31 October 2014

And the rest

Last post from Borefts 2014, taking us to more far-flung parts of Europe. But we start where we left off, in Italy. Del Ducato's Violent Femme is a 4.2% ABV saison and is lemons all the way, from the bright hazy yellow colour, to the acidic citric burn to the gentler lemon sherbet hop flavours. When life gives you saison, make lemonade. Or something. Their other beer I tried couldn't be more different. Luna Rossa is billed as a kriek in the program but you can forget the cherries or any sort of sweetness. This 8%-er is massively sour: mouth-flooding vinegar and vanilla flavours, with higher notes of plum and savoury tamarind. If you're not a fan of HP Sauce this is probably not the beer for you, but I got a thrill from it.

Staying sour for the moment, Stout Rullquin intrigued me when it showed up on the advance list. It started life as La Rulles Brune, barrel aged, then blended at Tilquin with lambic and aged again before bottling. The end result is 7% ABV and a dark murky brown. The lambic certainly seems to be winning the battle for the aroma: all damp bricky nitre. But while the flavour starts with a jarring sourness it's followed by a rush of properly sweet milk chocolate and a stouty roasted dryness. The two elements in this one don't quite mix fully, but you still get the best of both. Love that label too.

Rocket Brewing from Copenhagen were a new one on me, but they seem to be able to do sour very well. Their Hyper Nova is a Flemish-style oud bruin, way overclocked at 10.9% ABV and thick and heavy with it but maintains the lightness of texture you get in highly attenuated beer and adds in some lovely cherry nuances. Zaccharine, meanwhile, is a bourbon-aged barley wine and beautifully put together too, getting the most from the barrel with heady fresh oak aromas and a lot of that lime sourness that I love in actual bourbon. A sandalwood spiciness seasons it and underneath there are more traditional strong dark ale flavours of chocolate and caramel. Good alcoholic value at just 8% ABV too.

Brekeriet were another total stranger to me, hailing from Staffanstorp in southern Sweden. Cassis was the only one of theirs I tried: a 5.2% ABV wild ale with, obviously, blackcurrants added in. It's one of those simple sour beers where the added fruit does all the work -- lots and lots of blackcurrant flavour in here. But there's good thirst-quenching fun to be had, even if it is a little watery.

Fruit seems to have been a theme in the beers from Mont Salève that I drank. Stout Framboise is all raspberry and very little stout, but no harm. It's simple fruity fun, with a nice heft at 6.5% ABV. Their festival radler was a Blueberry Radler: 3.6% ABV and reddish purple in colour. It's thin, as you might expect, and while it wears a big tartness up front, showing off cranberry as well as blueberry skin, that's pretty much your lot: no middle or afters follow it. Even for something supposed to be this simple I was disappointed by its one-dimensionality.

On the subject of hit-and-miss, that tends to be my experience with Närke, but damn they keep tempting me with interesting ingredients. Most intriguing this year was Älj-Äjl, brewed with moosegrass, aka meadowsweet, one of the very old-fashioned gruit ingredients. It's 6.9% ABV and a perfect clear gold, though a bit musty in the aroma -- that's often the case with unhopped beers, though I don't know if this is one of those. It's not particularly full-flavoured, showing a crisp pea-pod greenness and a light grassy herbiness, reminding me a little of drinking bisongrass vodka in Poland. The finish is mildly acrid. I think the subtlety works in its favour. It's a beer to pay attention to and a flavour profile that was enjoyable to explore.

If you squint at the name, it's possible to tell in advance that Närke's Skvatt Galen utilises sweet gale, another classic gruit herb. This one is 5.9% ABV and a cheery chestnut red, smelling of wholesome husky grain. I was surprised to find a cherry and raspberry fruit flavour on tasting, though there's not much else. Fun for a sip, but it got to be heavy going before I was very far down the small glass.

Unlike Närke, nothing from the Evil Twin line-up really jumped out at me, which is a shame because they've had some absolute stunners in previous years. For the sake of completion, and because I was sitting with Mr Pattinson, I went for Ron and the Beast Ryan, one of those irritating racehorse beer names, where you're supposed to be able to pick out its pedigree from the keywords. All I knew from the programme was that it's a 7% ABV saison. And it's a good one too. Pretty straightforward in a way that Evil Twin beers at Borefts usually aren't: spicy, lemony, dry and refreshing. Job done. Later I did accidentally stumble face-first into a sample of Evil Twin's Imperial Donut Break, a super-sweet imperial stout, loaded with chocolate candy, though vaguely balancing it with a dry finish. I expected much more complexity at 11.5% ABV, especially from the brewer of Even More Jesus and its ilk.

That just leaves Belgian Borefts regular Alvinne. They brought Melchior, a big 11% ABV orange-coloured barley wine and a rather dull and stale one at that: a musty grainy aroma and a worty flavour devoid of fruit or even heat from the alcohol. I can't imagine it's anyone's idea of a barley wine. Redemption arrives in the form of Mano Negra, a simple little 11% ABV burgundy-aged chilli-infused imperial stout. The main act is a delicious double whammy of sharp bretty funk and then a long, steady chilli burn. At the back, the more traditional features of imperial stout -- your chocolate, your roast -- are still present, but this makes some of the best use of chilli special effects of any beer I've encountered.

And so goes Borefts for another year. I am liking the changing of the line-up year-on-year and I hope it continues. There ought to be more festivals like it too: this grade of beer and this style of drinking it should never be confined to queue-ridden geekfests that sell out months in advance. Save some beer for the more casual nerds.

