Tuesday 30 September 2008

Beer shopping, German style.

Depite having been a regular visitor to Germany for the past nine years (basically all my holidays!), the occasional visit before then, and now living here for six months, I still get a kick from shopping for beer here. It's just the scale of it really. In Ireland I was used to going to a supermarket or off license and browsing the shelves for interesting sups, selecting a few bottles of each, then maybe doing the same a week or two later. The odd time I'd binge if I was up North and fill a trolly with ales up in Sainsbury's, but it was a bit dear to do do that (but how I miss Clotworthy Dobbin!).

Here it's different. Here is seems to be on an industrial scale. Even in my wife's home town, there's a trink markt close to her parents (a small one) where you go in and tend to buy by the crate. When you go to the supermarket, it's not those shelved fridge units, it's stacks of crates, for the likes of €13 a pop. One trink markt, called trink gut, near me in Münster is massive, and the crates tower above you. Not only is there quantity, but a hugh range too. A huge German range I should add, but it's only to be expected at this stage. There's one particular aisle that has all the Pinkus Müller beers and where they also seem to have a random selection of stuff in single crates, so I usually head there first and get a couple of each. Then I meander between the stacks and pluck a bottle or two from crates as I pass by. Drive by beer shopping. It's different.

The first time I went into the big one here I bought four crates of beer (and a 6-pack of Guinness Extra Stout for old times sake). It took me ages as I was drooling all over the place, so my wife said I could go alone next time. That time I came out with a crate of Hövels, a crate of Duckstein, a crate of assorted Pinkus Müller and a crate of assorted Hacker-Pschorr.

This time I only got two crates, as my Franken supplies are still in good stead, but I really randomised things. The guy at the checkout seemed amused that there were basically 40 random bottles. Well, 12 assorted Pinkus and an assortment that included the likes of Uerige Alt, Füchschen Alt, Bolten's Ur-Alt (I was searching this one out having tried the "regular" Bolten's Alt), more Doppelbocks than is good for me and some dodgy looking beer that I don't expect to like. Oh, and a six pack of Berliner Kindl Weisse (the raw one).

I only spotted one Belgian beer, and when I asked the checkout guy if they had any, he said just that one (Grimbergen Blonde and perhaps the Dubbel). They did have some of the usual suspects, like Guinness, Kilkenny, Newcastle Brown (which I quite like now and then), but also others like Zywiec Porter. I should have gotten that and the Grimbergen too!

The other kick I get out of all of this is the price. 46 bottles of beer €45.14. The most expensive beer was the Uerige Alt, at €1.59, and the cheapest was the dodgy looking Hansa Pils from DAB, at 45c. However, €9.21 of that total is refundable when I bring the crates and bottles back. I tend to hang onto them for the auld home brewing, although I just noticed that while the regular bottles have a Pfand of 8c, the likes of Uerige and Füchschen are 50c per bottle, as they're a bit special. I'll have to bring those ones back...

Sunday 28 September 2008

Kees to the Kingdom

The other night I dipped into my Bamberg Box for a little sampling. I went for the Keesmann Bräu Bamberger Herren Pils and the Keesmann Bräu Sternla (Dunkle) Lager. I've added the Dunkle in brackets there because it's not on the front label, but is on the back. If I hadn't read it I would have expected a yellowy "lager", but you'll see.

I know one shouldn't judge a book by the cover, and beer is no exception, but there was something about the Herren Pils label that I just didn't like. I don't know what. Maybe it was the word Herren making it sound feudal or something. It's a very slightly hazy pale pale yellow, and the photo here does not do it justice. It's like dried grass during a hot dry summer. There's a prominent fine hop aroma backed by a doughy sweetness. Interesting so far. I was expecting a hop bitterness hit on the first mouthful, but it was actually a pretty appetising maltiness that got me first. I wasn't expecting that in something so pale with the word Pils on the label. The hops only really emerge later on, not as bitterness, but more a warming spicy, citric character that cuts the malt. This is alot different to most Pils I've tried, and it works very well indeed, and was terribly easy to sink down! At 4.6% ABV, a pretty good session beer, but also something to savour.

As I mentioned above, I was half expecting the Sternla Lager to be more like a Pils till I spotted Dunkel on the back. "Das Dunkle mit dem feinherben geschmack" in fact. It poured a rather appealing deep copper-gold, and gave off a full blown sweet malty aroma. On first taste it was just like it smelled. A malteaser-like sweetness with a touch of dark toffee. There's a very faint hop spiciness in the finish, but I found it was overpowered by the sweetness. In fact, I thought it tasted a bit like a malz bier, the non-alcoholic "childrens beer" as my wife calls it. Although I really like malty beers, this was verging on sickly sweet for me. I couldn't manage more than one in a sitting. Well, unless I went to Bamberg and had a tap right in front of me!

By the way, both were about a month past the best before, but that clearly made no difference. Bring on the Herren Pils says I!

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Crash Landing Landbier

I always reckoned I liked Landbier. At least I seem to recall that I've liked most of the ones I've tried over the years without thinking about them too much (I've never kept notes till now). I tasted the two I am about to describe on two different nights, a Monday and Tuesday to be exact, but there were definite similarities.

The Frankisches Landbier from Ebensfelder Brauhaus is a golden yellow, and while it looked like it was going to be a gassey sod, it was all show and it settled down into a smooth, low carbonation. The aroma was very faint, so I gave up trying. It started with a gentle lemon tartness and a slightly fruity character, but this was spoilt for me by a resiney, plastic-like aftertaste. It had a warming alcohol feeling too, but no depth. Not particularly enjoyable.

Very similar to my experience with Frauendorfer Premium Landbier (those two words just don't sit well together anyway) from Brauerei Hetzel in Frauendorf. It looks very nice with its rich amber hue, and a faint orange aroma, but for me the dominant taste was, again, a resiney plastic, right on the front of the tongue, sitting on top of a watery sweetness. Sure, there's a quite nice caramel sweeetness while it's going down, but the aftertaste kept spoiling it for me

I'm worried that it's a hop variety or action that I'm just not liking, but they both left what I found to be an unpleasent taste up front. But maybe they're just not nice beers!

However, they both use hop extract, like the Siegel Pils where I got a similar taste. It was suggested to me on ICB that brewers here in Germany should know all about the use of extract (but at least they say when they are using it), but to me it didn't necessarily mean bad tasting beer. But maybe it does if you are sensitive to it? In future I'll taste first and then look at the label!

Monday 22 September 2008

Schlenkerla vs. Spezial - The Märzens

As with the last round, this one starts with Brauerei Spezial Bamberg but this time their Märzen. This pours a clear rich amber with a thin tan head. The aroma is somewhat fruity, in a fresh appealing way. Like fresh cooking apples. A bit like the Lagerbier, this has a restrained smokiness. It lingers on the tongue after the sweet caramel-like malts wash down. There's a slight bitterness that is spicey in nature, with an almost gingery warmth. Apples come out again in the finish. I hate to describe it like this, but I can't help thinking apple pie with a salty shortbread crust. Interesting. Unfortunately, after a while it gets a bit sticky-sweet and, for me at least, it wasn't really as enjoyable as their Lagerbier.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier from Brauerei Heller Bamberg was the first Rauchbier I ever tried about four or five years ago, so I was keen to revisit it. Even taking a sniff of the bottle after opening it told me this was going to be a more smokey experience. Pouring a deep ruddy brown, like well polished mahogony, it even looks smokey. The power of suggestion! The aroma isn't really as in-your-face as I recalled, but there was no mistaking that smoked ham-like tone. And to me, that's exactly what this beer tastes like. There are toffee-like flavours lurking underneath it all, but that sweet smoke dominates. The whole thing is drier than the Special offering, and this makes it a cleaner beer and easier to drink for it. I had been worried I'd find the smoke overpowering, but my memories had clearly amplified it. As it was, I found the smoke sweet and very enjoyable.

For this round the Schlenkerla wins, due in part to a more smokey experience, but mainly because I found it a more balanced beer that was simply more enjoyable to drink.

Friday 19 September 2008

Franken Sense

A package arrived for me yesterday. It was another box of beer. In fact, another box of beer from Franken, but this time from Bierpaket.de, an online store specialising in Franconian beers. Their range is pretty impressive, and it took me a while browsing before I placed an order. I wanted a mixed pack of beers I hadn't tried yet, so they kindly took a custom order via mail. Eight days later (I paid by bank transfer) I had my box, the second time in my life I've ordered beer over the Web! Actually, this time I checked the best before dates, and unlike the last time I ordered online, these all have dates well in the future. Good thing too! Although I'm tempted to list them (I just love the names of some of these!) I'll drip feed them over the next few weeks.

There was one beer that really caught my attention, and I couldn't wait to sample it; Brauerei Rittmayer Smokey George, a beer made with peat-smoked distiller's malt sourced from Scotland, as the label clearly states, and the imagery clearly implies.

Interestingly, on the neck label (is there a technical term for this? ) it had the words Highland Circle under the Rittmayer crest. I rummaged about on the Interweb thingy and found that the Highland Circle is a group of people who love all things Scottish, particularly the whisky, based in Nürnberg. They've even registered a Franconian tartan by the looks of it! There's dedication. I wonder was this beer dedicated to them, or if the brewer is a member.

Smokey George is a deep clear amber with low carbonation. Aroma? Talk about Phenols! This has a really peaty smokiness that borders (and will cross over for some) on medicinal. Think diluted TCP. Taking a few mouthfuls gives you a really smooth, almost creamy, mouthfeel, with a plum-like sweetness that gradually turns into a real carmelised malt flavour. But when you stop gulping, the turf comes out and gets you. When you breath out you can feel smoke coming out of your nose. Powerful stuff, but not over-powering. Definitely very different in character to the more traditional Rauchbier of the region. I got used to the phenols halfway down, and could start picking out some ginger-like spiciness, and an almost seaside-air saltiness that I just can't describe, but the whole thing is dominated by caramelised malts and that turf-fire smoke. Mmmm.

Brauerei Rittmayer is based in Hallerndorf, about 30km north of Nürnberg, and it looks like a tiny place I'd like to visit. Can't wait to try some of their other beers!

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Schlenkerla vs. Spezial - The Lagerbiers

Having read Mr Nut's Session post, I felt I should dip into my first Bamberg Box again and pull out these two for a spin.

The Spezial Rauchbier Lagerbier from Brauerei Spezial Bamberg had a spritzy start and a loose tan head on top of a lovely clear, bright amber. The head disappeared sharpish, and it looked a bit dead pretty quick. I found the aroma very faint, and could just about detect a faint smokiness. Once in the mouth I found this is a slightly sweet beer, like light caramel, but above all this a delicate smoke washed over the tongue. It sparkles slightly on the tongue, and this seems to help bring the smoke out. I decided the smoke is delicate because I found it didn't stay long in the finish. While this wasn't the revelation of smokiness I was expecting, I found it a really pleasant, subtle beer that. I would happily drink more of this.

The Helles Lagerbier from Brauerei Heller Bamberg was a contrast to the Spezial Lagerbier in terms of appearance at least, being a pale golden yellow with a gentle carbonation that maintained a thin head throughout. I found the aroma slightly floral rather than smoky, but from what I read on comments on TheBeerNut's post, any smoke is as a result of absorbtion in a kind of reverse Angel's share effect. Flavourwise, I did detect some smoke, although it reminded me more of smoked cod rather than the smoked ham of it's big brother, the Märzen. It also tasted to me like a, dare I say it, "regular lager", with a bready maltiness and a hoppy dryness at the back of the tongue. Actually, the finish is relatively dry compared to theh Spezial Lagerbier. I actually found this beer a bit boring till I brought out some cheese and kaminwurzen. The salty food seemed to bring out a sweetness in the beer which I had not really noticed before, but I still found it a bit unsatisfying.

Spezial Rauchbier for me in this round. Next up will be the Märzens...

Sunday 14 September 2008

Open Brew Day #1

Yesterday I had an "Open Brew Day" at my home, inviting a few colleagues along to see a beer being made, and to sample a few. It all went very smoothly, with lots of questions, a few beers and a new chili recipe I'm playing with (to which was added a bottle of Hacker-Pschorr Animator). I also asked them vote between two recipes I had made; one an American type Pale Ale and the other a bastardised Irish Red Ale/English Pale Ale/Dark Beer - no idea what kind of beer you'd call it, but who cares. After the tasting in the office a few weeks ago I fully expected to be making the pale ale, but I was very pleased when they voted two against one for the darker ale! The fourth guy hadn't arrived by then, but I have a feeling he would have gone dark too. It kinda messes up my theory that the more north you go the more people tend towards pils, but then I didn't have a representative sample. It may be the beginning of a group of willing guinea pigs for me, and not only on the home brewing front (will be part of the experiment!).

Following the brew day we cycled the 8.5km to a boathouse owned by the company at which there was a party. It's an interessting cycle as much of it is though woods on dirt trails, and it's bloody hard to see the trail in the dark with just a bicycle lamp. I took a wrong turn on my way back last time I did it (beer was involved, but there was also no moon that night), so I was happy when I was told of an alternative route home that was on regular street. The beer at the party, by the way, was Becks. Freezing cold Becks! Oh, and Becks Gold.

This was in contrast to the daytime event at my house where we had some home-brewed porter and IPA, and a Landbier and Hell a colleague brought along from a small brewery based in Havixbeck; Münsterländische Privatbrauerei Klute. I have to get some more of this, but they both had a very distinctive zesty hop profile, bordering on hay with lemons, with the Landbier having a very strong light-caramel base.

