Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Golden Pints 2013

New Year is coming, the blog is looking thin, please put an article in the old man's tin... So I'm finally getting around to the Golden Pints 2013*, it won't be as long as last year's massive posting, not least because we were out of the country most of the year, but there you go...
  1. Best UK Cask Beer - Great Heck's Dark Force Treason Stout, I found this at the Egham beer festival back in October, and its complex blend of treacley, fruity and citrus flavours blew me away.

  2. Best UK Keg Beer - Given the unjustifiable price premium charged in the UK for keg over cask, I rarely drink UK keg. An exception was during some recent brewery visits where it was keg or bottle, and when I was rather impressed by Brew By Numbers' Saisons.

  3. Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer - Siren Broken Dream. Having encountered Ryan's Danish beers, I was intrigued to see what he'd come up with after he moved to the UK, and those I tried at Copenhagen Beer Celebration this year did not disappoint. Nor did his Broken Dream stout.

  4. Best Overseas Draught Beer - Klindworths Sauensieker Imperial Stout, amazing stuff, like a cross between an aged stout and a barley wine.

  5. Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer - Lervig Brewers Reserve Konrads Stout, wonderful stuff, and a reminder that good as Nøgne Ø is, it's not the only fine brewery in Norway.

  6. Best collaboration brew - Adnams / Pretty Things Jack D’Or. A version of a US beer, brewed in the UK as a special for Wetherspoons.

  7. Best Overall Beer - Hmm, tough one. It's not a new beer to me, but right now it's the Acorn Gorlovka Imperial Stout that I was drinking last night!

  8. Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label - I still love Magic Rock's artwork, but this year it's been just a tiny bit outshone by Siren.

  9. Best UK Brewery - There's so many new names and smaller breweries I could choose - eg. Siren, Gloucester, Kernel - but I'm going to choose one that this year did it all. It produced great beers for the mass market and at the same time showed it can innovate as well as any of the smaller boys, and that brewery is Adnams.

  10. Best Overseas Brewery - Klindworths, how this brewpub in a small North German village manages to produce - and sell! - such a huge range of exceptional beers still boggles my mind.

  11. Best New Brewery Opening 2013 - Brew By Numbers.

  12. Pub/Bar of the Year - Sad to say, I've not really spent enough time in any of them to call myself a proper judge, but in Berlin I enjoyed Hausbrauerei Eschenbräu, in Franconia it's Brauerei-Gasthof Kundmüller, home of the Weiherer beers, and in London my favourite place remains my local - the Magpie & Crown

  13. Best beer and food pairing - stout and ice cream!

  14. UK Beer Festival of the Year - I missed GBBF and several others, but somehow I don't think I'd have enjoyed them as much as I did an afternoon at the Egham Beer Festival. A stack of new and interesting cask ales, almost all in perfect nick, and in friendly surroundings. Perfect!

  15. Overseas Beer Festival of the Year - this is a tough one! Hamburg's Craft Beer Days expanded to Berlin this summer, although sadly I couldn't be there then, and continues to be a fine showcase for characterful, non-industrial German beer. And then there's the loveliness of drinking Franconian festbier in the greenwoods at Annafest. For me though it was Copenhagen Beer Celebration, a festival of total beer geekery, loaded with rare and one-off beers from around the world.

  16. Independent Retailer of the Year - It's a little pricey by local standards, but Hamburg's Craft Beer Store has a great local and international selection plus helpful staff, and even beer on tap.

  17. Online Retailer of the Year - I didn't use any.

  18. Best Beer Book or Magazine - I wish I had time to read more!

  19. Best Beer Blog or Website - For the off-beat writing, it's Called To The Bar.

  20. Best Beer App - UnTappd for being such a useful beer logbook, plus it has such tremendously responsive developers and moderators. Disclaimer: I am one of those moderators... (-;

  21. Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer - @broadfordbrewer (-:

  22. Best Brewery Website/Social media - Oh go on then, it's Sambrooks for its extensive Twitter, Facebook and the wibbly-wobbly web.
*This is a set of beery awards instituted by bloggers Andy Mogg and Mark Dredge; the idea is that anyone who wants to do so can offer their list, Andy and Mark then compile “best of” listings.

Happy New Year everyone, and may next year bring us all even more wondrous delights to drink!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Keg or cask for stronger beers?

I try not to get involved in Cask vs Keg debates*, each has its advantages and disadvantages, but I had an unexpected experience at the Pig's Ear Beer Festival last week. Very unusually for a CAMRA festival they had - what a great change - a key-keg beer bar as well as the cask bars.

Both had strong beers on, by which I mean 7% and over, and I tried several. Yet of the cask examples I sent two or three back, which is to say I asked the bar staff to bin them and I then bought something different. whereas their keg cousins all worked beautifully.

I also had several gorgeous cask ales, by the way. They demonstrated just how good a properly cask-conditioned beer can be, and how much more depth the process can add over kegging, even when the kegged beer is unfiltered and unpasturised, as keg craft beers almost always seem to be.

So what conclusion should I take from this? Does kegging suit higher ABV beers better, or was I a bit unfortunate - it was the last day of the festival after all - to find a few cask beers that had got a bit tired over the week?

*I'm with the quiet majority within CAMRA, for whom it's the Campaign FOR Real Ale, not the Campaign "against other methods of serving good beer". Attitudes of "if you're not with us, you're against us" have no place in the enjoyment of good beer.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Free camping in a pub garden, tents included

The only drawback is it's in the rural English Midlands, in December...

A press release arrived today, announcing Worcestershire pub creates pop-up drunk tanks to curb xmas drink-driving. It says the landlady of the Drum and Monkey, Newbridge Green had the idea while talking to one of her regulars, a chap who runs a camping equipment business.

The press release - issued by his PR company rather than hers - says he "immediately offered a range of camping gear including several large tents, three-season sleeping bags, nightlights and a toilet tent" to be put in the pub garden (see left, in warmer times) from December to New Year's Day.

The landlady, Liz Jennings, says that anyone over the limit at the time of leaving the pub will be offered a free sleeping place. "There was so much interest in paid-for drunk tanks earlier this year and I thought it was a good idea," she's quoted as saying. "But I wanted to offer my customers a free facility as it’s the season of goodwill. I’ll even be offering my overnight guests a mug of hot tea and a bacon butty the next morning before sending them on their way."

It looks like a bargain to me - get trolleyed on good real ale at a pretty country pub, free crash space for the night and free breakfast! The downside is night-time temperatures around freezing. Plus, if you're that far over the limit at closing time, you could still be over the limit after breakfast. Best stay on a bit longer, then. Oh, hang on - you're in a pub. Hmm, I wonder if she takes weekly bookings...?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Stone's Self-Confusing Ale conundrum

An ale that repeats a name from a different ale two years ago, and is also brewed on two different continents to different recipes. Confused? Once upon a time maybe you wouldn't have been – the versions would have been too far apart in time and space. But with the advent of the Web, all that has changed.

A few months ago, several US brewers travelled to visit UK breweries at the invitation of the JD Wetherspoon pub group. They were here to brew versions of their ales that would be cask-conditioned and sold exclusively in JDWs, nominally for its real ale festival. So far, so good – and indeed, some of the resulting beers were very good.

