Saturday 30 April 2011

Blind tasting Alpirsbacher Ambrosius

Two weeks ago, after a couple of days in Bamberg with two of my oldest friends from Ireland, and on the eve of my Birthday, we had an ideal opportunity to put a bottle of Alpirsbacher Ambrosius -- a new German Tripel released shortly before Christmas 2010 and the first of two German Tripels I came across since, the other being being the Franz Anton Schäffler Triple -- through its paces against a couple of Belgian Tripels and a German wildcard in a blind tasting.

After a couple of days in Bamberg, this was going to be kill or cure, but we were dedicated.

Beer A I found had a warm, sugary, toffee-apple aroma. the first taste also felt warming, with big, soft raisin flavours. Somewhat thin on the mouthfeel, sugary malts up front, a light fruitiness, suggesting raisins, cut short by a pine-like bitterness that hangs around for quite a while. In summary, sugary, fruity, with a little too much residual sugars for my liking, but with a pleasant warming effect.

Beer B had very little aroma, and what it delivered  was more along the lines of alcohol, with slight marker/acetone notes. Light and alomost wine-like, with a grape skin tannic edge bringing up the rear. Slight bitter almond/marzipan traces.. Overall, fruity in a grape-like way, juicy and a crisp tannic finish that I liked.

Beer C had similarities to B in many ways, but it upped things on the fruitiness. Pears, apples, oak-like vanilla notes. Dry, almost cranberry-like in the feel, but buffered by a light candy-like middleground. Quite an assertive bitter finish, with that dryness pushing  a herb-like (it had me in mind of thyme or oregano) bitterness well to the front of the tongue. Overall, crisp, dry, nice fruity, orangy notes. My favourite of the four.

Beer D reeked of corn. That boiling corn on the cob kind of aroma. Really off-putting compared to the other three. Sugary to the taste, but with a cleansing German hop character, citric?lemon and slightly herbal. A pleasant warming pepperiness to the finish. Overall, like sweetcorn with hops.

I knew what the four beers were, so was the only one able to take a guess what each was. As it turns out, I was able to name all correctly.
Beer A: Alpirsbacher Amrosius
Beer B: St. Bernardus Tripel
Beer C: Westmalle Tripel
Beer D: Andechser Bergbock Hell

The reasoning? D was clearly the odd one out. It had to be the Doppelbock. It was included on the off chance that the Ambrosius bore more resemblance to its German brother than the Belgian cousins. Definitely not! The Ambrosius stood out in that it had a malty sweetness (sorry Mark) that just made it typically German to me. It's hard to get a strong German beer that doesn't have a sugary consistancy, and this had at least hints of that. B and C felt more refined to my taste, so had to be the Belgians. C stole it for me, so I subconsciously assumed it to be the Westmalle, as I hadn't tried the Bernardus Tripel before.

In the end, the Ambrosius is a fine beer, but to my taste, it doesn't come near the surprisingly crisp and refreshing  levels that the Belgians hit, even with beers at that level of alcohol. Also, it's not bottle conditioned. Not a trace of yeast in the bottle, so I'm not sure I hold much hope for my remaining bottle developing much in the cellar. Time will tell.

Monday 11 April 2011

Braufactum Darkon, Roog and Indra.

A little while ago I mentioned the very attractively packaged, own-branded beers from BraufactuM. This was in the context of exclusivity, as the presentation, and the price of these beers seems aimed at a particular type of person. But are they any good? I was lucky enough to have the chance to take three of their beers for a little taste drive.

BraufactuM Darkon  is described as an "elegant Schwarzbier" at 5.4% ABV. It has a light roast and toffee aroma, with some fruitiness. The initial impression on the flavour is that of a thin malt drink with a pleasant raisin fruitiness with light coffee and chocolate notes. Remarkably floral at the back, it delivers a pronounced herbal  bitterness, washed away by thin caramel flavours. It's nice that this bitterness gives a sharp contrast to the sweet and roast flavours, but it ends on a bit of a bilious sour note. Better when drinking, and not good to stop so. Interesting, but not a balance of flavours that works for me. Well, not the sick.

Their Roog Rauchweizen raises the ABV to a respectable 6.6%, and pours  dark, muddy brown. It delivers a light smoke aroma, gentle, but certainly present, on top of a classic Weizen banana-like foundation, combining into a smoked-fruit effect. Rather good! If has a soft, juicyfruit/bubblegum and strawberry-like flavour, with a spritzy carbonic bite, followed by a very pleasant, sweet smokiness. Well-balanced and hitting all the classic Weizen buttons with the added dimension of smoke, I have to say, this is the best Rauchweizen I've had. Others, including the more famous ones from Schlenkerla and Spezial, just didn't get the balance right, in my mind. Lovely.

And on to the BraufactuM Indra, a 6.8% Weizen India Pale Ale. I was looking forward to this one most, to see what a German interpretation, including Cascade hops, would turn out like. With a lively carbonation and that orange hue, it looks every bit the Weißbier, but that's where it stops. I have to admit, my first impression was Wow! A huge grapefruit aroma leaps out from under that dense, fluffy head. It has an interesting mix of flavours. The hops elements are way to the fore, with grapefruit and lemon banging it out. There's a grainy middleground, somewhat mealy, but with a robust fruitiness suggesting orange, pears and a light caramel. I'm not sure what yeast was used, as it has none of the hallmark Weizen flavours that I expected, but perhaps it just makes heavy use of wheat. I have to admit, I made no other notes as it was a complete distraction of a beer.