29 October 2014

Corners of Europe

Borefts without a Thornbridge bar was strange -- I understand they're the first brewery in history to have turned down an invitation to the event -- but there were plenty of new English faces filling in. So much so that I barely troubled the Kernel at all, grabbing just a swift London Sour Cherry because Evin told me it was running out. Such a salesman, that guy. 3% ABV and a happy bright red topped with pink foam. It's not especially sour and not especially cherryish but definitely has elements of both, perfumed lightly with floral rosewater. It's one of those beers I could happily drink by the gallon.

I also only visited Gadd's once, but then they only really brought one beer: their Green Hop Ale and a half-strength radlerised version of the same. The full beer is 4.8% ABV, a bright gold colour and has a powerful perfume aroma. Crispness is the key feature here, a cleanness in both the grain and hop elements. The latter brings lots of the classic English marmalade flavours to the table. Definitely more interesting than I'd expect a session-strength East Kent Goldings beer to be, but whether that's down to the quantity or quality of the hops I couldn't say.

There was no question of only paying one visit to Magic Rock since they brought loads of beers. Top of my hitlist was Cannonball, having enjoyed one of its stronger iterations a couple of years ago. This one is no lightweight at 7.4% ABV, arriving a clear pale orange and quite headless. It's an exceedingly dry beer, the massive hop flavour being centred on a flinty mineral quality. The high alcohol is very apparent but that hop complexity balances it beautifully. A low level of residual sugar means the end product is still very drinkable and surprisingly thirst quenching. Limes and damp cut grass make for a beautiful final flourish to a majestic beer.

Their other IPA on my list was Villainous, a more modest 6.5% ABV and made with all Vienna malt. So, biscuits then. Lots of sweet, crunchy -- roasty, even -- biscuits, deftly balanced by mango fruit and lime citrus. Of the 45 beers I drank samples of at Borefts, this was the one that left me craving a pint.

I didn't drink these back-to-back, but I've just noticed from my notes that there's something of a lime theme with the Magic Rock beers. Their radler (every brewer was asked to bring one) was made with lemon and lime and was a bit strong for the style at 4.5% ABV. Appropriate, then, that they named it Pith Head. The base is a saison, providing an almost neutral base for huge fresh citrus flavours, bringing the same sort of intensity you get with very old-fashioned lemonade. Somewhat oily, in fact. Lip-smackingly tasty and I could feel my scurvy clearing right up.

And if this is too strong for you, there was also a Berliner weisse: Circus of Sour, 3.5% ABV and aged in white wine casks. I wasn't a fan of this. It's unsubtly sharp, with a white vinegar kick followed by a buzz of stale cardboard.

A new English brewery for me was Burning Sky from Sussex. Their Plateau bitter was on cask: just 3.5% ABV and an odd bright shade of pale yellow. It packs a lot of pithy punch into that small package. I guess it's one your palate adjusts to when consumed in greater quantity, but I was quite taken aback by my sampler. Devil's Rest IPA was an altogether more rounded experience: just as stimulating in its bitterness, throwing extra resinousness into the mix, but at 7% ABV the hops were much better balanced by the malt counterweight.

Burning Sky Monolith was billed in the programme as a "sour black ale" at 7.4% ABV but was a bit of a mess, I thought. The roast flavour is the stale sweaty sort, like bad hotel coffee, with added cardboard, set on an unpleasantly watery texture. There is some nice floral complexity and a little bit of mild bretty funk, but not enough of either to rescue the beer.

That just leaves Saison L'Été to clean up. This is another one of those cloudy lemonade jobs, magically refreshing and quaffable too at just 4.2% ABV. The addition of elderflower and gooseberry adds a meadowy mellowness to the spicy base. A perfectly executed summer beer.

Just one Spanish brewery in the line-up this year, in the form of Laugur from the Basque country, bringing two very interesting twists on established styles. The IPA was called Hopzale and is 9.2% ABV but doesn't taste anything like it. In place of a malt base there's bags of spritzy citrus, building to the hot sharpness of accidentally tasted perfume which lingers long on the palate. Kiskale is just the antidote to all that acid, a 7.5% ABV chestnut-red brown ale mixing in warming sticky toffee and treacle with herbal, medicinal hops: menthol and wintergreen. Beautifully smooth and soothing.

Finally for this post, the usual Italians were present and correct. Toccalmatto's radler was a 9% ABV beast called Yellow Monster. Still extremely refreshing for all the alcohol, however. It has more of that fresh lemonade zest but is more sweet than bitter. There's a lovely herbal bath salts quality to it too, adding a dry alkaline touch for extra drinkability.

Next to them stood Brewfist and I made use of the opportunity to try a few of theirs that have been around for ages but I've never tasted. Like Spaceman: 7% ABV and, oh, more bath salts, on top of a dry lemony bitterness. If there weren't lots of dry citric beers at the festival already I'd have been impressed, but it ran the risk of being mistaken for another radler. That's not likely to happen with Spaghetti Western, Brewfist's coffee imperial stout. It pales a bit next to what De Molen were pouring, but it's a solid sweet and creamy stout at 8.7% ABV, throwing in a touch of dry roast for balance though not really showing off its coffee credentials.

There was one other Italian brewery, returning to Borefts after a year away, but I'll come to them next.

