Plenty brewing in Vienna’s maze
It’s a wintry Friday night on Vienna’s mist-shrouded Karntner Strasse. Streetlamps barely illuminate the baroque façades as toque-topped locals rush past, dissolving down narrow alleyways en route to their rendezvous. It’s only my second day here, but I can tell there’s more to the Austrian capital than waltzes and coffee houses – especially if you follow the Viennese to their favourite watering holes.
Beisls are the local equivalent of neighbourhood bars; fancy-free, chat-warmed taverns dedicated to fortifying beer and heaping, stomach-lagging pub grub. But rather than nosing into any old inn, I’ve chosen an important subsection for tonight’s boozy weave: brewpubs in or near the central Innere Stadt area.
First stop: 7 Stern Brau in the cobbled Spittelberg quarter. Ducking through its unassuming arched entrance, I find an inviting warren of rooms crammed with little wooden tables. Animated conservations ring from candlelit corners as I slide onto a stool at the bar. It encloses an altar of shiny copper brewing equipment that draws the eye like a TV screen on footie night.
The counter is the best place to sit, since my friendly server – correcting my useless German with perfect English – offers the lowdown on what’s available. There are always seven beers, she tells me: six regular brews and one seasonal. They’re made on site and are only available here – unless I fancy lugging a five-litre party cask back to my hotel.
Intrigued by the idea, I decide to stick around. Hanf (hemp lager) is her favourite, closely followed by a spicy chili beer, but I opt for the seasonal Bamberger Winterbock. Unfiltered, it’s a mild and fruity pale ale with a frothy, IPA-style head – and it packs a hearty 6.3 percent punch.
Glancing at the entrance, I see thickly-wrapped new arrivals shaking off the winter chill, inspiring me to slow my departure with an extra one for the road. A velvety, near-black lager with a malty finish, Prager Dunkels has a subtle but not overly sweet caramel undertone. And it makes the takeout cask idea seem quite tempting.
Back outside – sans cask – I plunge into the Spittelberg’s labyrinth of lanes, snaking between ghostly, shutter-studded 19th-century townhouses. Slightly lost, I follow a rising hum of beery conservation and suddenly round a corner into a gaggle of brawny lads. Supping outside the Plutzer Brau tavern, some are wearing wooly Rapid Wien soccer club hats.
Tripping past into the bar – spectacles instantly steaming up in the heat – I find a raucous but entirely welcoming beer hall ambiance, with bellowing blokes chugging beer and competing to out-laugh each other. There’s also a strangely nostalgic aroma. Smoking is still allowed in Vienna bars and this one has a dedicated corner for nicotine-craving miscreants. Except they’re not treated as miscreants: the smoking area is part of the main room and no-one seems to mind that it’s not screened off.
Claiming a tiny side table, my busy server brings me an English menu that was possibly translated by someone under the influence. Either that or the line “Let yourself be seduced by our master brewer” is offering more than I bargained for. The bar’s seductive beermaker offers five concoctions, and I start with a sweetish pale ale before remembering it’s also time to eat.
Vienna taverns typically serve several varieties of brote – dark bread piled high with thick toppings. Mine is so satisfyingly slathered in undulating waves of ham, tomato and melted gouda that the bread is completely hidden. Satisfyingly full – especially after a dessert of Plutzer Dark lager – I re-wrap and head out for tonight’s final pit stop.
Hopping on the U-Bahn underground system, I’m soon pushing through the door of Wieden Brau, the kind of cosy, low-key neighbourhood bar tourists rarely find. Beneath its grubby, cream-painted arches, a convivial crowd of young hipsters and smiling middle-agers sit at chunky pine tables engaging in the second-most important activity in a good pub: lively conversation.
The aroma of roasted pork from a large platter under siege at a nearby table permeates the room as I sidle up to the small bar. Alongside standard half-litre krugel glasses, the barman tells me they also offer little pfiff sample sizes, a license to try all five of the on-site-brewed tipples.
The unfiltered Helles and Marzen beers are pleasantly bitter. But the Wieden Brau Dunkels, a cloudy, bottom-fermented witches brew, hits the spot. Crisply malty with a rich, coppery hue it’s the night’s top beer. “This one is also my favourite,” agrees the barman, pulling me a half-litre nightcap. “But I don’t drink it everyday,” he adds unconvincingly.
Waking with a heavy head the next morning, I brush aside my mild hangover with a brisk city walk. There’s a sparkling blue sky over a glittering carpet of thick frost, plus the kind of eye-watering wind chill that could strip paint. But there’s no denying the spectacular antique beauty of the city where Mozart lived…and likely imbibed more than a few beers between his composing duties.
The grand palace façades that loomed eerily last night, appear like fresh, multicolumned wedding cakes today. This time, though, I follow the locals to the Naschmarkt, a long strip of café stands and stalls hawking everything from artisan pottery to glistening olives.
Squeezing through the throng with a large coffee, I find a ramshackle flea market at one end. Basking in the sun here, I poke through dusty boxes of sepia photos and rusty tins of coins before making a purchase: a wrinkled, pea-green Rapid Wien T-shirt. It’s the perfect outfit for tonight’s beisl crawl – so long as I can find a matching wooly hat to counter the cold.
Just the facts:
SLEEPING: Among Vienna’s wide range of accommodation options, consider the contemporary, well-located Hotel Das Triest (www.dastriest.at) or the elegant Hotel Sacher (www.sacher.com). For a quiet, pension-style option, try the Pertschy Pension (www.pertschy.com).
DRINKING & DINING: The brewpubs mentioned here, all of which serve food, include 7 Stern Brau (www.7stern.at); Plutzer Brau (www.plutzerbraeu.at); and Wieden Brau (www.wieden-braeu.at). And if you’re craving some traditional schnitzel, hit Figlmuller (figlmueller.at).