But it also resulted in a discussion on Untappd last night: the site had acquired three listings for what, at first glance, appeared to be the same beer: Stone's Supremely Self-Conscious Ale, which appeared in the most recent JDW festival as Stone Supremely Self-Conscious Black Ale, brewed at Adnams in Suffolk. All three listings included mentions of Wetherspoons – so what was going on?

It took a bit of Web digging, plus a hunt through the 'archives' on Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate, to come up with an explanation. Along the way I found an entry on Stone brewer Mitch Steele's blog where he described his trip to Adnams and the fact that the Black Ale is a variation on a SSCA, which was a Black IPA brewed at Stone's Liberty Station 10-barrel brewpub, initially at least from the second runnings of its Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale.

(There's an interesting thing in itself – it's been a while since I heard of a separate ale being made from second runnings. It makes sense though because Sublimely is a bit of a monster – 8.7%, so it needs the highly concentrated wort that comes off the mashed malt first, otherwise you'd be boiling it for days to get the sugars concentrated enough. And there's bound to be lots of sugars left in the malt after that first wash.)

Here's what I think happened: in 2011, Stone released a 3.5% dry-hopped Black Mild (nowt wrong with that – 'mild' means un-aged, not un-hoppy, and milds can be light or dark), this was around for a short while and got listed on all three of the beery sites mentioned above.

Then in 2013, it revived the name for a 4.5% Black IPA – here's the keg label – which was brewed twice (says Mitch Steele) and was also served at this year's Great American Beer Festival and at several Stone events. This too got picked up by the beer listers, all of whom seem to have rather carelessly (given the different ABV & style) assumed they were drinking the 2011 beer. The Ratebeer entry comes out weirdest – three-quarters of the rates are the BIPA, but it's still listed as a 3.5% mild; the Untappd one had its description and ABV adjusted earlier this year, the latter from 3.5% to 5.2%.

Why 5.2%? I don't know, but by the look of it the ABV changed from 4.5% to 5.2% - probably the former was the pilot brew from second runnings and the latter was the commercial brew at Liberty Station.If anyone from Stone is reading this, could they comment please?

Then there's the UK 're-creation', which was made at a different brewery, uses different yeast (Adnams) and a different hop bill, has a different ABV (5%), was cask-conditioned, and has a different name on the pumpclip – SSC Black Ale, rather than SSC Ale. Yet there's a bunch of Wetherspoon listings bundled in with the US version on Untappd, presumably by drinkers who didn't get past reading 'Supremely Self' before they went “Yeah, whatever.”

And then there's a couple of listings for something called Sublimely Self-Conscious Ale. I can't find this name anywhere apart from Untappd, and I will be astonished if it's not either a conflation or typo, especially as Supremely Self-Conscious's parent was Sublimely Self-Righteous. As they used to say on TV, “Confused? You soon will be.”

Me? I'm Stoned-out, and off to do some real work....

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Beer and sniffles

It was over to Egham this afternoon for the 16th Egham Beer Festival - there's three a year, so it's not quite as old an event as that makes it sound! I'd been to there before, although not for a few years, so I kind of knew what to expect: half a dozen real ales on handpump inside, and several more on a gravity stillage in the yard outside.

Burning Sky Plateau
It was even more impressive than I remember, though - more like a dozen handpumps inside, and more handpumps outside, as well as several casks on gravity. The beer list was really interesting too, with lots from new breweries, especially around the London area.

(When we left London last summer, there were 20-25 breweries in the area, up from just two or three not so many years ago. When we came back to London this autumn, it's nudging 50-odd breweries. Maybe we should go away again - we might be able to get it over 100!)

The festivals take place at the Egham United Services Club, which is open to CAMRA members and guests as well as to club members. It's a great venue and very supportive of the event. Indeed, as the festival organiser noted, with that many handpumps it's pretty much a permanent beer festival...

Jedi baby...
It's also a very friendly venue, and as a members' club it is not just open to families but actively welcomes them. À propos of which, I know this blog has been a tad quiet of late, well here's why: this is the youngest attendee at the festival, aged just over a week, so as you might guess I've been a bit distracted of late. And yes, she and her elder brother were very well behaved and didn't annoy anyone, in fact she slept through the whole thing.

As to the beers, there were two or three standouts, only partly defined by how well they cut through the foul cold that has me sneezing and sniffling all over the place. I was especially impressed by Black & White IPA, which is the latest London Brewers Alliance special, a black IPA brewed at By The Horns, and then by two beers from Kent Brewery, which I don't remember meeting before despite it being three years old.

The first of these was Elderflower Saison, a beautifully complex, crisp and floral Belgian-style pale ale. The second was Dead of Night, a variation on Kent's highly regarded 5.5% porter that includes cherries - the result is dry, herby and ashy-bitter, with a noticeable red fruit tang.

But perhaps the most impressive of the lot was Plateau, a pale ale from a brand new - as in, so new they only started brewing about six weeks ago - Sussex brewery called Burning Sky. Just 3.5% ABV, Plateau features a mix of American and New Zealand hops for a spicy and tropical fruit character, and is immensely refreshing and satisfying, drinking considerably above its strength, if you know what I mean.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Medieval schmedieval...

Spurious claims to history and tradition are ten a penny, but sometimes one comes along that's so egregious and annoying that there's nothing for it but to start digging. So it was when a Facebook friend highlighted the launch of Heverlee Blond Lager, a beer variously promoted as being based on a 12th century monkish recipe and as a Belgian Pils style lager.

Ah yes, that would be the mysterious medieval Belgian Pils that pre-dated the 1842 Bohemian version by 700 years.

Initial comments from others on Facebook highlighted that it was only launching – for now – in Ireland and Scotland. That was the first clue: it turned out it's from Dublin-based C&C, which is mainly a maker of industrial ciders, most notably Magners, but which also owns Scotland's Tennents brewery, and those lands are pretty much its home turf.

Joris Brams discusses Heverlee Lager
That then took me to an interview in The Scotsman with Joris Brams, the MD of C&C's international division and the man behind the new beer. Born in Belgium, not far from Heverlee which is now a suburb of Leuven, he has a background in beer, having worked for both Scottish & Newcastle and Alken-Maes (though apparently not AB-InBev, which is headquartered in Leuven). In the interview he describes missing authentic Belgian lager during his time in Scotland – as well he might, because the UK version of Leuven's most famous export, Stella Artois, is a licensed fake.

The Heverlee website picks up the theme: "Returning to his birthplace of Leuven, our master brewer embarked on a mission to rediscover and recreate this classic bygone taste. Exploring the abbey library he learned of a light, fresh tasting lager and used descriptions of the ancient beer to create Heverlee."

Ah yes, those would be the ancient times before the accountants took over and cut the typical lagering period from months to days.

Oh, and just to top it off, they claim that this 4.8% Belgian Pils is actually an Abbey beer as it's "brewed in association with" Heverlee's Park Abbey. Honestly, what a load of marketing clap-trap – it's just a blond lager that's essentially been brought in to add a high end 'premium Pils' offering to the Tennents line.

On the plus side, it really does appear to be Belgian, for now at least. I've not been able to discover which brewery is responsible, although Brouwerij Haacht, a few miles outside Leuven, reputedly brews the 'real' Park Abbey beers, Abdij Van 't Park Blond & Bruin, both at 6% ABV.

