Looking for the King of Beers...
...in the lagering cellars of Budapest, Hungary
The fathers of modern lager beer, Gabriel Sedlmayr II and Anton Dreher Sr, are gaining new recognition - not in Germany or Austria, their respective birthplaces, but in Hungary, a country where brewing is less of a tradition than wine-making. While their names are being honored, their legacy in bricks and mortar is experiencing mixed fortunes, as I have just seen for myself.
Sedlmayr, the great Munich brewer of dark lagers, inspired Peter Schmidt, who brought the industry to Budapest. In 1845, Schmidt established Hungary's first commercial brewery, close to the river Danube.
The river is one of the main trading routes of central and eastern Europe, and Budapest is a very defensible settlement, protected by steep, rocky, hills. Waters seeping through the rock and flowing toward the river have made the city a natural centre for brewing - and a spa.
It is really twin cities. Buda has sat for centuries atop the rocks on the western side of the river. Pest grew later, on the flatter eastern side. A complex of limestone quarries was excavated to provide stone for the growth of the city. The digging left nearly 20 miles of tunnels, perfect for floor-malting and for lagering, at the time a newly-popular technique.
At first, Schmidt took his beer there to mature, just as some Munich brewers transported casks to nearby caves in the foothills of the Alps. By 1854, brewing had begun in the area of the quarries. The district is still called Köbánya, which derives from the Hungarian word for these rocky cellars. "That is how it translates," I was told, "but say 'Köbánya' to a Hungarian and he thinks of beer."
Church-like? People have worshipped in the loftiest chambers.
The heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the expansion of Budapest, set the scene for the growth of lager brewing. In Köbánya, six breweries rose. The most ornate buildings were constructed in 1912-13, on the eve of the 1914-18 war that reduced Austria from an Empire to a backwater and ultimately led Hungary, after the second conflict, into half a century of Communist rule.
Anton Dreher Sr created the malty, amber, Vienna style of lager. He was sometimes known as "The King of Beers" (sound familiar?), and had another brewery at Michelob (Michalovce), in Bohemia. Dreher became involved in brewing in Kšb‡nya in1862, just before his death. He was succeeded there by Anton Dreher Jr. Later still, there was Jenö Dreher, who died in 1949, at the time Hungary became Communist. The family eventually owned four of the breweries.
A variety of names has been used by the breweries on the site. There were familiar German-language names of the period: the Erste ("First") Ungarische Actien Brauerei ("Joint Stock Brewery") and the Burger Brewery, for example. The terms Metropolitan, Capital, City and Civic have been mentioned, but are probably different translations of the same brewery name. The whole complex was in 1949 subsumed into one enterprise: the Köbánya Breweries of the Communist State.
This industrial neighborhood was a "Brewery City". I was astonished to see it still standing; by its extent; and by the size and elaborate design of the buildings. It is reminiscent of similar "Brewery City" areas, now diminished or vanished, in Munich; Burton, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Columbus, Ohio. The resemblance between the Germanic brewery neighborhoods and those of the United States is especially haunting.
Three of Köbánya sizable breweries, each with its own maltings, continued to operate after Communism collapsed a decade ago. Two finally ceased production five or six years ago. These are classic examples of brewery design. To look at them is to imagine their railroad spurs sending casks to the beer-gardens of an empire, bending its elegant elbow to the ebb and flow of Johann Strauss.
These buildings could only be breweries, and are suitable for no other purpose. Unlike, for example, the Jax Brewery, in New Orleans, Louisiana, they are not in suitable locations to become shopping malls (an indignity almost worse than death, anyway). Two of them will soon be demolished. I hope someone photographs them thoroughly as a record. The third, spreading over a 30-acre site, has been beautifully restored at a cost of more than £100million by its new owners, South African Breweries.
