Kiss my Aass!

Today is a very special day. Not because it’s sunny, because it isn’t even though it’s Sunday, or because it’s the birthday of Pat Buttram, which it is, though since I’ve never heard of him despite his splendid surname I won’t bother celebrating. No, folks. It’s way better than that. It’s the 200th birthday of my home town Drammen. For this splendid reason, today’s blog post won’t be about Germany and her beers and breweries. Instead, I’ll venture down memory lane and become a bit nostalgic whilst crying homesick tears into my keyboard. If this sounds boring, rest assured that the topic of beer will also feature heavily.

Drammen was, as the sharpest amongst you have already figured out, founded on the 19th of June 1811 by joining the small hamlets Bragernes and Strømsø, situated north and south of the mighty Drammen river, into one large metropolis. Strategically placed where the river meets the cunningly named Drammen fjord, Drammen soon prospered, mainly due to the thousands of tonnes of timber being floated down the river every year and then loaded onto – or made into – ships in the local harbour, unsurprisingly known as the Drammen harbour.
The Drammen fjord in the foreground with the city behind

A decade or five later the industrial revolution hit the country, and some clever chaps realized that the wood could be turned into paper before leaving the city, thereby substantially increasing its value. Drammen therefore turned itself into an industrial city with dozens of paper mills lining the river and a substantial number of shipping companies that exported the paper to most corners of the globe. The workers employed at the factories were obviously very thirsty after a day of hard labour, so a handful of breweries also sprang up to provide relief for dry throats.

One of these breweries was started in 1834, and eventually evolved into the wonderful Aass Brewery we know today (note that “Aass” is pronounced to rhyme with “laws”, at least if you have a Britishish accent). The last paper mill has long since closed, and the city has gone through the usual post-industrial decline followed by an urban regeneration programme resulting in a myriad of prizes and an improved reputation, but the brewery has – so far – remained a stable presence throughout the ups and downs. Known for its quality products and dedication to brewing good beer, it is one of the few things in Drammen which has always been a source of pride for the city’s inhabitants. As such, the brewery enjoys a tremendous local loyalty. More than once have the big multinational brewery giants such as Carlsberg tried to enter the market in Drammen with their carbonated piss, and every time have the people of Drammen voted with their feet. The latest incident happened just a few weeks ago, and it will be interesting to see what will happen to the two bars concerned once they start serving Carlsberg in September. One thing is certain: they won’t be dispensing a lot of beer to people who grew up in Drammen.
The Aass brewery sitting prettily by the river

My own experience of growing up in Drammen in the 80s was very positive. I guess parents were a bit less paranoid back then, so my friends and I were allowed to play unsupervised from age nine or so, which we enjoyed tremendously whether it involved skiing in the woods, climbing the shipping cranes at the harbour or playing football in the schoolyard. Moreover, since I always knew that it was my patriotic duty to support the local brewery, I also made sure that I taught myself to like beer as soon as I was not yet old enough to drink legally.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridges than join the two halves of Drammen together since then, and I have had the pleasure of living in cities such as Trondheim, Brisbane, Oxford and Konstanz. Nice cities, sure, but none of them have a brewery to compare with Drammen’s. Now don’t get me wrong, even I realise that there are more important things in life than drinking beer, but I still think that a great brewery loved by the locals is one of the finest features of a city. Sadly, I am not in Drammen to celebrate this weekend, and neither do I have a beer from the Aass brewery to celebrate with. Nevertheless, I will toast my home town in an appropriate manner today, and wish everyone back there a very happy birthday.

My keyboard is now completely soaked with tears, and I am in grave danger of crossing the line between being boringly nostalgic and annoyingly soppy, so perhaps it’s time to stop writing. Besides, the sun has just made an appearance, and there are some cold drinks in the fridge awaiting my attention. I therefore say cheers, skål, slainte, iechyd da, prost, terviseks, kippis and kampai to Drammen, and round off with a slightly modified quote from Shakespeare: “An Aass! An Aass! My kingdom for an Aass!”.


Wake up and smell Cologne!