So what's it like? Interestingly, the beer geeks at Ratebeer haven't discovered Heverlee Blond yet. I can only assume that the Ratebeerians of Scotland and Ireland don't visit Tennents pubs very often. Over at Untappd things are different and the beer has over 100 check-ins. Here's some of the verdicts:

Incompetent lager.
Standard Belgian lager.
Quite a smooth & creamy texture - not bad actually.
Awful. Just as bad as Harp if not worse.
Hint of Saison yeast flavours, sweet, but pretty ordinary.
Cold, smooth but no depth. Better than average lager.
Clean, clear lager but nothing more and nothing less, a lager.

I'm not sure which is more annoying – the marketing clap-trap, or the fact that papers such as The Scotsman swallowed it whole.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Exactly what is exacting?

Nonsense like this - from brewpub chain Gordon Biersch, which I visited this afternoon in Broomfield - makes me go "Grrr!"

"Exacting standards"? All it does is specify the usable ingredients, very generally.

The beer was OK, but it reminded me too much of just how average the average German brewpub is.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Signs of a healthy beer culture

So the other day Boak & Bailey wrote a thought-provoking article on the signs you might look for to tell if somewhere has a healthy beer culture - apparently where they live in Cornwall now qualifies - and I found myself thinking about where we lived in Germany... I thought about discussing it in a reply, but then after seeing Leigh's response about Leeds realised it merited a post of its own. So here we are!

1. There is a drinking establishment within walking distance of where you live where you like to spend time, and which serves decent beer.
Depends on your definition of "walking distance" - Lüneburg is a medium-small town (~75,000 residents) so nowhere is very far. Maybe 25 minutes walk to somewhere decent?

2. If you are skint, there is an acceptable drinking establishment within walking distance which sells decent beer at ‘bargain’ prices.
Nope, pretty much city (or even London) prices - maybe €7-8 a litre.

3. If you fancy something special, there is a pub or bar within reach on public transport (WRPT) which sells imports and ‘craft beer’. 
The closest would be in Hamburg, about an hour by public transport on a good day. Is that WRPT?

4. The nearest town/city centre has a range of pubs serving different demographics, and offering between them a range of locally-produced beers alongside national brands.
Yes, and no, unless you count Hamburg (30 miles away) as local.

5. There is a well-established family/regional brewery. 
Not since Carlsberg killed off Kronen.

6. There are several breweries founded since 1975.
Two brewpubs, and a small brewery in a village not far away.

7. There is at least one brewery founded since 2005.
That village one, but it's tiny and has no regular tap.

8. There is a regional speciality — a beer people ‘must drink’ when they visit.

9. There is an independent off licence (‘bottle shop’) WRPT.
Yes, with a fairly good range of German (only) beer.

10. There is a shop selling home brewing supplies WRPT.
Hamburg again.

11. There is at least one beer festival in the region.
Hamburg again - and not really regular. Good, though! Oh, and a mock-Bavarian Oktoberfest, but I don't count having a choice of two beers as a festival.

Of course, as they note at the end of their article, their list is a bit UK-specific. It did make me think about what I had missed about London while I was in Germany however.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Colorado is where the beer is...

Back in Colorado for the first time in several years, it's great to see – or be reminded – just how mainstream good beer has become here.

I didn't even have to go looking for somewhere to find a good range of interesting beer. The bar in my hotel, The Tap Room at the Interlocken, Broomfield, boasts around two dozen craft beers, all of them brewed in Colorado. They range from light hoppy pale ales through wheat beers, ambers and powerful IPAs, to the likes of Great Divide's superb 9.5% Yeti Imperial Stout and Boulder Beer's new 9% Oktoberfestbeer, Dragonhosen.

Sure, there's still industrial light lager about in Colorado too – while it produces more beer than any other US state, much of that is down to both Anheuser-Busch and Coors having big breweries in Colorado. Indeed, what's now the Molson-Coors HQ in Golden has been there for 140 years and is the largest brewery in the world. Sad to say, the only “beer” in my hotelroom minibar is Bud Light.

But there are also well over 100 smaller breweries – although some of them are hardly small, with New Belgium producing not far off one million hectolitres a year – and the state has been a major hub for the reinvention of American brewing tradition over the last 40 or so years. It has even seen one of its brewers (or brewery owners at least), John Hickenlooper who co-founded the Wynkoop brewpub, elected first as Mayor of Denver and now Governor of Colorado.

It's also tying in with a keen localism. As well as the hotel focusing on local beer, the company whose factory I toured yesterday, Spectra Logic, had arrange for local brewery Twisted Pine to present its beers at serving tables all around the building. There was wine as well, but it was hard to find. Craft beer, it seems, is the preferred drink of the local IT intelligentsia –and the Denver/Boulder area has a lot of high-tech, much of it, like Spectra Logic, in the data storage business.

Denver is also only one of the state's craft brewing centres, with the aforementioned Great Divide plus a number of smaller breweries and brewpubs, some of which I'll be visiting later this week; it also hosts the annual Great American Beer Festival which opens on Thursday. Others include Boulder (eg. Avery, Boulder Beer), Longmont (eg. Left Hand) and of course Fort Collins (Odell, New Belgium).

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Digesting Germany

We're finally back in London after our German adventure, and gradually starting to digest the experience. This process is likely to carry on for a while though, not least because the German removals company we hired cocked up, arriving with too few packers/loaders and too small a lorry. So not everything has made the journey over yet - and part of what's missing is my beer collection, including all the interesting Franconian stuff I picked up last month. Sigh.

Thankfully we had time on the way back to stop off in Ostend at one of our favourite supermarkets. This turned up some new-ish and rather nice Belgian beers, most of which are mud in the Einheitgebot's eye, which is always good in my view.

Then, as I was beginning to chillax and recall that I had actually had lots of great beers in Germany, I found myself reading this report by bloggers Boak and Bailey of their visit to Stuttgart and it all flooded back... Despite past disappointments with German city brewpubs, they still seemed surprised to be in a German city where the beer was not that good or interesting.

The sad thing is that the likes of Bamberg and Munich are the exceptions, not the norm. Yes, in most places the beer will be competently made, but the average is bland Pilsners and a distinct lack of imagination or anything resembling non-conformity. Sure, there's Berlin for some great brewpubs, and there's Alt and Kölsch - but try finding Alt in Cologne or Kölsch in Dusseldorf. It's possible, but not easy.

For the rest, when it comes to draught beer it's macro-brewed Pils or Weizen, often by a subsidiary of a multinational. 

When I think about it - which I try not to do too often, as it pains me too much - it drives me nuts that there's no proper equivalent of CAMRA to draw attention to this. Instead, there's the Einsheitsgebot-driven assumption that everything in the beergarden is still rosy and world-beating.

Thankfully there are signs of change. Pretty much every state now has micros and brewpubs trying something different, such as recreating old brews and traditions or creating German twists on international craft-brew standards. They're few and far between, but they are there.

Hat-tip to Berlin's Hopfen & Malz for the map, which is one opinion as to the best or most interesting and innovative - not the largest or most popular - brewer in each state.   

Monday, 2 September 2013

Around Bamberg #9: Bierkellers and beer terroir

"Another Bierkeller? I don't mind if I do..." OK, this is absolutely the final post from our trip to Oberfranken, and while it unfortunately won't be quite as long as Boak & Bailey wanted for their "Go long" day, I hope it will at least be a thoughtful one.

