Wednesday, 27 April 2016

With a little help from my friends

The occasion of #OpenIt a couple of weeks ago happened to coincide with a small, pre-birthday gathering, at which I had already planned to open a selection of bottles, some of which had been languishing in my cellar for a few years. Ever the one for experimenting on my friends and neighbours, I thought it would be a chance to share some big bottles, and get some feedback in the form of a casual tasting.

After filling bellies with chili and a selection of my own humble beer offerings of porter, pale ale and saison -- people always seem to go for the homebrew before the commercial stuff, which is endearing -- we had, at the end, five volunteers, plus a few backseat drivers, for a tasting. I gave them sheets to write down their thoughts, as it wasn't a free lunch!

The first beer opened was Jeff's Bavarian Ale from Maisel & Friends. This was only in the cellar only a few weeks, as I had bought the rather well-priced big bottle on a whim, while waiting for a physio session in nearby Mosbach. I had avoided reading anything about it, but was not surprised to later learn it's based on Weißbier, as the aroma is distinctly fruity, with banana and bready yeast overtones. It is, however, quite a bit richer than the average Weißbier, leaning more towards a Weizen Doppelbock (well, yes, it would at 7.1% ABV), with plenty of vanilla, fruity elements recalling summer berries, and a sweetish, crème caramel base. The finish is sweet and oily, leaving a warm, spicy feel. Words used by the group to describe it included: blackcurrant, fruity and mild, liquer-like.

I was a little hesitant about opening the Chimay Bleue Grande Réserve 2008, that I bought in some newsagents in Münster in 2009. It had been moving about with us, so has seen four difference "cellars" over the past seven years, and the amount of gooey-looking sediment at the bottom of the bottle gave me pause. I decided it was best to decant it, and we got a lovely clear beer for serving. It had a gorgeous, rich, sherry and port-like nose, and a flavour laden with raisins, dates, vanilla and toffee. And all of this on a silky-smooth, creamy body that masked the 9% well. It certainly wore its age well, and everybody seemed to enjoy it. Words used to describe it included vanilla, honey, chestnuts, nutty. Quite perceptive, this bunch.

Maisel & Friends was chosen by the group for the third round, as they all liked the sound of Marc's Chocolate Bock, a  7.5% creation that the blurb says is his interpretation of an Irish stout... eh, ya wha? Rich and fruity, with dried fruits, dates, and yes, a suggestion of chocolate. It has a lovely velvety texture, with vanilla, caramel and chocolate mousse. All rather nice in the mouth, but although the finish was certainly chocolaty, that in itself a great feat, it was of a type that didn't appeal to me. The team described this beer as dark caramel, bitter chocolate and a bitter, burnt aftertaste.

The final beer we shared was Bergmann Adam.  Bergmann is a Dortmund brewery I've covered before, but I'm not sure if they are yet brewing at their own facilities by now. This was a beer I had been greatly anticipating, as there was some personal interest in how it turned out. Back in 2010, I had irregular mail correspondence with the owner -- in 2009, I'd arranged a visit to the brewery with the The Beer Geeks, Chris and Merideth -- and he'd told me of his intention to remake an Adambier, which originally came from Dortmund. Out of curiousity, I contacted Ron Pattinson to see what insights he had on the original Adambier, and he kindly given me some info that I passed on to Dr. Raphael:
Dortmunder Adambier was a strong, sourish top-fermenting beer. Wahl & Henius ("American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades", 1902) has an analysis of the beer performed in 1889. It was around 18º Balling, 7.38% alc. by weight (9.4% ABV) and a lactic acid content about half that of a contemporary lambiek. In contrast to sour beers such as Gose and Berliner Weisse, Adambier, also called Dortmunder Altbier, was heavily hopped. It acquired its sourness much like Porter - through a long secondary fermentation. Bacteria in the lagering vessels slowly changed the beer's character. It needed to be stored for at least a year for this process to take place. At the end of the primary fermentation the beer it was not sour at all. Another beer of this type was Münsterländer Altbier - stilll brewed by Pinkus Müller in Münster today. (Source: "Jahrbuch der Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin, 1911", p.522)

Now, they didn't want to introduce lactobacillus, as they were contract brewing, but said they would use lactic acid to add sourness. Nevertheless, it was something I was eager to try. However, getting a bottle seemed to be difficult, as it sold out quick every time it was made, and it wasn't till I think last year that my colleague Markus generously gave me a bottle. Needless to say, I was excited to be trying this for the first time!

A respectable 7.8% ABV, Adam was not what I expected. On the nose, I found it fruity, with soft, ripe berries to the fore, with a soft, yeasty edge. Expecting to pucker up, the flavour was also more in the direction of fruit, with a slight bite of cranberry drying up what would otherwise be sweet caramel, and just a hint of a roasty edge. Maybe the cranberry dryness was a hint of the lactic acid, but then, maybe I've been desensitised, as it was nowhere near "lactic acid content about half that of a contemporary lambiek". Not that it's a bad beer in its own right, but its wasn't lagered for a year with bacteria doing interesting things to it. The group however said they did pick up a sourness, and along with the Chimay, this rated highly. Malty explosion, mildly sour and smokey were descriptors used by the victims volunteers.