27 October 2014

He's off again

For the fourth year in a row, late September saw me at the Borefts beer festival, a two-day shindig held at the De Molen brewery in Bodegraven, South Holland, with beer from a hand-picked selection of brewers from all over Europe. It has always been a bit of a chimera, changing its shape to squeeze into different parts of the brewery, the pub and co-opted neighbouring buildings. This year for the first time since the early days it was all concentrated in one space, the brewery and its car park, which made it a lot easier to get around and meant I could make a point of trying at least one beer from all 19 exhibitors.

My bookend beers were both from Cantillon: there was a chance to re-try their apricot lambic Fou'foune, and while it was definitely fruitier than the elderly acid-bomb I drank four years ago it was many degrees sourer than the Tilquin Quetsche that my wife opened her account with. The last beer on the second day was Grand Cru Bruocsella: a hard, biteable sharpness all acid burn and oaky vanilla for an experience simultaneously smooth and pointy. And in between these two?

As always De Molen had plenty on offer, including lots of their first-rate imperial stouts. Twist & Stout was a new one for me, 12% ABV and cognac-barrel-aged. Aged for a while too, I'd say, what with the big savoury autolytic aroma. The texture is massively thick and sinfully smooth, while the flavour piles on masses of crumbly dark chocolate and unctuous liqueurs. Further evidence, if it be needed, that Menno traded his soul at a Bodegraven crossroads for the ability to make imperial stouts like this. Hel & Verdoemenis Wild Turkey Eisbock was back for another year too. Phwo-o-oar!

I am a little more equivocal about Vlees & Bloed: 10.9% ABV and unbarrelled, but aged on cedar with added fleur de sel, heather honey and habanero pepper. Unsurprisingly the end result is very busy. Big coffee dominates, with an undertow of clover honey stickiness and then a dry cedar bite in the finish. The peppers add sweetness rather than heat, and that woodyness builds gradually on the thin texture, eventually blocking a lot of the rest out. 50% oh! and 50% ugh! is my assessment.

Away from the stouts, 21 Grams is a double IPA with the stated quantity of hops per litre. It's an innocent clear pale orange colour and smells rather medicinal. It's very sweet and sticky -- not all that surprising at 9.2% ABV -- but with a genorous portion of fresh zing too. And for hopophobes, Barley Bomb, a 10.7% ABV barley wine with a hot and heavy aroma; warming and rich with flavours of toffee, caramel and freshly baked cookies. It's a more toned down and mannerly version of some of De Molen's other beers in this style.

Staying Dutch, I made sure to call on Emelisse to try their Aceto Balsamico which I missed last year. This is an 8% ABV Flemish-style oud bruin, and perfectly aged to have a distinct smoothness in with the sharp sour notes. There's even a warmer chocolate element and the balsamic vinegar barrel in which it was aged leaves just a trace of herbal resin complexity. I enjoyed it, but a small glass was plenty.

New to the festival, and the overall Dutch brewing scene too, I believe, was Het Uiltje ("The Little Owl"), based in Haarlem and using Jopen's brewkit. The owl theme is laid on pretty thick, with beers like Schreeuwuil ("Screech Owl"), a double IPA which smells like a bag of hop pellets and combines sticky hop resins with sticky malt sugar; and Bosuil ("Tawny Owl") a 6% ABV black IPA, oily again with lots of lovely grass and chocolate flavours plus just enough of a jaw-pinching bitter bite.

It gets a bit weirder after that. Meneer de Uil is named after a puppet on kids' TV and is an imperial stout aged in Bowmore whisky barrels for lots of salty iodine with your rich dark chocolate. Flaming Ass Owl is hopefully not named after anything on kids' TV and is an imperial smoked porter with added Trinidad scorpion peppers. It's heavy with a bit of the puttyish flavour I sometimes detect in very strong dark beers. There's a lovely sweet chilli aroma, and while the flavour is low on chilli heat there's a dry chilli-skin flavour and lots of sweet pipesmoke. It wasn't the only chilli beer they brought: Pepperspray Porter is made with Carolina reaper chillis and is much hotter, alternating the intense throat burn with more gentle lavender flavours, like receiving flowers from an abusive partner. The aftertaste is minimal but it does leave a nice chilli thrill in the stomach.

To finish, Mind Your Step is a lovely dessert beer: a 14.5% ABV imperial stout, tasting almost spirituous with lots of brown sugar, toffee and butter. But probably their best beer, and a strong candidate for my beer of the weekend, was Het Uiltje G & T Dryhopped Radler. It tastes pretty much as the name suggests: 2.6% ABV and immensely complex, dominated by a distinct quinine dryness but with a generous squeeze of citrus and even some Pimmsy orange and cucumber. I don't know if the lemonade quality would get too much after drinking lots of it, but I'd love to find out.

More beers from more breweries from further abroad, next.

24 October 2014

One lonely ex-pat

OK, one last beer from the Germany trip and then we're done. I'm giving it its own post as it was the only foreign beer I drank the whole time.

Hop Back is from Tröeg's in Pennsylvania so is sort-of German-ish. It's a 6% ABV amber ale and was on draught in Tap House in Munich along with a couple of others from the brewery. I thought it was an excellent example of the style, with rich and heavy marzipan sweetness plus dark chocolate flavours and then sandalwood spices and fruit chews from the hops. The aroma is a full-on pine explosion, suggesting a bitterness that is never actually delivered, but isn't really missed either.

Yes, the Germans are making beers in this sort of style at this sort of quality, but it's nice to have an American example on hand for direct comparisons.

22 October 2014

Finishing up

We're not still in Germany are we? Who'd have thought there'd be so much beer? This post is for some of the odds and sods from my notebook that didn't fit in anywhere else.