So, are they worth it? Well, that depends. Flavour-wise, I was really impressed. The Roog, at €4.99 for 330ml was the first Rauchweizen I tried that I felt really worked, and it exceeded expectations. Similarly, I’m a big fan of the American interpretation of IPAs, and the Indra checked all of the boxes, and then some. Simply brilliant. But at €5.99 for 330ml, I simply cannot justify that as a regular purchase, especially as it is most likely made locally. Sadly, that means that while at best, they may expect  an occasional purchase for curiosity, they won’t be getting regular custom from me (sad for me too!). I can’t help wondering if this kind of pricing is shooting themselves in the foot, but then there will always be someone with more money than sense.

Many thanks to my friend and whisky pimp, Rüdiger, for sharing these with me. I'm tempted to try more.

Friday 1 April 2011

The Session #50: How do they make you buy beer?

A few weeks ago, I put forward my thoughts that the general lack of variety in German beer was not so much to do with the Reinheitsgebot as with the general conservativeness of the German public at large. Basically, despite the fact that the Reinheitsgebot allows for a massive variety of beer styles, they generally don’t go too far in Germany (and I acknowledge gratefully the likes of Altbier, Kölsch, Rauchbier and other regional specialties). But when there is something clearly different to the norm, how does the Brewery or beer seller try to tempt the regular German public to make that leap beyond Pils and Helles? Exclusivity seems to be the keyword, at least when the marketers are involved.

A little while ago, I mentioned Alpirsbacher Ambrosius, a German-brewed Belgian-style Tripel which, as one regional paper put it, was the most expensive German beer available. It was described as a “gourmet” beer, and much was made of the fact that cork and cages were used, presumably adding to the desired comparisons with wine. At €8.60 for 750ml, it’s not prohibitively expensive, and certainly not the most expensive German beer I’ve seen to date, with that honour belonging to the Schorschbräu 32 or 43, retailing at about €60 for 330ml. At least in that case, production was extremely limited, and a lot of materials and man-hours went into creating a one-off, but I digress. The point is, the exclusivity and “specialness” of Ambrosius were used to try and make people buy it. Although it disregards the fact that the Trappists were doing this for some time, bear in mind that it’s pretty hard to find such beers in German stores, so yes, in a way it’s “new” 'round these parts, and this apparent uniqueness in itself is a draw to purchase. Does it taste any good? Is it worth the cash? Well, time will tell, I’ve got two bottles of Ambrosius in the cellar, waiting for an opportune moment to blind taste against a Trappist beer and a few others, so at least that trapped me!

Really pushing all the exclusivity buttons is BraufactuM. Their website features a small selection of beers form Brooklyn, Marston’s, Birrificio Italiano, Birra Baladin, and their own BraufactuM label. It’s beautifully presented, with the menu split between “courses”, sumptuous images of the beers, tasting notes and detailed information on the ingredients. Really, this is the way beer information should be given, but the work that went into this could only be possible with the small selection presented. Put it this way, it really made me want to buy them all! But! The prices!

Their own label, brewed at an unknown location, includes some really great-looking beers, Indra, a Weizen India Pale Ale, Roog, a smoked Weizen and Darkon, a Schwarzbier, all relatively reasonably priced, while still oozing exclusivity due to the classy packaging (thanks to a friend, I tried all three of these two nights ago, but I’ll return to those in a later post). But I balk at paying €17.99 for a 330ml bottle of 13% Arrique barley wine (€54 per litre)! I mean, made with local ingredients, how can it be that expensive? That’s where style and exclusivity can stay out in the cold.

A case in point, and returning to Belgian-style Tripels in Germany: as it happens, Ambrosius wasn’t the first of this Belgian Tripel styles made in Germany. Another such is F.A Schäffler Triple, from Schäffler-Bräu a 10.5% beer, fermented with Trappist yeast, and costing €14 for 750ml in an Edeke supermarket. It fits the bill for exclusivity on price, and the branding does suggest a touch of classiness, with a little booklet explaiing the finer points. According to Ratebeer, Härte 10, is the very same beer, rebadged. The label of Härte 10 says it's 10%, uses Trappist yeast, and is decidedly crap looking, with a clipart kind of feel about it. Check out that cheesy diamond! On the back, it names Idar-Obersteiner-Bierspezialitaeten*, so, an own label of a beer handler in the middle of Rheinland-Pfalz, with no indication of the brewery, so presumably Ratebeer had some other information to go by. And the price of Härte 10? About €1.80 for 500ml. How’s that for an illustration of how the brand, the label, the exclusivity is meant to draw people in, and the more it can be ratcheted up , the more they expect people to pay.

But what is it like? If you weren't being swayed by the classy label, and the most advanced corking system you've ever seen (the Zork Cork), would it taste as good? Blind tasting time! Three of us put the F.A. Schäffler Triple against the Härte 10... well, Tripel.

Beer A for me had a broad, sweet, fruity aroma, I want to say lychees, but that sounds pretentious. Bubble gum, with aged red apples. The flavour is really candy-like, with pear drops and an amplified juicyfruit chewing gum and banana. Very sweet and sticky though.

Beer B was very similar in many of the core flavours, but different enough that we all noticed it. For me, it was a bit thinner, a little sharper, and had more brown sugar than a load of candy, and a pineapple like edge.

All in all, I preferred B. Though both shared common elements, I felt B was more refined, and because of that,  I declared that it was the more expensive of the two. I was wrong, and so was my colleague, Rüdiger.

If they are the same beer, and I think there was enough in common for me to believe that, I wonder what made them different. Age, storage, all of that could play a part. Maybe the batches that don't meet a standard get rebadged? The main thing is, if they are the same, how can this price differential be explained? I can only think it's the aura of exclusivity you're paying for, and that alone can be enough to make you want to buy a beer, despite being an otherwise clear-thinking human being.

And I have another bottle of each!

*Their website doesn't work, but they do list  Schäffler-Bräu