It was a fun evening capped off by this tasting, and those who remained for it all said it was great fun. There's plenty more waiting in the cellar!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Reinheitsgebot - A Personal Voyage

Yes, it's that time of year when German Beer Day comes around, but as everyone knows, a special year, with today being the 500th anniversary of the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot.

I'm not going to go into the arguments for and against it. They have been done to death already this year, and most of the arguments are ones I've seen repeated frequently over the past three to four years, especially since the rise of the Craft Beer Scene in Germany. I've attended talks at the likes of Braukunst Live, have read plenty of the new wave of German beer blogs, seen interviews with prominent members of the growing craft brewing community, and enough YouTube recordings of panel discussions to be well versed in the main points against the Reinheitsgebot. At least they are consistent, and indeed, they are arguments that I've used myself, after moving here in 2008 and starting this much-neglected blog soon after. I've also seen enough of the marketing from the Deutsche Brauerbund to know what the pro argument sounds like. So this is more about my own perception of the gebot, and how views seem to be shifting.

At the time I left Ireland, it was a country seeing a surge of interest in good beer from small, local breweries, and I admit, I missed it when I came over here. Not that I wasn't prepared in some way for the relative conservatism, but in a way, I had to retrain my expectations, hitting the reset button if you will, and came to realise that there was plenty to enjoy from the rich German brewing traditions, if you knew where to look.

Sure, I railed against the gebot often enough, while at the same time thoroughly enjoying fantastic German beers, with the odd Belgian, US or English import to add a spark and remind me what I was missing. Then. in 2010, the first Festival der Bierkulturen happened, which was billed as going "beyond the Reinheitsgebot". This was a first peek at a small section of the brewing community doing something different, and I loved it.

But after three years living here, I began to rail less against the instrument of the gebot itself, as it was simply a marketing tool, and instead, more or less concluded it was the German drinkers on the whole that were stultifying German beer culture. What I meant by this was that on the whole, and certainly at that point in time, it was fair to say that the general populace were happy with the status quo. And given that most were happy that way, and with what the Reinheitsgebot appeared to promise, then the impetus for change would simply not happen, the Reinheitsgebot would go unchallenged, and we'd continue ad nauseum.

But I hadn't realised that things really were already starting to change. Hopfenstopfer had started brewing a single hopped pale ale that year, the now classic Citra Ale. Braufactum appeared with incredibly different beers, beautifully marketed. Online stored were increasing their foreign offerings. Something was stirring. And then, in 2012, Braukunst Live started. In a way, this felt like a shift, as it was a big festival in the most conservative of brewing cities, and there was a huge focus on "craft", with the accompanying debates on the limitations of the Reinheitsgebot.

The growth of the craft beer sector has continued unabated since then. In many ways, it mirrors what I saw happening in Ireland, and indeed the UK, also with the eventual existential crisis about what exactly is craft beer? Berlin and Hamburg are thriving centres for this new "movement", and there are new breweries and contract brands, popping up regularly, as more and more want to be part of the action. In the 5 years since I moved to south Germany, two new breweries have opened in my former home town of Münster, one by a friend who has an avid interest in pre-Reinheitsgebot beers. And the arguments against it get louder.

It has now gotten to a stage where my 50-year-old neighbour turns around to me and says "I like that craft beer stuff. I've been buying all sorts of new beers to try. Have you tried this"? The older people at our Stammtisch are no stranger to my own beer creations, often featuring spruce tips, or eldar flowers, and although they sometimes mischievously ask if a given beer is Reinheitsgebot, I know full well they don't give a shit if it is not, and they enjoy it for what it is. There are now two glossy beer magazines on the market that feature the words Craft in their titles. Mainstream much?

Thinking back to that piece I wrote five years ago, and just getting a feel for the mood in the beer community, and articles in even regional newspapers over recent weeks, I get the impression that regular drinkers -- beyond the feedback loop of the craft beer circles -- are on to the Reinheitsgebot. They are beginning to understand that it is not necessarily an assurance of good-tasting beer. They are beginning to experiment and buy that odd bottle that has appeared on the Getränkemarkt shelf. They are lifting their heads above the parapet, just a little mind, but enough to make me think that now might be the time for some practical change..

I wouldn't say throw the Reinheitsgebot away completely. It's too valuable as a marketing tool, and sure, it has historical and cultural significancef. But let's not be stupid by saying this means other fermented beverages based on malted barley, but perhaps with some coffee added, are not allowed to be called beer. Let those who brew according the gebot use it as a seal of sorts, and extend the actual brewing rules laid out in the Vorläufiges Biergesetz (1993) to allow anything brewed with natural ingredients to be called beer. It surely must be that simple!

