Beer and Back Again

Last week I promised a report from the cycle trip I was about to do to the part of Bavaria called Allgäu, which is roughly the area squeezed in between Augsburg in the north and the Alps in the south. Well, I lived to tell the tale of this epic round trip of sore bottoms and regional breweries. So, make yourself comfortable, open a bottle of your favourite brew, and read on.

We set off early the first day, so early, in fact, that we arrived at the first brewery ten minutes before the tap even opened - at 10am. The brewery was in the pleasant town of Tettnang, and called Kronenbrauerei, probably to distinguish it from the 187 other breweries in Germany known as, yup, Kronenbrauerei. The beers were a bit more original, a nice dark Bock and a feisty Kellerpils (unfiltered) set us nicely up for the ride to Isny where we arrived at beer o'clock.

Isny is another pleasant town, which is equivalent to saying that the brewery is easy to find. This one's called Stolz, which according to this splendid dictionary means "proud", "ego" or "boast", but probably comes from a surname rather than some elevated opinion of their own products. The Helles (light), Dunkles (dark) and the Pils we tried were all very drinkable, and in the glorious sunshine our spirits were high. This was clearly destined to be a great Easter holiday.

After meandering along some pretty straight roads for another couple of hours we arrived, not entirely accidentally, at another brewery in an obscure little village called Missen. The brewery was, despite the name of the village, impossible to miss since it occupied a very prominent spot along the hamlet's only road, imaginatively named the Hauptstrasse (that's the street, the brewery is actually called Schäffler). Here we tried both the Zwickl (unfiltered) and the Dunkles, again these were quality brews but not quite up there with the ones we enjoyed earlier in the day.

The final destination of the day was the village of Rettenberg. This place has no fewer that 4248 inhabitants and the TWO breweries brew no less than 14 MILLION litres of beer every year. That's 3300 litres per person, or about 9 litres per person, per day. Good thing they don't have to drink it all themselves, because if they did they would, according to my very accurate calculations, have more alcohol than blood in their bodies after a few months. For some strange reason, where breweries in Bavaria have tended to stay very local and/or closed down in their hundreds, these two have both grown to become big, regional players, supplying pubs, restaurants and shops all over the Allgäu. Anyway, I felt like a Norwegian in a reasonably priced beer shop as I rode into town on my two-wheeled horse with the sun setting picturesquely behind me.

With loads of work to do, we settled quickly at our comfortable guest house and headed straight out aiming for the Engelbräu brewery tap, where we arrived safely 37 seconds later. Their slogan is "the beer which is as heavenly as its name", and since this was Good Friday to boot we thought we were in for something extraordinary. We tried the Urtyp Helles and the Urtyp Dunkles, and for the first time that day I was a bit disappointed. Don't get me wrong, these were good beers, but they were nothing special. They were also served very cold, which pretty much killed the taste until late in the beer glass. After a quick dinner, we headed for the other brewery tap - Zötler - where we discovered that they offered a taster's selection of four different types in very cute 100ml glasses. The Bock and the Weizen were good, but - again - the Helles and Dunkles were simply a bit, well, too standard.

Day one was always going to be a tough act to follow. Besides, we had other things to do and places to see. Therefore, we didn't arrive at the next day's first brewery until lunch time. This was the Postbrauerei Nesselwang, situated in the village with the same name. The brewery tap had, in addition to decent Bavarian food, a "taster session" on the menu where you got to taste 4 x 300ml glasses of different beers, plus you got a little ratings sheet where you could rate the beer according to different criteria like smell (smells good: 10p, smells kinda good: 8p, smells a bit rough: 6p, smells like donkey shit: 4p), head durability, taste, bitterness and clarity. This was immense fun, and it was with great sadness we had to leave knowing that there was still several litres of excellent Bock beer available.

On the way towards Füssen (where the famous castle Neuschwanstein, clearly inspired by the Disney films, was built in the 1870s) we stopped at the Kössel-Bräu brewery, which was sadly closed for the Easter holidays, in a tiny hamlet-let called Speidel. Because of the lack of openness, we had to continue thirstily towards Füssen, where we arrived to find that all traces of the local breweries dotted around this part of the world had been wiped out by the big names (Paulaner and the like), including the town's own which closed in 2007.