It's Saturday morning and we're in the car on the way to Forchheim for the Annafest. On the way we pass several signs pointing to various country beer-gardens, or Bierkellers as they are known hereabouts for reasons previously mentioned. It's a blazing sunny day and beer is definitely in order but we ignore the signs because we already have a destination for lunch: Roppelt's Keller.
It's already pretty busy when we finally wind our way down the dusty track and argue over which side of the car park might actually get some shade soon (answer - the one that's already fully occupied...) but there are still some tables free at the back towards the playground. A climbing frame: that's one small boy happy, anyhow.

Once we get our bearings it doesn't take long to en-happy the rest of us too, thanks to half-litre ceramic krugs of Kellerbier for about €2 each - no wonder paying €7.40 a litre at Annafest came as a shock later. The seating area is substantial, partly shaded by trees and partly by roll-out shades, then there are assorted buildings around. One houses the bar counter plus a second counter for cakes and stuff, and another houses the kitchen and hot food counter. There's also a large drinking room around the back, presumably for use in bad weather. It's all self-service as usual with Franconian Kellers.

Franconian Weisse: mostly Meh...
Kellerbier and large chunks of braised pork, sat in the shade on a sunny day and with the option of a post-prandial stroll in the woods - what more could you want? OK, I had to try the Weissbier too and that was only so-so, but still it was a wrench to have to leave as check-in time for our hotel approached.

Then on Sunday, Annafest was lovely to start with, but with the noise and bustle - and the requirement to drink everything in litres - it began to pall. There were still several hours of light left though so again we got into the car and drove into the countryside, headed this time for the Witzgall Keller.

It's not so easy to see - there's a sign by the side of a fairly quiet country road, then a field with a few cars parked in it. From here we could make out a house of some sort in the woods and hear voices, so we walked into the woods and there it was - a low building surrounded on three sides by tables and trees. It’s green and leafy, and although there was occasional traffic on the road, it wasn't intrusive.

This time there's only the one beer on offer - a lovely hoppy, lightly earthy and bitter Landbier - and the bar is inside, where the living room would be if this was a house. The food counter is outside, fronting the small terrace. For the kids there’s a sandpit and some old stones to climb on, plus of course the woods to ramble in.

Again, we find ourselves in no particular hurry to move on, and it's only dusk and the boy's impending bedtime that levers us away from our krugs. On the way back to the car, we spot what appears to be the cellar door at one end of the building - by the look of it, it's built directly over the entrance to the actual Keller.

Just recently I found myself thinking back to these two Bierkellers and the others we'd visited a few days earlier, and I realised it wasn't the first time I'd had Franconian Kellerbier. In the past though it hadn't really grabbed me, where as on this trip it had been great. The difference of course was that the previous examples had been bottled, and sampled some considerable distance from their source.

So it struck me: was it simply the drinking environment? For surely any beer will taste better in sunshine and in lovely verdant surroundings. Or was it the terroir, the "sense of place" and the unique qualities that agricultural products derive from the sum of the effects that their local environment - the geography, geology, climate, even the local human culture - has on their production? Could these beers ever be as good elsewhere, even in an equally sunny and green beer-garden somewhere else? I'm not sure that they could, to be honest.

You can take the bier out of the keller, but can you take the keller out of the bier?

As a postscript, raising this topic on Twitter and Facebook produced some interesting feedback, and it looks to me as if there are at least three factors at work here. As well as the terroir, there is what Germans call the "Freibad fritten" effect - the fact that quite ordinary stuff tastes better in the right environment and circumstances (chips after a refreshing swim at an open-air pool, in the case of Freibad fritten).

But there's a third factor too, which is that these beers - like the Lithuanian ones that Lars Garshol writes about on his blog - are typically unfiltered and unpasteurised, and often ungespundet too (this approximately translates to having an unpressurised secondary fermentation in cask, a bit like British real ales). That means they'll have a shorter shelf life, they won't travel as well, and yes, they really are going to be freshest and best at the source.

Have I missed anything?

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Around Bamberg #8: a sunny Sunday in the Bierwald

A Hebendanzly view...
A bit delayed, I know, but we're finally coming towards the end of the week... Annafest on Sunday afternoon was both more organised and more civilised. We started earlier – after lunch – and the place was generally less crowded. The combination of beer with warm sunshine and green shady trees was sublime.

We had the boy with us this time, so we explored the fairground on the way and were also delighted to find that, as well as Bierkellers and lots of food and snack stalls, the woods hold a number of children's playgrounds. We even found a wine-tasting bar, set up to raise money for the local volunteer fire brigade.

The event felt different today – less frenetic than Saturday night, unsurprisingly, and there was the sense of people settling into favourite places for a long and enjoyable afternoon's boozing. Apparently this is indeed what happens – most people find their preferred Keller and just stay there for hours, with none of this awkward moving around to find different beers...

Grief Festbier
So when we did move around, it wasn't that hard to find a free table. After starting in the Greif Keller, we moved across the way to Hebendanz which goes up into the woods in a series of terraces and had plenty of room on the upper decks. After a few excursions for food, ice cream and so on, we wandered back down the hill to the Kupfer Keller, which this year it had a special beer on. This was Brauwastl Festbier, created by three hobby-brewer friends from the town who then had their recipe commercially brewed by Neder.

So how were the beers? A bit samey, I thought. With the exception of the Brauwastl, all were malty quaffing lagers with a varying degrees of sweetness and not a lot of bitterness. Some had light spicy notes and a faint roastiness. I think I'm going to call them Kellermärzens, which is a term I just made up but which I reckon is a good fit.

They were also rather expensive – the standard price was €7.40 a litre, plus normally €5 deposit on your Maßkrug. This is in an area where a regular countryside Bierkeller might charge €3.50 or €4 a litre for its Kellerbier, albeit that will not be quite as strong (maybe 4.9% to 5.3% for a typical Kellerbier, versus 5% to 6% for the Festbiers). But these are festival prices, so I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised at them.

(By the by, I should quickly point out that it's not all Festbiers. Most Kellers also have a couple of bottled beers on offer, typically a Weisse and maybe a Dunkel. These you can buy in halves as well as litres – the latter just means they pour two bottles into one Maßkrug for you.)

The best of the five regular Festbiers was the Grief: fuller bodied than the others and with touches of toasted orange and a little more bitterness. Overall though, it was the Brauwastl. Perhaps it was the fact that it wasn't an easy-quaffing Kellermärzen that made it taste notably better, or perhaps it was that it was significantly darker than the others, verging towards a Schwarzbock or a stronger version of Neder's Schwarze Anna, and that I like dark beers.

Would I go again? Of course – though I'd probably try for midweek if feasible. I reckon Ron Pattinson's idea of going there on Monday was pretty good. And as well as a friend or two, I'd take a couple of smaller glasses to decant into, so litres could be shared....

Friday, 23 August 2013

A week around Bamberg #7: Annafest

The town of Forchheim, about 25km south of Bamberg, is best known for Annafest, a week-long beer festival which attracts up to half a million visitors each year – and one of the reasons for choosing the dates we did for our Franconian trip was so we could tag a weekend at Annafest on the end.

Early on the first evening of Annafest
While nowhere near as well known outside Germany as Munich's Oktoberfest, it is pretty famous within the country. It takes place in the Kellerwald, or Cellar Woods, above Forchheim.

What's a Kellerwald? In the days before mechanical refrigeration, brewers used caves or cellars to keep their beer cool while it matured – this is of course the lagering process. In some places they dug these cellars in the woods and hillsides, and then at some point some bright spark must have thought, "Hey, we've got all this beer on hand and a really nice location, why don't we build a bar next to the lagering cellar?" And so the Bierkeller was born – well, more or less!

