What is Vienna lager?

A close-up of a lighter beer in a pilsner-type glass.

Here’s what you need to know about Vienna lager, a beer that’s full-flavoured but refreshing and pairs with everything from burgers to desserts

Let’s raise a glass to some of the gifts of Vienna, the city that gave the world unforgettable classical music and Vienna-style lager — one of the world’s greatest and most-versatile beers.

Vienna lager (and the red and amber lagers inspired by it) may not be as well-known as pilsner and other pale lagers, but it still deserves to have a spot in your beer collection.

And there’s no better place to acquaint yourself with this malty, bready beer than at the dinner table, where it will go with everything from schnitzel and strudel to burgers and fries.

What does Vienna lager taste like?

Vienna lager is a well-rounded, flavourful lager style that sits right in the middle of the beer flavour spectrum: not light and crisp, like a light lager, but not heavy and dessert-like, either.

Thanks to a recipe based around a malt called — can you guess? — Vienna malt, Vienna lager often has sweet toffee, nutty and lightly toasted bread flavours. It’s more refreshing than it sounds, trust us.

And it’s only moderately bitter — much less than, say, a pilsner.

What colour is Vienna lager?

Vienna lagers range from golden to copper/reddish amber in colour, depending on the mix of malts that the brewer chooses to use in the recipe.

What is Vienna lager? A short history

Believe it or not, the story of Vienna lager really started in England.

By the 1830s, English brewers had developed techniques to malt barley over hot air, instead of direct heat, which gave them more control over colour and flavour. This was crucial to the popularization of pale ales, incidentally.

An Austrian named Anton Dreher travelled to England in 1833 and got a job at a brewery, so he could learn this shiny and new malting technique. (Some might call it industrial espionage!)

Back in Vienna, around 1841, Dreher introduced a new amber-to-reddish coloured and malty style of lager. And with its caramel aromas, medium body and moderate hop bitterness, this new Vienna lager was — surprise, surprise — a little reminiscent of British pale ale.

Do Vienna lagers have to come from Vienna (or Austria)?

Absolutely not! “Vienna” lagers can be brewed anywhere. In fact, lots of Vienna lagers come from North America, and the label sometimes just says “red lager” or “amber lager.”

Mexican and Mexican-style amber and red lagers are usually made in the Vienna fashion, even if they don’t call themselves “Vienna lager” on the label. According to beer history lore, this is because an Austrian archduke became Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in the 1860s, and the style tagged along with him.

How do you pour and serve Vienna lager?

Experts recommend pouring mid-bodied lagers like Vienna lagers at between 7 C and 10 C (45 F and 50 F). That’s very cool, verging on cold. By not pouring the beer ice cold, you can appreciate its complexity and maltiness.

As with all beers from the German-speaking world, you can pour it somewhat aggressively to make a nice layer of foam on top. Something like 1.5 inches of head (almost 4 centimetres) is very acceptable.

As for the glassware, go with a flared or footed pilsner glass, if available.

Vienna lager: Sub-styles and close relatives

Märzen is a similar lager style from Bavaria that you’ll very occasionally spot. And it’s no big surprise that they’re similar, because the brewers who invented them were close pals.

In a general way, red and amber lagers often share the maltiness of Vienna lager, especially if they’re Mexican or “Mexican-style.”

And, in a pinch, dark lagers — sometimes called by their German name “dunkel” — are similar (but darker) and often even sweeter than Vienna lagers.

What do you eat with Vienna lager?

Once again, Vienna lagers are some of the most-flexible beers when it comes to pairing with food.

For a start, their robust breadiness syncs up nicely with delicious carbs in the schnitzels and tortillas of its twin homelands of Austria and Mexico.

The bread-like flavours of Vienna-style lagers also complement the sensation of flavour found in meaty, cheesy and tomatoey dishes. Try it as the lager in this Southwestern Beef & Lager Chili recipe and pair it with hearty pizzas and pastas.

It’s also a smart bet for a barbecue, because it pairs well with burgers, dogs and sausages (caramel aromas plus char equals yum), as well as the tangy sauces we slather on them. Use Vienna lager to make this spicy barbecue sauce.

And, for your final course, the caramel-flavoured malt of Vienna lager harmonizes well with sweets, too. Try it with all kinds of doughy desserts — it goes well with a regular, old-fashioned doughnut!

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