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What defines the craft beer scene in Austria? We met up with pioneering craft beer brewers Alfried Borkenstein of Alefried, Austrian brew master of the year 2020, as well as Martin White and Simon Latzer of Bräuhaus Ten.Fifty. to discuss the blossoming craft beer community over a pint.
What does Craft Beer mean to you?
Martin White: Craft beer for me is something that was invented in the US, of course. It split the real mass producers versus everyone else and now to be honest it’s kind of redundant. I don’t think it’s about size anymore.
Alfried Borkenstein: In the US, it is. It’s a huge number though, so even the Brauhaus Puntigam in Graz would be regarded as craft beer in the US.
Simon Latzer: Pretty much every Austrian brewery would qualify as a craft beer by their definition. I think the whole Brau Union (editor’s note: translates as ‘Brewers’ Union’; the biggest group of breweries in Austria, owned by Heineken) together would! (all laugh) It’s just a definition used for beers which are not standard. People who aren’t familiar with it tend to say “I don’t like craft beer, it’s hoppy, it either tastes bitter or too sweet”. But to me it’s just independent, small batch breweries, trying to be as local as possible.
It sounds like craft beer is defined more by what it is not – i.e., not mainstream, not a huge production – than what it actually is. This could also lead to a lot of misconception on the market.
A: A lot of people think craft beer and India Pale Ales (IPAs) are the same thing.
M: It really depends on the question: What do people see as craft beer or what do we see as craft beer? Because, at the end of the day, what people regard as craft beer is completely legitimate, but I think for most consumers it is more about the taste, it’s like a category. In Austria, for example, if it’s not a lager, standard classic lager beer, for many people it’s craft beer. It’s the categorization of other, non-standard beers. Whereas for me and Simon, it is about the process: creating something different, hand-crafted which isn’t mass production, using real ingredients. That’s everything. With a lot of beer you can use essence or essential oils. And that’s where it gets mass production for me, when it’s only water.
A: I think craft brewers don’t really care about the price of the ingredients, whereas mass production is ruled by it. We would rather produce something which is really tasty, even if it’s more expensive. That makes a huge difference. After all, it’s not possible to create a really good, cheap IPA, since the only way of spending less money on it is taking less and also lesser quality hops.
Does that mean the hops define the price at the end of the day?
A: And the process. If you make a barrel aged beer, it’s more about the storage time, which is expensive and also means you lose a lot of beer due to evaporation. It can take a lot of time and sometimes you have to throw away the whole barrel because it didn’t work.
Craft beer is still a relatively young movement in Austria. You’re amongst the first here to make a name for yourself as brewers. When did you first try craft beer and what initially sparked that passion for you?
A: When I went to New York in 1995, I tried my first craft beer and it hit me. We wanted another beer and they asked us: ‘Which one would you like?’ We were blown away because back home there was only one beer and there they had twelve on tap. We couldn’t really place it. It tasted completely different. And it was just regular beer. Different yeast, different hops, just beer.
How long did it take you to go from this epiphany in New York to wanting to make your own beer?
A: I did my first home brew soon after. I was interested in beer but didn’t know anything about it.
Simon, you’re nodding. Does that sound familiar to you?
M: From my side: Long-time drinker, short-time brewer (all laugh). I brewed a little bit at college in the UK, making just ales. They were really cheap and easy to make in a plastic bucket back then. It wasn’t great beer, I’ll be honest. Brewdog started in 2007 and when I first tried it around 2010, it was like ‘wow, this is now my beer style!’. Then I came across Little Creatures in Australia, while I was visiting my brother out there, and liked some of the beer styles as well. I still wasn’t really thinking of brewing, just really enjoying drinking it. I came back to Austria in 2014 and we were randomly bought beer brewing kits…
S: It was a four litre brew kit I got from my sister.
M: And then, one day in 2014 we decided: ‘Let’s try this stuff out, let’s try to make some beer!’
S: That was when I jumped in as well. By then, there were a lot of styles on the market. We just bought different beers and realized there was a lot of cool stuff around already. We were quite late compared to you (nods to Alfred), almost ten years later.
M: We were at the Craft Bier Fest drinking Alfie’s beer, saying, ‘Wow!’
Really? And here you are today, brilliant!
M: Much further behind the curve but we’re still growing and learning.
A: That’s the good thing about craft beer. You never know everything. It’s such a complex matter, it’s crazy.
M: They say you don’t brew beer. You create the right environment for yeast to make your beer. Which I kind of buy into, honestly. You can’t do it without the little guys.
