A single word pretty much sums up the relationship between Germans and Austrians from an Austrian perspective: “Cordoba”. It means almost nothing to most Germans these days, but Austrians seem to be weaned on the story: “In , we showed the Germans!” Yes, that’s right. Back in Austria’s national soccer team beat Germany 3:2 in a FIFA World Cup match in Spain and thus became immortalised in Austria’s collective consciousness.
The perceived David-and-Goliath rivalry didn’t start there, but the legendary win did give it a name. As a German, I must say I always have the impression that the Austrians take the rivalry much more seriously than their “favourite neighbours to the north” (as we Germans like to think of ourselves).
It was into this tense scenario that my career took me. And, as I realised a couple of years later, it was very lucky for me that it did because this is where I began my “career” in beer.
Coming from Frankfurt, I wasn’t exactly spoiled when it came to beer. Deciding between a Binding Römer pilsner and a Henninger Kaiser pilsner was sort of like deciding whether to visit the dentist or the urologist – not a lot of fun either way. But in Vienna, you could find some very enjoyable beers from the provinces.
I soon found a colleague who shared a deeper interest in beer. Slowly but surely, I got to know the Austrian beer scene – and was there ever a lot to discover. There were small breweries making really wild beers. There weren’t many of those around Frankfurt back in . Somehow these Austrians were pretty cool.
Long story short, at some point I became socially accepted. I was still “the German” but I was a German you could be seen with. My circle of friends grew and so did the number of potential beer buddies. I kept discovering new beers from creative breweries that were completely outside my “box”. A couple of years later, the guys brewing these beers – Gerhard Forstner and Reini Barta – would essentially become the pioneers of the Austrian craft beer movement.
I expanded and deepened my exploration of Austrian beersand eventually started taking notes: what I drank, where it came from, who was brewing there, and most important, how it tasted.
At the same time, I started looking for a book on Austrian brews. There seemed to be a beer guidebook for every country, introducing classics and creative microbrews alike. But I didn’t find anything on Austria.
Many a tipsy night later, I decided to write my own guidebook – be it on beer or the more classic schnapps.
I soon had a pretty good idea of what my book would look like. I wanted to cover about to beers. The only feedback I got on my plan at that time was “You’ll never manage it.” But I wanted to create a reasonably representative sample of the Austrian beer scene. Figuring there were beers, I naively assumed that % would be a good starting point.
I started looking up addresses of breweries so that I could ask about samples. By now, it was clear to me that organising all of these beers was going to be a complex and tedious process and I was going to have to buy most of the beers from the breweries directly, on site.
On the upside, breweries and brewers were responding very favourably to my plan. I presented it at brewery tours, beer presentations, and beer festivals. It seemed that a lot of brewers were very pleased to see someone from the consumer end finally doing a project like mine. I got more and more support with each passing day.
Even when I had a clear list of “my beers”, I was always excited to stumble upon new beers I had never even known existed. Like the time I visited Sepp Zotter’s chocolate factory: I couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered chocolate beer in their restaurant. The boss himself happened to be there and invited me to sample his house beer.
My research also revealed to me that many people were rediscovering the craft of brewing beer. The burgeoning craft beer scene in Austria offered me a wealth of new taste sensations and beer “personalities” for my book.
At some point I realised that the list of beers for my book had long since outgrown the original target of . So I set a new – suddenly very realistic – goal of . But even this target only held for a few weeks. Before I knew it, I had logged, photographed, and sampled over beers. But there were still more beers that I had always wanted to try. In the end, I tasted, described, and catalogued beers. My book “proBIER!” was finished! (The German title, by the way, can be read two ways: “Try it!” and, basically, “in favour of beer”). The book is available from both brick-and-mortar and online booksellers.
With the book’s release came the inevitable question: “What now?” I didn’t want to stop drinking or writing about beer. Another long story made short: I launched a blog atproBIER.at, where I continue to write regularly about Austrian brews. I write the blog like I wrote the book: casual, unbeholden, shooting from the hip. And I’ve obviously hit on an underserved market. The blog is extremely popular.
In all this time, I have gotten to know Austria as a country of beer, in which buying locally is a lot more historically engrained than it is in Germany. By virtue of its geography, the Alpine Republic has always had strong local producers. In Austria, beer needs a “home” just like everything else. The country only has one large-scale industrial producer with products on the market nationwide: BrauUnion, which is part of the Heineken Group. Austria’s beer market never really underwent a massive, brutal consolidation process with big breweries swallowing up the small ones. As I see it, the big national brewery groups in Germany did a pretty thorough job of that many years ago.
In addition, Austrian brewers aren’t hampered in their creativity by things like Germany’s beer purity law – though many Austrians are surprised to hear that the law never applied in Austria. On the contrary, a recent revision of the “Codex Alimentarius” actually explicitly addresses the topic of “creative beers”. And the law says anything goes. As a result, Austria is spared the advances of lobbyists from German brewers’ federations on this topic.
So, it’s hardly surprising that there are always new small-scale breweries popping up here, with hobby homebrewers evolving into microbreweries and coming out with lots of new, mostly good beers. National beer festivals, where brewers present their wares to Austrian and international visitors, offer frequent opportunities to sample the whole wide range of Austrian beers. Even big supermarket chains have recognised the trend toward craft beer and started carrying products from smaller and mid-sized breweries.
And so, I remain the German who loves to write about exciting beer news from Austria.