What with medieval towns often having a dozen or more brewers, in Forchheim's Kellerwald there are not two, not four, but 23 scattered among the woods in two main clusters, the obere and untere (higher and lower) Bierkellers. Some are open all year, but others open only around the time of the Annafest, for which each of the local breweries – there are still four in the town plus several others in the surrounding countryside – brews a special Festbier.

If I understand correctly, the Festbiers were originally only available at the festival, though today that's no longer true – some are also bottled, while at least one turned up on tap in London, on the foreign bar at this year's Great British Beer Festival.

We knew the festival opened on the Saturday, and the easiest thing would have been to travel down for the day. However, we also had to leave our Bamberg lodgings on Saturday, as it was already booked for the following week and Saturday is changeover day. So given that we had to move lodgings we figured we may as well head down to a Forchheim hotel for the weekend.

There's a lot of beer in there...
In hindsight, going to perhaps the second-biggest beer festival in Bavaria on the opening evening wasn't the best plan ever. It was rammed, totally rammed. Queues for everything, the staff so overloaded that people were waiting up to an hour for food, and noise everywhere, from bands, from the adjacent fairground, and simply from thousands of people yelling at each other.

And yet, what an experience... One of the first discoveries was that the draught Festbiers are only offered for sale in litre mugs, called Maßkrugs. I discovered later that some servers might take pity and sell you a half-litre if you claim to be a poor, weak-bellied foreigner. Hm, maybe next year! For this year though it was a case of abandoning any thoughts of sampling all 10 or 11 Festbiers (most breweries now sell through multiple Kellers) and focusing instead on simply finding a place to sit.

In the event we managed a litre each at three different Bierkellers – Neder, Eichhorn and Rittmayer – stretched over about three hours and accompanied by a decent plate of dinner, before giving in to exhaustion and heading back. The most amusing sight was probably three girls sharing a single Maß, via a straw. I did take surreptitious photos, but sadly lost them.

Next: a sunny Sunday at the Kellerwald

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Craft beer in the Big City

It was off to Hamburg on Friday, for a taste of craft beer culture. Yes, there's Pilsner chauvinists everywhere, but there are also interesting beers too if you know where to look...

The starting point was the weekly Friday evening Open Tap session at the Craft Beer Store, a short walk from Sternshanze U & S-bahn station. I was a bit early for the 6pm start though so walked across the courtyard to Altes Mädchen for a quick drink. Well, maybe it would have been quick if I'd sat inside by the bar instead of being ignored out on the terrace, I might also have avoided being overcharged by a fast-departing server – only €1, but it was annoying. Still, my Schanzenbräu Rot from Nuremburg was pleasant enough in an unassuming way.

Open Tap at the Craft Beer Store
Things changed dramatically once I headed into the shop and was passed a taster of their current tap beer: Rogue Yellow Snow IPA. This massively hopped corker of a beer knocked my tastebuds out for several minutes, I reckon.

I'd not been to Open Tap before, but as I understand it, the format is they open three or four bottled beers for tasting and also have one more on tap. They explain the beers (in German, but they're all English speakers too) and then afterwards you have the option to take a €12 tour of the next-door Ratsherrn Brewery; this ends up in the brewery tasting room where you get to sample the Ratsherrn beers. The brewery really is worth a visit – it's very high-tech and impressive, but I toured it a few weeks ago so I stayed in the shop.

The bottled beers were all from Camba Bavaria. This five-year-old brewery is highly adventurous for traditionalist Bavaria, because it produces a wide range of craft lagers and ales, many of them in styles that are not only non-Bavarian but non-German.

Our first sample was Camba Pale Ale. With exotic fruit notes and only a light bitter edge, this unfiltered beer made me think not of Pale Ale but of a hoppy Weiss. Rather more impressive were Camba Amber Ale, a rich, honeyed and faintly fruity beer, and Camba Milk Stout, a delicious example of the style with lots of coffee and roast malt notes, and just enough lactose to make it smooth with a dry-sweet body.

Lastly we tasted the Camba IPA, bursting with grapefruit and passionfruit notes, strongly bitter, and wonderfully balanced between hoppy and malty fruitiness. I actually preferred this one to the Rogue, which was flavoursome but didn't have the same depth as the Camba.

Once the tourers had departed, and I'd helped pillage what was left in the Camba bottles, it was time to stroll over to the evening's other attraction: the official launch at a small bar in St Pauli of SHIPAA, the third in a series of Single Hop IPAs by local gypsy brewers* Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei who currently brew at Fanø Brewery just over the border in Denmark.

Olli pulls another SHIPAA
Hopped at seven different stages in the brewing process with Amarillo, SHIPAA follows SHIPAS (Simcoe) and SHIPAC (Cascade) and turned out to have an earthy hoppiness with touches of citrus and bramble, and a fairly hard-edged bitter finish.

In order to let the hops shine through and allow for comparison, the brewers have made no attempts to adjust the recipe to each different hop – it's the same grain bill each time, "mainly Vienna malt with some pale," said brewer Olli Wesseloh. He added that the one change was "the first time we tasted [SHIPAA], it wasn't all there, so we added another five kilos of dry hops" to the 20hl batch.

He said they are already rebrewing SHIPAS due to demand, though "SHIPAC we'll have to see – some people love it but others hate it." Hops are funny like that...

What with meeting several beer-friends along the way, it was a fine evening out. Along with not allowing quite enough time for the U-bahn and missing my (once-hourly) train by three minutes, it reminded me just how much I miss big city culture. Roll on London next month!

*I say gypsy, but they do have plans to set up their own brewery, once they find a suitable home for their brewkit.

Friday, 26 July 2013

A week around Bamberg #6: When is a Vollbier actually a Dunkel?

Part of the problem is terminology. In German, Vollbier ("full beer") is the taxation class for regular beers of around 3.5%-5.5%, but because for many breweries their Vollbier is an Export Helles or somesuch, some foreigners have assumed that Vollbier=Helles.

Yet here's Brauerei Penning-Zeissler producing a brown Vollbier – the photo here is its tasty Hetzelsdorfer Fränkisches Vollbier dunkel. Simply, it is the brewery's "regular beer". (John Conen, author of the beer tourist's bible Bamberg and Franconia, noted the same thing - that in Franconia, Vollbier is typically darkish red-gold and relatively hoppy.)

Similarly, Dunkel just means dark. Ask for a draught Dunkel at Mahrs Bräu brewery tap, as I did, and you'll get not their ETA Hoffmann, which is more of a Munich Dunkel, but their Ungespundet. It's light brown but it's darker than Mahrs Hell or Weiss.

Equally, Helles/Hell merely means pale and is not automatically a synonym for Dortmunder Export or Bavarian Helles. For many breweries, it is simply the one of their two regular beers that is not Dunkel. If you want to refer to a beer style, you probably need to add that extra qualifier.

Oh, and Landbier isn't a specific style either - sorry, Ratebeer! It means country beer and is often applied more as a marketing term, like "traditional" or "craft" in English. Many Landbiers are maltier than most lagers and may be in the same traditional mould as a Franconian Braunbier, but others are golden Pilseners. Confusing, eh? (-:

A week around Bamberg #5: Braunbier

It was when we were in what was basically a style bar with loud techno music, yet were drinking a rather tasty copper-coloured Rossdorfer Braunbier on draught, that things finally seemed to come together and give me a sense of what Franconian beer is all about. If the waitress in a style bar has no idea which beer she's actually selling (she had to ask her manager which brewery it was from), yet is able to explain that in Franconia the local speciality is Braunbier and that most local breweries make one, that must mean something.

