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.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Beer for BBQs - decisions, decisions.

I've just been told that not only are we going to two barbeques this afternoon, but both sets of hosts are expecting me to bring along 'interesting' beer. Argh!

I'm now trying to think which of the local shops to hit - this would be an ideal reason to visit Bierland and/or the new Craft Beer Store in Hamburg, but that would mean a two to three hour expedition, and there isn't time.

Thinking helmet on, then... It's going to have to be German, because the only foreign stuff in town is either very uninteresting (Guinness, Heineken, Tyskie) or rather expensive (Brewdog Punk IPA at €4 a bottle in the deli). Hmm, I suppose I do usually like a challenge!

So far I'm thinking maybe Ratsherrn Pale Ale, some of the Maisel & Friends stuff, and maybe a couple of the better dunkels. I'd take Schneider Weisse Tap 5 Hopfen-Weisse as well, except I've not seen it on sale around here. Oh, and there's still a few Maibocks around - maybe a tad strong for barbeque quaffing, but what the heck. OK, here goes!

Thursday 6 June 2013

Evil Twin - Ashtray Heart Smoked Imperial Stout

Every now and then a beer comes along and reminds me just how much I enjoy the Dark Side: this is one of those beers. Struggling for a comparison, I came up with vintage port and a barrel-aged barley-wine, getting married in a burnt-out toffee factory. Pretentious maybe, but it fits.

Produced by Denmark's Evil Twin Brewing – whose brewer Jeppe is the brother of Mikkeller's eponymous founder Mikkel – at De Molen in the Netherlands, at 8.9% this is almost a lightweight by modern Imperial Stout standards, yet it packs a big flavoursome punch.

Ashtray Heart pours a deep black-brown with a big foamy tan head. On the nose there's smoke and malt, plus hints of roasted coffee and smoky bacon. In the mouth it's well-named – there's notes of ash, leather, old wine, black treacle and a faint tartness. Then in the finish, a little malty sweetness, a hint of roasted cocoa, and that burnt bitterness that tends to signify roasted barley.

If you don't like smoked beers, you'll hate this. But if you like them, or if you're neutral to them but like strong stouts and porters, I suspect you might love this.