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A Truly International Beer Style

Aug 13, 2014 -- 1:49pm

Last week we celebrated IPA Day. A great day for hop-heads like myself! I had IPAs and Double IPAs, West Coast and East Coast style IPAs, White and Black and Rye IPAs, from breweries near and far. The flavors ranged from the expected pine and citrus to spicy, floral and even toasted. My palate was challenged again and again. And again. You get the picture.

After a day like that, you would have thought that I had enough beer. (Really? You would think that?) So the next day I stopped in at the Dragoon Brewing Company tasting room. They have one of my favorite local IPAs and a fantastic seasonal Double IPA (Sarcosuchus) which I was hoping they still had on the menu board. It was gone. Sold out. Looking on the board, I noticed they had a beer called Santiago. I thought, okay… a Vienna lager. Maybe a change in flavor would be good for me. Wow! I am so glad I tried this. Santiago has a light to medium body, a complex malt flavor of fresh bread crust, with just a hint of toast and nuttiness, and a barely perceptible noble hop finish. This was a perfectly balanced Vienna lager. Malt forward, but with no one flavor overshadowing the others. This beer was really outstanding and it wasn’t just because it was different than an IPA.

As I was drinking it, I thought about other Vienna lagers that are on the market which could not stand up to this one. Ever. Notably, the ones from the Mexican breweries you see around town. Now, I’ve ordered these at Mexican restaurants from time to time. But I always make it a point to say “no lime” or “lime on the side”. I understand the reason for putting lime in other Mexican beers, especially the ones in clear bottles. It covers up the smell of skunking or being “light struck”, which is considered an off-flavor in beer. Covering it up with a lime makes sense. I never understood why would anyone want to put a lime in a Vienna style lager? Just because it came from Mexico?

And how did German style beers become the staple of Mexico anyways? Answer: the same way it did here in the US. German immigrants and refrigeration (necessary for colder fermentation and aging). The story there is a little different because an Austrian-Hungarian monarchy was established in Mexico as part of the colonial extension of Europe. Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian I took the throne in Mexico, but he didn’t take it alone. He brought along his favorite brewers and of course, a large German immigrant population. This established Bavarian style beers as the staple of South America. Among the styles developed at the time and brought to Mexico was the Vienna lager. This style was inspired by the pale English ale styles of the day. The invention of the roasting drum in England allowed for better temperature control and the ability to produce malted barley in a variety of flavors. This opened up a possibility of flavors which ranged from slight breadiness, to varying degrees of caramel and toffee, to an even more bittered roast. The brewers in Vienna found this slightly roasted malt worked well for their beers (as it did in Munich for Octoberfest beers) because the chemistry between the water and the malt allowed them to produce light, easy drinking, flavorful beers.

So there I was, sitting in the Dragoon tasting room, enjoying a local American craft beer, a Vienna style lager, named in honor of a Mexican brewer, who brewed a German style beer, in Mexico, which was originally inspired by ales made by English brewers.

So, when is Austrio-Mexican-English-Inspired American Craft Vienna Lager day? Whenever it is, Dragoon’s Santiago better be on the board.

-John Gestautas, Keg Keeper
Certified Cicerone®
Master Brewers Association of America Beer Steward

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