Essentially, Braunbiers seem to represent a surviving 19th century bitter-ale brewing tradition, albeit now in bottom-fermenting lager form and often listed as Vollbier, which is a German taxation class - basically it's "standard beer". They range from pale brown or copper coloured to very dark brown, and while some resemble Munich Dunkels, others are much closer in style to English bitters.

So how did 19th century bitter traditions come to survive here? For a start, Franconia is culturally rather different from Old Bavaria. It only became part of Bavaria in 1803, the dialect of German is different, and where in Old Bavaria you'll see everything decorated in blue and white, the Franconian colours of red and white are everywhere instead.

Then from 1945, Franconia became geographically somewhat isolated by the Iron Curtain, as did neighbouring Oberpfalz, famed these days for its traditional Zoigl beers. They were in West Germany, but the Iron Curtain meant that they weren't really on the way anywhere any more - if indeed they ever had been.

Things had already started to change though, perhaps showing the influence of Old Bavaria. Along with Helles Lagerbiers, many breweries all produce a Weissbier as well, though pretty much every one I tried seemed rather dull and samey.

And with Germany's economic growth and then the fall of the Iron Curtain, things have changed again. Despite their proud Braunbier traditions, many of the Bamberg-area breweries now list a Pils too, even though it is not a traditional style locally.

It's an interesting coincidence that Pils manufacture has really only happened here in the last few decades, and appears to have picked up in recent years – Pils is known to many Germans as "TV beer", because it's TV ads from the big breweries that have established the myth that beer=Pils. Indeed, when we visited the Greifenklau brewery tap, we found Pils production had only started this year (though they were selling Göller Pilsner for a while before that).

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A week around Bamberg #4: Wunderful Wunderburg

While central Bamberg is justly noted for its old breweries and pub, the suburb of Wunderburg is almost as famous: it is the home of not one but two commercial breweries, each with its brewery tap and beer garden. Getting there is pretty easy – you can walk from the old town in less than half an hour, but given the heat we took the bus.

Keesmann has an old facade but appears more 1970s inside, with pale wood and sprinklings of antler – mind you, much of Germany still seems to be in love with the 1970s... The beer garden is more of a yard next to the distribution depot, but is fenced off and garlanded with boxes of geraniums.

I ignored the Herren Pils (Pils? In Bamberg?!) in favour of the excellent Sternla lager, like a bitter and faintly citrussy version of a Vienna lager. A brief experiment with the Weiss revealed it to be dull but quaffable – this turned into a recurring theme with Franconian Weissbiers.

Mahrs Bräu is just over the road. The building feels much older, though perhaps that's just the dark, dark wood and worn flagstones. The irregular garden has big chestnut trees for shade, and until mid-afternoon when table service starts, you must fetch your beer from the bar yourself – this is quite unusual for Germany, though we discovered later that it is typical for Franconian country Kellers.

Four beers were on tap, the best being the gorgeous Ungespundet Kellerbier, or "Oo". A hazy orange-brown, it is dry, bitter and a bit spicy, with earthy and floral notes. Very much how I imagine a bitter ale might taste if it were made as a lager, in fact.

After a good lunch, it was back on a bus and up the hill to Greifenklau for a dry and lightly spicy Helles in its shady and spacious beer garden, with its great view. I was interested to notice Greifenklau has just begun brewing its own Pils too – this is not a traditional local style, but is increasingly common now.

Back down the hill and walking through the old town, we were passing Bamberg's youngest brewpub Ambräusianum, so decided to take a break from the heat, although this proved challenging as there was a distinct shortage of umbrellas! It was the only one to offer a tasting flight of beers; sadly they were the typical uninspiring range I now expect from a German brewpub – a Hell, a Dunkel, a Weizen and a seasonal. The latter, a pale Dinkelbier (spelt beer) was at least refreshingly tangy and dry, and the best of a rather dull bunch.

Thankfully, we were able to end the day on a higher note, with a malty, nutty and smoky Rauchbier Märzen in the courtyard at Brauerei Spezial, back across the river and not far from our lodgings.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

A week around Bamberg #3: Hot cats and cool beers

It's tiring work, basking in the sun
A trip to the excellent Wildpark Hundshaupten in the Fränkische Schweiz (“Franconian Mountains”) – all sorts of mostly European animals, such as rare sheep, deer, wolves and lynx – was also a chance to visit a couple of small towns with their pubs and brewpubs.

The first was Gasthof Redengörg in Ebermannstadt, where we found a really good example of a traditional Franconian Braunbier, Hetzelsdorfer Fränkisches Vollbier dunkel. Dark copper coloured and much more like a country bitter than a Munich Dunkel, it was from Brauerei Penning-Zeissler a few miles down the road – in fact we'd passed the brewery going to the Wildpark.

The upper & lower keeps
After that, it was on to Pottenstein to see the castle, Burg Pottenstein. More than 1000 years old, this sits on top of an impressive crag and has withstood a number of sieges. Most of the medieval fortifications have gone though, demolished in the early 1800s as far as I could tell. The remainder is basically a tower house, so it wasn't quite as exciting as Roric was hoping, although he did like some of the weapons collection in the castle museum...

Pottenstein, from the burg
In the town beneath the castle there were three or more breweries or brewpubs not long ago, now there are two. Sadly we missed Brauerei Mager, but enjoyed lunch in the Gasthausbrauerei Hufeisen. Its Kellerweizen was unimpressive, but its Bio-Dunkel (bio=organic) was much better.

Better still were the local cherries, bought from a stall at the side of the road where it ran through the cherry orchards. Rich, dark and sweet, and just €3.50 a kilo!

Just for a change, an update with no pictures of beer...

Thursday, 18 July 2013

A week around Bamberg #2: an Oberfranken biergarten tour

What's the deal with Zoiglstube Drei Kronen Straßgiech? We finished up this afternoon's tour there, and it's a really nice village pub-restaurant with excellent beer and food, but is it really the best beer venue in Bavaria, as voted by Ratebeer users?

Just part of the garden space at Weiher
On the way there we visited first Brauerei Kundmüller, of most excellent Weiherer fame, and then the Wagner-Bräu Kemmern bier-keller. Both had great beer, with more choices on tap and better prices, cheaper food – albeit Franconian pub-grub rather than restaurant fare – and both have lovelier, greener settings, with playgrounds for the kids, more space, and so on.

(Reading through the reviews on Ratebeer though, I notice something – it's almost as if we were the only visitors not to get a personal tour of from Mr Gänstaller himself. Perhaps we missed something significant!)

Green views at Kemmern
That said, I'd recommend all three places, probably in the order we did them: Weiherer is the only one open for lunch as well as in the evening, then Wagner-Bräu Kemmern with its gorgeous view and extensive terrace for the afternoon – it opens at 3:30.

Do make sure you find the Wagner Keller though, not merely the brewery tap in town. To get to the Keller you pass the brewery, cross the river heading back into the countryside, then it's up a dirt(ish) track and look for the sign. Park at the bottom of the hill and walk up.