Three towers fit for churches decorate the facade of main brewery building. One is a water tower, the others signal the brewhouse and the original open cooler. Inside the brewhouse, the plaster mouldings on the ceilings, and the decorative tiling, have been refurbished. Four brewing lines (three in use) retain eight copper-domed vessels, one of which was being restored to its full glory during my visit. They are controlled from a pavilion-like copper-and-glass structure jokingly known as the Taj Mahal. The brewery still uses about 60 open-square fermenters, tiled and epoxy-lined, in addition to cylindro-conicals, which are also employed for lagering.
Not church spires but towers to hold water and exhale steam from kettle and "cool ship".
The old lagering cellars are in beautiful condition, albeit empty. That put paid to my suggestion that the brewer revive its Rocky Cellar brand: an excellent name, I thought. The cellars are believed to have last seen wood around the time of World War II, but accommodated metal tanks until the mid 1990s. In most parts, the main tunnels are 12-15ft high, with side chambers. In parts, the height rises to 50 or 100ft. One such stretch was used as a chapel.
One of the most impressive restorations has been the company museum, run by a knowledgeable and proud curator, retired brewer Mrs János Kozma. She chided me for not having been sufficiently attentive to Hungary in my past writings. To prove her point, she brandished a copy of my New World Guide to Beer, published in Hungarian. I had not been aware that this translation existed. I promised that I would do a better job next time, now that I know a little more about the re-emergence of Dreher.
At first glance, SAB seems an unlikely savior (albeit of just one brewery). When Communism ended in Europe, the opportunity was seized by SAB. With a virtual monopoly in South Africa, they were a large company, but with no famous beers to their name. They were accustomed to working in a low-wage economy, and producing beer at low prices. They moved in several former Communist countries, eventually capturing a famous brewery: Pilsner Urquell.
Now, they have added another famous name, Dreher, albeit without a renowned beer. There is also the problem that Anton Dreher founded a brewery in Trieste when that city was the principal port of the Austrian Empire. After World War II, Trieste was disputed territory, and eventually became a part of Italy. The brewery no longer operates, but the Dreher name in Italy belongs to Heineken.
Despite this, SAB has reintroduced Dreher as both a brand and a corporate name in Hungary. The life of the family is very well documented in the museum. Some older people still remember the name, I was told. Many young people think the beer is an import from another country. In the short term the latter perception is an advantage. With their country's Communist past so recent, many people believe nothing Hungarian can be any good, observed Production Director Attila Ficsor. I told him this was not exclusive to former Communist nations. Plenty of young people in Western countries prefer a tasteless international-style mass market lager to a fresh, locally made, craft beer.
The on-site pub serving the brewery's workers and guests provided as its super-premium product an all-malt lager brewed under licence from the Munich Hofbrauhaus. It would be a shame if, after all that expense and work to restore the Dreher brewery, the name were to vanish again.
I was reminded of Britain's 250-year-old Whitbread brewing company, destroyed because its criminally myopic management invested all their money in Heineken and Stella, brands owned by rival companies. Stella's owners (Interbrew) and Heineken, now own breweries in other parts of Hungary. So does the biggest Austrian brewery, BrauUnion (with beers like Gšsser). The Vienna brewery Ottakringer also has a controlling share in a Hungarian enterprise.
The country has only six breweries, and none is wholly Hungarian-owned. Nonetheless, the future of these breweries, and the jobs they provide, would best be ensured if beers with local names were given the opportunity to develop a reputation. Anton Dreher may have been an Austrian, but his name is strongly associated wth Budapest.
After renewing my acquaintance with Anton, I raised the brewery's principal product, Dreher Classic: a firm, crisp, dryish, lager of 5.0 per cent alcohol by volume. This is brewed from Pilsner malt and 15 per cent corn grits, and hopped with Magnum, Hallertau and Tettnang (22 units of bitterness).
When I asked for something more robust, but bearing the Dreher name, I was half hoping for a Vienna-style lager. I was given something yet bigger: a bottle of Bak. This means Bock, in Hungarian. Technically speaking, it was a Double Bock, at 18 Plato and 7.3 abv. It was firm and smooth, with a toasty malt character and a dryish, black-chocolate, finish.
Bring on the pancakes with chocolate-rum sauce, as once made by Charles Gundel, Budapest's most famous restaurateur.