But for me, the real tipping point is the negative marketing, bordering on propaganda from the Deutscher Brauerbund. That alone is what makes me rail against the Reinheitsgebot. Skip to 2:10 on this video below, published by the Brauerbund. In my poor translation, they say "So, no artificial ingredients, enzymes, colouring or aromas. Brewing beer is therefore more demanding and complex than in most foreign breweries". Reading between the very wide-spaced lines, they are essentially tarring most foreign beers as being riddled with chemicals and being generally awful. And this messaging transferrs to those German beers influenced by foreign styles that are currently in vogue. This is exactly this kind of crap that tips my opinion enough to say I don't like what the Reinheitsgebot represents. With that kind of propoganda, it's no wonder it has taken this long for the blinkers to be shed. Let the brewing traditions of Germany open and grow, to give the beer-drinking public what they want, and see a rejuvenation of  German beer culture at a time when the trend has been away from beer.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Artbrau 2016 - Part 2: Eichbaum Experimentals

On my train ride to Heilbronn, I had tweeted something to the effect of wondering what Eichbaum would be bringing to the party this time. Last year, it was one of the bigger surprises. To reiterate, I know Eichbaum well. Based in Mannheim, they are probably our biggest regional brewery, and are independently owned, at least since a management buyout following bitter strikes in 2006. So their beer is everywhere to be seen here, a bit like Distelhäuser. Eichbaum Ureich is probably the most popular around here, and I'll buy a crate now and again if I've a bunch of pils drinkers coming over. Well, either that or Tannenzäpfle. But as I've said before, with their pils, export, weizen, kellerbier. --you get the idea -- they never rated high on my radar, other than the fact that their beer is colloquially referred to as Leichenwasser, or "corpse water", owing to the brewery's proximity to the main Mannheim graveyard! Last year changed that view a bit, but was a bit like peeping through a keyhole, or bunghole, if you will, catching a glimpse of odd things they were experimenting with. Odd, but in a rather good way! So I found myself at their stall again this year, where at first glance, the choice seemed similar to the year before, but oh how wrong I was.

One enigmatic entry on the blackboard was simply listed as Eichbaum Experimental, which turned out to be rotating all day. At the time I asked, it was a 7.5% beer aged on juniper wood, which was referred to as a "gin beer", and using the hop variety Relax, which the server told me was normally used in herbal teas. It had a powerful aroma, reminding me of pine-scented cleaning fluid (I want to say Jeyes, but my childhood memories are not what they were), and yes, gin aromatics, that reach right back into your sinus cavities. Somehting that strong can't help but be carried over into the flavour, and while being perhaps one of the more unusual beer flavours I've had (on a par with some of the unreleased prototypes from Gruthaus up in Münster), it's bloody fascinating. Woody, for sure, with a camphor-like effect gasping into the finish, but under all of this is a sweet, malty, fudgy base, with surprisingly delicate fruit flavours, evoking peach. I was surprised to be able to pick up anything like that after the aroma, but certainly a good experiment to try.

I thought a palate cleanser might be in order, so ordered a Eichbaum Enigma Zwickl, an 5% ABV, dry-hopped Kellerbier on draft, using Tettnanger Herkules and Czech Aurora in the kettle and dry hopped with Australian Enigma hops. A good solid beer this, with a honey-melon like flavour, a light vinous highlights, evoking summer berries. It was about this time that I got a bit distracted from the note-taking, as I began talking to the brewer, Tom Majorosi. One of my neighbours did his apprenticeship at Eichbaum, and it turned out is was under Tom, so we ended up having a great chat over quite a few of his experimental brews.

What was described as a Double IPA was pushed on me, brewed last year using a new, and as yet unnamed trial hop variety that I noted as 08/33 Tettnang. Big fruits on this one, with strawberry, raspberry and apricot  to the fore. I was amazed to find it has 13% ABV, which was incredibly well hidden, as was the 50 IBUs. It's more lush than bitter, and with a lingering vanilla finish, it put me more in mind of a barley wine than a double IPA, not that I was complaining!

During our chat, various bits of information were dropped that were at least new to me, like the fact Eichbaum brew Lidl's craft beer range (confirmed by a quick web search). I haven't even tried those, but I suspect I'll have my eyes peeled next time I'm in a Lidl.

For fans of wood, the bottled Cabernet Franc Bock probably ticks a lot of boxes, being a dark Doppelbock aged for 14 months in a Cabernet Franc cask. And it really is sublime. Massive vanilla with a smear of raspberry jam on the nose. And either the newer bocks being produced are more attenuated than the older, more traditional types, but the mouthfeel of this was more "spritzig" and light, than the sugary sticky that I often expect, and this served to lift up the barrow-load of flavours, with more raspberry, a bite of cherry, and a lick of tea-like tannins punctuating it. Apparently hopped with just Herkules hops (25 IBUs), the beer seems to be a vehicle for the barrel itself, and was one of my highlights of the festival.

After all these heavy-hitters, the next beer was somewhat of a surprise. Jean de Wit, named after Jean du Chaine, a Wallonian gentleman who founded "Zum Aichbaum" in 1679, is most certainly a nod to the Belgian Wit style, with 4.8% ABV and infused with coriander seed and orange peel. And it shows. It opens with a zippy, fresh mandarin and lemon sorbet aroma, following through to the flavour, which takes on an additional spicy note, with a sherbet zing. I noted lemon-barley water (does Robinson's lemon barley water still exist?), but also . A refreshing, summery, beer for sure.

Staying in the wheat zone, but more in the Germanic tradition, Equinox/Nelson Weisse was next. As the name suggests, a Hefeweizen dry hopped with US Equinox hops and Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand. Perhaps taking inspiration from Schneider's lovely Nelson Weisse. In effect, nothing like a traditional German Weizen, but juicy as hell with luscious fruity flavours and "super süffig", according to my notes.

