31 August 2012

The Baltic to Bavaria

Even though there was plenty of representation from the big international German beer brands at the Berlin Beer Festival, one of the headline sponsors was Störtebeker, a regional brand from Straslund on the Baltic coast due north of the capital. Having never heard of them I made a point of visiting their stand where two very jolly barmen were dishing out a pils and a schwarz.  

Störtebeker Pils is magnificent: a sharp bitter kick gets it going and the middle is smooth and creamy. It's almost in the same league as Keesmann Herren Pils, a beer which I searched vainly for during my festival visits but which didn't seem to be on sale anywhere.

It was a tough act to follow and Störtebeker Schwarz didn't quite manage it. This is a nasty-looking murky brown with big loud chocolate flavours followed quickly by dry roast. As good as many a schwarzbier on sale at the festival, but by no means a stand-out.

Always a sucker for novelty I couldn't pass by the Köstritzer bar without having a go of their helles. I mean, pale Köstritzer? Kerr-azy! The name is Köstritzer Edel and it's a very pale yellow indeed. In an otherwise non-descript lager I swear I was able to detect some of the back-of-the-throat crisp dryness that is the hallmark of normal dark Köstritzer, but I'm well aware of how powerful suggestion can be when tasting beer and I wasn't going to stop to carry out a blind taste.

Of course there was a big showing by Schneider, who had a couple bars on the go. We made a few return visits there: Aventinus Eisbock at €1.50 a glass will do that. But in the calmer hours I took the time to try Schneider Weisse Blonde, simply because it's a beer from one of my favourite breweries which I've never tasted. It presents like weissbier from a normal brewery: pale orange-yellow and hazy. There's the classic clove flavour you get with good weissbier and only the lack of any dark malt complexity marks it out as different from Schneider's flagship product. Not something I'd go rushing back to (unlike the Eisbock) but I'm glad I tried it.

While we're in Bavaria we may as well pay a visit to Andechs. The cheeky monks were ignoring the festival pricing so it was a whole €2 for a sample of their beer. Andechs Hell is a textbook Bavarian Helles: purest pale gold, silkily smooth and just lightly bitter. Andechs Dunkel is less well put together, blaring coffee and slightly sickly toffee but with just enough dryness on the finish to make it work.

A doppelbock was of course necessary at some point and Riegele Doppelbock was the first I spotted and was just what I was after: a clear mahogany, it's properly filling and the flavour dashes between liquorice, caramel, lavender and rosewater. There's almost a barley wine heat and complexity to it.

So we come to the last beer of the post and you'll doubtless all be shocked by the complete lack of rauchbier in my German trip notes. As it happens I only met the one, from a brewery in Franconia which claims to be the smallest brewer of smoked beer in the region.

Fischer Rauchbier is a clear brown colour and exudes massive smoked salmon and bacon flavours which I loved. Backbone is provided by a certain amount of caramel, but it's mostly light and quaffable all the way through.

And that's it from Berlin. It's a city that makes you work hard to find anything different from the orthodox beer styles, even when it's running a huge international beer festival. But what's there, by and large, is pretty good.

Play us out, Hans:

29 August 2012

Und was ist das?

There was a vague attempt at themed zones at the Berlin Beer Festival, with different sections marked out for different regions of Germany or foreign countries. It didn't really work on the ground, however, and the arrangement of bars appeared more or less arbitrary. Quite early on on the Friday we happened across a stall selling beers from the Williams Brothers brewery in Scotland, and on cask no less. It was my first chance to try their summer seasonal Birds & Bees, a cloudy blonde ale brewed with elderflower and lemon zest. The latter combines with the generous hopping to give a powerful citric bitterness that's wonderfully refreshing.

Czech brewery Opat had two beers available, badged for the local crowd as pils and dunkel, but I'm taking a punt at guessing their Czech names. So, Opat Svetlý is a smooth and sinkable dry lager laced with some nice stonefruit tartness: peach, plum and the like. Opat Tmavý is a very dark brown-black with big treacle notes up front fading quickly and not leaving much behind other than water and a slight metallic tang. Drinkers of the standard German styles wouldn't have found much to shock them in these two. I suspect they'd have been impressed by Skalák Tmavé 13°, however, presented here simply as "Rohozec Schwarzbier". This was beautifully presented: a clear mahogany red. Smooth and lightly sweet it balances fruit and chocolate against a cheeky bitter hop bite. Lovely.

