Monday 24 September 2012

Hamburger Craft Beer Day 2012

And my thanks to the wag on RateBeer who was hoping that this would combine his two favourite things – beer and hamburgers... In reality it was a beer festival organised by the Ratsherrn Brewery in Hamburg, and featuring its own beer plus those of friends both inside and outside Germany. For non-Hamburgers, Ratsherrn is an old brewery name locally – it translates as Alderman or Councillor – but this is a brand-new incarnation, its first full brew being in April this year.

It is based in the old Schanzen-Höfen wholesale meat market buildings, which are currently being refurbished to attract a variety of entrepreneurs and other commercial tenants. There's still builders fencing around and quite a bit of rough unpaved ground, plus the decorative trees are still wrapped in protective sacking, but enough's been done for there to be a usable courtyard, and that's where the festival was.

It wasn't just beer, either – as well as very tasty sausages, the beer fest was tied in with the city-wide Reeperbahn Festival, so there was a stage with an international line-up of musicians, playing 30-minutes sessions pretty much every hour. Roric especially enjoyed the bands – you can see him looking fascinated in this Youtube video...

Seven breweries took part, four from northern Germany plus Aarhus Bryghus from Denmark, Boston Beer Co (=Sam Adams) from the US, and Maisel & Friends, which is a craft beer spin-off from the Maisel's Weisse family brewery in Bayreuth, Bavaria. Most were serving from bottles, the main exceptions being Ratsherrn which had all four of its beers on tap, the other Hamburg City micro Blockbräu with two taps, and Klindworths which had its Landbier-Bus along – a twin-tap bar fitted into a VW campervan/microbus. Everything was one euro for a 100ml taste for a euro or €3 for a 300ml glass (about half a UK pint).

Some of the beers were quite excellent. The longest beer lists were presented by Aarhus, whose 6% Klosterbryg was sort of an Abbey-Dubbel-meets-IPA and was excellent, and Ricklinger Landbrauerei. I've mentioned the latter's dark beers here, but its Rauchbier was also nice and its herbal Porsebier was well made although odd – a bit like drinking a good Helles bombed with a Jagermeister.

The Sam Adams beers were good too. Alongside its Boston Lager and Fat Jack – the current seasonal pumpkin beer – it had its very tasty Whitewater IPA and one that wasn't in the programme: an interpretation of traditional Finnish Sahti called Norse Legend. (I don't think the Finns are actually Norse, but maybe Sam knows better!) This was rather intriguing – malty and dark, yet with earthy farmyard notes, kind of like a cross between an Old Ale and a Saison.

The Klindworths beer-bus
The star of the festival for me though was the Pale Ale from Klindworths, a country brewpub which celebrates its Landbier – this is more a marketing term than a style, rather like “traditional country ale” for a British brewery – yet is not afraid to give it a big punch, and indeed to blend in elements from other related traditions. The Pale Ale is a gorgeous bitter in the modern style – a big hoppy bite, peachy malt bursting out, and a long sharp and refreshing dry-bitter finish.

All in all, a great day out. Everyone was having fun and in a good mood. Yes, we were in an open yard and there was a brief rainstorm, but once it stopped – and even before we'd brushed ourselves down – members of staff came around offering rolls of paper towel to dry benches and tables. The only disappointment is having to wait until next year for Hamburger Craft Beer Day no.2!

Yes, there really is Porter and Stout in Germany

A little while back, an article on Ron Pattinson's blog about 19th century British investors in German breweries sparked a brief discussion in the comments section about a growing interest among German brewers in Porter and Stout. There's not a lot of it made yet and it's tough to find – but it does exist, some of it is rather good, and at Saturday's craft beer festival in Hamburg (of which, more later) I found a few more examples.

Two were from Ricklinger Landbrauerei, specifically a Stout and a Porter. I can't help feeling they may have misunderstood though – Stout means strong, and in this context is shorthand for Stout Porter, yet their Porter is 7.5% alcohol while their Stout is merely 5%!

Both were pretty good – I was expecting the Porter to be a sweet Baltic type, but it was closer to a dry English style, with Doppelbock-like dark fruit and a little bit of smokiness, while the Stout was treacley and bitter, and reminiscent of a Black IPA or Export India Porter. If it were me, I'd rename the Stout as Porter, and the Porter as an Imperial Stout!

The third I've not opened yet – it's a bottle of Propeller Nachtflug (=Night Flight), a 9.1% Imperial Stout brewed in North Rhine-Westfalia, which is east of Cologne. I'm looking forward to it...

(This is the first of several articles planned from the recent Hamburger Craft Beer Day.)

PS. I'm aware of a few others, eg. Stortebeker has a Baltic-style (ie. sweet) Hanse Porter plus a Stark Bier that's pretty much an Imperial Stout, Bergquell does some well-dodgy fruited Porters, and there's a couple from iconoclastic brewers such as Eric Toft of Schönram.

Are there any more that I've missed – and which are worth hunting out? 

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Just cos it's in a tent, does it have to be camp?

pic by @bryan_gb
It's Oktoberfest season here in Germany – and yes, it is still September here too, it's called Oktoberfest because it ends in October. All over the country, what might once I suppose have been harvest festivals have become local imitations of the Munich original, complete with Bavarian beer, blue and white bunting, and of course silly hats.

Lüneburg's version is quite early, small and short – just four days, finishing yesterday (when the Munich one doesn't open until the 22nd), and only one giant beer tent. Presumably the tent will now be taken down and moved somewhere a bit bigger for another Oktoberfest next weekend.

