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.