Finally a few German beers billing themselves as porters. Bräugold Porter starts with a major sticky caramel thing but balances it with some lovely bitter liquorice in the finish. It started getting cloying as it warmed so is best consumed cold for maximum enjoyment. Just as well I was drinking 200ml measures. Lausitzer Porter is paler: more dark amber than black. It's sweet and sugary but only lightly carbonated so highly quaffable. A few flavoured versions exist and I went for the Lausitzer Kirschporter which smelled for all the world like a Belgian kriek. In the flavour the cherry syrup is laid on a bit thick and its a bit of a struggle to get through, but it does leave a pleasant cherry aftertaste once its gone. More a novelty than something I'd make my regular tipple.

One more post to come, and I've been saving up the highlights.

27 August 2012

The beers are on Karl!

Two looming towers mark the beginning of Karl-Marx-Allee, a beautifully-kept mile-long testimony to Soviet city planning: a sequence of huge apartment blocks along both sides of a dual carriageway, bookended with more towers at the other end. On the first weekend in August each year, one side of the boulevard is given over to the Berliner Bierfestival.

Breweries both big and small pitch their festival bars on the pavement, along with a number of importers and distributors selling exotic species from lands as far away as the UK and Czech Republic. Running parallel to the stall corridor is a sequence of beer gardens, several with a small stage for live music. While each beer stall will give you a branded glass for a small deposit -- making it a collector's dream -- the preferred method is to buy a festival-branded 200ml sample glass. Most stalls offer refills for these at a very reasonable €1.50. As one might expect there was a lot of repetition of the pils-schwarz-weiss Holy Trinity of German brewing, but there were a few surprises in there as well. Let's get stuck in...

Günther-Bräu and Eschenbacher had enviable pitches at the Strausberger Platz entrance: perfect for selling newcomers their first beer to sip while they get their bearings and peruse their programmes. Günther-Bräu Schwarzbier for me: bang-on my expectations for the style, being reddish in the small glass, balancing dry roast with sweet caramel. Herself took an Eschenbacher Schwarzbier. This one is paler and a little more complex with mild gingerbread spicing.

My first pale beer was a Wacker-Bräu Hell: the same opaque orange I'd seen in many of the unfiltered brewpub helleses with some mild citrus but not much else. I was bored before finishing 200mls. The missus stayed steadfastly dark with Black Lion, a schwarzbier from Hartmannsdorfer in Saxony. There's an interesting strawberry fruit thing going on in this deep red number.

Another schwarzbier? Oh go on then. Landsberger Schwarz offered further strawberries, and a whack of marzipan too: not what anyone is looking for in a schwarzbier but very enjoyable all the same.

Turning up the dimmer switch we have Kauzen Alt-Frankish, a clear light brown beer, mildly roasty finishing grassy. Balanced, but not terribly exciting. I think I was expecting a less polished more rustic experience. It was still better than Zwönitzer Rotblondes which was billed as an alt and I suppose it's a fair enough description, being cloudy red-amber and rather dull, with just a pinch of toffee marking out the flavour. King of the real Düsseldorf alts Uerige was present, and being served from the wooden cask. I made a beeline for it on the Saturday evening but it just wasn't as enjoyable as drinking it at the brewery. Funny how these things go.

The Dachs brewery stall was a popular one for some reason and they were the only people selling a Märzen that I saw. Not a very good one, unfortunately, being rather sugary: heavy without the rounded breadiness that makes märzen worthwhile.

Finally, I was pleased to spot Hamburg beer brand Astra at the festival. They've been an interest ever since Barry posted about their marketing which is odd, even for Germany. As befits their whole theme, the stall was kitted out as a brothel. Astra Pils isn't half bad: very pale yellow with an unnorthern sweetness. A tart with a heart of gold, I guess.

So far so typically German. The next post is for things a bit less familiar to the Berliners.

24 August 2012

Up market, up country

From the somewhat bohemian Berlin brewpubs of Wednesday's post, we return to the middle of town to visit a couple of places that are rather more polished. Take Lindenbräu, for instance. This cubic glass and steel construction is built into the monumental Sony Centre on Potsdamer Platz, rising two storeys and topped by an indoor roof terrace, if that makes any sense. Tragically, we missed the window of opportunity to sit on the upper level when we visited, too busy soaking up the convivial atmosphere on the ground level and, obviously, the beer.

