Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Austrian trappist and castle beers

Austria is one of those old world beer countries that has dropped below the radar in the craft beer crazed America and western Europe. While beer connoisseurs flock to the Czech Republic - hunting the source of pilsner, to Bamberg - exploring rauchbiers, or to Belgium - for everything else, what happens east of Bavaria seems hidden behind a modern day iron carpet. Thus, on a recent trip to Bavaria I took a day off to cross the border and visit Upper Austria (Oberösterreich) in search of good beer.

Hop trellis at Eggenberg Castle near Vorchdorf, Austria.

The beer culture in Austria is probably as old as the one in Germany, but less famous and these days more of a local scene. But Austria has set its mark on the world beer map, primarily through the lager that Anton Dreher developed at the Schwechater brewery in 1841. Now known as Vienna Style Lager, this copper colored type of lager has an elegant malt profile, often with a sweet touch and roasted notes. Reminiscent of the Märzen style from Bavaria, this beer combined English malting techniques with bottom-fermenting lager yeasts and became very popular in Europe in the mid 19th century. Today it's mainly brewed in Mexico.

For my day in Upper Austria I had picked out three very different places to visit. The first stop was in Engelhartszell on the Danube, just across the border from Bavaria, where the only Trappist abbey in Austria can be found. From there I drove to Vorchdorf, for a brewery tour at Schloss Eggenberg, before ending up in Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart and home to Augustinerbräu.

Stift Engelszell
Stift Engelszel is an old abbey in the village of Engelhartszell an der Donau which, as its name implies, is located on the banks of the Danube river - two kilometer downstream from the border with Bavaria and Germany.

The abbey church at Stift Engelszell in Austria.
The history of this abbey goes back to 1293 when Cistercian monks settled here. The brothers remained for half a millennium, until 1786 when the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, confiscated the property and expelled the brotherhood.

For the next 150 years the property was used as a factory and living quarters, but fell out of use after World War I. In 1925 the Trappist abbey in Oelenberg, Alsace, was forced to shut down and its monks to move. They found a welcoming home in Engelhartszell and settled at the old abbey, making it the first Trappist abbey in Austria.

Today, Stift Engelszell is a thriving Trappist abbey which makes a living by selling their own products. Until recently that consisted of a series of different liqueurs, but in 2011-12 the monks constructed a brewery at the abbey and on June 1st, 2012, Engelszeller Klosterbräu launched their first beer, Gregorius, described as a 9.7% abv dunkles trippel. My curiosity was piqued, would Engelszeller Klosterbräu become the first new member of the exclusive Trappistenbier family since Achel in 1998?

On the day of my visit, in mid September 2012, autumn was well under way in the Danube river valley but the sun was out and warming well. The 76 meter tall tower of the abbey church made the abbey easy to spot once I got to Engelhartszell. I had sent an email in advance asking about visiting the brewery, but it went unanswered and I found no signs pointing the way so I guess Stift Engelszell, like most other Trappist abbeys, prefer to keep their brewery operations away from the public attention.

Engelszeller Klosterbräu Gregorius
- with a taste of honey and nuts.
As far as I could tell there was no place near the abbey where I could sit down to enjoy their beer either, so I settled for the next best option and bought some bottles at the abbey for later tasting.

The entrance to the abbey shop was right next to the church and the shop is open on all weekdays, but not on Saturdays or Sundays. Inside the small shop you'll find religious effects for sale, such as booklets and small icon paintings, in addition to the many types of liqueurs they make. And now also beer, but so far only one type.

When I later tasted the Gregorius I was pleasantly surprised to find a smooth and well balanced dark beer not like any of the other Trappist beers. Instead I got a wonderful honey and nuts character, both in the aroma and the taste. It concealed its 9.7% abv really well and was fairly balanced overall, with a mild roasted character. A promising start for this new brewery.

When I visited Stift Engelszell their brewery had not yet received the approval to use the "Authentic Trappist Product" logo for their beers, so my bottles came without. But a month later, on October 15, 2012, the Trappist newsletter reported that Engelszeller Klosterbräu had been granted the right to use the ATP logo. It is now a fully fledged Trappist brewery, the first one in Austria and number 8 in the world.

Congratulations to Stift Engelszell and Austria!

Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg
Half a millennium ago Austria was famous for its many water castles, which were castles surrounded by natural water or man made moats for protection. This was a necessary precaution at a time when Europe was teeming with war and the Ottoman empire laid siege to Vienna.

One of those old water castles is Schloss Eggenberg, located near the modern town of Vorchdorf, just off the A1 motorway between Vienna and Salzburg. Though it's no longer surrounded by water it certainly is  connected with the wet element in a very important way, it uses large amounts of it for brewing beer!

Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg near Vorchdorf, Austria.

Apparently beer has been brewed at the Eggenberg castle since the 14th century but it wasn't until Michael Weismann bought the property from the Benedictine Kremsmünster abbey in 1680 that the beers became available to the general public. Weismann had a new brewery installed and in 1681 started brewing beer for public sale. Since 1803, the castle and its brewery have been in the capable hands of the Forstinger-Stöhr family.

Today the surrounding water is gone, replaced by lush, green fields and beautiful views of the distant Alps. And the old castle has become home to the modern Castle Brewery Eggenberg (Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg), perhaps the best known Austrian brewery.

The brewery's claim to fame is a strong beer that didn't originate there but in Switzerland. In the early 20th century, Swiss brewer Albert Hürlimann spent twenty years researching different yeast strains at his family brewery in Zürich. There he discovered a particular strain of lager yeast, now known as Hürlimann-yeast, which tolerated surprisingly high levels of alcohol. He used this strain to create several potent lagers at the Hürlimann brewery, before he passed away in 1934.

However, the strongest beer was yet to come. In 1979, the brewers at Hürlimann pushed the yeast to its limit creating the strongest beer the world had ever seen - a doppelbock at 14% alcohol by volume! It was brewed on Saint Nicholas Day (December 6), aged for ten months and given the name Samichlaus in honor of the saint. Samichlaus became an instant classic and was brewed every year until 1997, when the Hürlimann brewery closed. Schloss Eggenberg took over the recipe and the exceptional yeast strain from Hürlimann and has brewed this strong beer every December 6th since 2000.

On my visit in September 2012 I was given a tour of the castle brewery together with a group of Austrian pensioners. This didn't turn out so well, because the group was really loud, talking all the time, which made it difficult to hear the guide, Alfred, unless you were standing right next to him. Other than that it turned out to be a nice and very informative tour, where we got to see the insides of the old castle as well as the modern brewery.

Brew kettle #1 at Eggenberg Castle Brewery.
The brewhouse is the oldest part of the brewery, sporting two large 2-story brew kettles in shiny copper from 1967. Both kettles have a capacity of 280 hl, resulting in an annual production of around 60 million liter beer.

Because they make lager beer, which must be matured - some of it for months, Eggenberg has a number of large storage tanks, the largest are three 650 hl and six 1000 hl tanks! Those tanks are too large to fit inside the brewery, so they've been erected out in the back. In order to tolerate the Alpine climate they are insulated to tolerate temperatures in the -35 C to +35 C range!

The last stage of the brewery tour included a visit to the bottling plant at the back of the castle, which is a modern, fully automated plant. We were told that the brewery currently has 12 beers and a radler in their lineup:

- Hopfenköning (5.1% pilsener)
- Classic Märzen (4.9% märzen)
- Gold (5.3% helles lager)
- Naturtrüb (5.2% kellerbier - unfiltered lager)
- Sommerfrisch! (5% pale lager)
- Hopfenköning Medium (2.9% pilsener)
- Birell (0.35% low alcohol lager)
- Festbock (7.1% bock)
- Urbock 23° (9.6% doppelbock)
- Samichlaus Classic (14% doppelbock)
- Samichlaus Helles (14% helles bock)
- Nessie (4.9% vienna)
- Salzkammergut-Radler (2.5%, beer wixed with lemonade)

Some of these beers can be sampled at the Braugasthof Pesendorfer just across the road from the brewery, there you'll also be treated to some excellent local food in a cozy, rural setting.

The city of Salzburg is located about 80 km west of Vorchdorf, a 1-hour drive along the A1 highway, on the banks of the Salzach River. It's the 4th largest city in Austria and famous for being the birthplace of 18th-century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Old town Salzburg is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the largest medieval castles in Europe, Festung Hohensalzburg.

Old town Salzburg by the Salzach river.