Novelty beer of the trip was one I spotted in Bamberg's Café Abseits and one I've been wanting to taste for a long time. Steinbier Original is brewed the prehistoric way, using hot rocks to boil the wort. I've read that this imparts a unique caramel flavour to the finished product. It arrived in a stein, of course, so I'm not exactly sure what colour it is, but it looked a kind of pale honey brown at the bottom of the mug. It tastes disappointingly plain and inoffensive: big on green noble hop herbal flavours and maybe some extra caramel, but not terribly impressive overall.

A pork-and-dumpling-free night in Bamberg brought us to a generic studenty pizzeria where Reckendorfer Pils was the house beer. It did the job: a clear bright gold with a lovely warming bread-like quality to it. Beats the hell out of the beer offering in most by-the-numbers Italian-style eateries.

My first beer of the trip was chugged from the bottle with a döner at Munich railway station, waiting for the Nuremberg train. It was Tegernseer Helles and it was similarly functional: smooth and sweet with just enough crispness to balance it, but otherwise not very memorable. The brewery have recently opened a bar in the centre of Munich so, following a couple of recommendations, I wandered in for a gander. Tegernseer Tal - Bräuhaus is a very bright and airy pub, and was trading briskly on the Tuesday afternoon we visited. For me a Tegernseer Hopf, their weissbeer. It smells strangely sour and the texture is a bit watery but there are some great flavours: traditional ones like bubblegum and clove, but also notes of pineapple and tinned peaches. Herself opted for Tegernseer Dunkel, a chestnut brown lager with lots of chocolate, burnt toast and grain husks. Wholesome, but quite hard work.

Our last day involved a mini pub crawl around Munich, taking in the Augustiner Grossgaststätten, Ayinger Wirtshaus and out to the English Gardens for a Hofbräu under the Chinese Tower. The lunchtime crowd was a mix of locals and the first of the large groups of tourists arriving in for Oktoberfest, due to begin a couple of days later. The band played and there were occasional screams from those hit by conkers from the enormous chestnut trees. All rather jolly. As well as Hofbräu Helles from the holzfass, the bar was selling Hofbräu Urbock. It's rose gold and offers up an enticing maple syrup aroma. This woody quality continues in the flavour, with extra sweet burnt notes. A delicious outdoor sipper and a nice bookend to the trip.

20 October 2014


That was a lot of lager and weissbier last week, eh? What about this wave of foreign styles that's destroying traditional German brewing and replacing it with the same sort of beer you get everywhere else these days? I could have told you before I left the house that no such thing is actually happening, but that's not to say that there aren't plenty of German breweries offering something different. You just need to put a bit of work in to find it.

One such outlet is Café Abseits in Bamberg. I mentioned it last week as the main place to find beer from the Weyermann maltery's pilot brewery. There's an impressive menu of other speciality beers as well. I'd spotted Weithaler Hoptimum Pale Ale on the menu of Hütt'n in Nuremberg but it was out of stock then. Happily here it was in Bamberg and it's a cracker. There's a classic lagery golden syrup malt base balancing a serious teeth-squeaking, jaw-pinching bitterness. The aroma is all pithy spritzy jaffa and the flavour blends in herbs and sandalwood spices. At €3 for a 33cl bottle in the pub I could see this being a regular beer for me if I didn't live 1,000 miles away.

Hamberg's Kreativbrauerei, meanwhile, have a 7.5% ABV IPA, single hopped with new high-alpha German variety Polaris. The brewery claims SHIPA Polaris has mint or menthol aromas but I didn't get that, just lots of weedy dank and perhaps a light apricot fruitiness. It's dark, rich and sweet, reminding me of BrewDog's 5am Saint in particular, and it got to be tough drinking after the first few mouthfuls. Not a candidate for my go-to German ale, then.

From Berlin comes Schoppe Bräu XPA, another strong dark one, this time using all American hops. Even though it was a few days past date, the aroma was still excellent, all orange sherbet. It was somewhat  lacking in flavour, however, just a mild kind of jaffa cake orange and chocolate thing and hardly any bitterness.

Top pick at Café Abseits was Backbone Splitter by Bavarian rockstar brewer Hans Müller, released on his Hanscraft label and described as a "West Coast IPA". Bet you didn't know Bavaria even had a west coast. 6.6% ABV, 60 IBUs and utilising Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial and Horizon -- all helpfully set out on the label. There's a stylistically spot-on aroma of grapefruit and sharper pine resin while the flavour is perfectly balanced between refreshing mandarin juice and a tougher, chewier oiliness, sprinkled generously with jasmine perfume. Beautifully put together, all-in-all.

The last leg of the journey brought us to Munich where, as well as a few old favourites, top of my hitlist was the new Camba Bavaria pub Tap House. In keeping with modern craft beer bar chic this place is kitted out in Nordic industrial style, all rough-hewn wood, riveted metal and concrete. A long bar with 40 numbered taps leads up a large bottle fridge at the top of the room. The draft selection was mostly German, with a few token Belgian and American offerings. And, of course, lots of beer from Camba Bavaria itself. To put even more distance between themselves and local custom, most beers arrive in either an American shaker pint or a teku-esque stemmed glass.