Lindenbräu Naturtrüb Helles looks a bit off, with its murky yellow colouring. The aroma is pure noble hops: that green nettley smell with a bit of extra yeasty sharpness. The texture is big and bready, making it feel wholesome. There's not really a lot going on in the flavour: it's another conversation beer. A hint of green apple tang keeps my attention and stops it from feeling heavy. There's a Lindenbräu Pils on offer as well. This is totally clear but other than some mild herbs is rather dull. Lindenbräu Dunkel next, a fairly by-the-numbers job: red-brown with lots of big caramel and brown sugar. Sticky, yes, but with a lightness of texture that means it's still very drinkable. Unusually, Lindenbräu Weissbier is kept as a seasonal. It's orange in colour, very fizzy, and with cloves bursting out of the aroma. Flavourwise it's quite sweet with candyfloss sugar forming the base, then laced with clove rock notes. Workmanlike is how I'd describe Lindenbräu's beers, but perfectly acceptable. The venue gets bonus points for having an outdoorsy feel minus any threat of rain.

Our last Berlin brewery, Lemke, nestles beneath the railway line at Hackescher Markt, with its beer garden occupying a quiet nook alongside where only the rattle of trains passing above disturbs the peace. Is there a pils? Of course there is. Lemke Pils is a pale lemon yellow colour with just a little bit of haze. The aroma is oddly citric for a pils and the first sip reveals a full-on piquant bitterness which subsides into some lovely lemon candy notes. Not at all what I was expecting and a pleasant surprise. Lemke Weizen, though a little dark in colour, is actually quite light and easy going. The aroma has a gingerbread character and the flavour harmoniously blends oranges, bananas and, of course, cloves. Definitely one of the better weissbiers I met on the trip.

There's more of that gingerbread in Lemke Zwickel, itself a clear dark gold beer. Once you get past the dusting of spices it's quite a plain and dry lager. Rather than a dunkel there's Lemke Original, a brown lager with creamy milk chocolate flavours, studded with orange candy. Quite nice, in a mild sort of way.

Here ends the Berlin breweries. Those familiar with the city may notice the glaring absence of BrewBaker from these posts. I certainly did. We never really set aside the time to visit it up in Moabit in the north-west of the city. It's not really clear whether the brewery is a walk-in arrangement with a tasting bar, so we didn't go, hoping to happen across some of their beers somewhere else. Sadly, we didn't. So no BrewBaker this time round.

We did, however, take a couple of days to head north and visit friends in the Baltic port city of Kiel. My mate's local -- every bit as classy as its website suggests -- lashes out DAB and Jever on draught. The latter is a very different experience without the lightstrike caused by green glass. Kiel also boasts a brewpub in its tiny old city square: the aptly named Kieler Brauerei. It's a cavernous beerhall in faux-keller style, ranging back from the entrance, with a shiny copper brewkit by the door and open fermenters on display in the cellar.

Just two beers are produced on site. The Kieler Helles Pils is a familiar cloudy yellow-orange. The main taste I got from it was a worrying sort of vinegary sharpness, but it's not overpowering and it's possible to get past it, to the plain spoken lager behind. Perhaps not a very technically proficient beer, but a drinkable one nonetheless. The second is, I think, attempting a pun with its name "Kieler Bier" (like "kellerbier", geddit?) and is a murky brown-amber colour. The flavour is a fascinating blend of soft fruit and caramel with hints of milk chocolate. Coupled with the smooth texture this makes it quite moreish and kept us in the place for a second round.

Enough microbreweries for now. Next week we'll return to the capital and hit the festival!

22 August 2012

Berliner 'burbs

I drew extensively from Knut Albert's excellent blog when I was putting together my Berlin beer itinerary. Südstern has appeared a couple of times in his recommendations so I made that a priority. We arrived around 8.30 on a blustery wet evening, the pub spilling welcoming light onto the busy dual carriageway which cuts through that quarter of unglamorous south-east Berlin. But the light, it turned out, was the only welcoming part of the offer.