It's not just the beer tent though – there's also assorted fun-fair stalls and children's fairground rides, places to buy various kinds of hot and cold food, and there are lots of other outdoor bars. Fittingly, most of the other beer on sale was northern, with Duckstein (now owned by Carlsberg, and I believe brewed at the Holsten site in Hamburg) the most prominent. Also around were Holsten and Lüneburger Pilsners (both also from Carlsberg/Hamburg), and AB-InBev's Diebels Alt, though by the look of it the latter was only available as an “Alt Bowle” which is a beer cocktail or punch, complete with chunks of fruit.

When we finally reached the big tent late on Sunday afternoon, a pair of entertainers were banging out versions of 60s/70s Country classics – Sweet Caroline, Country Road, that sort of thing – to a small but reasonably appreciative crowd. After they went off stage things got a little odd, when a rather fey chap who appeared to be a member of the audience took the mike and started singing. His voice was good, not great, but it was abundantly clear that he knew how to use a stage.

Anyway, we were about to finish our beers – Löwenbräu Oktoberfest, which was competent; the alternative was Franziskaner weiss, and both are now AB-InBev properties – and head home for something with a bit more depth of flavour, when I spotted that the menu also listed the weekend's entertainment, and Sunday night was a "Travestie Show", ie. a drag cabaret...

pic by @PsycheDK
I've seen some strange things at beer festivals, but this pretty much takes the biscuit. The highlights, if one can call them that, were a rather tubby transvestite doing fart jokes while impersonating Benny Hill's impersonation of Nana Mouskouri(!), and a much slimmer and very glam colleague (seen here – I'm pretty sure this was the fey chap from earlier) dancing with one of the lads from the big macho table in the middle. Laddie didn't seem to need much persuading, mind you.

My Danish friends and I observed that it was all extremely odd – and very German. “Very Bavarian, more like,” sniffed a local.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Why Germany needs a beer consumers group

My post last week, suggesting that German beer had become samey and was increasingly being made to a lower budget, stirred up a lot of comment, quite a bit of it along the lines of “Oh, you just need to go to Bamberg/Cologne/my local/etc.”

Perhaps I should have qualified my comment and said “mainstream German beer is suffering”, but the warning that I was trying to send covers the good stuff too. The warning is that if German consumers don't look beyond their locals and favourites and their cosy assumptions of greatness, the multinationals will grab more and more. Then they will gradually do what multinationals always do, which is to dumb things down for the sake of profit and dominate via marketing not quality.

I certainly wasn't trying to say there are no good beers in Germany – there are lots (just as there were still real ales in Britain in 1971). Most are only available on draught in their home region, as is typically the case with Kölsch and Alt for example, although if you are lucky you will also find some of them in bottles further afield. There are also lots of local breweries and brewpubs – and many thanks to Renate for pointing me at Die Freien Brauer, which for British readers is a society for independent family brewers, rather like Britain's SIBA, and then again to this article from Der Spiegel, about new microbreweries in Berlin (only in German – but Google Translate makes a decent fist of it).

There are welcome signs too that some of the regionals and the newer breweries are trying to differentiate themselves – offering their Pils cloudy and unfiltered (a form of Kellerbier) say, or adding a dark Pils, or reinventing older styles such as Zwickl and dark lager. Some have added extra seasonals as well, such as Maibock or Frühlingsbock (Easter bock), and a few have revived once-extinct styles such as Gose sour ale, in Leipzig.

German beer as a whole has been left behind though, and certainly isn't the best in the world now, if it ever was. Quite often, what a regional brewery or a brewpub produces is the regulation Pils and/or Weizen, plus maybe one or two others. And even that isn't what most people drink, especially outside Bavaria – that's the produce of the big boys, the Oettingers, Krombachers and Bitburgers, the mass-produced, crisp yet one-dimensional beers. The entire membership of the DFB brews less beer than Oettinger, for example.

And it's the “little green bottles from Prussia” slagged off by the author of this article from Süddeutsche Zeitung (again, in German – and GIYF). He also slates the sameyness of the big beers, along with brewery ties and marketing that limit choice on the bar, and the lack of imagination that leads to beer being drunk to get drunk rather than for enjoyment.

All this is why Germany needs a beer consumers group – to educate people about how wonderful German beer can be if it's made right, and support those brewers that are doing it right. Sure, the newspapers will do a bit of this every once in a while, but a consumers group can take it to the next level.

The other reason why Germany needs a beer consumers group is to ensure that the government doesn't just hear the voices of the big brewing businesses. Sure, organisations such as Die Freien Brauer can do some of this, but they could do a lot more with the backing of a genuine grassroots consumer group.

So, how about it – what needs doing, and who ought to be doing it?

Monday 3 September 2012

Been shopping? No... I've been shopping.

We've got beer-loving visitors coming over next weekend, so I thought I'd quickly stock up on quaffables. Nothing too special yet, as the nearest specialist beer shop's some way away in Hamburg. Just the interesting stuff they keep tucked away at the back of the Getränkemärkte, hidden behind the serried rows of Pils and Radler. Here's a list:

Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel - the 4th best beer in Germany according to Ratebeer users, and the best according to me.
Mönchshof Kellerbier - slightly cloudy, malty and delicious, a classic German bitter (to my mind, anyhow).
Einbecker Ur-Bock Dunkel - the original bock from the home of the style, Einbeck. Malty, chewy and lightly bitter.
Flensburger Dunkel and Dithmarscher Dunkel - two classic north German dunkels. Roasty and malty with a bit of burnt bitterness.
Oettinger Schwartzbier - a pleasant roasty black beer with fruitcakey notes, and absurdly cheap at 45 cents a bottle.

I'll try to get to the bigger Getränkemärkte on the other side of town later in the week, to see if there's anything more unusual there.