Which leads us to the next point: You have very different concepts when it comes to brewing. Alfried is a gypsy brewer, or client brewer, and you two have decided to actually have your own location, a brewery with a tap room. What were the reasons for you to choose your specific strategy?
A: Since I’m a flexible guy, I started brewing as a project. I didn’t have a business plan and never really planned to have a proper brewery. If like me you make different types of beer, it might be easier to do so in various breweries because different styles are easier to brew in specific set-ups and batch sizes. For me, it’s hard to sell 20 hectolitres of a special sour beer. But it’s easy to sell a pale ale. It’s a lot of effort, the logistics are complicated and expensive. They aren’t really ecological in my opinion, since you have to shift the stuff around. I have three warehouses and I brew in Salzburg, Styria, Vienna and Burgenland. Sometimes, I feel like I’m more into logistics than brewing. The logistics is the biggest problem and if you’re a gypsy brewer, that’s even more true. Because you can’t just decide to brew the next day.
Are you present at the brewery while the beer is being brewed?
A: I don’t fill myself. It depends on the brewery but when I brew my sour beers it’s more tricky because that really requires attention.
How does that work for you? Do you decide on the type of beer or flavour and then simply come up with a recipe, which you pass on to someone else?
A: Back in the days, I tried everything. I made pilot batches at home, but I don’t do that anymore.
So you have the recipe in your head.
A: Yes. But you have to know the brewery. Especially when it comes to hops, you really need to know the set-up, so you can scale up and down in the recipes. But that’s just experience, I’d say (laughs).
What about you, Martin and Simon: What made you start your own brewery? That must have been a huge step, since you said you come from more of a consumer background and then started experimenting. How did you go from craft beer lovers to owners of a brewery?
M: We started with four litres for about six months, making a couple of different ones, then switched to a 20 litre bucket with heating element, still doing boil-in-the-bag for about six months, and then going bigger to about 50 litres, a bit more professional, stainless steel…
Where did you keep it?
S: In the pool room! (laughs)
M: Yeah, in my spare room. That’s one of the reasons why we’re Bräuhaus Ten.Fifty. It’s in the fifth district where we were registered in Bräuhausgasse (‘brewery alley’ in German).
M: Yeah. Fate! So, that’s where we brewed the four, the 20 and the 50 litre batches. We then went from very average beers to hopefully better-than-average beers to basically using the proper cooling jackets, stainless steel. Controlling the temperature became a completely different game for us. We had an event in 2015, where we had a bunch of beers we’d brewed and asked people what they thought down in the basement in the ninth district.
S: It was basically the kick-off for the real brewery project. We organized it like a tasting event and after that came the business plan. We really wanted to have a house.
M: It’s two parts really, because we’re control freaks but the other part is we weren’t going to quit our day jobs to get this up and running. Simon works in a logistics company and I’m in insurance. To be able to manage the logistics on your time scale, you’re much more flexible when you’ve got your own thing. You can say, “Friday evening, we do a brew”. We walk in at five o’clock.
S: We finish at two a.m. but that’s okay if you’re not working the next day. You can manage it.
M: Whereas if you’re working with another brewery, you have to schedule it in. So, a bit of control freakishness, but what we love doing is brewing stuff. For us, the idea of going to someone else just wasn’t why we wanted to do it or why we got into it in the first place.
S: Luckily, we also came up with the whole tap room concept during our UK trip, when we saw them in London. We thought it’d be good to have a small tap house, not a classic bar, but quite simple and in the brewery. That’s why we looked for a location in town. And luckily we’re here now, in the upcoming tenth district, Favoriten. The taproom is very important to our revenue mix as well as our location hire for events.
M: So, if you’re thinking about opening a brewery, get a tap room!
Austria is often considered a wine country. How do you experience the beer market as producers?
S: The Austrian market is dominated by flavourless lagers. Conrad Seidl is our neighbour. One night he was explaining craft beer to a guy at the bar. He said: “Don’t pay any attention to it, Austrians don’t like it” (all laugh). I was surprised by his frankness, but he explained that if the beer has any flavour, Austrians don’t like it. I thought about it and he’s quite right about it. But if we go back in time, for example, when I came to Vienna 16 years ago, you didn’t go to a bar and ask: “Which red wine do you have?” The answer was: “Red”. Nowadays, everyone has a few open bottles, you can buy small servings and there are also different price levels.
A: Everybody knows there are different kinds of wine.
