Brewing is an ancient trade, but over the centuries it has reached such a pitch of sophistication that modern-day beers bear little resemblance to the produce of the brewing vats of old.
Brewing is basically applied biotechnology. It makes use of natural processes to transform natural raw materials into a natural beverage. Add to that generations of expertise and Austria’s stringent foodstuff regulations – on which many other countries have modeled their legislation – and you get a superbly pure and unspoilt glass of beer.
Here are the recognized types of beer in Austria:
One of Austria’s traditional brewing regions is the Mühlviertel, between the Danube and the Bohemian Forest, which produces a wealth of fine beers. This region includes Austria’s only monastery brewery in Schlägel Abbey, the country’s oldest brewery, the Gutsbrauhof in St. Martin, the long-established Municipal Braucommune in Freistadt, and countless castle breweries, palace breweries and other small breweries.
The very first ‘craft beer’ in Austria was most likely brewed in the year 1999 – that was when Peter Krammer from the Hofstetten Brewery produced his first pumpkin beer. And this was not to be his last successful experiment: there is an astonishingly wide variety of extraordinary beers on offer in this oldest brewery in the country – like for example, organic honey beer. The idea for this came from a friend of Peter’s who was a beekeeper – and it did not take Krammer long to answer, ‘You know honey very well, we know beer – let’s try it’! What shall we say: this one remains a bestseller today.
What are hot stones doing in the beer?
Granite stones are prepared by being heated to glowing on an open fire, then submerged in the beer to caramelise the sugar contained therein – this is quite a show! And since the art of brewing ultimately remains a process done by hand, the sugar content of the evolving beer is continually measured by manual means. The result: toasty caramel notes with aromas of bitter chocolate and wild strawberries – a heavenly pleasure. Granite Bock is, by the way, still brewed in the old brewhouse built in 1929 – with its original tiles and wrought-iron staircase, an experience in itself. The centrepiece here is the historic malt mill, which even after almost 100 years of service is not yet showing any signs of fatigue.
The Mühlviertel: soft water, mighty stone
It’s no accident that folks in the Mühlviertel have specialised with such concentration on brewing beer: here, granitic soils filter the water, making it particularly pure and soft – ideal for brewing. And then there are the top-quality hops: nowhere else in Austria are so many varieties cultivated, and in such volume. It's no wonder that this region of rolling hills, dense forests, and mighty granite formations has also produced two prizewinning beer sommeliers: Karl and Felix Schiffner, father and son (as well as being former world champions and current runners up in the world championship).
Karl Schiffner is considered a pioneer: in his ‘Biergasthaus’, one could for the very first time enjoy five-course menus with paired beer accompaniment – at a time in history when beer was otherwise merely regarded as a matter for the community table at the corner pub. Today the two sommeliers are the ‘living beer lists’ of the establishment, as Felix Schiffner says with a grin: they provide their guests with individual and professional advice, which is quite welcome, since there are some 150 types of beer available. The two enjoy a longstanding collaboration with the Hofstetten Brewery, which among other delights created the very popular ‘Champion Bitter’. Latest attraction: a beer cuvée, composed from four different and carefully selected special beers from three breweries; a global innovation, to be sure.
The enormous selection of beers – each brewery produces some forty different varieties – renders the process of selection particularly complicated. ‘And of course we have to find the correct proportions for the blend’, says Karl Schiffner, not without a hint of pride. Apparently it was a masterpiece: the first 22,000 bottles were sold out within only five days. One can look eagerly forward to the next brainstorm these artists in beer from the Mühlviertel come up with – there is no shortage here of imagination, expertise and inspiration.
Das Bierviertel – ‘The Beer Quarter’ – is what this association, made up of four members in Austria’s Mühlviertel region, calls itself.
Three of these members are breweries: the Brewing Commune in Freistadt, the Hofstetten Private Brewery, the Abbey Brewery Schlägl
The fourth member is Karl Schiffner, world champion beer sommelier and proprietor of Biergasthof Schiffner, a sophisticated brewpub. When three breweries and a gourmet create a beer cuvée together, it is a harbinger of longstanding and intensive collaboration between innovative and forward-thinking individuals on the Mühlviertel brewing scene.
“Folks often ask me how one manages to become a beer sommelier at this tender age. I always tell them: it’s not about the quantity of beer that one has had, but rather about how many different types.”Felix Schiffner, Beer sommelier
Felix Schiffner: (grins...) Folks often ask me how one manages to become a beer sommelier at this tender age. I always tell them: it’s not about the quantity of beer that one has had, but rather about how many different types. From the very beginning I got to know international varieties, because my father had imported beers from all over the world. So I always had a special kind of access. My first beer, by the way, was an India Pale Ale.
Felix Schiffner: Until quite recently I was working at the Stiegl home brewery in Salzburg; I had the opportunity there to develop beers that had not yet been brewed. Under normal circumstances, the brewing process takes eight hours, but in this case it was a full two days, because I did a great deal of experimentation. The „Gose“ – historically brewed in Leipzig – was traditionally brewed with coriander and salt. The hibiscus blossoms turned the beer pink. That became Stiegl’s house beer for the summer – for example, it went very well with fish, because it was so sleek and dry.
Felix Schiffner: When I am at home I mostly drink our ‘Champion Bitter’, which we brew together with the Hofstetten Brewery. We developed the formula together, and select the strains of hops together. This beer is intensely hopped, very powerful and bitter – it’s been very well received; in fact we are already up to the eleventh batch. But it really depends totally upon the situation. When it’s 30°C (86°F) in the shade in a beer garden, I would rather drink a lager. And with an aromatically assertive cheese platter, it would be a powerful Weizenbock – a wheat beer – a beer that can stand up to the cheese, like a barley wine. This was, incidentally, the beer that I had to present in the final round of the world championship. It is matured for twenty months in an oaken cask, one that has previously been used for aging Bourbon whiskey – the beer picks up the whiskey aromas in a very attractive way.
Felix Schiffner: We have a very pure and very soft water here in the region. That is particularly well suited to brewing beer. And our region is the largest producer of hops in Austria.
Felix Schiffner: One thing that’s quite important is to have a good tasting glass. Honestly, try lots of different beers. And don’t always stay in familiar territory with your own favorite breweries. And additionally: consult a professional and get advice. For example, when somebody is standing in front of the beer display at our establishment – and there are some 150 different varieties – well, he will definitely need professional advice. That’s why we also don’t have any conventional beer list – because we say to ourselves: there are two beer sommeliers here in the house – we are the living beer lists!