Beer and wine

The Complete (Chicago) Beer Course: Vienna Lager

With taprooms closed and festivals canceled, I’ve been looking for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I’ve therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years. Working through it involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details. I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.

Style: Vienna Lager

History Lesson: Austrian brewer Anton Dreher, owner of Schwechat Brewery, first concocted Vienna lager in the 19th century by experimenting with the pale malts popular in English ales. The style took off, both across the Austro-Hungarian Empire and throughout Europe. While the style’s popularity eventually waned on the Continent in the 20th century, Austrian expat Santiago Graf kept the flame alive in Austria, where he continued to brew Vienna Lager. The style is still brewed in Mexico today, going by names like Dos Equis Ambar.

Beer Judge Certification Program Description: “Characterized by soft, elegant maltiness that dries out in the finish to avoid becoming sweet.”

Fun Fact: The popularity of Vienna Lager in Mexico led some sources to classify Modelo Negra as one. Modelo’s website, however, maintains that it is, in fact, a Munich Dunkel.

I tried:

  1. Great Lakes Brewing Company: Eliot Ness Amber Lager
  2. Metropolitan Brewing: Dynamo Copper Lager
  3. Dovetail Vienna: Dovetail Vienna

Eliot Ness, a Midwestern beer named after an iconic Chicagoan, is both a Bernstein recommendation and a personal favorite. It’s also an Americanized version of the style—so much so, in fact, that the BJCP calls it out as “unusual in its 6.2% strength and 35 IBUs.” [Note: Great Lakes lists Eliot Ness as having 6.1% abv. and 27 IBUs].

Distinctiveness includes the inputs as well as outputs; Great Lakes doesn’t actually use Vienna malt in their Vienna lager (gasp!), and employs Mt. Hood hops, an American-grown proxy for German noble hops. All of this is to say that Eliot Ness is a wonderful, drinkable interpretation of Vienna lager, because of, and not in spite of, its infidelity.

I also tried two Chicago-brewed Vienna lagers, Dovetail Vienna and Metropolitan Dynamo Copper Lager. The two beers struck me as remarkably similar, with both being far more traditional takes on the style than was Eliot Ness. That focus on tradition wasn’t surprising, as both breweries are lager brewing obsessives, well-versed in traditional European brewing styles.

Both beers were lighter than Eliot Ness in color, body, and alcohol content—more of a true copper or amber, with a crisp, clean finish that followed a nicely balanced flavor profile. Metropolitan Dynamo struck me as leaning a bit more into malt and Dovetail Vienna a tad more toward hops, but I’d be splitting hairs by drawing too sharp a distinction between them. They’re balanced, easy-drinking lagers that would go great on a 60-degree day, whether it be along the Danube or the Des Plaines.

Next Up: Out of the blue copper and into the black with Schwarzbier.

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