S: Correct. Austria claims that it has good beer. To me, a Brau Union beer has nothing to do with a good beer: It’s industrial, very watery and has no flavour. What small brewers don’t have is money from the state to back them. That’s a problem of pushing the industry or not.
A: We have a lot of tiny breweries, but I think the brew pubs do the same as the Brau Union. So, we have a culture of brew pubs and tiny breweries but they lack innovation. I think that’s the biggest problem. They were really boring beers. And the quality wasn’t good and still isn’t.
That’s a good keyword: Innovation. How important is it for you, when making your own craft beer?
M: Honestly, for me it’s absolutely important because we don’t want to do core beers anymore. Obviously, we are doing this part time and the fun for us is brewing new beers. Otherwise, it’d feel like a production unit. And that’s not why we got into it. We want to switch things up, do our thing. That’s why we got into it in the first place, to have fun with it, make beers we like, hopefully other people do, too. So, for me innovation is absolutely key.
In other words, you don’t want to create one perfect beer and produce it until the end of your days.
M: There’s no such thing as the perfect beer. People’s palates are always changing. What might be a perfect beer at the right times because people’s palates perceive it to be perfect, gets bland and boring after a few months since people start tasting it not only in your beer but also everywhere else. So then, how do you innovate beyond that?
A: For me, innovation is key because I get bored very quickly. I think that’s the good thing about craft beer: There is no limit to innovation. You can do anything in terms of flavours. At the moment, I would say innovation is really important because the market demands it, even more than ever. In the US, everybody knows IPAs and everyone drinks them from time to time. However, in Austria, we didn’t have 30 years of the craft beer scene growing steadily, we kind of skipped that and now we got craft beer and every style of beer in a matter of five years.
So, what makes a beer modern to you?
A: The hops.
M: And the carbonation, when it comes to ales.
S: So, basically everything (laughs). Maybe, the yeast as well.
A: English Pale Ale used to be considered as really hoppy back then and now we would say it’s really malty. So, I think that’s what Martin was referring to regarding the change of palate. But we still need to keep the past. The offer should get bigger but that’s not possible if people aren’t interested in old-school IPAs, for example.
S: It’s also about which bars you sell at. We open the taproom as well on Thursday and Friday and a lot of people come in, asking: What new stuff do you have? It’s the first question. It’s also up to the people working in gastronomy to bring in a new brewery. If you support them as well and bring them new stuff regularly, win-win for both.
It’s interesting that you all stress innovation as a key element of craft beer. If you think we’ve been brewing beers for so long, thousands of years, it’s difficult to imagine you can really innovate that much at a certain point because everything has kind of been there already.
A: You can control more parametres than before. 150 years ago, we didn’t even know yeast exists, now we can select it. We used water, any grain or sugar and then something happened and we had alcohol. But people didn’t know about the process.
M: It’s about chemistry. That’s why different places ended up making different beer styles. That’s why Pilsen is famous for pilsener, that’s why Dublin is famous for Irish stouts, that’s why Burton-upon-Trent is famous for English IPAs: Because their water had a certain mineral, chemical composition. But they just found out through trial and error their beer was better when it was dark or when it was light.
However, innovation is not just the brewers’ responsibility. Beer is an agricultural product. It’s based on hops which are grown, they change from year to year. It depends on the hops which you grow, if there’s been more or less rain, has it been hot, colder. The only thing that’s probably not agricultural is the water and the yeast. The yeast is the only real control point in the chain. A lot of this innovation is happening through these varieties of hops, which weren’t around.
A: There wasn’t the same demand. Now, there is a real demand for new hops.
S: If you look at hops, which are grown in Styria, for example, it’s nothing, it’s three kinds, I guess…
A: And you can’t buy them.
S: That’s another topic (laughs).
It feels like there is quite an international community of brewers who share their expertise, their knowledge, they support each other as well. Is it due to a David versus Goliath attitude against the overpowering beer industry? Do you have the impression you have to stick together to be able to survive on the market?
M: I guess the principle is let’s not fight over crumbs on the floor. Let’s try and actually get to the table. Austria now has the second highest consumption of beer per capita after the Czech Republic, but craft beer still is a tiny fraction of that.
S: The craft beer share on the Austrian market is around one percent, that’s nothing. So, why should we fight against each other? We’ve got 99 percent opportunity.
A: The collaborative aspect comes from the fact that most of the craft brewers started brewing because they enjoy craft. It’s not a job, it’s a passion. So, it’s not only about money. We’re looking for fun and joy more than the big guys. They’re not making it for themselves, they’re making it for the shareholders, so it doesn’t make sense if they brew an IPA with 6,000 euros worth of hops. For us, it makes sense because we enjoy it.
