In the last couple of years, the venerable Ottakringer in Vienna has released its Wiener Original. It is in our TBS (The Beer Store) at the moment, and about three months from packaging, new enough by international standards. (I don’t like to go longer though).
This is what Ottakringer says about the beer on the website:
FOLLOWING A 19TH CENTURY RECIPE.
Our master brewer’s latest creation makes beer lovers’ hearts leap for joy. This historic beer composition made from Viennese malt and melanoidin malt as well as fine Saaz hops captivates you with its eye-catching amber-coloured reflexes. Smell and taste reveal a fine nutty note turning into an elegant malt aroma. In its finish, Wiener Original leaves a distinct, yet smooth bitterness. This highly drinkable creation goes extremely well with traditional Viennese cuisine and is based on a recipe of the Ottakringer brewery dating back 100 years.
ABV: 5.3 %
Original gravity 12.0°
Like most Austrian, German, and practically all breweries anywhere, the house standard is a pilsener derivation, in this case a helles which is a big seller and hometown favourite. In other words, the preferred beer of Vienna today is not the Vienna style properly speaking, that is more a historical datum today.
I tried the helles on draft in Vienna a few years ago. I regret to say it didn’t appeal, it had a strong boiled veg note but then almost all the helles on that trip did whether Austrian or German. A lot of craft lager has it too. So that is neither here nor there.
When I saw the Wiener Original in the TBS, I was hoping for something better given the origins and fame of the Vienna style.
Viennese Anton Dreher was one of the great lager innovators of the 19th century. He is remembered for what became known as the Vienna style. His malt had a orangey or light reddish tint, and quite possibly was influenced by British pale malt; indeed the colour of the Vienna style and classic English pale ale can be similar. Vienna beer has been described as stressing a caramel richness and craft examples tend to show this.
It isn’t known whether Ottakringer, which started in the city in the 1830s, made the same kind of beer as Dreher. I would have to think it did, as Dreher was a competitor and in most markets, producers make similar styles. Anyway Ottakringer tells us on the packaging and on the website that its Wiener Original is a recreation from its archive, and I have no reason to argue with them.
Indeed the colour is a classic Vienna bronze. The palate too suggests a connection to Dreher’s innovative style. It is sweetish, natural-tasting, almost like a craft beer. Yet, the taste is fairly restrained. If you look at reviews on the rating site Beer Advocate, the average score is 6 or 7 out of 10, and Ratebeer’s results are similar.
Why is this, given the brewery has a long history in the very city associated with the famed Vienna style? Can we assume Dreher’s style was perhaps never that great to begin with? Not at all, and the reason I say that is, we have some evidence of the characteristics of Dreher’s beer. English analysts in 1869, writing in the Journal of the Society of Arts, told us the gravities of Dreher’s beer. It finished at 1019.76 and started at 1062.27. The alcohol content was stated as well, by volume it was 5.65%.
How does Ottakringer’s compare? Converting from the Balling scale, the website states 1048 as the original gravity. The alcohol is 5.3% abv. That means the final gravity must be 1007.
Can you see where I’m going? The alcohol content of both is for all practical purposes the same but the gravities of Ottakringer’s version are much lower. A 1007 finishing produces the restrained taste. It’s not the hops, the hop taste in the beer is quite pronounced and satisfactory, but the beer “should” be much sweeter. In fact, the Journal’s writers stated Dreher’s beer was sweeter than English beer. English beer then, the standard mild ale certainly, was not known for dryness and even pale ale, which was drier than mild ale, would have averaged higher than 1007 FG.
Why didn’t Ottakringer make a beer finishing much closer to what was reported in 1869, not just for Dreher’s beer, but a second Vienna beer whose characteristics were almost the same as Dreher’s?
I don’t know. I’d think Ottakringer must know how Vienna beer was brewed in the 1800s, but perhaps, rather than produce that, it made something people today would find acceptably dry (given the profile of most mainstream beer). The brewery may have felt, that is, that people would reject a beer anywhere near 1020 FG as much too rich. Of course, one can’t rule out Ottakringer’s original Vienna beer really did have a dry palate, but I incline against.
Assuming Ottakringer’s historical Vienna beer finished in the same neighbourhood as Dreher’s, I’d have made a beer finishing at 1014, splitting the difference so to speak.
The Wiener Original is still good, indeed it’s more beer-like and natural-tasting than most German and Austrian imports we get, but still I feel an opportunity was missed.
Note re image: The image above is from Ottakringer’s website, here. All trade marks and other intellectual property therein belong to their owner or authorized licensees. Image is believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.