this one is soft and pillowy, just dry enough to keep it clean, but with a malt presence that is just cut through by a lingering bitterness that doesn't dominate. The balance is absolutely perfect making this an absolutely magnificent beer that would more than hold its own in the biergartens of Mitteleuropa.

Three absolutely storming beers, all wonderful examples of a style that when South Street's My Personal Helles is available is basically my go to. I would love to be able to compare all four at some point, though that may have to wait as South Street haven't had it on in a while. However, as I tweeted last night....


Thinking further of this question today, if I had to choose either the Port City or Von Trapp then after much agonising it would be the Von Trapp, by the shortest of short noses. Both are gorgeous beers that I will happily drink all day and night sat on my deck, but Von Trapp has one significant advantage that pushes it into the winner's circle. It is available year round and not just for a couple of months in the summer.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Book Review: Historical Brewing Techniques

At the beginning of this year I resolved to get back to reading as much as possible.

In the carefree days of not being a dad I would read something like 2 or 3 books every month, but with Fin and Bertie wreaking havoc on all things in chez Reece, that dropped off dramatically. Sorry if it makes me a total failure of an Enlightenment man but there were days when crashing in bed was just about all I could manage.

Anyway, I resolved to read at least 1 book each month, and have so far kept to that plan, with a combination of fiction by new-to-me writers, beer writing by the likes of Pete Brown, and in "Historical Brewing Techniques" by Lars Marius Garshol the latest book by a blogger whose writing I have enjoyed for quite some time.


One of the things that I have enjoyed most about Lars' blog posts from his trips to various parts of the Baltic world to brew with farmhouse brewers has been that they go beyond the formulaic "I went here, we brewed this, it tasted like this". Not only do you get a sense of the beer, its brewing, and its tasting, you get a very real sense of the people making the beer, their culture, their sitz im leben, and you see how intimate the beer is to their existence.

That sense of anthropology, history, linguistics, and even mythology is infused throughout the book making it much more a book about people than a drink. To really understand farmhouse ale from the Baltic world and Russia, you need to understand the people and the world they live in, and that is infinitely more interesting to me than tasting notes.

One thing that really struck home, mainly because lately I have found myself somewhat jaded with the goings on of the craft beer world and its obsession with the emperor's new clothes of "innovation", was Lars' drawing a distinct line between craft beer and farmhouse ales. Just because a brewery uses kveik to ferment their umpteenth IPA doesn't tie them to the farmhouse tradition.

Also as a homebrewer it was great to see the simplicity, even rusticity, of the farmhouse brewers' setups. There are times when I feel a little down on my own setup, usually when listening to a friend describe their latest, greatest piece of homebrewing technology, as if squeezing an extra gravity point from the malt, or hitting a rest temperature to within hundredths of a degree, actually makes all that much difference to the flavour of the beer.

Throughout the book, the reader is reminded of the vitality of brewing in the development of human civilisation, and in the farmhouse tradition described, in the Nordic and Baltic worlds in particular. It is not a stretch of the imagination to realise that the farmers and warriors we call Vikings very likely used the same methods and ingredients over a thousand years ago.

This wonderful book is probably the best "beer" book I have read in many years, I use inverted commas there quite deliberately as it is not a simple "beer" book by any stretch of the imagination. It is a guide to a world that is dying out, almost gone, and one that tells a far longer story of humanity than industrial brewing could ever hope to.

If you haven't already, go and buy this book, it is worth every penny.

Rauch Against the Machine

I am just going to come out and say it, I have loved rauchbier ever since I first had Schlenkerla's iconic Märzen back in Prague in 2008...