I plan another brew day in two weeks where I hope to be making a smoked stout with more volunteers, assuming I manage to find the last bits I need to complete building my mash tun!

Thursday 11 September 2008

A night off work

I'm off to Pinkus Müller for a few beers with colleagues this evening. I'm not bringing my notebook, but it made me wonder what non-beer-geeks would think of a Paddy scribbling notes and taking photos of every beer he has.

I think I'll take a night off tonight and just bask in the refreshing beers that Müller do!

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Kaiserdom Alt-Bamberg Dunkel

This beer was a real surprise for me. I had tried the Kaiserdom Pilsner a few weeks ago and found it a little sweet, so I wasn't sure whether their Alt-Bamberg Dunkel would be even sweeter. But the real surprise was the colour. I had been expecting the usual brown kind of Dunkel, but this was pitch black. I mean, even holding the glass up to the light I was hard pressed to see any light getting through, let alone colour tones. It has a full-on malt aroma with roasted notes.

This is unlike any Dunkel I have tasted, and actually, even if it had been called a Schwarzbier I would have said the same. It's leaning towards a Porter or even a Stout. It tastes like there's plenty of chocolate malt, and a good dash of black malt all on top of a base of munich. Is that a faint whiff of smoke, or just the roastiness? There's more than a hint of christmas pudding, but it's not that heavy despite all of this. The carbonation is gentle and lifts away any residual sweetness. I can't really comment on the hops -- if there were any -- as I was just brought on a malty journey, and I loved every drop!

Monday 8 September 2008

Two Schmucker Bocks

I mentioned a pair of Schmucker Bocks in a previous post, so I thought I'd give them a proper go and give some sort of impression of what they taste like, to me at least.

But before I do that, I'll cast my mind back to August 2007 when me, my new wife, and our son, went on a kind of honeymoon. We had thought about all sorts of exotic stuff, but when it came down to it it was easier to just rent a nice car and go stay in small little places in an area close to where my wife is from and which she likes alot; The Odenwald. I have to admit I have a soft spot for this area, as it just feels nice, with rolling hills, nice forest walks, little villages and farms dotted about the place and a general feeling of being away from it all. However I do know someone who worked there picking cherries as a student, and it might not have been so idyllic. Anyway, while we were roaming the area we passed through a dot on the map called Mossautal several times, and each time my face was stuck to the passenger window as we passed the Schmucker Brewery.

In fact, I had tried to book us into the small hotel attached to the brewery, but it wasn't to be. Be that as it may, we at least went there for lunch one day and I sampled a few of their beers. I remember the Schwarzbier not being Schwarz at all, but found this seemed to be the case for the area in general, so I just lived with it. The bar itself seemed nice enough, but we had sat out in the beer garden where our son could mingle with the other guests. I would have loved to stay and try everything I could (they seem to have about twelve beers), but time was against me so I sunk down three or so beers before slinking away. To my shame I can't remember what they were like, but they clearly weren't so horrible that they left an indelible mark on my mind

While there however, I had noted this Rosé Bock thingy, as it sounded interesting at least. So when I bought a few bottles the other week for the Father-in-Laws birthday bash I thought I was in for a treat. When I tried the Rosé and the Doppel Bock at Günter's party, it was on day two of the celebrations at about midnight, and I guess I wasn't exactly thinking about taste then, but they felt heavy! So to do them justice I thought I'd wait for a quiet time... Which is now!

The Schmucker Rosé Bock isn't exactly Rosé, but it does have a rather nice copper-red tone that could be a bit pinkish if you closed your eyes and wished really hard (there's no place like home, and Toto too). There's a kind of dried fruit aroma; that's dried fruit soaked in alcohol, which seemed reasonable given it's 8% ABV. It has a sweet and sticky feeling to it with a definite warmth down the throat, but I found it very one-dimensional. I tried to find some depth to it, but only got burnt undertones and a slightly woody flavour. I found it a bit like licking a pine table, a varnished one at that! Not the nicest Bock, but then I'm at the tail end of a cold, so I might have to give it a go again.

As I type I'm finishing off a Schmucker Doppel-Bock Dunkel, and it's very different. A deep, dark ruby-tinged brown, this has a more refined aroma that to me just says plum jam ladled on top of lumps of toffee and malt. Flavourwise it is a little jammy too with a faint earthy spiciness that is quite pleasent. It doesn't taste or feel like 8% and is very drinkable! The mouthfeel isn't exactly full, but the finish lingers as a sweet coating on the tongue with a slightly peppery warmth. This isn't very complex, but it's a nice beer with simple pleasures. I think I could have another, but I have to get up in the morning!