We had barely eaten all day and were ravenous. The menu was full of hearty German beerhall fare which was just what we were after, and the kitchen stays open to 11. When our waitress came over, however, it transpired that all that was on offer was two types of flammekuche and the nacho plate. Oh. Well, we'll have ALL of that please. The nachos arrived with one flammekuche. We waited patiently on the second, then on politely enquiring as to its whereabouts were told the waitress had forgotten it from our order and the kitchen was closed and the chef had gone home, tough. After our meagre meal and a couple of beers we left hungry, grateful for the ubiquitous corner kebab shops that dot Berlin.

But what about the beer? Heller Stern is the unfiltered pale lager, and boy is it unfiltered: a totally opaque orange-yellow with the suspended yeast adding a not-unpleasant weissbier spice to proceedings. The central flavour is quite a sickly orange cordial thing which I didn't like at all. Its counterpart Dunkler Stern had some lovely coffee notes but was spoiled by coming out totally flat. No one was in the mood for cold coffee that evening.

The inevitable weizen is inevitably called Stern Weisse and is another headless one once the initial foam subsides. Pale yellow, it's rather heavy and sticky with a bit of a bleachy brewery-floor aroma. Once again there's a slight saving grace, this time in an unusual marzipan complexity. The seasonal was enigmatically called Matebier and is a hazy brown colour. They allege it's brewed with Cascade but I detected zero citric zest. Instead, bizarrely, lots of Christmas cookie spices full of cloves, cinnamon and orange pith. The body is unfortunately rather watery, otherwise it would pass muster as a winter warmer.

Maybe I just caught them on a bad day, but Südstern really came across to me as a pub that has stopped caring about what it brews, what it serves and how it looks to its customers.

We had a much better time on a much sunnier day at Schalander, an unremarkable-looking corner bar in a pleasant upmarket neighbourhood. They've managed to squeeze a tiny 150L brewkit in here and there were three offerings when we visited. Schalander Helles is a vibrant but hazy lemon yellow colour with a sharp hoppy aroma. There's that powerful waxy bitterness I associate with north German lager and lots of really interesting herbal complexities: chopped parsley and thyme. As it goes down there's a rising lime citrus flavour. Once the palate adjusts to the uncompromising bitterness it's really quite enjoyable. Schalander Dunkel is less of a success: murky brown and starting on caramel mixed with cardboard, finishing on an unexpected waxy punch. Oddly, their Schalander Weizen was clearer than the other two beers and quite dry, though with a powerful tongue-numbing clove whack and just a dash of ripe banana and a hint of gunpowder in the finish. The busy fizz does let it down somewhat, however.

Strolling down the hill through a bohemian quarter that feels more like Copenhagen or Amsterdam than Berlin, we arrive at Hops & Barley, a shabby-chic brewpub about which I'd heard some great things. Business was brisk with most of the crowd opting to sit out on the pavement and enjoy the evening sun. Friedrichshainer Pils is amazingly clear for a brewpub offering, and an attractive dark gold to boot. The aroma is beautifully grassy and this sharpness translates into a strawberry or raspberry tartness on tasting. Great stuff. There's no fear of the dark malts here as the Friedrichshainer Dunkles is properly black, showing only slightly red at the edges. The aroma is coffee and this continues in the flavour with some major dry roast character and only a tiny hint of brown sugar sweetness. And of course there's a Friedrichshainer Weizen, this one is extra spicy with big jaffa orange aromas coming from the quite pale beer and a flavour which mixes mandarin sweetness with clove spice. A worrying sharp edge of vinegar and vomit just spoils the party a little.

I had been expecting something a bit different from these run-of-the mill styles at Hops & Barley, and the seasonal was something enticingly named Cascade Amber. It looked the part when it arrived: a sultry red and quite hazy. I got a fruit chew aroma and it's seriously sweet to taste. They really could have done with a lot more bittering hops in here. From the cleanness of the flavour I suspect it's a lager as well. Quite a distance from the American-style amber ale I was, perhaps unreasonably, hoping for.

On Friday we go back to the city centre for yet more brewpubs.

20 August 2012

From Prussia with love

It's all going to get a bit German on this blog for the next fortnight. Berlin had been on my must-visit list for far too long, and while beer wasn't top of my priorities as a first-time tourist, the city does have quite a number of brewpubs plus a unique local beer speciality. And our visit, earlier this month, just happened to coincide with the three-day Berlin Beer Festival, so beer did creep in here and there between the museums and palaces and historical sites. Funny how that keeps happening...