And so back to the bigger beers, with Eichbaum Barrique Bock on draft, an 8 % Doppelbock dry hopped with Amarillo, Simcoe and Cascade. I'm well familiar with Eichbaum's Apostulator Bock, and while it's fine, it doesn't press so many of my buttons. But I hadn't realised that that was essentially the same beer, just bunged into a barrique and dry hopped. And really, it does alter the beer, to a stage where buttons were being pressed. Vanilla again comes to the fore on the aroma, with the barrel having a loud voice, but the added fruitiness of the hops, and perhaps also the tannin effect from the barrique itself, seems to result in a lower perceived residual sugar. That's just an awkward way of saying it felt drier than the regular bock, which is something i much prefer. Cherry, vanilla, and an oily mouthfeel all added to make a rather comforting drop.

By this time, my friend, Frank, from back home had arrived, and I did another round of the stalls with him, and stopped taking notes. But we did return to Tom and Eichbaum for one more. Eichbaum Lambexico is a Lambic beer with 8% ABV aged for 14 months in Tequila barrels. I think my little mind stopped working at this stage, so no more notes, just enjoying the last beers and some excellent three and five-year-old cheeses provided by Tom from (I think his friend) Lothar Müller, the Cheese Master at Käsemanufaktur Hockenheim, one of which was washed in in an Eichbaum Experimental. Many thanks to Tom for the hospitality!

And that's it for Artbrau. There were a few more beers had that I won't go into detail on, from Schneider and Welde, but my memory is not so reliable, other than the fact that I tweeted the Schneider Marie's Rendevous was an awful mess of sweetness. "Liquidised lollipops" was what I actually said.

I like this festival. It had a decent trade by the evening, but never got uncomfortable, and it had a nice atmosphere, making it easy to strike up conversation with random strangers. My only complaint would be on the food side, as the options were few, and pretty expensive. However, compared to other festivals, the entry cost was very reasonable, and the beer servings generous, so balance is restored. I'm certainly looking forward to next year.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Artbrau 2016 - Part 1

It had been over a year since my last beer festival – due to bad planning on the behalf of the organisers, Braukunst Live yet again clashed with something else in my calendar – so I have to admit, it was with great anticipation that last Saturday, I headed off to the 2nd Artbrau festival, just an hour’s train ride away in Heilbronn.

In the same location as last year, and equally as small, Artbrau nevertheless offered a chance to sample the wares from breweries in our region, which is something that interests me greatly. I’ve commented before that I seem to live as far from the bright centres of the German brewing galaxy as it can possibly be, but I might well have been doing Baden-Württemberg and our bordering states a disservice. Sure, most of what you see in the beer press these days is coming from Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, but we’re also home to pioneers like Hopfenstopfer and, as I was to find, some new blood as well as more surprises.
First stop, as usual, was to say hello to Thomas at Hopfenstopfer, to see what was new, and have a bit of a chat. Thomas’s latest creation is Höllensud, described as a highly hoped pils. With a cutting, fresh lemon aroma, backed by an earthy, leaning towards catty tone, it begs further exploration. Planned to have 45 IBUs, but it ended up at 53, the bitterness is certainly noticeable, but crisp and clean, like one would expect a pils to be. But the choice of hops brings it beyond that. There are fruity tone, recalling pear drop candy, mango and tangerines, with the slight saltiness of digestive biscuits. At 4.8%, it marks a departure for his normal line of beer, and is eminently sinkable.

For those who don’t know, Thomas brews at Häfner Bräu in Bad Rappenau, and Hopfenstopfer was more or less a personal side project. However, it has gotten to the stage where demand means that the volume of Hopfenstopfer beers brewed is exceeding the standard stuff, and the beers are available further afield.
A few steps away was one of the newer breweries, or perhaps brands, in the region, Brewdudes out of Würzburg, an hour north of my home. Brewdudes is a collective of seven young guys, students mostly, who are homebrewers. Tired of the relatively boring beer scene in Würzburg, they made first stops to making their own commercial beer, Brewdudes Pale Ale in July last year. Contract brewed at Brauhaus Binkert to their own recipe, it was described to me as a “beginners pale ale”. Setting expectations low then! Admittedly, the aroma is not much to speak of, offering a hint of caramel and flowery notes. Flavour-wise, it’s more firmly on the malty spectrum, with a pop of juicy-fruit gum, and just a twist of orange peel. The hops are fairly Germanic, with Hercules and Perle, and finished with Cascade (German cascade, as I recall), so perhaps a German Pale Ale, without the baggage associated with what one tends to expect from a pale ale these days.

I’ll be watching what these guys do with interest. I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be a case of too many cooks, as someone commented to me, sometime two people working together on a beer can have enough disagreements, but seven is a lot. Still, they look like happy chaps, don’t they?

The guys were also serving a beer from Binkert, the Amber Spezial, a beer using only Fränkisch ingredients. Most definitely wearing its heart on its sleeve as a malty beer, with summer fruit flavours up front, evoking raspberry and strawberry jam, there’s a crisp bitterness that creeps up later. A solid enough thirst quencher, but not standing out from many others on the broader market.
As well as the young guns, there were breweries that it would be fair to say were more traditional. Haller Löwenbräu was one such, with a wide offering of very much traditional German beer styles. One that stood out, was Mohrenköpfle Landbier (which essentially translates as little carrot head). Looking more pale brown, the aroma certainly struck more of the German pils chords, with a crisp, herbal aroma. Up front, the taste hits a crème caramel button, backed with crisp, clean malts, cut by a grassy, herbal hop flavour. Actually, really a rather nice, solid beer for sucking back on a hot day. It wasn’t that hot in a train shed in early April, so it might have been served a tad too cold, but a good palate cleanser also.

