Beer Madness: Devils Backbone Vienna Lager takes the title

Thirty-two beers, nine judges, one overall champion. Here's a look at the top contenders, and beer columnist Greg Kitsock's thoughts on the 2014 Beer Madness winner. (Jason Aldag and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)
April 22

Jason Oliver is going to need a larger trophy case.

Since he became head brewer at Virginia’s Devils Backbone Brewing in 2008, Oliver has collected 23 medals at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver and seven awards at the biannual World Beer Cup. In 2012 the company was named Small Brewpub of the Year, and in 2013 Small Brewing Company of the Year, at the Denver festival.

Now, Oliver holds the coveted Washington Post Beer Madness championship title as well. 

Devils Backbone Vienna Lager achieved that feat most economically, sliding by Victory Brewing’s Swing Session Saison, 5-4. It was the fourth consecutive time in the five rounds of Beer Madness, our quest to find the region’s best brew, that the elegantly malty lager bested its opposition by a one-vote margin.

The Vienna had some ardent fans who instantly identified it from previous rounds. “This is one of the few beers I recognize because of its lovely coppery color and the way it catches the light,” wrote reader panelist Echo Rummel. “Flavor is balanced, though not rich.”

See which beers had the most readers’ votes for each round.

“Lovely nose. Malty goodness,” praised fellow reader panelist Bryan Berghoef. “Toasty. A bit of toffee, caramel notes.”

“There can only be one Highlander,” concluded Miles Gray III, managing partner of Smith Commons Public House, in picking the subtle lager over the spicy saison with its piquant notes of citrus and pepper.

Vienna lager is a ruddy amber beer that was introduced in the Austrian capital in the mid-19th century. It pretty much disappeared in its native land, but it caught on in Mexico during the reign of Maximilian I and survives there in the guise of Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. The amber lagers that dominated the beerscape during the early days of craft brewing in America paid homage to this style.

A malt-forward brew with biscuit and toasty notes and just enough hops for balance, Vienna is so similar to Marzen and Oktoberfest beers that many Beer 101 books treat them as identical triplets. However, the Vienna “is more streamlined and more approachable,” says Oliver. “There’s no heavy body and sweetness.”

It also has less alcohol than its stylistic cousins. Gordon Biersch Marzen, a beer that Oliver brewed during his 61 / 2-year tenure with the downtown D.C. brewpub, measures 5.7 percent alcohol by volume. Devils Backbone Vienna Lager, by comparison, clocks in at 4.9 percent.

Expert panelist Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) hit the nail on the head when he remarked that our winner was the beer he’d easily choose “if I was drinking a 16-ounce.”

Oliver likes to push the envelope with new styles. As of this writing, the Devils Backbone brewpub in Roseland was serving his New World Pilsner, a golden lager flavored with a native American hop variety called Neo-Mexicanus, which, according to Oliver, imparts a distinctive “peach-mango” character.


Devils Backbone Vienna Lager (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

But the Vienna Lager is the brew that pays the bills. It’s the most popular beer at the brewpub, says Oliver, and accounts for 65 percent of off-premise sales. “We cannot keep up with this beer,” he sighs.

To allow the beer to mellow, the brewer needs to age it for five weeks, reports Oliver; it’s an extravagant amount of time compared with the quicker-fermenting ales that small breweries tend to specialize in. It’s one of the reasons that Devils Backbone recently installed eight new 240-barrel fermentation tanks at its satellite brewery in Lexington, Va. (dubbed the Outpost), and has four more such vessels on the way. Devils Backbone rolled out about 25,000 barrels of beer last year, making it the Old Dominion’s largest craft brewery as well as its most decorated. Owner Steve Crandall said he hopes to double the output this year.

Incidentally, the Beer Madness championship is the second honor bestowed this month on the Vienna Lager. At the most recent World Beer Cup judging, held in conjunction with the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, the Vienna grabbed a silver in the Vienna-Style Lager niche.

When a group of industry experts backs up your verdict, you can hold your head up and revel in a job well done.

Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.

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