That local speciality is, of course, Berliner weisse, of which Berliner Kindl Weisse is the only surviving example from a mainstream Berlin brewery. It's a sour wheat beer almost always flavoured with woodruff or raspberry syrup to take the edge off. Having tried both of these previously I was determined to hunt out the naked original version. I found what I was looking for a couple of days into the trip, at Alkopole in Alexanderplatz station. It's one of a chain of beer specialists and they boast that they blend their own flavourings for Berliner weisse. I took this to imply that the unadulterated form was also available though it took a few rounds of "Öhne schuss." "Öhne schuss?" "Ja, öhne schuss" before the waitress finally threw her eyes heavenward and scuttled off to get me some.

It arrived in the customary goblet, though strangely headless: perhaps that's another function of the syrup. A pale gold colour and only slightly hazy, it exudes a grainy lagerish aroma. And on tasting it's surprisingly plain and dry more than full-on sour. Only a little vinegary tang on the finish hints at the lactic bacterial jamboree involved in the fermentation process.

All in all it was a bit of an anti-climax. But that's it done and I can rest easy knowing that if this beer goes the way of so many local German specialities at least I gave it a try. My recommendation is still to go for the green woodruff version if you see it.

Aside from the weisse, Berliner Kindl brews some more orthodox stuff. Their summer seasonal was a dark one called Märkischer Landmann Schwarzbier: a dark red affair with some lovely caramel on the nose and a touch of molasses, but also quite smooth and dry making it eminently sinkable. Of course there's a standard pils too which one sees all over Berlin, competing tightly against the rival Berliner Pilsner. This is a pure north-German style pils, gold with almost a greenish hue and a pungent waxy bitterness, finishing on heady grass notes. After a hot afternoon's schlep around the Museum Island it's a perfect refresher.

So much for the macros: we've got  brewpubs to hit. Starting at the everso touristy Georg-Bräu by the banks of the Spree in the city centre. I have a bit of a soft spot for this place, just because it was sunny when we visited, and it served us the first beer of the day.

Georg-Pils Hell was a hazy orange affair with madly low carbonation: little more than a gentle effervesence. There's a vague sort of herbiness in the flavour, but really it's a conversation beer meant for unfussy quaffing, which is what I did. Herself was on Georg-Pils Dunkel, a name to give the style purists white knuckles. This was bizarrely pale for something claiming to be dark, more of an orange-amber and only a few notches down the colour chart from the Hell. Low fizz again and this time a bit more depth to the flavour, showing some nice sweet fruit in the middle, and just a little waft of mown grass at the end.

We head back to the vicinity of bustling Alexanderplatz for the next one. Bräuhaus Mitte has a touch of '50s futurism about it, wedged into an upstairs corner of a rather unglamourous boxy shopping mall.

There were four beers on the go: Mitte Pils is a pale gold with a fast-disappearing head. It's very heavy work with lots of sugary golden syrup. Mitte Dunkel is more by-the-numbers: lots of milk chocolate in both the flavour and aroma. Only the paleness of its brown colour marking it out as any way unusual. These Berlin brewpubs seem a little afraid of the dark maltsacks. Mitte Weiss was pleasantly odd: a heady perfumed aroma and a flavour that spoke more of sweet pineapples than clove or banana. Finally the seasonal was a Zwickel. Relatively clear for this format and an attractive shade of dark gold. The flavour was very odd indeed: a sickly cakey cinnamon spice thing. Yeast playing silly buggers, I suppose.

For all that the beers at Mitte are a mixed bag it's a nice place to hang out if you get a seat on the terrace. Chatty staff and pork chops the size of housebricks make for ample compensation.

Lastly for this post we nip around the corner to Marcus Bräu, a poky little rustic tavern full of bric-à-brac. The old reliable pils and dunkel were all the menu offered. Marcus-Bräu Pils is an alarmingly wan watery yellow, looking for all the world like some class of weak lemon drink. Yet it's surprisingly heavily textured with lots of syrup and some bready, biscuity weight. A tiny citric hit on the finish is the only intimation of hopping it offers. The Dunkel, for once, is properly dark and red-brown. Aromas of coffee and caramel drift off the surface of the stickily textured beer while the flavour packs in brown sugar laced with old world spices: