Vienna, 27 August 2019
My last post on a liquid refreshment (mead) has moved me to write this next post about another liquid refreshment, this time a non-alcoholic one: Almdudler. Unless readers have spent some time in Austria or the other Germanic lands – Germany and the German part of Switzerland – they will never have heard of this drink, created some 60 years ago here in Austria. I certainly hadn’t until I came to live in Vienna 20 years ago. But in this country it is very popular, second only in popularity, in the sweet carbonated drinks category to which it belongs, to Coca Cola.
For readers who don’t know the drink at all, let me throw in a photo of a bottle of Almdudler.
Readers will immediately notice the cute Austrian couple on the bottle dressed the traditional Austrian way – she in a dirndl, he in lederhosen and a jacket, both wearing an ethnic hat of some sort – but let’s leave that aside for the moment. We’ll come back to it later. Let’s concentrate on the straw-coloured liquid in the bottle, whose drinking is after all the whole point of buying the product.
I’m not particularly fond of carbonated soft drinks but if I’ve bothered to write this post it’s because this particular example of the genre is actually quite good. It is certainly a wonderful drink to have on these hot summer days as we walk the woods around Vienna. What is it about Almdudler, I’ve been asking myself these last 20 years, which makes it so pleasant to drink? The sweetness, of course, gives you a pleasant kick if you’ve been walking and sweating a lot. The fizz excites the palate. But behind the sweetness, behind the fizz, there’s a certain something, a faint, light aftertaste. What could it be?
The company which owns the recipe is predictably coy about the ingredients. The whole money-making machine that is Almdudler rests on those ingredients remaining a secret. The official website merely states that Almdudler is made of water, sugar, carbon dioxide, citric acid (as an “acidifier”, which I presume means giving the drink a slightly acidic taste but maybe to also act as a preservative), ammonia sulphite-based caramel colouring (that must be what gives the drink its straw colour), and “natural herbal extracts”. “Natural herbal extracts” … that must be the key ingredient, the one that intrigues and titillates the palate. The rest of the ingredients are just bog-standard, artificial stuff, pretty much taken off a chemical lab shelf.
So what natural herbs could Almdudler be using? I searched around on the internet for clues, particularly – given where it’s drunk – in the German section of the internet (sweating over translations with Google Translate). The search was heartening in that it showed that I was not alone in wondering what herbs are used in Almdudler, it was disheartening in that no-one had a clue. There is one faint chink of light in all the gloom. In one part of its website, the company specifies that 32 Alpine herbs are used. So let’s focus the search on Alpine herbs. The problem is, I can’t find an article on the internet which lists the Alpine herbs which are typically used in foodstuffs. Instead, what I’ve discovered is that Alpine herbs is big business. A good number of products, from throat lozenges to facial creams to digestive liqueurs, claim to use Alpine herbs – and of course are all very coy about which herbs exactly they use (I’ve also discovered that growing these herbs now occurs at agro-industrial scale in at least one Swiss canton – so much for my vision of Alpine maidens setting off in the early morning with a wickerwork basket to collect the herbs in woodland and meadow). The one exception to all this secrecy and dissimulation is the throat lozenge Ricola. The company’s web site informs us that 13 Alpine herbs are used in the lozenges, to whit: horehound, burnet, cowslip, elder, lady’s mantle, mallow, marshmallow plant, peppermint, plantain, sage, speedwell, thyme, and yarrow. I’m so pleased with the company for giving out this information that I shall give them some free publicity and throw in a photo of their product (I also happen to like the lozenges).
That being said, this list doesn’t really help me much with the Almdudler puzzle. Do any of these 13 herbs get used, and if so which? Or are we talking about a completely different set of Alpine herbs? Any readers with inside information are welcome to drop me a line, but I fear that short of breaking into the Company’s HQ and blowing open the vault where the recipe is kept (I read somewhere that this is how Coca Cola’s recipe is hidden away from prying eyes, so I presume it will be the same for Almdudler), I will never know the answer to this question.
So let me turn to the cute Austrian couple on the label. There has always been such a couple on the bottle, although as this old poster for Almdudler attests they have been somewhat sleekened and modernized since the product first came onto the Austrian market in 1957.
Readers will note the typically Alpine setting of the scene – all further pointers to the Alps being the source of the herbs in the drink (in fact, those strange-looking plants at the feet of the couple may be one of the herbs!). According to the company web-site, the name, too, has Alpine roots. Almdudler is a shortening of the phrase auf der Alm dudeln, which means “yodeling in the Alpine pasture”. I rather think that’s what the couple are doing in the poster. Yodeling always makes me think of a scene in Asterix in Helvetia (where he and Obelix are sent to get a secret Alpine herb for one of Druid Panoramix’s potions – we always come back to the Alpine herbs!). At some point in their adventures, the two meet a group of Swiss having a day out in the mountains and yodeling.
So a very Alpine drink, then! Which is funny, because the inventor of Almdudler, Erwin Klein, was as Viennese as they come. But that’s OK, because in the end he was selling post-war Austrians a dream: the little Alpine country, proud of its bucolic, rustic roots, just wanting to be left alone by everyone. And the selling of that dream made him a fortune.
Interesting fellow, Klein. Born in 1924, into a family already in the soft drinks business (his father ran a company which made carbonated lemonade), he was actually trained from an early age for the stage. An odd choice by his parents, it seems to me; but perhaps his father was a frustrated actor, and anyway there was already an older son ready to step into his father’s shoes and take over the family business. He somehow avoided being called up – he was 18 in 1942 – and survived the war (as did his father’s business). Immediately after the war, he made good on his training and became a cabaret artist for a couple of years. But for some reason he abandoned the stage in 1947 and joined the family firm. In around 1954, he started tinkering in the company’s lab on the recipe for Almdudler. At his wedding in 1957, so the story goes, he presented his wife with the first bottle of Almdudler. Through savvy marketing, he grew the brand. His biggest marketing coup was at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, where he took over the food and beverage supply of the entire event – allowing him, of course, to feature Almdudler prominently. In 1973, he capped his success by stopping to make Almdudler himself. Instead, he sold other bottlers the rights to use the recipe. All he had to do was sit at home and let the royalties roll in. Great business model!
But the stage – at least the more vulgar end of it – never left him. Looking at this picture of him on the company web-site, that doesn’t surprise me too much.
In 1959, he opened a restaurant with a permanent cabaret stage program. Among other things, this became the permanent venue of the “Drei Spitzbuben”, the three Bad Boys, a very popular act in Austria.
According to Wikipedia, the threesome “were the ‘master of the rough joke’ and parodied all sorts of then-current hits. Many of the gross jokes are about sex, homosexuality, and alcohol.” I think we get the picture. Klein himself was involved in writing the texts of the Bad Boys. He also wrote for TV and radio – I don’t want to think what non-PC stuff he wrote. He even directed a sex film! For anyone who is interested, it was entitled Dornwittchen und Schneeröschen, and was a sex film in the guise of a fairy tale movie. It was, alas, poorly received.
And then, in 1983, at the age of 59, he killed himself. Apparently, he was suffering from a serious illness and decided to end it all. His son took over the business and he got himself a nice grave in one of Vienna’s fancier graveyards.
Well, I lift a glass of Almdudler to its creator. I may never know what mix of Alpine herbs he came up with in that lab 60 years ago but I will continue to enjoy the taste they impart to his product on these hot summer days. And I must try what the old poster invites us to try: mit oder ohne Wein, with or without wine. Prost!