My love of German beers seems to run in my cultural DNA—whether I am enjoying a crisp summer Kölsch, a spicy Hefeweizen, a chocolatey Dunkel, or a rich Oktoberfest Märzen. But a good challenge for my favorite German beer—and perhaps the least appreciated style—is the Vienna lager, a perfect beer to bridge late summer and early autumn.
Vienna lagers are copper-colored beers, with a malty and slightly bready aroma and flavor, gentle hop bitterness, a medium body, and the crispness that lager yeast imparts—a very drinkable beer that can appeal to a variety of beer lovers.
The style dates back to the 1840s, when advances in kilning technologies from England allowed brewers to dry their malt and impart gentler, bready flavors than they previously could with direct-fired kilns, which produced deeper and sometimes smokey characteristics. Vienna lagers are closely related to Märzens (Oktoberfest), although that style is often a bit sweeter, with less hop character, a heavier body, and higher alcohol content. Because of the malts used, Vienna lagers will only have a slight grainy sweetness that is balanced well by spicy German hops and a crisp lager fermentation, not a caramelly sweetness that can overwhelm.
Two of our local breweries offer quite enjoyable versions of the Vienna lager, both being very similar, with subtle differences. Switchyard Brewing Company has recently added a Vienna lager to its core lineup, likely a permanent replacement to the red ale they previously offered. It pours a rich copper color with a light tan head, and the aroma is malty and clean with a slight yeasty smell that complements the bready character. The taste is also malty, with the most subtle hint of roasted malt— enough for depth but not a challenge to the style. There is a slight sweetness from the grain, but the crispness of the lager balances that out well. A gentle presence of German hops adds some bitterness toward the end, adding to that crispness. It’s very smooth drinking with a moderate body— enough to add character but still be light and refreshing at the end of summer.
The Tap has offered its Brickyard Vienna Lager since they opened, and I remember it being the first beer I had when visiting the new establishment. Its bright copper color is clear enough to read a menu through. The aroma is lightly malty and bready, characteristics that also lead the flavor. It has a bit more hop bitterness than Switchyard’s beer—not overwhelming, but challenging the malt a bit for a balanced flavor, with a very subtle spiciness from the Perle and Saaz hops.
My call? Both of these Vienna lagers are smooth and refreshing, appealing to a range of beer-lovers. The differences are subtle, but if you like a little more bitterness, go with the Brickyard. If you like a malty-bready character to lead the way, head over to Switchyard. Better yet, grab a few growlers to go and compare them with friends on your patio.