The only guest German beer I drank was Ratsherrn Pale Ale, a 5.6% ABV job with a vaguely weedy aroma and not much hop action in the flavour either: some orange barley candy fruit flavour but  it's otherwise dominated by sweet malt. Camba IPA is pictured next to it, a dark red-gold colour and smelling of sherbet and sweat. It's another malt-forward one, but this time the sweetness is better balanced by spicy resinous incense and candied citrus fruit. It's a little bit Christmassy, with touches of lemon drizzle cake, but good fun to drink.

I probably should have realised that Camba Amber Ale was going to be even sweeter. It even smells sticky and toffee dominates the flavour, with just a tiny bit of hop complexity, adding notes of red apple and strawberry for something closer to an Irish red than an amber ale.

Matters improved when I moved on to Camba Saison, all of 8% ABV but hiding that extremely well. It's a clear gold colour and has a lovely funky sour aroma. The flavour mixes wheaty grain and banana esters with a sour candy green-apple chew kind of oddness. Deliciously stimulating, if somewhat different to your typical saison.

Staying funky, Camba Nelson Weisse is a pale wheat beer that smells of grape must and has a beautiful rounded white wine flavour, with notes of cantaloupe, kiwi and flint. Traditional weissbier flavours are almost absent but I didn't really miss them, though the base beer provides a great full-bodied base for the hops. I'm glad they serve this by the half litre.

Two strong and dark ones to finish. Camba Imperial Stout is a huge 9.8% ABV with a very dry, burnt aroma plus traces of coffee. It tastes harshly phenolic in a marker pen sort of way with just a trace of dark chocolate. It's a beer that demands much of the drinker but has little to offer in return.

And then there was Camba Imperial Black IPA. It's the same inky black as the stout and 8.5% ABV. The aroma mixes thick molasses with piquant orange sherbet and the texture is every bit as heavy as the smell suggests. I was really not prepared for the taste: a palate-shaking blast of lavender, rosewater, tar and green cabbage, finishing with a waft of well-hopped booze up the back of the nose. It's an intense and very grown up beer: you'd need to like big bitterness without so much of the hoppy fruit. It turns out I do. Who knew?

Obviously the new wave of foreign-influenced German beers are a mixed bunch, as you would expect. But there's plenty of absolute gold in there. Long live diversity!

17 October 2014

Into the forest

I left you yesterday in the pleasant surrounds of the Achhörnla brewpub in Forchheim, choking down their massively less-than-pleasant lager. We're staying in Forchheim today to see what the town offers that's actually worth drinking.

It was a quiet Monday afternoon when we strolled into the pretty village marketplace. Not much was happening on the streets but there was plenty of buzz in the front parlour of Brauerei Neder. It's one of those community-centre-style pubs, a hub for the retired and unemployed to share scandal, weather predictions and opinions on FC Nuremberg over beers. We got clay mugs of Neder Fassbier; most people had theirs from their personal glass, kept in a cupboard above the bar. Nothing so gauche as custom engraving, of course -- the majority looked like they came straight from the FC Nuremberg fan shop. The beer is one of those ones I enjoy massively but are really annoying when it comes to sitting down in front of a blank screen to write about. Honey, bread, smoothness. That's it. That's all there is to say about it. It's not one to sip and consider, it's one to chug down over a chat about something else, then set your mug on its side so the server can see you're ready for another.

I first heard of Forchheim via Ron's accounts of Annafest, the town's annual festival held in late July and early August each year. On my visit it was hard to imagine what the place is like when thronged with visitors. All the Annafestbier was gone but I did find Neder's year-round Schwarze Anna back in Nuremberg. It's another simple beer, a 5.2% ABV cola-coloured lager with lots of lovely fresh herbal hops and barely tastes dark at all. Good though.

Drinking at Neder was something of a beery Dian Fossey experience, where you quickly realise you're observing something you're not really a part of. I left a paltry €4 to cover the two beers and a tip and we moved on. We had a destination, after all.

But before that (and after lunch in the Forchheim establishment I mentioned yesterday), we stopped in at Greif-Bräu. After several days of drinking in inns that happen to have a brewery somewhere out back, it was very strange to arrive at a brewery that happens to have an inn up front. Amid the crates and kegs of the yard we sat down with a couple of halbes of Greif-Bräu, er, Bier. It was served beautifully clear from the oak barrel propped up at a serving hatch between a corridor and the brewery offices. It's a plain simple beer but, annoyingly again, nothing like the sublime Fassbier at Neder. The hop levels are low and there's a tiny trace of diacetyl, but it's really more boring than flawed, a lesser sin.

The main reason for coming to Forchheim was the Kellerwald, a hilly forest park rearing up behind the town with two dozen beer gardens of various sizes nestled between the trees. In contrast to Annafest, and probably any Sunday during the summer, it was quiet this Monday, and very atmospheric. Almost all of the establishments were shuttered up, though the brewery banners and party posters still hung from the trees, visual echoes of what this part of nature is normally for.

There was a small crowd gathered in the Glocken-Keller near the summit of the hill, perched on the bench under the eaves of the tiny shack which serves as a kitchen, office and rainy-day saloon. The beer garden tables occupy what must be a rare level surface and at the far end is the keller itself. Down a few steps the spritely old kellermeister pours Wolfshöher lager from wooden barrels into clay mugs. When I went down to take a picture of the arrangement he invited me in to see the rest of the cellar, tunnels stretching hundreds of metres deep into the rock, packed with kegs and casks and crates of beer, all at the perfect serving temperature, whatever the weather.

Wolfshöher itself is an extremely nettley beer and not without a dash of butter, but the two just manage to hold each other in check. The noble greenness is perhaps just a little too intense for comfortable drinking, resulting in something that bit too close to cabbage water, but that it's packed with authentic German flavour is not up for debate.

We stopped at another establishment on the way back down the hill, the multilevel Hebendanz-Keller. It had passed from afternoon into evening and a few families were beginning to file in for their evening meal. In the Hebendanz-Keller there is Hebendanz Kellerbier to drink: a surprisingly spicy, fruity, Christmas cake of a beer, yet not heavy or even especially sweet. One of those lagers you can enjoy as a casual quencher and a complex sensory experience simultaneously. We stayed for another before heading back to the station.

I'm sure Bavaria is packed with unspoilt little towns like Forchheim, serving amazing beer costing buttons in beautiful surrounds. I'm happy just to have seen one of them.

It's not the be-all and end-all of German brewing, mind. Other things are afoot.

16 October 2014

The Lesser Houses

The biggest surprise about Franconia, the thing that nobody tells you before you go, is that a fair bit of the beer is awful.

Bamberg taught me this quite quickly. We were staying on the doorstep of the oldest brewery in town, Klosterbräu, so wandered in there not long after checking in. I started with the Klosterbräu Pils, an approachable 4.9% ABV and the classic gold of most any eurolager you care to name. I should have just stayed looking at it, then paid and left, but my bad habit of wanting to taste the beer got in the way. A double slam of acrid bitterness and cloying slippery butter was the reward for my curiosity. There's no description for this lager other than "poorly made". As I languished in my own bottom-fermented hell, the wife wasn't having much better luck with Klosterbräu Brunbier. This is red-gold in colour and smells immediately of butterscotch, like being haunted by a bag of Werthers Originals. As it's a darker beer, one could be charitable and say it displays interesting toffee notes but, coupled with the pils, all it really shows is a bad flaw in the way Klosterbräu makes beer.

A few days later, Klosterbräu came up in conversation with a couple of local tablemates as we sat drinking in Spezial.
"But the dark beer," they told us, "Everyone goes to Klosterbräu for their dark beer."
So back we dutifully trooped and asked for some Klosterbräu Schwarzla -- the use of Franconian dialect means it must be special, right? It's not, but it's also not ruined. What you get is quite a dry and liquorice-filled dark red lager with not much going on. If you must tick your way around Bamberg, stick to the Schwarzla in Klosterbräu, but otherwise don't bother with the place.

The other disasterbräu in Bamberg was Ambräusianum, a couple of doors down from Schlenkerla so presumably making a handsome living on its spillover. It's the youngest of the Bamberg breweries, established in 2004, and has much more of the feel of a large modern German brewpub hall, showing off the brewkit instead of hiding it all out back.

A hell and a dunkel was the order. Ambräusianum Hell is a lemony yellow colour and very fizzy. I'm used to brewpub lager, and German brewpub lager in particular, tasting grainy, but this takes the biscuit. The soggy, mouldy, bottom-of-the-tin, fall-apart biscuit. There's maybe a trace of nice celery and asparagus, but not nearly enough to rescue the beer. Colourblind Ambräusianum Dunkel is a golden hue and started with a waft of vinegar in its aroma. From tasting, the base beer seems to be a kind of orange chocolate biscuit number, which would be perfectly acceptable were it not for the layer of brown malt vinegar sitting merrily on top of it pretending everything is fine. Regardless of how packed and loud Schlenkerla got, the phrase "Let's just go to Ambräusianum instead" was not employed at any stage.

We took one beery side-trip during our stay in Bamberg, to the little town of Forchheim, and I'll cover that more fully in tomorrow's post. But one of its breweries is definitely a soulmate of the Bamberg establishments described above. Achhörnla is a homely little place, all '70s-style pale wood panelling, a friendly welcome and down-home cooking. Its two beers, Achhörnla Pils and Achhörnla Vollbier, are almost identical, the latter just a slight shade darker than the former. I don't how the Franconian dialect would render the phrase "Butterscotch and Sick", but they should have it emblazoned over the entrance in nice gothic lettering. Two massively sweet beers, almost literally oozing with diacetyl: the Pils with a slight but distinct acridity, the Vollbier absolutely reeking of puke, though not tasting of it, mercifully. We were the only customers in the place: they needn't have rushed their lager on our account.

Before moving on, just a reminder that, of course, it's perfectly possible that we were unlucky with these. Bad batches happen. Recipes change. Reputation-killing brewers get sacked. Your mileage may vary a lot when you're in Bamberg (Doerthe's certainly did). My point is just this: don't expect it to be all sweetness and light when you go drinking in Franconia. Overly sweet and overly light are distinct possibilities.

15 October 2014

The Great Houses

Bamberg! The Franconian city that had been top of my I Really Want To Go There And Drink Beer list for an embarassingly long time. It was raining when we arrived, raining as we made the long trek from the station to our hotel in the innenstadt, and still raining when I ventured out again to start working through the city's long list of brewery-inns. Top of my hitlist was Keesmann, brewer of my all-time favourite pilsner. Perhaps I wouldn't get to tick a new beer but the prospect of Herren Pils at the source was not to be passed up. Unfortunately, the innkeepers of Keesmann had opted to take longer holidays than me so I arrived to soggy disappointment that the grand building was all shuttered up. But Bamberg taketh away and Bamberg giveth: across the road the gates of Mahr's were wide open so I got my ass to there.