Riedenburger had a booth again this year, and although I’ve had their beers several times, I stopped by to have a Doldensud. Maybe it was the gravitational pull of all the beards that seemed to have concentrated around the organic brewer. Doldensud is as fruity as it gets. Big tangerine aromas way up front. It’s soft, creamy, with an almost strawberry-cream candy like flavour. Bitterness is low, which pushes is slightly towards the sweet side of things, with a background of banana and bubblegum, but the overall effect is simply juicy, and somehow comforting. I recall trying their beers in 2008, before the craft beer “movement” hit Germany, and being impressed. It’s good to see they don’t just rely on an organic label to sell their beers, but they put effort into it too.

Needing something solid at this stage, I popped outside into the sun to check out the food stalls. Food offerings at Artbrau were similar to last year, with overpriced plates of cheese, and BBQ and grilled goods from “Grill Gott”. The cheaper option of Bratwurt and Pommes was replaced this year with “Healthy Wraps”. I opted for a breadroll with pulled port with Krautsalat, which seemed rather small for the €7.50 it cost, but it was tasty. In fact, I had a second one later in the evening, which brought the food bill almost in par with the beer bill, which is saying something, considering the beers I tried.

But, back into the fray, and to a completely new brewery for me: Kuehn Kunz Rosen, based in Mainz, so perhaps not so local. From what I gather, this brewery was formed in 2014 by two home brewers coming from the IT industry, which seems to be happening a lot recently. The blackboard looked very inviting, and I tweeted that I would probably have to try them all, which I did!

I started with the Kuehnes Blondes, a Belgian Wit at 4.9%, that was a picture-perfect hazy straw colour. The nose is all apple and fresh lemon zest, with the flavours suggesting almonds, or maybe a touch sweeter, towards marzipan, on a light spicy, biscuit base. The finish is a little flabby, though, with a lingering banana, and slightly soapy flavour, however, I rather liked it overall, and was pleasantly surprised, as other German interpretations of classic Belgian style have not worked too well for me in the past.

On to the Caspar Böhmisches Pils, at 5%. This opens up rather pungently, with a striking aroma that verges on spicy cheese, with elements of blackcurrent. Now don’t leave yet. It sounds dreadful, but actually, it seemed to draw me deeper, trying to figure it out. The flavour is considerably perfumy and spicy, with floral elements, like marigolds, and it has a rather interesting sorbet-like effect on the finish, which I found delightful. It turns out this is hopped 100% with Saazer, which I was amazed by. I don’t think I’ve ever had Saaz used in this quantity in a beer. The “stink” does dissipate as the beer gets some air, and the longer finish suggests more blackcurrent. I began to wonder if there was slight oxidation.

Their Mystique IPA seemed to be doing a fine trade while I was standing there, a 7% pale amber beer with a rich, deep aroma, filled with blackcurrent, mango and pine. On the tongue, it's earthy and oily, with a light fudgey sweetness, candied grapefruit and passion fruit, finishing with orange pith and pine resin. Really quite lush. Hopped with summit, cascade, amarillo and crystal.

And finally, Festland Tonka Bock, flavoured, as the name suggests, with tonka beans. But a carefully controlled amount, so the coumarin won't stop your heart! A crystal clear chestnut, it has an almost classic bock aroma: caramel, burnt sugar, with a whiff of herbs. But the flavour goes beyond that, with a light roast, suggesting American coffee, a solid vanilla backbone, lent by the tonka beans, and fruity elements, with dried and tropical fruits. Motueka hops, I was later informed.

The beers are actually brewed at Binkert, as was the Brewdudes beer, but it would seem with considerably more oversight, and perhaps experience, than our young friends from earlier. I was reasonably impressed by them all, and the Wit, flabby finish notwithstanding, was a standout for me.

Palmbräu impressed me last year with their dark beers, but having bought a six pack of their most recent Black Ale just a few weeks ago, and promptly giving three of them away as I found them way too sweet, I was hoping to be re-impressed with their strangely-named Fashion Pale Ale. Maybe they’re seeing through it all! The back label describes it as an IPA, however, though the aroma is more reminiscent of a conventional Exportbier, with vegetal notes. The flavour is sweet, candy-like, with sugary woodruff. I slinked away, disappointed, but there were plenty more fish in the sea.

And so endeth part one. Part two is pretty much going to be dedicated to one brewery, and some of the bigger surprises of this small festival. In the meantime, look at how happy the Hopfenstopfer team were with the evening trade.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Where do I start?

"Where do I start?" was exactly the question I put to my old friend, Kieron, after walking into 57 The Headline, early last September. It was my first time in a Dublin pub in three years, and there was no better place to head in order to get a decent cross section of the veritable explosion of new beers since my last visit to my home town. To be honest, I've lost count of how many breweries have opened since my last trip to Ireland, but there must be over 50 new breweries since I left for Germany almost 8 years ago, so one can imagine the mountain of new beers to try.

57 The Headline is run by Geoff Carty, who was formerly bar manager at my old haunt, the Bull and Castle, and in the three years since he took it over, I reckon they can be proud. It was midweek, fairly well crowded with a mix of all ages and types, and scanning the 20 taps on the bar, quite remarkable in that they had no Guinness, no Heineken, well, basically none of the big name brands. Instead, there was a hefty selection of beers from local (meaning Irish) micro breweries, the majority of which I had never tried. So, indeed, where should I start?

Something low ABV, perhaps. There seems to be a few session pale ales/IPAs on the market at the moment, so I thought I'd dip into a pint of Trouble Brewing's Graffiti, at 3.6%. A fresh lemon and grass aroma (as distinct from lemongrass). Light on the body, it's certainly hop-focussed, with plenty of lemony, pithy flavours, on a biscuity base, but also with a slight metallic bite. A long-lasting, dry bitterness, reminiscent of quinoa/tonic water, I have to admit I found it refreshing, though a tad thin.

I left the choice for the next round up to Kieron, and he returned from the bar with The Hurler, brewed at Trouble for Four Provinces, a 4.2% copper ale. Quite a detour after the previous hop-forward beer, The Hurler is packed with juicy malts, with a solid backbone of caramel, dried fruits, raisins, with a lick of hops to perk it up a tad. Despite all that fruitiness, it finishes dry, with a rather nice zesty, almost cola-like flavour, lingering. Moreish.

At this point, Geoff had spotted, via Twitter, that I was in the house, so he came out for a chat, and a break from the kitchen. Being the consummate host that he is, he kindly offered us a sampler rack with six random beers.

Although my goal this trip was to drink nothing but Irish beers, an English one slipped into the tasters in the form of Liquid Mistress from Siren. A big, fruity aroma, full of cherry. Chewy mouthfeel. Chocolate-flavoured caramel, dates and dark cherry. Finishes sweet and fudgy with a slight fruity bitterness. A lovely, comforting ale that would be a nice winter warmer.

Back to Ireland, and Blond, a German-style wheat beer from White Gypsy. If you don't notice the small print describing it as a Weissbier, you'd be quickly put straight by the massive banana aroma. And I really mean massive, like ripe, mashed bananas, with plenty of clovey spiciness. It ticks all the classic boxes, and these come though in the flavour too. Creamy banana weizen, with a shot of cardamom to spice it up. A decent effort, but a slight washing-up liquid, soapy aftertaste somewhat spoiled it for me

Trouble Graffiti got another showing in the sampler, alongside its (slightly) bigger brother, Sabotage IPA. I found it had quite a rich hop aroma, with plenty of tropical fruit and citrus, and altogether juicier and chewier, with a slightly sweet, caramel backbone, topped by a decent and lasting classic pithy, grapefruit bitterness.

There seems to have been a rise in Irish contract brewers in recent years, and  one company that provides the capacities and skills to such new beer brands,  Craftworks, have their own label: Postcard Brewery. The Spire India Pale Lager from Postcard was on the taster. Certainly lagery, with a spicy, fresh hay character, evoking Germany's noble hops. Compared to the big brand pils that I'm forced to drink at my village local, this is one I could sink several of quite easily.

I have to admit, the craic was taking over at this stage, so I wasn't so inclined to be taking notes while being regaled with storied from Geoff. If you go in, ask him why they finally decided not to have any of the big brands, it's worth hearing from the horses mouth!

As I digested the very tasty lamb kofta burger (and kept nibbling on the house-made pork scratchings), a few more proper pints were had. Black Donkey RyePA (decent!) and 5 Lamps Lager (ok), and I think there was another Trouble beer as a nightcap.

First night out in Dublin in three years, and only a fraction of a dent made on the list of beers to try. Luckily, there was another couple of nights out planned, with serious beer aficionados, to help reduce that list.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

CRAFT Magazine – An embodiment of the German craft beer zeitgeist?

Meininger is a publishing house with a long-established pedigree in the wine industry, with several publications targetted at industry insiders as well as the consumer. CRAFT magazine represents their first foray into beer publications, but it would seem they have had their eye on beer for a while, as this year they already held their second MeiningersInternational Craft Beer Award (though most of the international entries seem to come from the list of imports from Radeberger’s craft label, Braufactum).

So what do Meininger say about their new baby? From their website, here is my poor translation:

“With Meiningers CRAFT, Meininger Publishing House devotes, for the first time, a standalone title devoted to the theme of beer culture. The magazine is published four times a year and is aimed at the entire beer community, so to the brewers and brewing artists, beer sommeliers, distributors, restaurateurs, beer keepers and beer enthusiasts and consumers interested in beer, pleasure and lifestyle.
Three editors take care of exciting content about beer. The focus is on large brewers, small brewers, exotic brewers, crazy brewers, brave brewers, contentious issues, opinions, success concepts, news, trends, events, the international scene and players, tastings, tips and tricks.
In short, it's about makers, markets and brands.”

