The popularity of even classic beer styles ebb and flow. Take the recent resurgence of Mexican lagers. It may sound like I’m simply talking about lager from Mexico, but Mexican lager is its own distinct beer style. And traditionally — and technically — it’s a Vienna lager.
Why a beer style that’s popular in Mexico would have an Austrian name may seem odd. So let’s rewind a bit to the 19th century, and add Napoleon III and an invading French army to the mix. After years of battle, the French took over Mexico City and installed an emperor — Maximilian I of the Austrian House of Hapsburg — in 1864 for what would be a very short empire indeed. He was toppled in 1867. But during that brief time, brewers from Austria, Germany and Switzerland emigrated to Mexico and set up breweries there. And even though Maximilian was executed, the brewers stayed and prospered.
One of the beers the European brewers brought with them proved ideal for the Mexican climate: Vienna lager, a beer created by Austrian brewer Anton Dreher in 1841. Classic examples use local Vienna malt for rich toasty notes, but exhibit no roasted or acrid flavors, yielding instead dry, crisp flavor profiles.
These lagers are almost always pale to medium amber in color, and often exhibit redder tones. With quiet complexity and medium strength and intensity, they’re a great beer for everyday drinking. Vienna lager is often described as soft or elegant and some have caramel sweetness. Hops are generally muted, although — as you might expect — some American examples tend to be more bitter. And the beer’s distinctive flavors come from a three-step decoction brewing process and the use of Munich, Pilsner, Vienna and dextrin malts including, occasionally, wheat.
Vienna Lager resembles Oktoberfest beers, or Märzens, in flavor, but the lager is lighter bodied, with slightly less malt character and more bitterness — and more drinkability.
The first successful modern brewer in Mexico was Santiago Graf, a Swiss brewer who created his own take on Vienna Lager in 1875. The “Graf” style became the model for Mexican lager and it lives on today; it became “Victoria Lager” after Grupo Modelo bought Graf’s brewery in 1935. The most well-known Mexican example today is undoubtedly Dos Equis Amber, but there are others.
You may already be drinking Vienna lagers, without realizing it. Samuel Adams Boston Lager, for example, is a Vienna-style lager, as is Brooklyn Lager, which recently became available in the Bay Area. And Anchor Brewing collaborated with the San Francisco Giants on a limited edition Los Gigantes Mexican-style lager a few years ago. (I keep hoping they revive it.)
But here are a few of my favorite Vienna lagers you should be able to find in Northern California:
21st Amendment El Sully: This is a great beer to enjoy during outdoor activities. Named for brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan, it’s brewed with a strain of yeast from Mexico and uses the signature Vienna malt, along with some flaked maize, which is also common in beers brewed in Mexico. It’s just a touch sweet and at 4.8 percent alcohol by volume, smooth and easy drinking.
North Coast Laguna Baja: Inspired by the grey whale migrations between the Mendocino coast and Baja, Mexico, Laguna Baja is a traditional Vienna lager with toasty malt, brown sugar, toffee and molasses flavors and a small floral hop bite. It’s a very refreshing beer.
AleSmith Sublime Mexican Lager: San Diego’s AleSmith collaborated with the members of the reggae-ska-punk band Sublime to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the debut album, “40oz. to Freedom.” The result is Sublime Mexican Lager. Slightly lighter in color than most, this lager has spot-on flavors with a nice complexity of toasty malt sweetness, light corn and honey notes, and light spicing with herbal and grass hop character simmering underneath.
Oskar Blues Brewery Beerito Mexican Lager:Slightly darker than most Mexican lagers, Beerito uses an heirloom variety of Vienna malt along with a dark Munich malt that gives it its darker hues and big, rich toasted malt flavors. Noble hops provide some light spiciness that combined with the malt gives it a depth that belies its modest 4-percent ABV.
Fort Point Westfalia: Although this beer was inspired by a trip to Germany and the brewers refer to it as a Nuremburg-inspired red ale, in terms of taste, it neatly hits many of the same notes as a Vienna lager. It’s essentially a Rotbier — or red beer — an obscure local style in Bavaria’s East Franconia region. It tastes like a Vienna