Austrian Culture: Austrian Beer & Wine

Robert Easton

Vienna beer and wine bar.Although the stereotype may be that Austrians are all beer guzzlers, and it's true that there are a lot of excellent Austrian beers, Austria also has an active café culture, and produces many good quality wines.

Austria has about 5000 vineyards covering 141,000 acres, including some within the city limits of Vienna itself. The dominant white grape in Austria is Green Veltliner (responsible for more than a third of output), which produces tart, fruity wine.

It is only just gaining recognition outside Austria, partly because the best vintages are so enthusiastically snapped up by the internal market. Austrian wines made with this grape outperformed renowned Cardinals in recent blind tasting sessions.

Blauer Zweigelt is the most widely cultivated red, covering around 9% of area all over the country.

In 1985 the Austrian wine industry was rocked by scandal as it emerged that several wineries had been adding diethylene glycol - a chemical most commonly found in antifreeze - to their wines. All the vintners implicated eventually went bankrupt, and the government introduced stringent new rules regulating quality.

Focus was moved from high output, industrial production to quality, and pundits suggest that this may have helped Austria's recent resurgence on the international scene.

Austrian Beer, Gasthaus, Goldenes Dachl, Innsbruck, Austria.

A good place to try Austrian wines in a traditional atmosphere is a Heuriger. These little establishments have erratic opening hours, but locals will know how to find one. They often signal that they are open for business by hanging fur branches over the door.

There is often live music, typically a guitar and accordion band. They sing cheerful or tongue-in-cheek sing-along-songs about all of life's great questions - love, death, God and of course, most important of all, wine, drinking, drunkenness and even hangovers. A place called Mostheuriger serves apple and pear cider.

The most common type of Austrian beer is called Märzen, which is a kind of lager, similar to Bavarian Helles. Some would have you believe that this kind of beer owes its origins to a certain Anton Dreher who toured Europe in the 1800s in search of beer knowledge, equipped with a handy hollow walking stick for hiding samples in.

Dreher was one of the first in central Europe to begin brewing pale beers, but his were never widely accepted. It was the beer of Josef Sedlmayr which gained poularity, and from this beer that the name Märzen, 'March beer' springs - so called because it was brewed in March for consumption in September.

The next most common kind of beer is Weissbier - beer made with wheat as well as the usual barley malt. Weissbiers are sharper in taste and are considered more refreshing, with a typical alcohol content of around 5%.

Common brands include Stiegl and Gosser, both of which produce, both a Märzen and a Weissebier. Each region of the country has its own local beers.

Beer is served in 0.2 litre (a Pfiff), 0.3 litre (a Seidel) or 0.5 litre (Krogerl or großes Bier) glasses. At festivals you can find one litre or even two litre glasses.

Austria also has a claim on being the home of the strongest lager-beer in the world. Samichlaus Bier (Santa Claus Beer) is brewed on just one day of the year, December 6th, aged for 10 months before bottling, and weighs in at an impressive 14% ABV - about three times as strong as an average premium lager.

If you're unfortunate enough to suffer from any skin problems whilst you're in Austria, or if you just fancy an experience out of the ordinary, then check out the Beer Myth Resort around Starkenberger Castle.

The management filled seven pools with beer, using about 42,000 pints. Anyone who likes can jump in for a swim, and they will probably understand if you decide not to drink.

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