On day three it was time to head north. We stopped briefly at the site of Aktienbrauerei Kaufbeuren, which looked nice enough, though we had already tried their beers before since they seem to be rather ubiquitous around the region. More interesting is the fact that smack next door lies another brewery, or rather an ex-brewery, called Rosenbrauerei. The magnificent main building stands there empty and decaying, a silent witness to the acquisitions and mergers that have killed off so many of the world's independent brewers.

Our final destination for the day was the Irsee Klosterbrauerei. This was once a monastery, then Napoleon or someone equally friendly kicked the monks out, after which the massive buildings just stood there for 170 years or so, until someone had the bright idea to start a brewery in 1970 because "the monks used to like beer". Now it's a big hotel, restaurant, beer garden, museum and brewery - all very pleasant. We methodically tried their beers and they were all good, but again served too cold. The main problem with the place was that it had somehow become a little bit fake. Everything was done very neatly and professionally to create the feeling of this being something authentic, but it was a bit overdone, and therefore didn't feel real. Actually, the main problem was their beer glasses. They had photos printed on them. They looked like postcards. I popped into the museum and saw their first generation beer glasses, from before the marketing people took an interest in such things. They were great.

The final day of this epic journey was very sunny, and we were in the delightfully named and eerily quiet village of Dirlewang before 10am. The brewery is called Hirschbräu, founded in 1806 and not much changed since by the looks of things (the website was also made in 1806 and placed over the entrance). Open during working hours only, it was firmly shut on Easter Monday, so we imagined that we were drinking one of the most local beers in Germany, and we imagined it was delicious.

Luckily, we didn't have far to go before we arrived in the town of Ottobeuren. The main feature in this town is a monastery complex so big the entire town could have fitted inside it. Or something like that. Just outside was the real surprise of the journey, namely a brewery that I didn't know about beforehand. This was because some exceedingly lovely person or persons had decided to re-open a long-closed brewery, namely the Hirsch Hausbrauerei. They now brew what proved to be my favourite beer of the entire journey, namely a complex, full-bodied Märzen which tasted so good I actually wanted to marry it, but my wife wouldn't let me.

There was still time to squeeze in a final brewery, the Kronburger Brauerei in Kronburg, where we found one of the finest beer gardens I have ever seen, appropriately packed with people enjoying the Easter sunshine and some well-brewed beers. I went for the Bock, and it was a great choice. Though it is possible I was influenced by the great weather and the atmosphere, I hereby declare it to be the second favourite of the journey - malty, full-bodied and immensely satisfying.

That was the end of the beery side of this journey, and all that remained for us was to bike home. I'd recommend a cycling trip like this to anyone who likes cycling, beer and nice scenery. I hasten to add that though this text has perhaps focussed a teeny tiny bit on the beer and brewery side of the trip, we also found time to drink some wine. And do some sight seeing in several castles and old towns. And cycle more than 300km in great weather. Now I shall rest both my liver and my legs for a few days.


Oh beery me

Today's been a good day. The weather has been sunny and spring-like, and the carrot and coriander soup I cooked for dinner turned out nicely. However, that's not the topic of this post. The topic is, as you may have accidentally already guessed, beer.

Before dinner, I sometimes like to crack open a beer. OK, the secret's out. I'm a pre-dinner drinker, at least occasionally. Today, after surveying the fridge, I ended up opening a Weiss-Gold from the Meckatzer brewery in Allgäu, which is a part of Bavaria south of Augsburg. This was a good choice. "Weiss-Gold" literally translates as "White Gold", so no prizes for guessing that this beer isn't among the darker varieties.

I've tried this beer before, so I knew roughly what the experience would be like. However, this is one of those rare beers that tends to delight you every time you drink it, so I was yet again enjoying myself as I sipped my way through. It's a very bitter beer, but also with a nice malty body, which makes it one of the few golden beers that deserve the description "full-bodied".

I reckon that the brewer tried to make a traditional export, but as he was bringing his hop bag towards the kettle to add the required modest amount he slipped on a banana skin discarded by the apprentice he had fired just a couple of hours ago because the apprentice had been getting it on with his wife behind the brew kettle when he wasn't looking because he was busy investigating why the sales of the traditional export beer had been falling. In a beautiful twist of fate, this resulted in him spilling just the perfect amount of hops into the kettle to make this wonderfully refreshing and satisfying beer, which then revived the sales and saved the brewery from bankruptcy.

I hasten to add that this is just a theory and it's possible, though unlikely, that I'm wrong.

