When Ryan Wibby read the scores from Wine Enthusiast’s most recent lager tests, he thought the number alongside Wibby Brewing’s Volksbier Vienna was simply its entry identification. “I was very confused when we got the results back, because it said '100,'" he recalls.
Turns out it was the rating. Volksbier Vienna, along with Heater Allen Pils from Heater Allen Brewing in McMinnville, Oregon, had snagged the first-ever 100-point rating from the respected magazine (and yes, Wine Enthusiast rates beers as well as wine). "With a luxurious mouthfeel that slowly brings on layers of nuts, warmed caramel and a subtle spiciness from noble hops, this Vienna lager is of remarkable quality,” the magazine wrote. “Often beers in this category are too sweet, but here the recipe brings bitterness into the equation for balance. Still, it finishes dry, with only a touch of light brown sugar on the finish.”
It was an exciting surprise, but also validation for a beer with an interesting history. The Volksbier Vienna had already won a gold medal six months earlier at the Great American Beer Festival, propelling it from one of Wibby’s slowest sellers to one of its most in-demand offerings.
“People in the taproom had been loving this beer for a long time and asking us to package it for a while,” says Wibby, who founded his lagers-only Longmont brewery in 2015 with business partner Ted Risk. But he was hesitant to put the beer in cans, noting that the wildly popular WeldWerks Brewing had trouble selling its own Vienna lager, even after winning a medal at the World Beer Cup in 2016. “So I don’t know if people understand the style, if they envision what that is," he explains.
Part of the problem is that the style (along with its cousin, the German-style Marzen) has been hybridized, crossed up and mislabeled for many years — not just in the United States, but in the Austrian city of Vienna, where it was born in the early 1800s. As it stands now, the Brewers Association describes Vienna lagers as being copper to reddish-brown in color, with a light sweetness, a malty or even toasted malt aroma and flavor, and a crisp mouthfeel. It’s easy drinking, not too challenging, but with more flavor than a pilsner or a Helles.
Wibby’s version got its start in the taproom in 2016 as a year-round beer, but it took an accidental twist last June when the brewery’s malt supplier, Weyermann, accidentally sent some bags of its Caramunich 1 instead of the regular Caramunich II. “We decided to go with the flow and see what happened,” Wibby recalls. The result was less “caramel roastiness, which makes it more approachable and lets the other ingredients shine through as well.”
When Wibby won gold at GABF that fall, sales immediately took off, and the brewery went from making Volksbier twice a year to once or twice a week — a stunning change. The label was also redesigned, and it now features a drawing of Wibby's old Volkswagon bus, named Barb, which is where he wrote his original business plan for his own brewery (while he was working at Oregon's Deschutes Brewing) and has become a brewery mascot.
The name, Volksbier, means the people’s beer, and comes from the year Wibby spent in a Berlin brewing school and completing an internship in Germany. “My activity outside of brewing and studying was playing basketball at Volkspark Friedrichshain, the people’s park, with other guys of various nationalities," he says.
Now that it has scored a 100-point rating, more people will be trying Volksbier Vienna. "Originally, it was something just us brewers wanted to drink," Wibby concludes. "For it to take off allows us to enjoy it that much more."
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