Many cities can lay a half-decent claim to be the beer capital of the world. Plzen and Prague in the Czech Republic, Munich and Bamberg in Germany, Brussels in Belgium, perhaps even Portland in Oregon, they all have an established beer culture, long traditions and plenty of fantastic pubs where you can happily sip your way through a selection of the world’s greatest beers.

However, if I were going to list the 10 best beer cities in the world, and perhaps I will one day so that you all can make proper plans for your next 10 holidays, one city just has to be included: Cologne, or Köln as it is known in its native language, German, or Deutsch as the language is known in its native language. Why Cologne? Because it’s simply one of the finest places to sip beer on planet earth.

Cologne has, until recently, been a somewhat unfortunate place. It sits on the west bank of the mighty river Rhine, and is therefore separated from the majority of Germany by one of Europe’s most strategic waterways. This meant that the city was frequently part of some war or other, and changed hands from one crazy emperor to the next roughly as often as people used to change underwear in those days. The upshot was that the people in Cologne learned to get on with their lives with a healthy dose of scepticism for authorities. During that big clash now known as World War Two, Cologne was pretty much reduced to a giant pile of rubble – the only thing of note left standing was, amazingly, the cathedral, which is so big you’d think it’d be impossible to miss.

But this blog post isn’t a history lesson, it’s about beer. What in St Gambrinus’ name does Cologne have to do with my favourite drink, I hear you cry. Well, as it happens, Cologne is one of the very few cities on this planet to have a beer style named after it. Those of you who have paid attention to my earlier posts will know this already: it’s called Kölsch, a top-fermented yet golden and clear ale with hoppy and sometimes flowery notes. Most people haven’t even heard of it – when the Pils style was busy being copied and abused all over the world, the citizens of Cologne decided to jealously guard theirs by drinking it all themselves and making sure that nobody outside their region was allowed to brew it.

In other words, to experience Kölsch you have to go to Cologne. It’s worth the trip. The old town, which was partially rebuilt after the aforementioned war and now looks quite nice, is home to some of the finest drinking houses in the world. When you enter one of these for the first time it can be a bit of a shock. As soon as you’ve found a place to sit, stand or otherwise deposit the body parts not required for drinking, a waiter will deliver beers. You may at this point think that you’ve already lost your sense of perspective. Rest assured, the glass is small, it’s not far away, and you can reach it assuming you’re still capable of lifting your arms. Kölsch beer is traditionally served in 0.2l glasses. Now don’t panic! As soon as you’ve finished the last sip, the waiter will automatically bring you a new, fresh one unless you’ve put the coaster on top of the glass.

Beginners don’t normally realize this, so it’s great fun to watch people desperate to get out of there to catch a flight or sober up or something equally pointless, and not being able to due to new rounds of beer constantly appearing. Once they finally figure it out, they’ve usually missed their flight anyway so they might as well continue to the next great place to drink Kölsch, which is always conveniently located next door, across the street or, in some tedious cases, around the corner. The other thing to note about these beer houses is that the atmosphere is extremely friendly, even if the waiters can be quite rude if you don’t know the rules, don’t speak their dialect or otherwise look like you haven’t grown up in their neighbourhood. You can solve this problem by ordering a 5 or 10-litre cask delivered at your table, and pour new beers as often as you like until you invariably end up realizing that you should have been thrown out several hours ago.

Finally, at the end of the visit, you’ll also understand how the waiter kept track of the number of beers you drank – he made a little pencil mark on your beer coaster every time he brought a new one. Paying your bill, then, involves simply counting the marks and multiplying by the price per beer, something the waiter luckily will do for you. I have never tried to cheat by substituting the coaster or something like that, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend doing so since the waiters all look like they’ve dealt efficiently with a little mischief here and there in the past. They’d probably chuck you in the Rhine and tell you to swim downstream to Düsseldorf.