If you're trying, like I am, to limit the amount of beer you drink on ordinary weekdays, one of the easiest ways of achieving this is to ensure that you never have more than one Weiss-Gold in the fridge. On the other hand, any fridge would feel very incomplete without at least one bottle in it. A bit like Paris without the Eiffel tower. You're delighted that it's there, but if there was more than one it wouldn't be quite the same experience. That, of course, is where the similarities between my fridge and Paris end. For starters, my fridge has - unlike Paris - good beer in it.

Anyway, 'nuff said about beer for now. I'm actually off to cycle, with my lovely wife, around the Allgäu for four days during Easter, and perhaps, by complete coincidence, we'll find a nice cycle route that goes past a brewery or five. I'll be sure to report on the findings and experiences from this excursion on this very blog. But don't hold your breath. Mostly because it's very difficult to drink beer whilst holding your breath.


Beer Culture in Scandinavia and Elsewhere

I've read a couple of books by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson lately. I can't say I'm too impressed, but that's not really the topic for this post. The topic is, as you may have already guessed, beer.

The characters in the Larsson books drink a lot of coffee, but very seldom beer. And if they drink beer, the books refer only to "strong beer" rather than a specific type. This is despite the fact that most other food and drink encountered by the characters in the book are described in great detail, often including brand names. Why, then, did the author find it sufficient to describe beer only as "strong"?

"Strong beer" is the translation of the Swedish "starköl". The Swedish "starköl" is actually only available from government-controlled shops called "Systembolaget" because the politicians, in their infinite desire to protect the general public from themselves, decided that beer with alcohol content above 3.5% cannot be sold in normal shops. Which again lead to the Swedes referring to any beer stronger than this as "starköl", primarily suitable for getting people drunk quickly, and, as a consequence, most people simply order “strong beer” in the pub, rather than a beer of a particular style. The fact that Sweden is a dire place to drink beer - though this has lately changed for the better with new offerings from microbreweries becoming available - is in no small part due to well-meaning politicians' urges to influence their subjects' drinking habits by promoting low-alcohol beer, also known as swill.

Norway, the country where I learned to drink all those years ago, has the same problem, with bureaucrats creating classes of beer that can only be sold here or there depending on the alcohol content, thereby encouraging brewers to brew stuff based on strength rather than style, taste or tradition. This has more or less competely snuffed out the old bock beer style in Norway, which is now hidden away on dusty shelves in the proud Norwegian equivalent of the Swedish Systembolaget. Thankfully, the Norwegians decided that "normal" beer should still be available in supermarkets, so the maximum strength was set at 4.8%, though this does force a large number of continental brewers who brew beers that are just a smidgeon stronger to try their luck in Vinmonopolet (translates as "The Wine Monopoly"), or, more likely, to drink the beer themselves.

Countries where politicians don't see the need to protect the public from accidentally picking up a beer stronger than 3.5% or 4.8% or whatever with their daily shopping also tend to have a better beer culture. Different beer styles have different alcohol contents. These styles developed over decades and centuries, and acquired subtle differences in taste, colour, and - you guessed it - strength. This again means that in such countries, breweries can relatively unhindered continue to offer the public what they want, namely great tasting beer of various styles, rather than just an ubiquitous, bland "pilsner-style" beer that unsurprisingly has exactly the maximum alcohol content to be allowed shelf space in the local supermarket.

So things are good for people lucky enough to live in Germany where there are at least 15 clearly distinguishable beer styles available, mostly brewed with love and affection by small or medium-sized breweries steeped in tradition. Most of the traditional breweries are long gone in Scandinavia, but things are slowly changing, with drinkers discovering other beer styles, often made available by very adventurous microbreweries. These brave souls are fighting against a lot of red tape and well-paid bureaucrats hell-bent on putting as many taxes and regulations in the way as possible. Despite this, I have recently witnessed people in Oslo ordering outrageously expensive micro-brewed beer, not to get drunk, but have something to savour and enjoy. Is it too much to hope that this is a trend that may lead to a change in attitude also from politicians?

At least the inhabitants up in those cold Nordic countries have, for the most part, enough money to hop on a flight to Germany, and experience proper culture first hand. They may even save money since the beer costs around a third of what it does at home, so the more they drink, the more they save. It's a plan that cannot go wrong.