The Zoiglstube star
Finally, Gänstaller's Drei Kronen is a really nice place to end up for dinner. Two excellent beers on tap and a short but more than adequate menu of mostly regional specialities.

As usual in Bavaria, check opening times and dates carefully. Many places are closed ("Ruhetag") one day a week – most often Monday, but not always – and many don't open until late afternoon.

A week around Bamberg, part one

Day one

We arrived late on Sunday afternoon after a long journey made even longer and more tedious by crap roadworks on the A7. Fortunately there was still time for our friend Tom and I to take a short walk into the Altstadt. Starting at Schlenkerla with a Märzen might have been clichéd, but it worked nicely. The Rauch Weizen was pretty good too.

Walking back though, there were a couple of things we noticed. One was that even in Bamberg, that legendary city of beer, Pils has broken in big-time. Yes, the famous old brewpubs still do their famous Rauchbiers and Kellerbiers, but in the other bars the glasses of golden fizz were all around.

The second is how many former beerhouses have been turned into ethnic (Italian/Chinese/Mongolian/etc) restaurants. They may still offer local beer, perhaps due to long term supply contracts, but who wants to drink good beer with food smells around?

Luckily most still have their beer-gardens, so we stopped for a beer at one, Griessgarten, which is now mostly a Mexican restaurant indoors. The beer was OK, nothing special, so it was into Der Pelikan for a couple of decent-enough Helles – it has a broad beer range for a German pub, plus Thai food, but it is definitely still a pub-with-food, not a restaurant. So much for “just two or three beers, then an early night”...

Day two

Was a more relaxed day in town, shopping for all the stuff we'd forgotten to pack, like hats for me and the boy... It was sunny, the Grüner Markt was full of strawberries and cherries, the ice-cafés were open, and the old Rathaus looked lovely from just over the bridge, where we sat drinking Alt-Bamberg Zwickl.

Wandering around some more, we found Heska, a bar Tom that had seen before but it had been closed. It's been open again for nine months, apparently, and is a quite chic'ly furnished local with Weismainer beers on tap. Nice.

*We also discovered that our lodgings do not after all have Wi-Fi. Also, as far as I can tell there is no public Wi-Fi in town, free or paid-for. What is this, the Middle Ages?

It means precious few blog updates, anyhow, as all I have is a laggy 50kbit/s data connection via my phone. Sigh.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Saxon beer

So here's today's shopping - Saxon beer. Lots of Dunkel-y goodness, I hope...
I picked up this lot from one of the stalls at today's beer festival just outside Hamburg, Bier aus dem Norden. More about that later, once I've had some sleep, done a bit of work, and got my head back in gear.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Brewpubs of Berlin, day two

Unlike day one, this was also a family day, which meant finding places which would be reasonably child-friendly. It also meant a bit less drinking and a bit more hanging around playgrounds and the like...

Heidenpeters ✪✪✪
Spotted it yet? The round sign, dead-centre? It's beyond that.
Another market-hall pub, and another one that was hard to find. It is tucked away in a corner of Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, and is pretty much invisible unless you happen to look down the correct aisle. Just two beers are on tap at a time; when we visited they were a rather tasty Pale Ale and an interpretation of a Belgian Witbier that was perhaps just past its best.

Although it is an old structure, Markthalle Neun had shut down and was reopened with the gentrification of formerly run-down Kreuzberg. So while there is an Aldi in the corner and there are "proper" market traders, the dominant theme now is gourmet coffee, crafty knick-knacks, and edgy world-food (the South African barbeque platter was excellent). If this appears off-putting, it isn't meant to be – it's a nice busy place with a good play area for kids, and is popular with the locals.

So too is Heidenpeters. It's almost as if the aim is to produce beers as different from industrial Pils as possible, artfully made to appear crafted and usually slightly hazy – this latter is the current fashion in Germany. And it seems to work – the beers are idiosyncratic and popular. Many of the surrounding coffee and food stalls also sell bottled beers, but pretty much all I noticed on the many tables was Heidenpeters glasses.

Hops & Barley ✪✪✪✪
Based in Friedrichshain, another formerly run-down area that's now cool and trendy, Hops & Barley is a cosy pub converted from a couple of shops by the look of it. The modern-looking small brew-kit in the corner looks slightly out of place, all brushed stainless steel against the old green and white ceramic tiles, dark wood panelling and wooden floor.

While the beer range is only slightly wider than the average for a German brewpub – a Pils, a Dunkel, a Weizen and a seasonal – the beers themselves are jolly good and the place just feels right. There's seating outside too, where you can watch the trams rattle by, plus a room at the back which I guess is for when it's really busy or raining (or maybe for after 10pm, when I think they have to close the outdoor seating).

One oddity was that, apart from the staff, very few people were speaking German. There's a lot of hostels and other accommodation in the area – indeed, the pub has rooms to let – so it can be a bit touristy. It was all pretty mellow though, even a toddler climbing onto a bar-stool to ask for apple juice didn't faze the barman, and we'd have happily stayed longer if we could.

I know there are a lot of Berlin brewpubs that I missed. This trip was only ever intended as a sampler, so I deliberately tried to visit places that seemed to be doing something interesting with their beer, not merely brewing just to have their own Pils. Even then I missed promising places for one reason or another – for example Brauhaus Südstern which annoyingly I now see I could easily have got to on day one. Ah well, I guess it means another trip to Berlin is required!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Brewpubs of Berlin, day one

As with the rest of Germany, brewpubs are popular in Berlin. And while many offer a yawn-inspiring range of craft-Pils and maybe one other, quite a few of them are rather more innovative.

This is an area where northern Germany* scores over the stick-in-the-mud south. Yes, the south has some great beer, especially in Franconia of course, but it is also quite resistant to new ideas. Even those southern breweries that want to do something new or different have to do it mostly for export - shipping it north also counts as export, of course!

So while we were in Berlin recently, I took the opportunity to visit a few of the brewpubs. It wasn't meant to be a representative sample, but I was hoping to get an idea of how Berlin's brewing culture is regrowing, and how much interest there is in the northern beer heritage.  

*Here I'm thinking not just of the coastal states that Germans think of as "Nordisch", but Sachsen-Anhalt, Brandenburg and maybe NRW too.

Brewbaker ✪✪✪
This was my first port of call, not least because it opens earlier than most of the others – but then it closes earlier too, because it keeps shopping hours. That's because it is on a small site in an old Berlin market hall, now revamped with a foodie arts and crafts edge, though still with quite a few traditional stalls too, such as old-fashioned butchers, cheesemongers and greengrocers.

It's designed to look sort of pubby, I guess. The bar surrounds a windowed but roofless mock building facade just over 2m high, behind which is the brewery. There are only eight or 10 seats at the bar, but there are more tables and chairs nearby – these seem to be shared with the food stalls.

Typically it has four or five own-brewed beers on tap, plus more available in bottles. They include the inevitable Pils plus other styles both German and foreign. Interestingly, the non-German styles I tried – Berlin IPA and Bellevue Red Lager – came out almost as hybrids, with notable German characteristics. An illustration of how styles overlap and merge, and how brewing foreign beers is also encouraging German brewers to explore their own beer preferences and heritage.

Eschenbräu ✪✪✪✪
At the street address there is just what looks like an office block. Look again though and there's a sign, “Brew-cellar entrance around the corner”. Ah-ha! Head around the corner, then between two garden fences, look carefully, and finally there it is: gleaming copper brewing gear behind glass upstairs, and stairs leading down to a basement.

