Saturday 30 March 2013

A grand day to be indoors with craft beer

The location for the second Craft Beer Day – an old limestone factory converted into an arts centre, on the icy and windswept shore of a lake in a distant suburb of Hamburg – seemed unpromising to me. Yet by the end of last Saturday, around 2500 people had made their way there to enjoy a fine variety of good beer, plus good food and music, and of course good company.

Grönwohlder and Zeugenbräu

Around a dozen breweries took part, I think all were northern German except two: Schneider Weisse from Bavaria, and Black Isle from Scotland. (The local newspaper coverage of the latter was amusing – the writer seemed amazed that "the land of whisky" should also produce beer.) The northerners ranged in size from Stralsund's Störtebeker – formerly the Stralsunder Brewery – which is now up to 100,000hl a year, according to brewer Christoph Puttnies, to hobby-brewers turned professional (or semi-pro) such as Grönwohlder, Sommerbecker and Zeugenbräu, the latter producing just 50 litres at a time.

The one thing they almost all shared, apart from not being factory brewers, was an interest in challenging the conservative monoculture of mainstream German beer – the popular assumption that Beer=Pils/Helles, and is more for quaffing than tasting. I was particularly amused when Grönwohlder boss Torsten Schumacher said no to visitors asking for Pils, telling them he was presenting only his Dunkel and Landbier on draught. He told me afterwards that he makes Pils mostly for the supermarkets – he said his other beers are unfiltered and don't have the required shelf-life.

I suspect that people coming to a craft beer festival and looking for Pils shows that the German craft beer movement is sending out mixed messages. On the one hand, there are people pushing the historical, experimental and creative sides of brewing, while on the other are people using the term simply to mean local and non-industrial production of Pils and Weizen. Can the two co-exist? I guess we have to hope so, and that the latter will gradually shift towards the former.

Ratsherrn and Ricklinger, getting busy
There were certainly signs of this happening among the breweries present at Craft Beer Day. Most had a had a variety of flavoursome beers on offer, including an excellent Stout and a rather nice Rauchbier from Finsterwalder, a classic Winterbock from Klüver's, and a tasty Porter from Privatbrauerei Bosch. Ricklinger, who I met at the first Craft Beer Day, was also there with a great range of beers. Most brewers had Dunkels and several had a Porter or Stout as well – I had a chat too with Christoph about the similarities between Baltic Stout and his excellent Störtebeker Stark-bier, which is technically a Doppelbock.

As well as all the good beer, it was wonderful to meet and talk with some really creative German brewers. Perhaps the most experimental is Zeugenbräu's Boris Georgiev – his proud motto is "Guaranteed not brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot", as he creates new twists on ancient North German spiced and fruit beer traditions such as beer with mango or spiced with cardamom.

I also had a great chat with one of the event's organisers, Axel Ohm of Ratsherrn Brauerei. I have to confess I wasn't too impressed with Ratsherrn when it started out – it seemed to be taking a very cautious let's-not-frighten-the-horses approach, with a beer range led by yet another Pils and a decent but not inspired Pale Ale. More recently though it has struck out a bit, with Iggy Hop, which is a single-hopped Weizen using American Simcoe hops, and now a crisp Zwickel too. Axel confirmed that there has indeed been a policy shift, with the realisation that there really is a market for something a bit different. We also talked about how different it is compared to the south of Germany, where the dead hand of tradition is so cold and heavy that breweries are almost scared to innovate.

Readying the bierstacheln
 One final highlight was discovering another tradition on the Schneider Weiss bar: mulled weissbier – or more accurately, mulled weizenbock. Beer sommelier Timo Hinkel took a special red-hot poker called a bierstacheln, or beer-sting, and plunged it into a glass of Unser Aventinus; instantly the beer began to foam as heat shock threw CO2 out of the liquid, along with an aroma of toasted caramel.

and mulling the beer
The resulting drink was fascinating – perhaps the oddest part was feeling the still-cold upper foam on my lip while drinking warm beer from below, with flavours of toasted bread and burnt caramel. I know ale was mulled with red-hot pokers in medieval England too, but sad to say I've never tasted that version, so this was a new experience – and one I'd like to thank Timo and the Schneider team for.

Monday 25 March 2013

Dampfbier: the original Steam Beer?

Zwiesels Dampfbier
Many beer fans will have heard of Steam Beer, a style claimed as native by California and now brewed only by San Francisco's Anchor Brewing – in name at least, since former Anchor owner Fritz Maytag was smart enough to trademark “Anchor Steam Beer” in 1981. Other Californian breweries now make it too, but as a style called California Common.

What many will not know is that there is another steam beer: the Dampfbier of eastern Bavaria (dampf=steam). I came across a Dampfbier from Maisels of Bayreuth a while back, then last Saturday I visited a drinks market that was new to me and found a Dampfbier from the 1st Dampfbierbrauerei of Zwiesel, which revived the style in 1989. (Ironically, these two breweries are just 100km or so from Pilsen.)

And the legend of Dampfbier is almost identical to the legend of Steam Beer – beer brewed for the common folk, by brewers unable to use the refrigeration needed for the newer cold-fermented Munich, Vienna and Pilsener lagers. The notable difference is that Dampfbier uses a top/warm-fermenting Weissbier or ale-type yeast, whereas Steam Beer uses a bottom/cold-fermenting lager yeast but at ale temperatures.

