Saturday, June 18, 2011

Negra Modelo

The 1800s were a sort of golden age for the city of Vienna, Austria, during which it was one of the major political and cultural centers of the world.  In 1804 Vienna was named capital of the newly-minted Austrian Empire.  The Congress of Vienna, which was called in order to settle the turmoil caused by the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, and dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, was held in the city in 1814.  The Congress established many European political boundaries that still exist today and served as the model for the League of Nations and ultimately the United Nations.  In 1867 an agreement between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary formed the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Vienna then became the capital of one of the largest and most powerful states of Europe.  During the 19th century Vienna was also considered the center of the musical world.  It was home to many of the greatest composers of the day including Mahler, Brahms, and Strauss.  The classic Viennese dance known as the waltz became extremely fashionable in Britain, France, and North America.

You might say that a great beer tradition was also brewing in Vienna during this time (sorry...that was horrible).  In 1841 a Viennese brewer named Anton Dreher began experimenting with lagers that had become very popular in central Europe.  He began by borrowing elements of the dark German lager called marzen, the standard drink of the German Oktoberfest.  Instead of using the dark-roasted barley that creates the signature taste of marzen, he roasted his grains at a lower temperature to create a beer that was smooth and toasty rather than dark and bold.  (This type of malted barley would eventually become known as "Vienna malt").   He then added German noble hops at the beginning of the brew to contribute a noticeable hop bitterness without leaving much hop flavor or aroma.  Finally, he fermented his product using lager yeast (which had only recently been isolated and incorporated into beer brewing) at cold temperatures, in the style of Pilsner lagers from the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia.  The result was an amber-colored brew that combined the toasty flavor of a dark lager with the crisp smoothness of a light one.  Much like the waltz, Dreher's brew became a symbol the refinement and splendor of 19th-century Vienna.

Anyone who is still reading at this point is probably wondering what this has to do with Negra Modelo, an excellent beer brewed in Mexico.  We're almost there.  During the 1860s the democratic President of Mexico, Benito Juarez, suspended interest payments to Mexico's European creditors - including France.  In 1862 the French army of Emperor Napoleon III invaded Mexico and, after years of war and many bloody setbacks, occupied Mexico City.  Two years later, with the support of conservative Mexican monarchists and the Roman Catholic clergy, Napoleon III offered the crown of the so-called Empire of Mexico to a member of the Austrian royal family named Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Josef Habsburg.  Maximilian I (as he became known) was considered an ideal candidate for the Mexican throne: he had previously served as Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian Navy and as Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, and had recently completed a lengthy botanical expedition to Brazil.  The French royal house was closely connected to the Habsburg family through several marriages; there was even a popular rumor in Vienna that Maximilian was the illegitimate brother of Napoleon III.  However, Emperor Maximilian's reign in Mexico proved short and turbulent.  The country continued to be wracked by civil war.  Many of the world's powers refused to recognize Maximilian's legitimacy (including the U.S., who opposed any European intervention in North America in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine).  By 1866, even the French had withdrawn their military support.  In May, 1867 Maximilian I was captured and executed by forces loyal to Juarez.  Austrian dominion over Mexico died with him.

During the brief reign of Maximilian I, however, many Austrians had emigrated to Mexico City.  Among these were Viennese brewers, who are thought to have brought over beer recipes in the style of Anton Dreher's popular elixir - which by then had become known as "Vienna lager."  Mexican brewers continued the Austrian beer tradition even after Maximilian's execution.  The most renowned of these was an Austro-Mexican citizen named Santiago Graf.  Not much is known about Graf, other than that he was a skilled brewer who popularized the Vienna lager style in Mexico in the years following the collapse of the Empire.  He imported both hops and grain from Europe and began making true Vienna lagers in Mexico City.  By 1890, Graf's beer was the most popular brew in Mexico and the subject of many imitations.

The mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire was left in splinters at the end of World War I.  By that time, the dark toasty brew championed by Dreher in the 1840s had fallen out of favor in Vienna and may have even become totally extinct.  However, the Vienna lager tradition was just picking up steam in the New World.  In 1925 a new brewery called Cerveceria Modelo opened in Mexico City.  They began producing their own version of Graf's popular Vienna lager, which they called Negra Modelo.  In 1930 Modelo began exporting both Negra Modelo and its light lager, Corona, to the United States.

Negra Modelo is a dark amber color (like a tall glass of Coke after the ice has melted).  It has a pleasant malty taste, and you'll probably pick up on the toasty and nutty flavors that are the calling card of Vienna lager.  It is only lightly hopped, leaving a sweet smoothness that some choose to accentuate with a slice of lime.  Negra Modelo is instantly recognizable by its squat, short-necked bottles capped with gold foil.  And it's even better on draft.

A beer purist would argue that Negra Modelo is no longer a true Vienna lager: instead of 100% Vienna malt, Modelo now uses a certain percentage of adjuncts such as corn and rice (much like standard American lagers do).  They also use American hops instead of the noble German variety.  But beer purists are obnoxious.  All beer styles evolve and adopt certain characteristics depending on where and when they are brewed; that's why we have so many unique and amazing beers in the world.

In addition to Negra Modelo, there are several dark Mexican lagers that still carry the torch for the old Vienna style.  The most popular of these in the United States is probably Dos Equis Amber (although Negra Modelo remains the top-selling dark beer in Mexico itself).  The Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma Brewery in Monterrey produces a dark lager called Bohemia Obscura, which is supposed to be a fairly authentic re-creation of the 19th-century Viennese brew, but I haven't yet had the pleasure of trying it.  Meanwhile, the Vienna lager style has enjoyed a renaissance among America's microbreweries and brewpubs.  You see Vienna lagers popping up more and more on beer menus and in stores these days.  The best one of these that I've tried is Trader Joe's Vienna Style Lager (no joke - it really is awesome.  Another reason to love Trader Joe's).

1 comment:

  1. Great history! We picked up a Graf Vienna brew kit from our local Home Brew Outlet and were wondering what kind of hops & grains went into it. Strangely, our kit came with Ale yeast - should be interesting :)