How much do you exchange on techniques, flavours, trends and the likes to learn from each other?
A: I’m always learning. That’s the nature of the product. But I would say, the whole scene is mostly learning from the US, that’s where the real innovation is happening. In Austria, we’re friends but still the level is not as advanced as it is in the US or in the UK maybe, I’d say that’s the top level. But in Austria, I’m not sure there is any brewery of which I would say, that’s world class. We’re not there yet, we’re too young for that.
In other words, there is huge potential for the future in Austria. What is needed to reach it, in your opinion?
S: If you look at the market in Vienna, it’s not regional. I don’t know 20 bars which have Ottakringer, the biggest Viennese brewery, on tap. The most common beers here are Brau Union and Stiegl. They are far bigger than Ottakringer in gastronomy. Honestly, it’s not easy. Nevertheless, Ottakringer is very strong in supermarkets and at events.
Does that mean you need more support from gastronomy to establish yourselves?
S: We don’t want to sell in supermarkets because it doesn’t make sense. But gastronomy is the real reseller. If you have experienced staff behind the bar, people who love their job and what they’re doing, they sell beer. They sell different styles, they educate people.
Like Philipp does at The Thirsty Heart in Graz.
M: That’s key, having someone behind the bar who not only can, but also pushes customers to talk and learn about beer, try different beer. You really need that. And if you’ve got that, you can change a lot of hearts and minds.
A: If you think of the Bier Boutique, these guys created a market for themselves. There was no craft beer scene in Graz, but they created it. Now, they have a following crowd, which is amazing. All the people who went there turned into craft beer enthusiasts and they really know about craft beer. I think we need people like them because they can change quite a lot.
The standardisation of flavours is an issue in general when it comes to food, but in no area there seems to be such a dominance due to big companies as in the beer sector. How do you deal with this monopoly?
M: I can understand Heineken coming into the market, buying up a bunch of breweries, consolidating them. That happens in every industry. America’s got the three tiers system, meaning you shouldn’t be able to have production, distribution and retail sale. Right now in Austria, Heineken has Brau Union, which is production, and they have the majority ownership of Ammersin, which is distribution. So, they have the biggest drink distributor, the biggest production and, of course, bars are opening up tied to – not owned by, but making contracts with – the distribution, which means there’s a lock down. And that’s worrying for me, not from a business point of view, frankly, but from a consumer point of view. Because in a lot of bars you see the same international beers on offer. It also squeezes the breweries on price to points where it’s really difficult margins. Also, it ends up having the effect that the money leaves the local economy as well. It’s just floating out, disappearing into the global economy.
S: In my opinion, it’s also difficult for bars to find a USP: If you open a new bar and your only USP is beer, it shouldn’t be clear with a glance at the beer menu who your supplier is. If I had the opportunity to open a bar, investing half a million to a million euros, it would be too risky not to give myself the option to get beers which you can’t get that easily in town, limiting myself with the wholesaler. Of course, I could tell them, I need to include certain breweries but that affects the price and then you get to astronomic 9.50 euros for a beer, which makes no sense. The problem is having a good beer menu. 15 taps are nice, but not if you can get 12 out of them anywhere else in town. I see the opportunity for smaller bars when they buy on their own accord, get direct contacts to brewers.
A: We can’t talk about this system and support it at the same time. We have to fight against it or at least not participate in it.
M: That’s why you and us don’t do that. As soon as you start playing that game, you can’t complain about it (laughs). You can’t turn around and say it’s not right, it’s destroying the market by locking down the small players to sell their wares, when you’re also participating in this. Personally, I think that integrity is very important. At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that the market has genuine opportunity for variety. My fear is there will be a consolidation, there will end up a small number standing and one of them will be a massive player, with perhaps producers, with perhaps distributors with perhaps tight relationships to retailers and the only thing that that does is fill the pockets of shareholders and one big company, whatever that might be called, and limit the options for consumers. And limit the opportunity to price differentiation as well. Variety, price, everything just becomes same-same. That’s my biggest fear.
A lot of craft beer brands are being bought up by the big players as you mentioned, but they keep the branding and story-telling intact. Since they stick to the same artisanal, non-mainstream image, how is the consumer supposed to differentiate?
A: They really do a lot to hide their ownership. And you can’t really expect the customer to find out the connections regarding the breweries. It’s just not their job. It would really be the job of the resellers and the bar owners to say, I sell independent, local beers and I know these guys.