The lunchtime service had just ended. A scattered handful of punters were sitting in front of empty plates and glasses trying to catch the eye of the harried waitress while the barman sat down to his own lunch. In the absence of a beer list and the presence of a waitress who didn't look like she could be bothered with touristy gimmicks such as choice, I asked for "ein bier". My order duly passed to the serving area at the other end of the room, the barman left his pile of pork and dumplings long enough to draw a half litre of Mahr's Helles from the wooden barrel, swiftly delivered by Grumbly the Waitress. My word. What a beer. A burst of honey kicks the flavour off but is followed rapidly by a huge luscious mossy greenness, fresh as the wafts from Tinkerbell's laundry room. One gulp emptied two thirds of the glass, that low-carbonation helles smoothness helping it on its way. I called for another straight away.

I sat a little longer over the second mug of Mahr's Helles. I guess the place was getting set for the evening service as a second oak barrel was heaved onto the counter and pierced with a brass tap. A few of the all-day regulars' heads lifted at the sound and within minutes half the room was drinking copper coloured beer from the new cask. My neighbour at the next table asked what I was dying to ask, and was told it's the Mahr's Ungespundet. He wasn't fussed, but that was what I was having next. It's not nearly as complex as the Helles, being instead all about rich and warming fruitcake, with a nuts-and-raisins aroma not dissimilar to brown English bitter. Some husky roast finished it off. It's a pleasant change from the Helles, but definitely rather rougher round the edges.

Mahr's does make other beers, so where were they? At this point a stag party of Swedes arrived in and cheerily worked through a round of Ungespundet, but not everyone was up for a second.
"Do you have a beer menu?" one of them asked the waitress. I only flinched a little.
"A beer menu?" she replied, à la Mr Bumble, then over her shoulder at the barman, "Have we a beer menu?"
He came out from behind the counter and stalked towards the table.
"Yes! I am the beer menu!"

The other Mahr's beers, it turns out, are available bottled, and a mixed crate was duly dragged up from the cellar for my fussy Swedish friends. Obviously I was far too terrified to order something from the barman's rote list, but later I did encounter Mahr's dunkel, ETA Hoffmann, named after one of Bamberg's most famous residents. Poor old Hegel gets no such honour. Though an appropriate limpid dark ruby, it's a lot less sweet than your typical Bavarian dunkel, piling on the liquorice, tempering it only with a little milky coffee. All very dark and dramatic, as befits the name.

Schlenkerla, of course, was high on the agenda for the trip. It was a couple of days before we made it in, however. Though huge and rambling, the Schlenkerla premises is bang in the middle of the old town, attracting every passing curious meandering coach party and determined boisterous pisshead. Many are happy to just stand and drink in the street. When I eventually secured a table (afternoon lull to the rescue once again) I found service to be all rather brisk and ill-tempered. It's just as well that half-litres of fresh Schlenkerla Märzen at €2.60 a throw make it worthwhile. Oddly, the second barrel at the bar was pouring Weizen, not a style you'd normally expect to find dispensed this way. So that was Schlenkerla: not the rauchbier paradise I was hoping for, but I'm happy to have spent a few hours there drinking it in.

For Bamberg's other rauchbier specialist you need to leave the old town and head for the main commercial district. We arrived at Spezial at noon on Sunday, the same time as every single family in Bamberg, so we left and returned later. Dare I say that Spezial Märzen is better than Schlenkerla's? I daren't, but it was much more what I was in the mood for when in Bamberg. It's a paler, lighter, crisper, more sessionable sort of bacon experience, as against the soupy weight you get with Schlenkerla. The expertly made lager is much more visible behind the smoke novelty.

According to the website, Spezial Ungespundet is their only unsmoked beer. It was quite popular around the room, served in its distinctive barrel-shaped glass mug, clearer and paler than kellerbier normally is. There's little by way of aroma, just a simple dry lager graininess. Another high quality easy quaffer, then. And if the website is correct then there's some smoked malt in Spezial Weissbier but I'm damned if I could taste it. There's not much by way of signature weissbier flavour either, just lots of dry crisp wheat and strange overtones of apple. Perfectly drinkable, but no superstar like the Märzen.

Across the street from Spezial is Fässla, where they had two beers on offer. Regular Fässla Lager is a dark reddish gold, strong at 5.5% ABV and heavy with it. The classic German nettles 'n' veg noble hop thing is backed by sugary caramel and honey. The aroma is a little sickly as a result, but the whole is saved by a firm bitter kick at the end of the flavour. It's a beer to take time over, unless you're thirsty.

Fässla Pils piles on the fresh-cut grass in its aroma and has a very complex flavour mixing up all kinds of herbs and salads. Again there's a sharp invigorating bitterness, but tempered by a lovely French-pastry sweetness. There may only be two beers, but with a considered sipper and a hoppy thirst-quencher Fässla has something to suit every drinking occasion.

There's room for just one more Bamberg brewpub in this post so I'm going to include Greifenklau, one that rarely gets mentioned in coverage of Bamberg's beer scene. On walking in I thought it was a vast beer hall but closer inspection reveals the rear section to be an open courtyard, with covered tables at the edges. Two beers again: Greifenklau Lager is an understated, lacklustre affair: watery, vaguely sweet and with a low level acid bitterness. Greifenklau Weizen is much better: a bright and cheery orange-yellow, a spot-on fresh banana aroma and lots of lip-smacking bubblegum and clove rock. The sweetness quotient is raised by some extra brown sugar notes, but otherwise it's pretty spot-on. Ten points to Griffinclaw House!