There are about 20 different varieties of Kölsch. They all have the same colour, but the taste can vary significantly. However, I’m not going to reveal more, partially because I cannot remember, and partially because the great thing about Cologne is to go there and do a massive pub crawl to discover your own favourite. Be warned: whatever you do when you get there, don’t even think about ordering a beer other than Kölsch – and especially not the type so beloved by the people living just downstream, namely Altbier. If you do, you’ll join the people who cheated on the coaster marks sooner than you can say “Rheindampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän”. Then you can, to pass the time whilst trying to keep your head above water and out of the propellers of the myriad of barges, think about the old Cologne saying: “We drink Kölsch. After we’ve drunk it, it eventually ends up in the Rhine where it flows downstream to Düsseldorf. There they use it to brew Altbier”.


Time to get serious

Every so often, any blogger with respect for himherself must cover a serious subject, like global warming, the war on terror or the rampant corruption in FIFA. Today it's my turn - I'm going to tackle a subject which gives me very little joy and which in many ways I wish was not a necessity on this planet: alcohol free beer.

When I was a lad, there was no such thing as alcohol free beer, though we had something called "Vørterøl" in Norway, or wort beer in English. The wort is essentially a mixture of water and malted barley where the sugars of the malt are dissolved into the water by raising the temperature, before the wort is hopped, cooled, fermented and developed into a nice or nasty beer. If you simply don't let the wort ferment, but just bung it in a bottle and ship it off to the supermarket, you get this sickly sweet drink which tastes horrible but is probably a nutricious replacement for baby milk.

Lately, breweries have discovered that the taste improves if you brew a proper beer and then subsequently remove the alcohol. The standard method is to boil the beer to let the alcohol evaporate, but there are some tricks such as creating a vacuum in the boiling chamber which enables the process to be done at lower temperatures, allegedly preserving more of the real beer taste.

The fundamental question is: why do we need alcohol free beer? There are dozens of perfectly good alcohol free drinks on the market, most of which are cheaper, healthier and better-tasting than petrol. It's a bit like vegetarian "bacon" made from soy or lava or whatever - you really want the real McCoy, but you can't have it for whatever reason so you settle for some substandard rubbish that lets you fool yourself into thinking that you're having the real McCoy.

Having said that, I have a confession to make (I'm not a catholic, and that wasn't the confession, but I seem to confess a lot in this blog lately so I thought I'd just point that out): I've been drinking a fair bit of alcohol free beer in recent months. Not nearly as much as the proper stuff, but perhaps 2-3 bottles a week.Why, oh why, have I fallen to such depths? I don't drive, I'm not an air traffic controller, and I don't plan to compete in the next Olympic Games (unless Norway wants me to). Well, the reason is that I'm trying not to end up on the slippery slope where I start having a couple of beers a day, leading to three or four, and then before I know it I'm a regular down the local pub here, wearing lederhosen and guzzling beer out of massive litre glasses with my friends Fritz, Hansi and Gumpert. Actually, that sounds rather like fun. Hmmm. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that I've decided to have one or two days a week completely without alcohol, just give the old liver a bit of a rest.

Having made this decision, I went about the task of finding an alco-free beer that tasted OK. My expectations were low, and as I was slowly tasting my way through the surprisingly extensive selection from the local supermarkets, I realized that this was going to be painful. They were basically all crap. Every single one had this weird sweetish taste as well as a massive hole where the taste of good beer should be. It makes your taste buds go crazy because you expect so much more, yet there's potential there and the promise of better things to come. After a long time of trying and failing, I settled on the one beer which taste reminded me most of beer, namely the Rothaus Alkoholfrei Zäpfle. It's not half bad, and it fulfils the main requirement: it's more refreshing than water.

The other thing to mention is that alcohol free beer here in Germany costs more than the normal alcoholic ones. This fact is impossible to understand for a Norwegian brought up with alcohol taxes so high that you are forced to save up all your pocket money from your childhood to be able to afford beer when you finally become a teenager. I therefore asked a German to explain this to me. He said that the reason is that alcohol free beer costs more to make. But what about the alcohol tax, I asked meekly. Well, there is very little tax on beer because it is seen as a staple product - like bread or milk, he said. At this point my brain malfunctioned completely, but I somehow recovered to finally understand why the Germans almost always get to the final in the World Cup. It's because they play efficient football and always win penalty shootouts.
Not bad for a brain that just malfunctioned.