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...