Our last Bamberg brewery for now lurks back behind the railway station and isn't really a brewery at all. The Weyermann factory broods at the city's edge, like the mountain stronghold of the gloomy king of malt, while its bright yellow trucks send the world famous grain all across the globe. The onsite pilot brewery is mostly a marketing arrangement, to demonstrate the potential of Weyermann malt. As such, it produces some of the most different and interesting beers Bamberg has to offer. I caught up with one of them in Café Abseits (about which more in a future post), the city's main outlet for Weyermann brews.

Schlotfergla is a 5.2% ABV dark rauchbier. It's closest to a smoked porter I'd say -- not madly smoky and with bonus features of milk chocolate and rosewater, with just a mild ashen dryness finishing it off. I liked it and would have liked to try more, but the popularity of Weyermann beer at Café Abseits appears to outstrip the supply and their cupboard was otherwise bare.

And so back to the city centre for more Bamberg brewpubs next.

14 October 2014

The brewers about town

There are two breweries inside the walls of Nuremberg, both of which have pubs attached. Barfüsser occupies a very traditional-style cellar in the more commercial lower part of the city. The shining copper brewkit takes pride of place in the middle of the floor while windows behind it reveal the more modern, hygienic, tiles-and-steel side of the operation, including the foaming open-top fermenters. Barfüsser Blonde is the pale lager, a hazy yellow with lots of busy fizz and a slightly unsettling vinegary aroma. I could detect no trace of infection on tasting, however, or much else really. There's a vague noble hop grass and pepper thing, but otherwise it's a chug-and-forget number, probably by design. Murky brown Barfüsser Schwarze is much the same, though the flavour is a little more interesting with the addition of liquorice notes, as well as a heavier, almost sticky, texture. Solid but ultimately rather boring beers tend to be par for the course in German brewpubs. Perhaps we'd have better luck up near the castle.

Altstadthof is a massively grand project in the upper city. From the street it looks like it's just a pub and giftshop but go through to the courtyard and you'll find a large restaurant, a specialist beer off licence, a brewery, a distillery, and the glass-fronted room full of maturing casks of their organic single malt whisky. It doesn't stop there either: Nuremberg's soft sandstone geology has made it ideal for digging vast networks of cellars and Altstadthof offers a variety of tours exploring the passages beneath the city. Ours included an unadvertised visit to the brewery and distillery at the end - the first time I've ever gone on a brewery tour inadvertently.

To the beers, then. Altstadthof Rotbier is the flagship, arriving a clear garnet red colour. It starts with some jolly chocolate and caramel but these are quickly overtaken by a nasty nettle greenness that doesn't work at all well with it. While rustic and wholesome, it does come across more like something you drink because it's good for you than because it tastes good. Meanwhile Altstadthof Schwarzbier is properly black, with just some red highlights at the edges. It delivers most of what you'd want from a schwarzbier. Well, most of what I'd want from a schwarzbier as there's no liquorice, just clean, crisp dark roast and a sprinkling of sweet chocolate for afters. Very nice, but we still left the rest of the selection, figuring we'd probably do better elsewhere.

In the south-west of Nuremberg, beyond the city walls, sits the Schanzenbräu microbrewery. A few doors down the quiet backstreet from the brewery is its tap, Schanzenbräu Schankwirtschaft. With the elderly décor and formica-topped tables it has a rather bohemian vibe, attracting a mixed crowd of locals to eat, drink, play cards and just hang out. There were three beers on offer: Schanzenbräu Hell is one of those understated but perfect medium-sweet pale lagers, playfully tossing in some peach and pineapple with a stricter grassy bitterness. Schanzenbräu Schwarz is less enjoyable: sticky like a dunkel with bags of liquorice and treacle. It takes a bit of wading to get through. And finally Schanzenbräu Rot, a cloudy orange-amber kellerbier-style offering with lots of rustic husky porridgey cereal flavours, plus extra golden syrup and milk chocolate. Brimming with tradition I'm sure, but lacking finesse. Straight back to the hell for me.

Not far away, and a short stroll from Nuremberg's famous courthouse, is the Lederer KulturBrauerei. It looks impressive from the street: huge copper brewing vessels gleaming through the plate glass. Only when we were inside did it become clear that something was up. This 500-seater Victorian beerhall has a number of large rooms for eating and drinking in (as well as seating for another 1000 or so in the enormous garden), and one of them is the brewhouse. It turns out that the brewery was decommissioned in 1995 following a takeover by the Dr Oetker Group, so the Lederer beer is now brewed at their Tucher plant on Nuremberg's outskirts. Still, the work to transform the brewing floor into a restaurant was done thoughtfully and minimally, giving the impression of a live brewery furnished merely for a special party, and that the burly men will be back with their grainsacks and malt shovels tomorrow morning.

Lederer Premium Pils is another one of those big grassy fellas, 5.1% ABV and clear gold, tinged slightly with green. It did a fantastic number on my thirst, the intense herbal bitterness lending it superb refreshment power. The house ungespundet kellerbier is called Kroko after Lederer's totemic crocodile. It's a hazy gold colour and smells like a neglected fruitbowl, all heady sweet esters. It's rather drier to the taste, with maybe a little green banana sharpness. Unflawed as a kellerbier, but like so many of the style, not especially interesting to drink.

Nuremberg is a truly fascinating city, historically, architecturally, and geologically. It's a manageable size and packed with eating and drinking opportunities I'd happily spend more time exploring. But my meticulously planned itinerary had to be observed and after three days it was time to head further north, to Bamberg, to find out what they drink there. The answer may shock you.