Formerly a brutalist concrete space by the look of it, this basement is now a warren of rooms, decorated with cartoon murals and filled with tables – and also, on this Friday afternoon, with thirsty and hungry patrons.

Three or four regular beers are on tap alongside at least one special. The specials are a mix of Bavarian bierkeller standards, other traditional German styles, and German twists on English styles such as Porter and Stout. All are flavoursome, at least a bit unusual and northern in style, and most are fashionably hazy or cloudy. The place also presses and sells its own apple juice, makes schnapps, and is maturing its own whisky in oak casks, which should go on sale towards the end of 2013.

Outside in the courtyard between the apartment blocks is a big beer garden, under a big spreading oak tree and a stand of tall London planes and sycamores. Again, it appears popular with locals, and there's a villagey feel about it.

Rollberger ✪✪
OK, this one's really hard to find! The street address is a scruffy gateway which leads to a post-industrial wasteland, littered with temporary fencing and rubble, beyond which are what looks to be an old red-brick power station (but which I'm told is the original Berliner Kindl brewery!) undergoing renovation and a couple of huge tin sheds, one housing a go-kart track. But if you keep going, around the corner of the power station is the Rollberger brewery and its brewery tap.

Sadly it's one of those venues that persists in allowing smoking even indoors, and it was unpleasantly fuggy with just one or two people  visibly smoking. Fortunately there is space outdoors too, the sheds partly screened from view by wild flowers in boxes and chicken-wire fencing with vines growing on it. Very inner-city garden.

The Rotbier is soft and malty, a bit sweet but still a pleasant interpretation of a Vienna lager. The Maibock however was too sweet altogether to the extent that I couldn't finish it – a rare occurrence indeed.

The nice touch about this place is the barbeque – apparently the idea is you can bring stuff along and grill it while you drink. There's an excellent beer-garden rule in Germany that patrons can bring their own picnics, but I've not previously seen one that lets you cook them as well.

Next: Day two...

Monday, 24 June 2013

A grand day out

Had a great day out on Saturday with the guys (and gal) from Hobbybrew Hamburg – if you're looking for people who want to step beyond the orthodox where beer is concerned, I reckon you can't do much better than chatting to home-brewers. After all, routine beer is so cheap here in Germany – as little as €0.50 a litre – the only reason to home-brew is because you want something that you can't get in the shops.

Klindworths Walpurgis-Ale
The plan was a trip out to Klindworths, mainly because it's a village brewpub with an ever-changing range of great beers, which is a bit unusual here, but perhaps also partly because it's just within the area covered by the Greater Hamburg public transport system, so anyone with a day-travelcard or season ticket can get there for free...

(Getting there did indeed work fine, though my concern at realising there was only one bus a day there was justified when it turned out that the expected return bus didn't exist, so we all had to pile into a taxi-van to get back to the train. Ah well.)

We arrived to find most of the place being set up for a wedding reception, and to a somewhat startled reception – apparently they'd wanted to tell us it wouldn't be a good day to visit after all because of the wedding, but had computer problems and lost our contact's details. I think they'd hoped when we didn't re-confirm that we weren't coming after all.

Fortunately, it all worked out fine – we didn't get the expected tour, but there was plenty of excellent beer and food. And because the bar we sat in also contained the coffee machine, we got several chances to ask the brewer questions while he made coffees for the wedding guests!

The star of the show beer-wise was the Walpurgis-Ale, a 7.3% black IPA thatwas brewed on the witches festival of Walpurgis Night (April 30th). The brewer said he wanted to do something appropriately "dark and witchy", and in this deep brown-black beer, with a big hopsack nose and loads of hoppy bitterness to complement its burnt malt and treacle notes, I'd say he succeeded admirably.

I was also greatly impressed though by his regular Landbier, which I'd not tried before as it is aimed at the Pils drinkers. I'd say it's actually more of a hopped-up and slightly hazy Zwickl, with citrus notes and quite a bit more depth of flavour than the average Pils.

We then turned – with permission – to the home-brew samples people had brought along. Of the four on offer, for me there was one solid hit, one pretty good and a couple of so-so's, and a very lively discussion followed, as did several more Walpurgis-Ales. All in all, an excellent afternoon out, even if I still can't quite work out where all my money went...

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The perils of going off piste, Pilsner-wise

What's up with the German megabrewers - have they forgotten how to handle hops and malt? It seems that way at times. Give them a recipe - preferably for Pilsner or Weizen - and they'll turn out a well-made beer. Then tell them that they have to economise and spend less on hops and malt, and they'll find ways to still brew a Pils that's just about sessionable in an unchallenging middle-of-the-road fashion. But ask them to go off-piste, to do something that's not in their recipe book, and they're a bit lost.

However, the signs are that customers, journalists and beer judges alike have all noticed a decline in flavour. For instance, it has become an article of faith among drinkers of Jever, the classic bitter beer that typified the hoppy Nordisch (North German) Pilsner sub-style, that it has been dumbed-down in recent times. [Incidentally, reproducing Jever "as it used to be" was formerly cited as the motivation for Meantime Brewing's Friesian Pilsner, although I see Meantime doesn't mention this now - maybe the German brewery complained!]

Other worries for the megabrewers must be that smaller local breweries and brewpubs are doing nicely with tastier beers, and - horror of horrors! - some people are even drinking American and American-inspired pale ales and IPAs.

So some of them have been scrabbling around for a response to this demand for extra flavour. At least, that's the most obvious reason I can think of for the appearance late last year and then again quite recently of two new "double hopped" Pilsners, both of which take a clear aim at Nordisch Pilsner but don't really hit the target.

Test-launched in cans last December, and now back as a regular but this time in bottles, Holsten Extra Herb (Extra Bitter) boasts 40 IBU (international bittering units) as against 28 for the ordinary Pilsner. By comparison Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which is distributed in northern Germany and is pretty popular among aficionados, is 38 IBU, while Jever is reputedly 44 and Pilsner Urquell is about 45.

The original canned version was actually rather good for a megabrew woith a good balance of malt and fruity-floral hops, perhaps resembling an American Pale Ale (APA) as much as a Nordisch Pilsner. However, something's happened to the mass production version to render it much less impressive - attack of the accountants, methinks... Gone is the extra flavour, and it's just a bitter Pilsner now.

December also saw the launch of Warsteiner Herb, for which no IBU figure is given, but they write of adding "a significantly greater amount of Hallertau hops" during the boil. The result is rather one-dimensional - sure, there are dry-grassy hop notes and a bit of malt, but again all they've really done is add bitterness.

The problem is that IBUs are only part of the story, and bitterness on its own is actually rather boring - HopHeads may disagree at this point, but hear me out! Bitterness needs to be balanced by other elements in the beer, as Sierra Nevada and Pilsner Urquell know and demonstrate. Otherwise it becomes harsh, often with the acrid vegetal note that the Warsteiner has, for example.

So perhaps it's the way big brews work: maybe it's an issue with the process of scaling up from a pilot brew to mass production - though I don't know why Sierra Nevada and PU can do it but the Germans can't. Anyone got any ideas? Or am I talking bollards here?

Do note by the way that not all beers labelled Herb are recently introduced over-bittered Pilsners. Most are simply German-style Pilsners, probably given that name to distinguish them from less hoppy styles such as Helles.