American writers and their fellow travellers (such as the writer of the Dampfbier history linked to above) would have it that this makes them examples of parallel but independent evolution. Indeed, Steam Beer is sometimes claimed as “America's only true native style” – but what if that weren't true? What if the reality was that Bavarian brewers emigrating to the US – Anchor's early brewers were all German immigrants, for example – already knew of Dampfbier, and faced with an inability to make the cold-fermented lagers that their breweries had switched over to back home, they simply reverted to those older techniques that they were still familiar with?

Maisel's Dampfbier
Of course, using a different yeast does produce a different result. It should be noted though that much else is common to the two. Dampfbier is even lagered – matured in a cold cellar – of course, like other warm-fermented Bavarian beers such as Weissbier.

So what's Dampfbier like? Both the ones I've tried are a reddish-brown or red-amber and malty, lightly hopped with bitterness really only in the finish, and slightly sweet with faint notes of caramel and nuts. The bottled Zwiesel example is a bit fruity, with hints of melon, bread dough and bubblegum on the nose, and touches of tart plum, bread and a faint wineyness in the body. The Maisels one I've only had on draught, it has touches of peach and banana on the nose and a smoother body.

I suppose if anything, I'd describe them as a bit like a cross between a Dunkelweiss and a Brown Ale. Which kind of makes sense, given the heritage. As you'd expect from a modern American brew, Anchor Steam Beer is quite a bit hoppier, with pine and citrus notes, yet it too is amber, malty, and a little sweet with notes of bread and caramel or honey. Different, then, but not that different. Interesting, eh?

Saturday 23 March 2013

World's oldest preserved beer to be recreated at last

Another year, another press release following the 2010 discovery of "the world's oldest preserved beer" in a shipwreck off the Åland Islands in the Baltic. In 2011, it was sending the beer off for analysis at Finland's VTT Technical Research Centre - here's the report I wrote on it then. In 2012, it was the release of their findings, which I covered here on the blog.

Now it is the news - well, it is more of a confirmation than news, given it submitted a request to do the brew right back at the start in 2010 - that local brewer Stallhagen is to try replicating the beer, and hopes to have something in production by June 2014

Stallhagen is also the only microbrewery on Åland - indeed, it may be the only commercial brewer of any kind on the islands. Anyone who knows a bit about the economics and politics of Åland, which are somewhat local, to say the least, will be entirely unsurprised that the project has gone there rather than to a mainland brewery!

It's a fascinating project though, and I look forward to trying the results - especially as a portion of the profits will be going to local marine-oriented charities.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Hamburg Craft Beer Day #2

I'm looking forward to this Saturday - it's the second Hamburg-area Craft Beer Day, taking place at Kulturwerk-am-See, a cultural centre in the suburb of Norderstedt.

The event's website isn't being updated, but the Facebook page is. The participant list currently appears to be:

Ratsherrn Brauerei
Ricklinger Landbrauerei
Finsterwalder Brauhaus
Grönwohlder Hausbrauerei
Propeller Bier
Sommerbecker Dachs-Bier
Klüver’s Brauhaus
Störtebeker Braumanufaktur
Black Isle Brewery (yes, the Scottish one)
and some members of the HobbyBrau Hamburg home-brewers group.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Discovering beer culture around Hamburg

When we moved to Lüneburg I wasn't too worried by the absence of any local "beer scene" – I figured we'd be close enough to Hamburg, and surely there would be something in the Big City. How wrong I was.

The brewery in the Gröninger Braukeller
Sure, Hamburg has a few brewpubs, such as Gröninger Braukeller and a branch of the Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht chain, both of which are worth visiting, but none of them is really pushing the envelope.

Indeed, most German brewpubs play it fairly safe – there will be something gold and Saaz-hoppy, such as a Pils and/or a Weizen, maybe a Dunkel, and maybe a seasonal. Probably just two beers available at any one time, and nothing that might frighten the horses. (In my view, most German brewers don't pay enough attention to flavour-hops. It's typically malt for flavour and hops only for bittering and aroma, which is like brewing with one hand tied behind your back.)

In fact, in many ways Lüneburg's two brewpubs are doing a better job – Nolte's recent seasonals were very good, and Mälzer, which I had also put into the "playing it safe" category, seems to have upped its game of late with a couple of excellent specials. Well done to both!

The shortage of interesting and/or varied beer on draught has been partly compensated for by finding good stuff in bottles. There's a couple of good places in Lüneburg – a deli-type supermarket called Sand Passage right in the centre which stocks some foreign beers as well as some less common German ones, and a branch of the Hol'Ab! drinks chain, which alongside the usual Pils by the crate, has a fair selection of other German beers, especially Bavarians.

For real variety, and a few more unusual foreign beers – most places here will have Czech and maybe Polish lagers, plus Guinness and Heineken, and that's about it – I have to go to Hamburg, and the wonderfully eclectic Bierland. Meandering corridors link two or three tiny shopfronts that offer unusual German beers, including micro and craft brews I'd never heard of, plus a shifting foreign range including Italian and American.

Altes Mädchen - it was a bit busier when I was there!
But still, I do miss a bit of beer culture. This may yet change – a new bar recently opened in Hamburg as the brewery-tap of the refounded Ratsherrn Brewery. It's called Altes Mädchen Braugasthaus, it's self-consciously "craft beer", and it definitely has promise. There is only German beer on tap (so far) but there's an impressive list of domestic and foreign bottles. My one visit so far was during the opening week, so it was rammed and service was correspondingly slow.

I'll be going there again, and I will write more about it soon. I just hope that next time it'll be less full and there won't be engineering work all over the public transport system – it ought to be 75 minutes door to door, but it took two hours to get there and nearly four to get home, via a late night rail-replacement bus.