Of course, as a beer consumer with a little experience behind me, and I hope a broad and open view of the beer world, when I see a beer magazine with CRAFT emblazon on the top, I have some sort of expectation on what this magazine might be about. And with craft beer being quite a hot topic here in Germany, even outside the boundary of the beer geek circle, it seems only natural that other parts of the community would take notice and contribute to the dialogue. I mean, the guy that lives behind our house, probably a couple of years older than me, and most definitely till recently a dedicated Pils drinker, recently confided to me that he likes trying these new craft beers. That in a village of 1400 souls in rural Germany is no mean feat of marketing, so it’s not just the buzz in places like Berlin and Hamburg, where most of the craft beer action seems to be centered.

CRAFT is a meaty-feeling publication, with 114 pages of thick, quality paper. The layout, images and styling are of a standard one might expect for a publisher over 100 years in the business. Plenty of style, but what of the substance?

I have to admit, on first leafing through it, what struck me most was the amount of full page glossy ads from large brewers, which also seemed to correspond to a number of articles or interviews with representatives from the very same organisations. There are ads from Veltins (using the Grevensteiner brand), Köstritzer (Bitburger Group), Erdinger, Monchshof (Kulmbacher) and Radeberger, each of which also have articles. Some, like the Radeberger piece, talk about the history of the brewery. The Erdinger piece talks about the traditional bottle conditioning they use, as well as an interesting sidebar where the Managing Director states that they “exclusively brew craft beer". The interview with the Veltins boss primarily talks about their marketing innovations, but has some rather telling answers on the topic of craft beer that could be indicative of the attitude the large German brewers have of the concept of craft beer. This needs a whole blog post of its own, but Dr. Kuhl basically says that craft brewers are not selling loads of beers, so they’re not interested. Fine by me. However, they’ll keep an eye on it to see if sales volumes start looking interesting. And that’s it in a nutshell. They’ll step into the market brand of craft beer to keep a stake if they can shift units, but it’s not so much about the beer at all, and that’s the big difference to me.

"Craft Beer"
However, I digress. This is a first issue, so I probably shouldn’t be too critical. They are bound to be seeking advertising to cover the costs, and I’m sure these are relationships that were long-existing, prior to this particular magazine.

The bulk of the content, I am happy to report, does focus on stories of brewers and brewing, perennial topics for the German beer industry, both craft and macro, and informative items that educate or entertain.

There’s a fascinating feature on Privatbrauerei am Rollberg, where brewer Wilko Bereit is brewing in the former Berliner Kindl brewery in Neukölln, Berlin. It’s fascinating as this seems to be a man who embodies a craft brewer. He wants to expand, but no more than 4000 HL a year, as he wants to stay micro. He uses only organic ingredients, but does not care for certification for his beers, as he just does it because he feels the beer tastes better, not to gain any marketing advantage. He and his partner talk to every one of their 70 customers selling their beers, as communication and partnership is key. But I do him a disservice. He don’t like using the craft label, at least in the German sense, as he considers it a term that is too, well, unthinking. He just wants to be a craftsman and brew good beer. I’d love to try his beer, but they only keg and sell it locally, so I’ll have to visit Berlin.

Other items cover topics such as a discussion between Oliver Wesseloh (Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei, Hamburg) and Holger Eichle (Deutschen Brauer-Bundes) on the Reinheitsgebot, and what is it good for (resisting to break into Bruce Springsteen’s War here!), and general interest pieces such as that about the Köbes of Cologne, or one on a new craft beer shop chain, Bierothek, with branches in Bamberg, Nurnberg and soon Erlangen.

For those interested in the small, new brewers, there is a profile of the four women behind Holladiebierfee, a self-described “Frauenbier” (I don’t believe in assigning gender to any beer), an interview with the three behind BRLO, a beer brand based in Berlin currently contract brewing 80HL per month, a sadly short article on Johannes Heidenpeter, the man behind Heidenpeters, obvs, and a lovely write-up on Philipp Brokamp’s Hops and Barley Hausbrauerei, also in Berlin.

There are a few more “technical” pieces about raw ingredients: an insight on the effect of yeast strains on the finished product, and a spread on how the development of the craft beer market has led to a structural change in the German hop industry, as demand increase for more and new aroma hop varieties, as well as an article about canning beer and a fluff piece on correct glassware. I enjoyed a thought-provoking piece on Maibock by Sepp “Biersepp” Wejwar, and how it could undergo a renaissance with the craft beer movement (their words), breathing new life into a style that seems to be fading, and indeed, it is perhaps to beer styles like this that the craft brewers should be turning their attention, instead of making another IPA.

The Bierpabst
The magazine closes off with a wrap-up on Meiningers International Craft Beer Award 2015. 554 beers entered, 50 Biersommeliers and brewers judging and 216 medals awarded. Riegele was named as National Craft Brewer of the year and the Boston Beer Company as International Craft Brewer of the year. There’s a nice photo of the Bierpapst (beer pope), in character and presumably deep in tasting.

On balance, once I got past the big brands, there’s a lot of good content in this magazine, and plenty to read. There are factual pieces like those on ingredients, and interesting stories about the people who have thrown their hearts and souls into brewing stuff that they believe in. There is food for thought, along with fluff pieces that entertain. I’m far from fluent, but I found this easy to read, so that’s also a bonus, encouraging me to improve my language skills!

