I have a story about new restaurants in Vienna in this weekend’s NYT. This is another Choice Tables feature, not a beer story, but I had to include the very good Rotes Zwickl from Ottakringer, which I liked a lot as the house beer at the excellent restaurant Österreicher im MAK (whose taps are pictured above). In the story, I wrote that this is one of the few beers in Vienna to come close to the nearly extinct Vienna lager style. Before any BJCP-style-guidelines-citing readers comment that a red Zwickl isn’t anything like Vienna lager, I’ll quickly link to Conrad Seidl’s piece on a real Vienna lager from Brauerei Villach, in which he writes (my translation):

“…but in Vienna, the local beer style was no more. Of Austrian beers, Hadmar (Bierwerkstatt Weitra) and the Rotes Zwickl from Ottakringer came the closest.”

What is interesting about the Vienna lager style is that, after it died out at home, related beers continued to exist in a couple of places: Mexico, for one, and in the Czech lands. (As Ron Pattinson wrote, “Vienna lagers aren’t dead: they’ve just moved over the border.”) In fact, this is one of the four current Czech beer trends I mentioned in The Truth about Budvar and in a post on Prague’s newest brewpub, Bašta.

Nope, those beers aren’t dead. They’re absolutely thriving here.

However, just as Hans and Franz go by Honza and František hereabouts, Vienna lager seems to change its name once it crosses the border: instead of Wiener Lager or even vídeňský ležák, our versions are called jantar (amber), polotmavý (half-dark) or granát (garnet). Often brewed from 11°–14° or higher, they are clear, light amber to deep amber in color, characterized by a fairly rich body with toasty malt, caramel, toffee and even syrupy notes followed by a lasting sweet finish without much hoppiness, unlike the bitter bite of a real Czech Pilsner-style beer.

Ottakringer’s Rotes Zwickl seemed a bit lighter in color than its Czech cousins, and the unfiltered Zwickl cloudiness made it stand out. But other than a slight yeastiness, the overall flavor was fairly similar, perhaps finishing with a bit less malt, though still pretty good.

Beyond Rotes Zwickl, I enjoyed Vienna immensely: the people were surprisingly friendly for a big city, the vast art collections can practically cause hallucinations (the good kind), and Viennese cuisine is like the best meal cooked by the Czech grandmother you never had. (Much like Franz and František, the Beuscherl from the story can be found as Pajšl in the Czech lands.) I was highly impressed by the restaurants in the article, all of which seemed to be run by people who care deeply about food and where it comes from.

Of course, Vienna is historically more into wine and coffee than beer, and the fine-dining angle on this story meant I wouldn’t get to spend too much time in the pub. Nonetheless, I did find some very good half-liters at Universitätsbräu, also known as Unibräu, a brewpub on the university campus with a refreshing (and pale, in the typical Austrian style) Märzen. And one rainy night when we were off restaurant duty, Nina and I visited Sieben-Stern-Bräu, which makes a properly smoky Bamberger Rauchbier (as well as a pretty decent plate of chili con carne, at least by Central European standards — you’re supposed to cook the beans, people). Seven Stars also serve an amber Märzen that they say is akin to a Vienna lager, though what I found most interesting was the dark beer they called Prager Dunkles, in homage to what was once Prague’s favorite pivo.

Nowadays, of course, many pubs and restaurants in Prague serve only Pilsner-style brews, with rich dark lagers often quite hard to find outside of brewpubs. In fact, Prague-style dark beer makes a weird parallel to Vienna lager: a beer that was once closely associated with the Czech capital has now largely disappeared.

But that’s a different story. As for Vienna lager and Czech amber and half-dark beers, I’ll have more to write soon. In the meantime, don’t miss Österreicher im MAK on your next trip to Vienna — and don’t skip the Beuscherl.