Beer and Cycling

Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that I like visiting beer and drinking breweries. There are few pleasures to rival arriving at a new brewery, having a nosey around their buildings, perhaps purchasing a T-shirt, and then heading off to the brewery tap for a couple of jars.

The problem is always how to get there since a considerable number of them set up shop inconsiderately far from where I live. Needless to say, I do not own a car. Beer drinking and driving simply don’t go together. I may kill somebody or myself, I may lose my licence, and in any case it’s a very bad thing to do. Therefore, I use trains a lot. Quick, comfortable, occasionally even running to some kind of schedule, this is the ideal mode of transport for the dedicated beer drinker. In Germany, you can even bring your own beer on board and drink it at your seat without having to hide the bottle in your armpit and pretend you’re checking that your deodorant is still working every time you take a sip.

However, in Germany there are in the region of 1300 breweries. Not all of these happen to be situated within easy reach of a train station. This is where the humble bicycle enters the picture. I’ve got a steady bike, with panniers and mud guards, ideal for excursions. Germany has about a billion kilometres of paved cycle paths criss-crossing the country, literally paving the way from one brewery to the next. Having learned once and for all how to cycle whilst slightly (or very) inebriated during my student days, and estimating the added danger of a couple of beers to be negligible when coasting along at 20 km/h on near-deserted paths through forests and fields, the pedal-driven treadmobile is the ideal solution for leisurely inter-brewery travel.

The weather last weekend was simply glorious. With pale skin after a long winter, and our hair flowing freely in the mild spring air, my wife and I set off for the 50km ride to one of the nearest breweries, situated in Königseggwald – pretty much directly north of Lake Constance. The ride was beautiful, the sun baking, and we arrived just in time to miss last orders for lunch as the brewery tap. We settled for a fluid lunch, and ordered beer. Straight away I encountered one of the really quite weird things in Germany – they only serve pilsner in 300ml glasses. The conversation with the waitress went as follows:

Me: Could I have a half litre of pilsner, please?
Waitress: Sorry, we only have small glasses of pils.
Me: Is the pilsner on tap?
Waitress: Yes
Me: And you clearly have half litre glasses available, because you sell the Spezial in half litre sizes?
Waitress: Yes, shall I get you a Spezial?
Me: Could you perhaps pour the pilsner beer from the tap into the half litre glass?
Waitress:<long pause> I guess that is possible.

I can only presume that the 345-page manual entitled “how to be a waitress in our pub” doesn’t include clear instructions on the not exactly mind-numbingly difficult task of pouring pilsner into a half-litre glass. Maybe it’s a combination the Germans simply never thought of. However, considering the weird array of beer mixers on offer – they don’t bat an eyelid when you ask for lemonade, coca-cola or banana-juice to be mixed with beer – it’s just bizarre.

The beer tasted, as brewery tap beers tend to do, extremely fresh and delicious. I find that really fresh beer has an extra almost citrus-like zippiness to it, which makes it go down even better, especially on a hot sunny day in a lovely peaceful beer garden.

I must admit that motivating myself for a 50km ride back after a fluid lunch was hard. The early spring sun was hot and strong, and slowly changed our skin colour to something resembling cooked lobsters. I don’t like lobsters. We rode home and drank pizza and ate red wine. It had been a fine day.


In the beginning...

Having grown up in Drammen, Norway, with the wonderful Aass Brewery so magnificently positioned by the river, I have always been fascinated by beer. Therefore, it came as no surprise that, once I had forced myself to drink quite a bit of the amber liquid in my teens, beer became my favourite drink.

Now, almost 25 years later, I have long since left Drammen for a country where the beer is much cheaper, though not always better: Germany. In my humble opinion, Germany is easily the best country in the world for beer lovers. Not only is Germany home to a staggering 1300+ breweries, it also has the world's oldest breweries, arguably the best beer, the biggest beer festivals and - also arguably - the best beer culture. Whilst I appreciate that other countries are strong contenders in many of these categories - Belgium, the Czech Republic and Britain, for example - I find that Germany trumps them all.

This blog is about German beer, breweries, and the never-ending quest to taste them all. Occasionally, I shall also comment on non-German beers, and provide heavily biased opinions on issues such as enormous brewery conglomerates (bad), independent family-owned traditional breweries (good), and the weather (varying).

Hopefully this will entertain both readers who stumble upon my ramblings and myself. We shall see.