My only gripe is that by naming the magazine CRAFT, it is clear that Meininger are trying to tap into what has clearly become a live topic in the German beer industry. However, by having a relatively large proportion of articles, not to mention most of the ads, coming from very large producers, that are far from what even I can accept as craft breweries, they are further clouding the already contentious topic of what German craft beer is. It’s only about four years since this trend (some call it a movement) started in Germany, and I can see the struggle to define what exactly it is repeating, much as I have seen it happen in the UK and Ireland, not to mention the goalpost shifting, or as Mr. Curtis diplomatically put it, evolution of the US Brewers Association’s definition. The large brewers here have been well prepared, and are reacting quickly and decisively, while the number of small brewers proclaiming themselves craft seems to be rapidly expanding.

To answer my own question posed in the title, I think no, it's not currently a true representative of the German craft beer industry. Having said that, I am however very pleased with my subscription and the scope and variety of the articles, just not with the naming of the magazine. I'm looking forward to the second issue, sometime around September, to see what comes. But in the meantime, I will be keeping an eye out for other German publications that keep the conscientious beer consumer in mind.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Lucky for some

I've mentioned before on this blog, that I have a mixed relationship with our local, independent regional brewery, Distelhäuser. For as long as I have been visiting Germany, whenever there was a family gathering or other party, the beer shopping instruction was usually not to buy Distelhäuser Pils. At our local, people say don't try the Pils, but the Export is drinkable. High praise indeed. In fact, I do drink the Export when at the Stammtisch, but then the only other choices are Bitburger and Paulaner.

However, I fear I am at risk of becoming a Distel fan boy, at least since Spring 2014, when they were showing a stout, a porter and an IPA at Braukunst Live! For the best part of a year, I hadn't seen these beers again, but in the meantime I had begun buying Distel Blonde, a dry-hopped top-fermented golden affair that is now a permanent fixture in my beer cellar, and Spezial, an amber beer supposedly harking back to an old-fashioned recipe, but more on them another time.

So, having thought those three beers were more or less specials done for a beer festival, imagine my surprise earlier this year, when a friend sent me a photo asking "have you tried these beers?", picturing Lucky Hop IPA, Black Pearl Porter and Loch Ness Stout. And he'd bought from a large drinks market only 20km away! Well... what could I do? I went to our local and ordered a crate of each. A crate being the smallest unit of transaction that she'll do for out of the ordinary beers. A week later, two crates of Lucky Hop arrived (the other two were no longer available), and I was the talk of the village. As the crates sat in the drinks markt, waiting for me, people asked what they were, and were told the price. Just over €40 for a crate. I reckoned they thought I was either rich or stupid, or most likely both. I admit, I was a bit shocked, but felt I had to take both (in two installments). But at c. €1.80 a bottle, in hindsight, it wasn't so bad. It's just that people don't normally buy 48 bottles of this kind of stuff in one go!

So, I've had quite some time to consider Lucky Hop IPA from Distelhäuser. I even started sharing it, experimenting on neighbours, as is my wont. And then I met Jonas at Artbrau in Heilbornn last April. Jonas is a friend of a friend, lives nearby (said we met before at a Schlachtfest), and works at Distelhäuser. He told me to look out for a new, improved version of Lucky Hop coming soon. I was thinking, what the hell am I doing with a full crate of the old one!

Fast forward to early June. I'm working in the cellar, and this bloke appears at the cellar door, with bottles of beer in his hands. I welcome him in, but it's 10 seconds before I recognise him as Jonas! Well, of course I'd welcome in anyone standing at the door bearing beer! And what did he bring? The new Lucky Hop, now brewed on the main brewkit in Distelhäuser.

Lucky Hop, both the old and new version, is 7.7% ABV with 77 IBUs. Lucky number 7, I guess. But it "only" uses 5 hop varieties, Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, First Gold and Simcoe, with Pilsner, Munich and Caramel malts. Full marks for listing detailed ingredients. Though I was tempted to do a blind tasting, I opted to just got for a side-by-side comparison, and boy, that really did show differences.

The old Lucky Hop (of which I still have half a crate) is pretty straightforward on the aroma stakes. Classic US-influences worn on its sleeve, with a healthy dose of grapefruit and bitter orange on the nose. It's got a decent enough malty backbone, reminiscent of barley sugar, or perhaps orange barley, now that I think of it, but with a rather interesting tobacco - cedar wood undertone. The finish is uncompromisingly bitter, focussed on that orange pith effect, and long lasting indeed. But it has a rough, twiggy note, that began to grate after the first 20 bottles.

The new Lucky Hop is a tad less hazy than the old version, but with a less impressive head. The aroma is considerably fruitier than the old. It still has the same orangey foundation, but backed with sweeter elements, suggesting tropical fruits and soft caramel. The body is rounder, smoother. It's still got the orange barley thing going on, but with mango sorbet added on top. The overall effect is somehow more refined, and though the rough edges of the former version may have accentuated the bitterness while drinking, this one also maintains a long-lasting finish, with the pithy, gum drying back-end one might expect, but without the twiggy catch at the back of the throat.

Quite a decent effort, and although I really quite enjoyed the original Lucky Hop, twigs and all, this puts me more in mind of some of the classic US IPAs I had when first discovering them in what feels like a lifetime ago, which is no bad thing in my book. Now if only they would produce more stout and porter!