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Friday, September 08, 2006

¡Viva Vienna!

Like wine, many classic beer styles - especially those from Europe - are named after the area where they were first produced. Pilsner was born in Pilsen, Czech Republic; Kölsch in Köln, Germany; Dortmunder in Dortmund, Germany; and Vienna Lager in... well, that one should be pretty obvious.

But unlike the others, Vienna Lager had a pretty short history of being brewed in its hometown. It was first brewed sometime around 1840 by Viennese brewmaster Anton Dreher, who found that the city's soft water allowed him to use lighter malts in his beer, lending it a mellow amber colour that was unique for the time. His methods and recipes ending up being borrowed and refined by brewers in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), leading to the creation of Pilsner, which in turn led to the creation of pretty much every pale lager beer in existence today.

Despite the popularity of the beers that the style spawned, the original Vienna style dwindled in popularity by the late 19th century, and probably would've died off completely were it not for its revival at the hands of a group of Austrians who had emigrated to Mexico. Even today, the most popular examples of the style - Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo - are Mexican, and while more and more North American microbreweries are crafting their own versions of this crisp and malty lager (including Ontario's Ste. Andre), it's rare to find a Vienna that is actually brewed in Vienna - or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter.

I recently met up with a fellow RateBeerian who had a weekend stopover in Toronto on his way from Mexico to Scotland where he goes to school, and he was kind enough to bring me a couple of beers from his home country that happened to be Viennas: Noche Buena from the large national brewery Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma/FEMSA (also the producer of Sol and Tecate), and Santa Fé from the Beer Factory brewpub chain. I thought it would be interesting to sample them alongside the aforementioned Dos Equis Amber (Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma/FEMSA) and Negra Modelo (Grupo Modelo), so I brought them all along to a tasting with my usual crew the other night, and here's what we thought...

Dos Equis Amber
This one is almost as ubiquitous as Corona and Sol at most Mexican restaurants, so we all knew what to expect. It has a light caramel-amber colour with a small white head. The aroma holds sugary malt with some stale vegetal and cardboard notes - not very appealing. The body is watery, and the flavour is mild, tasting mainly of light caramel & sugar. Bland and inoffensive, just like a mass produced beer should be.

Negra Modelo
This beer is new to Ontario, but I first tried it when visiting San Diego last fall. It pours a dark, clear ruby-brown colour with a small tan head. The aroma is a bit stale, but still nice, with inviting malt and cocoa notes. The flavour is quite sweet, but also a bit roasty, with more hints of cocoa and a bit of caramel. Thin body, but it's otherwise more enjoyable than I expected, and certainly a step up from Dos Equis.

Noche Buena
This is a Christmas beer from the same mega-brewer that produces Dos Equis. It has a higher alcohol percentage than its more mainstream cousin (6% vs. 4.7%), and a slightly darker colour as well. The aroma has the expected sweet malt notes, along with an interesting herbal edge. The flavour starts quite sweet as well, but has a quickly appearing herbal bitterness, followed by a very short finish. Not bad, but the finish in particular is disappointing.

Santa Fé
Mexico is a country that is not exactly known as having much of a micro/craft beer culture, but the Beer Factory brewpub chain is one of a few brewers who seem to be trying to change that. Based on their take on the Vienna style, it appears that they're at least doing a better job at making beer than Mexico's big two. Santa Fé has a clear, dark amber colour with a small off-white head. The aroma isn't as sweet as the macros, but still has good hints of caramel and malt, with a faint smokiness as well. The flavour is very clean and fresh, with some bready malt and herbal hops. Simple, but enjoyable, and the unanimous favourite of the quartet.

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