S: They always come with the Porsche, but I don’t know why (all laugh).
We started off our conversation saying how important the ingredients are. Does sourcing them take a lot of time for you? Do you get your ingredients locally?
M: What is your locality? Planet earth? (all laugh)
S: We spoke about this before, regarding Styrian hops. You can try to buy locally, but with the hops you don’t get the variety locally and most of the farmers are tied to Brau Union. When it comes to malt, of course, you can buy it locally in Vienna or Upper Austria…
A: When it comes to malt, I would say the best thing you can do is to buy Austrian.
Do you notice any differences in the flavour or quality?
M: In the hops yes, in the malt, no. Malt is more about the process. There is no barley terroir, it mainly provides sugar potential. How it was malted changes the character of a beer.
A: Regarding the flavour, I can’t really tell a difference, so I buy mainly European malt and I’m quite happy with the quality. But when it comes to sour beer with the added fruit, I always buy my fruit from the producer. I always buy whole fruit – never frozen – I always want to know the people who grow it. I go there myself because when I make a sour beer, it always involves the microorganism on the skin of the fruit. That’s why I always want to know where it comes from. That’s why it’s usually Styria and I never buy fruit which doesn’t grow in Austria. For me it doesn’t make sense. So, for me the fruit is more important than the malt, to be honest. Because the malt is the base and just the sugar for the yeast. The added fruit and their microorganisms, that’s the biggest part.
What I find quite entertaining with craft beer is that there is a lot of fun involved when it comes to its marketing: puns, experimenting with words and images. Is that an important aspect for you or more of a side effect?
S: We are one of the breweries which has a very straightforward logo and we don’t play around too much with names. We always want it to be very clear as a differentiation to other brands which are more playful, funny. We do marketing, only we have this unwritten law in our company that it shouldn’t cost anything (laughs). Somehow, it works.
A: I always try to be seen as an approachable brand. Not too elite, to offer a product which everyone can try. I wanted it to be a fun brand and to entertain. And I’d say that kind of worked. I used to be a graphic designer for twelve years, so I have a branding background, but it’s different when you make something for yourself.
M: We fell into one of the classic traps of using a location as a starting point for a brand or a name. 1050 wasn’t the only reason but it was our post code and now we’re in the tenth district (1100), so we always get the question why that is so. I think in retrospect we probably wouldn’t do it because it’s confusing.
Does locality play a central role for you apart from the brand name?
M: I listen to the craft beer brewing podcast all the time, so I get to hear a lot about other brewers, but honestly, beer doesn’t travel well. That’s why we spoke earlier of our discovery of American beers in the US. I can drink those beers here, but it’s not an accurate reflection. If you try to copy that taste, you’re trying to copy the shadow of a beer. You’d have to go to the source to try it. Because with that distance and that time, there are a lot of brewers priding themselves now of beer being consumed within one week of production. And you can guarantee freshness, when you have that ethos.
A: They are only selling it on spot.
Which advantages does that have?
M: Think about milk. It’s a product, which if it’s fresh and unpasteurised does not get any better. But think of it with a particular best used before date. Doing that is my goal, so we don’t have beer which is more than one or two months old in circulation. That’s because all our beers are unfiltered and unpasteurised. And up until the last two beers we were also bottle conditioning, it’s a secondary fermentation. We filter with time and temperature.
S: But of course that needs support from the guys in gastronomy. When you turn on your kettle, you need to know where the 5,000 litres are going to.
So, this kind of consumption depends a lot on the market.
A: In Czech Republic, it’s also a matter of pricing. An IPA in a bar costs approximately three euros there. And in Austria, it costs around five euros minimum. I think the price is one of the big problems of craft beer here.
M: Just this week, I was thinking about it: A can or a bottle of high quality, local, independent beer costs less than a take-away cup of coffee. That’s including packaging and everything. The coffee beans from the other side of the world are prepared with a little bit of water and milk, served to you in a paper cup and you’re paying three euros to take away that coffee. A beer, which takes at least two to three weeks to make, goes into a semi-permanent packaging, so it’s completely protected from oxygen, but still is less expensive than a cup of coffee. And the same people go: ‘Three euros for a cup of coffee? No problem, take it!’ I think people expect beer to be cheap, because beer was always cheap. The people were given beer which cost next to nothing to produce, so everyone was happy. Now, with high quality beer its producers are pressured to keep their prices down to almost unsustainable margins because the expectations are built about how much a beer should cost. People are asking: ‘Why is it so expensive?’
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us! Cheers!