Beer Styles Defined

Part Four: Vienna By Way of Mexico City By Way of Healdsburg

It’s been awhile since I posted a new beer style for you folks. The delay is due to the fact that while there’s almost always something interesting and delicious on tap, it’s rarely a beer style outside the familiar categories (IPA, stout, porter, amber, pilsner, hefeweizen) or it’s just a variation of a known style, or it is a quirky weird obscure style that no one’s ever heard of before, but it, well, kinda isn’t worth writing about, either because it’s not very good or because it strays so far from the original style of the beer that it isn’t authentic.

That was the case with our last Vienna-style lager, the “Imperial Vienna” from Walking Man called Sasquatch Legacy. While it was a solid beer, it was hopped so aggressively that you could barely taste the Vienna qualities of the lager; it tasted like an IPA to me, if an IPA were a lager, that is. For the record, Geoff said I was crazy.

Luckily, right after the Sasquatch blew, we put on the El Oso from Bear Republic. Now, this, I reasoned, must be a Vienna lager. Smooth and clean, yet very complex in the malt character with a toasted honey kind of taste and a subtle hop backbone. Granted, I have not had many Vienna lagers in my time, but this beer had all the hallmarks of a solid European lager with great drinkability and a complexity to its sweetness that American brewers (including craft brewers) all too often can’t replicate. For a brewery known for such big hopped beers (Racer 5, Hop Rod Rye, and Red Rocket, to name a few), Bear Republic is the surprising exception. The El Oso is a terrific session beer and perfect for anyone who wants something richer than a Pilsner, but nothing as “crazy” as an amber or pale ale. It straddles a part of the fence that we beer drinkers don’t usually see, between what is too light (flavor-wise) and what can be too heavy if you’re not in the mood for hops and ale fruitiness.

Although the Vienna style lager should be copper or red hued, the El Oso (which means The Bear in Spanish) is actually golden. That sentence should have given you pause for two reasons. Vienna, right? Austria. First of all, why the hell is Bear Republic using a Spanish name for an Austrian style… and second, how could an otherwise authentic tasting Vienna lager be a different color?

As it turns out, the color of this beer style is mostly unrelated to its flavors; slightly darker malts were traditionally added to give the lager its distinctive color, but in such an amount that they wouldn’t interfere with the primary tastes (derived from the Vienna malts, of course). And the name is Spanish because Bear Republic is doing the Mexican version of an Austrian Vienna Lager. Let me explain: apparently, the Vienna style has mostly faded from its home country and is far more popular in Mexico, where a group of Austrian brewers emigrated in the 1800s to revitalize it. (Meanwhile, a very similar style of beer from their Bavarian neighbors/rivals is still very popular in Europe: the Oktoberfest beer.)

Traditionally, the Vienna lager style matches up pretty well with Bear Republic’s version, although if we’re to compare it to the Mexican Vienna lager category, I’d have to say that BR’s version doesn’t have much in common with Dos Equis (which is probably the best known version) or Negra Modelo. In my mind, that’s a good thing. Other Vienna style lagers are few and far between in this country (and especially on this side of it), and chances are, you probably haven’t heard of them. But if you find yourself on the East Coast, look out for Eliot Ness from Great Lakes, Sam Adams’ Vienna style, or the Aviator Amber Lager from Old Dominion. And don’t miss out on Bear Republic’s El Oso while we’ve got it on tap.

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