Friday 5 September 2008

Deutsches Bier and me

Well, considering what this blog is dealing with, this is as good as topic as could be for my first Session post! It’s clear that German beer now pervades my life at all levels, but it wasn’t always so.

My first introduction to “real” German beer, as in not the stuff available in Ireland at the time, was around fourteen years ago, at a time when I hadn’t yet come to realise the wonderfully varied world of beer. I had been subsisting on a blend of Carlsberg, Miller, Becks, occasional Guinness, Jack Daniels and the odd Bulmers when back from a hot days work in the field (I was an active land surveyor at the time, not a farmer!). I was working with a German girl and we’d become good friends, so I went over with her to visit her family in the south west of Germany for a birthday party. It’s a long time ago now, but I do remember the really hot days and helping her father with some building work and being rewarded with cold beer. Pils usually if I recall correctly. Now, this wasn’t a million miles away from some of the stuff I had been drinking at home, but it was distinctly more bitter, and I didn’t really like drinking lots of it.

But I was also introduced to what I sometimes consider to be the gateway drug of beer afficianadoism; Weissbier! Coming from mid-1990’s Ireland, this was the most unusual looking beer I had ever seen. Those big tall glasses, the big fluffy head the looked like you’d need a spoon to eat it, and that glowing pale gold all combined to impress this young Irishman. But the taste! How was this possible? Looking back I think it’s possible that this introduction was the start of my interest in beer in general, and it certainly made me more open to trying new tastes.

I can’t remember if it was the same trip or a later one -- as these visits became pretty regular – but at some stage I made a train journey to Düsseldorf to visit a friend I had met in Ireland. While she was in college during the day I wandered the Altstadt of Düsseldorf and experienced my first Alt. So different from what I had been drinking down south. Darker, sweeter, but still bitter. I needed to try more! I began trying Schwarzbiers, Dunkels, and Dunkel Weissbier. Could this be the same type of beer as that golden beacon? There seemed an endless landscape of beer, and I was convinced that Germany was the rightful home of beer, and this purity law that everyone seemed so proud of seemed to result in less hangovers!

Returning home I was becoming more adventurous, and my close friends with me. The Porterhouse in Temple Bar became my favourite bar, simply because of the range of beers from around the world. And this is where it really began to get interesting. What the hell were these Belgians doing? How did they create all those luscious flavours? How come English Ale wasn’t warm soapy water as I had been led to believe? I began to seek out new tastes and my friends and I would seldom drink the same beer twice in one night, just exploring, but the poor Germans began to get left behind. With all these taste sensations I began to find Pils and Weissbier boring, and when in Germany I’d tend to go for Dunkels and darker beers generally to get more body and flavour. I began to think this purity law was nonsense, as it just didn’t necessarily mean good tasting beer…

As time went on the girl who first brought me to Germany became my girlfriend, and then the mother of my son and finally, only last year, my wife. And through all this the potential for moving to Germany was always in the background until something interesting came up. It wasn’t in the south west as we had initially wanted, but in Münster, in the west-north-west where there are some interesting brewing traditions. I’m close to Köln and Düsseldorf, whose greatest rivalry is expressed through the loyal following for each city’s brewing tradition, Kölsch and Alt. Two very different beers, but both remnants of the German beer world before the march of the Pils and Rheinheitsgebot began homogenising the beer styles here. I’m also close to Dortmund, the former industrial powerhouse that reinterpreted the Pils and created the Export style, probably one of the great influencers on the “International Lager” style of beer. And my new home itself, which has only one remaining brewery, but which has a nice collection of light, refreshing, and nearly always tart beers to slake ones thirst, including the last Münster Alt which, naturally, the Düsseldorfers will say is not Alt at all!

So here I am in a country I’ve always liked, but which I had become disillusioned with in terms of beer. I remember a wine master once telling me that many wine drinkers start out with white wine, then quickly move on to the deeper, richer flavours of red. But, often, they return to white when they realise the subtleties that were there all along, but they just couldn’t appreciate them. A bit like this, I am learning to re-evaluate the German beer world, and I’m intent on exploring as much as I can! Not because I have to, but because I think I am doing it a disservice not to, and I want to! So, despite the fact that I am bemoaning not being able to find the variety of beers from around the world that I have become accustomed to, without German beer I probably would not have wanted to explore that world at all. That’s one small contribution German beer has made to the world, even if it is just my world.