In addition to music and history, Salzburg is also known for its beer scene. The city can boast of the largest beer garden in Austria and of a popular brewery in a former abbey: Augustinerbräu.

The history of Augustinerbräu dates back to the early 17th century when Archbishop of Salzburg, Wolf Dietrich, invited Augustinian monks from Bavaria to settle in Mülln on the northern slopes of the Mönchsberg hill in Salzburg. A monastery was built for the Augustinians between 1607 and 1614, and in 1621 the monks started brewing as well. Augustinerbräu was born.

When the Augustinians died out in Salzburg in the 19th century, Emperor Ferdinand the Kind handed over the monastery to the Benedictines from Michaelbeuern. Represented by Abbot Nicolaus Wagner, the Benedictines still own 50% of Augustinerbräu while Maria Gabriella Barth and Dr. Heinrich Dieter Kiener controls 25% each.

Augustinerbräu is often called Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln or just Klosterbrauerei Mülln to avoid confusion with the more famous Augustiner Bräu in Munich.

In connection with the brewery there is also the Augustiner Bräustübl, which opened up in 1890. With a working area of over 5,000 m² and an additional 1,500 seats in the shady biergarten outside, this is the largest beer tavern in Austria and a pleasant alternative to the more hectic biergartens of Munich. The Augustiner Bräustübl is a traditional self-catering tavern where you can buy food from a number of stalls in a Delicatessen arcade, offering a variety of hot and cold dishes, from grilled chicken, sausages or fish to cheese and ham plates.

Located in Augustinergasse 4 in Mülln, Augustiner Bräustübl is a 20 minute walk from the main train station in Salzburg, just across the river. If you're walking along the river you can cross the Müllner Steg bridge, if you're on the east side, and walk up the slopes of Mönchsberg hill where you should encounter the bräustüberl. Opening hours are 15:00-23:00 on weekdays and 14:30-23:00 during weekends and public holidays.

When I entered the unassuming front door I was immediately impressed by the grand interior with classical murals, chandeliers from the ceiling and marble staircases. It was like walking into a palace! But once you get into the food arcade or one of the many beer halls, the atmosphere lightens up.

Before you can order beer at Augustinerbräu, pick a stein mug.

It took me a few minutes to get my bearings straight and figure out how to order the beer, as there was no sign telling me. It turns out that at Augustiner Bräustübl, unless you order from a waiter at your table, you need to go to a special store where you select the stein mug you want, you can either go for a large 1-liter mug (known as a maß) or the small half-liter mug. You pay for the mug, which cost €6 for the big ones, and then take it to a special washing fountain where you rinse the mug before taking it to the beer filling station. There you hand over the receipt and your mug, which gets filled up with beer from a large wooden cask.

The beer of choice on cask, during my September visit, was the Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln Märzen, a 4.6% abv märzen style lager that is very popular during the Oktoberfest season in September and October. It's on the sweet side for a märzen, with a strong caramel character. Still, it made for a nice evening drink with a fairly light body and a mild bitter finish.

I took one beer out in the biergarten, just after the sun had set, but it was a bit chilly so I headed inside for the warmer atmosphere of the beer halls. Inside, Augustiner Bräustübl have several large beer halls with a total seating space for 1,400 guests, so there's usually vacant spaces to be found. But make sure you don't sit down at a stammtisch, usually found along the walls, as such tables are reserved for regulars. I almost made that mistake once and got some pretty angry looks from the regulars at a neighboring table.

Enjoying the cold and hot dishes from the Delicatessen arcade, while drinking fresh Augustinerbräu beer in a large stein mug, is a great way to end a day of exploration in Austria. I'd really like to come back in the summer though, to be able to sit outside under the shady chestnut tress. For now I'll cherish the memories of the warm and cozy atmosphere of the Stockhammer room.

The Stockhammer room at Augustinerbräu Bierstüberl.

More photos from my day in Austria can be found at Flickr.


  1. Your passion for beer is very admirable. You have really interesting experiences in your beer trips. I would love to take a tour of the places you went to as well. I especially like to see the bottling factories because I am amused by them.

    Rob Feckler

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Rob.

      I highly recommend visiting some of these places, both their long history and passion for brewing beer are amazing. As for bottling plants I can promise some juicy details and photos in a coming post about the Schneider Weisse brewery in Kelheim :)