While the Vienna Lager has practically disappeared from the planet, one country stands out as an exception: Mexico. To understand this phenomenon, one must delve into the history of European brewing, the Second Mexican Empire, and the grand ambitions of France, as well as the heroic power of nostalgia.
A History of Malt
With its amber or copper color and medium to light texture, the Vienna Lager is particularly easy to drink. Its aromas primarily reflect the malt, with slightly toasted notes that don’t fall within the caramel spectrum, and it may have a certain presence of noble, spicy, and floral hops.
The Vienna Lager is primarily characterized by its malt aroma and mild sweetness. The traditional recipe for Vienna Lager consists exclusively of Vienna malt, which gives it a caramel and bread taste. Modern Vienna Lager recipes likely include Munich malt, Pilsner malt, Vienna malt, dextrin malt, and possibly wheat. German noble hops are used, and the yeast is a lager yeast.
The color of Vienna Lager ranges from pale amber to medium amber with a reddish hue, and it has a thick off-white head with excellent retention. The ABV (alcohol by volume) of Vienna Lager falls between 4.5% and 5.5%, while the IBU (International Bitterness Units) ranges from 18 to 30. The best glass to serve this beer is a flute-shaped glass, and the ideal culinary pairings for Vienna Lager include grilled meats and vegetables such as sausages, spicy chicken wings, game meats, and fish and chips. According to the Brew Your Own guide, a good example of this style should be well attenuated with enough hop bitterness to achieve a balanced yet moderately crisp finish.
The history of Vienna Lager beer begins in 1841 when it was introduced to the market by Anton Dreher, the owner of the Schwechat brewery near Vienna. This was just one year before the advent of Pilsner, the first clear lager that gained popularity in Europe. The Vienna Lager, named after the city where it was created, introduced much of Europe to modern bottom-fermented beer before being surpassed by Pilsner. It’s worth noting that neither of these beers can be considered an invention per se. Instead, they represent a synthesis of English malting and German craftsmanship.
Thanks largely to Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayr, two prominent figures in modern brewing, who embarked on a research trip to England and brought back the knowledge of the time: pale English malt (which enhanced clarity) and saccharomyces yeast (which measured fermentable sugars). It was upon their return that the gears of innovation started turning, giving birth to the beers that would make history.
And now the emperor…
This a well-known story. Emperor Maximilian I, an Austrian noble brought to Mexico by the French, is said to have introduced Vienna Lager to Mexico so that he could enjoy his native beer in his new homeland. He supposedly ordered the construction of a brewery to produce Viennese beers. The brewery was built in Orizaba, Veracruz, and was known as “La Constancia.” This is how Vienna Lager quickly gained popularity throughout Mexico, explaining the current popularity of this beer style.
However, upon closer examination of history, this version doesn’t hold up. Maximilian’s reign did not last long enough for him to realize his brewery project. The poor Habsburg ruler was executed by the revolutionary forces of Benito Juarez three years after his arrival in Mexico. While the order to construct a brewery in Veracruz was likely given, there is no concrete evidence that beer was produced on a large scale, let alone enjoyed.
The “La Constancia” brewery was probably completed in 1865 and began producing beers for the Mexican elite, but it is doubtful that this beer was comparable to Vienna Lager or that it was widely popular. On the contrary, this European beer, seen as a symbol of foreign occupation, would likely have been shunned by the masses. The emperor, despite his liberal stance, had clumsily provoked the anger of revolutionary and monarchist forces in the country by supporting agrarian reform and the end of slavery.
The earliest traces of lager brewing in Mexico date back to 1880, which is 13 years after the death of Maximilian I. Furthermore, the mention of a Vienna Lager in Mexico in 1865 does not align with the adoption of refrigeration, which arrived in Mexico well after the tragic end of the emperor. Considering the high temperatures in Mexico, large-scale lager production would have been a truly monstrous challenge.
This is where we come to the main subject: the explosion of Vienna Lager in Mexico. Towards the end of the 19th century, Mexico experienced a period of unprecedented economic development and industrialization. Enormous brewing industries were already being established, all under the pervasive influence of American technology and finance. In this context, it’s not surprising that Victoria by Modelo, along with other Mexican Vienna Lagers, was presented to the middle class as the Mexican alternative to foreign beer.
The first beer in the Vienna style was likely Victoria, first produced by Compañía Cervecera Toluca in 1875. It wasn’t until 1882, with the advent of cooling technology, that it became one of the first Mexican lagers. Thus, the Victoria brewery, established in 1906, would become the main player in this Mexican classic.
Even back then, the brewery offered a range of well-known European styles, with a Mexican twist: Bock Bier Toluca, Märzen Bock, Lager Bier Toluca, Toluca Extra, Pilsner, and Victoria. Gradually, Vienna Lager established itself as a beer brand in Mexico, symbolizing authenticity, history, and luxury for the middle class.
In the 1970s, Michael Jackson, an international beer expert, declared Negra Modelo to be the proudest representation of the original Vienna Lager. Today, Grupo Modelo, which absorbed Tuloca, is owned by the global brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev.
For brewers inspired by this article, here’s a recipe you can try:
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