Nine beers fight for glory!

Last weekend was without a doubt the highlight as well as the end of the week. An old friend from England came to visit, which was a great excuse to have a few beers whilst reminiscing about the olden days and how everything was pretty crap back then. Furthermore, the first shipment from the beer club I’ve just joined arrived Saturday morning, which provided the perfect excuse to invite another couple of friends for the inaugural Konstanzer Anglo-Canadian-Norskie beer tasting session.

And so it came to pass that one Norwegian, one Englishman and three Canadians sat down last Saturday evening with 9 half-litre bottles of beer in front of them to do a very proper, unbiased and statistically valid beer-off. I had carefully chosen the following beers quite randomly: PilsnerUrquell, Störtebeker Alkoholfrei, Rothaus Märzen, Wernesgrüner Pils, Tegernseer Hell, Meckatzer Weiss-Gold, Früh Kölsch, Beck’s Pils and Breznak Pils. There were, in other words, four pilsners, one Bavarian helles, two golden non-pilsners that taste almost, but not entirely unlike export, one kölsch and one where the alcohol for unknown reasons had been rudely taken away.

Kölsch, for those who haven’t had the pleasure of drinking beer in Cologne yet, is a very nice beer style indeed. It is top-fermented and therefore technically an ale, but unlike most ales it's as golden and refreshing as any pilsner. Better still, the finest examples of the style have a hint of fruitiness that makes them extremely drinkable, a fact which the people from Cologne have learnt to appreciate. In fact, they manage to drink so much of the stuff that it rarely, if ever, makes it as far as the city border before being consumed.

Back in the south of Germany, the mood was excited and the taste buds on high alert as we prepared the double-blind tasting session. One challenge was how to conduct a double-blind tasting while still allowing everyone to take part. We solved the problem by having one person (me) wrap all the bottles in newspaper before removing the bottle tops and placing them randomly (the bottles, not the bottle tops) in the fridge. Then, another person (not me) would, out of view from the others, pick a beer randomly from the fridge and pour a 100ml measure into each person’s glass, before marking the newspaper with the ordinal number in which it was served (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc). This way, neither the people tasting nor the person pouring had the faintest idea of which beer was which. We would then appreciatively taste our way through this thimbleful of beer, usually wishing there was lots more of it, before scoring the beer out of a maximum of 10 points and trying to hazard a guess as to which beer it actually was.

As you can surely imagine, this was tremendous fun. Drinking 9 different beers in a couple of hours is in itself a bit like celebrating New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day at once, and with the added bonus of the score sheet and the honour awaiting the winner, this was surely going to be an evening to remember. Therefore, we all made sure we wrote very careful tasting notes and we scored each beer on criteria such as smell, taste, light-headedness and gut feeling.

Then, finally, came the climax. The bottles were ceremoniously disrobed and their true identities revealed. We drunkenly added our scores up – and there was a winner! And a runner-up! And, most shockingly, a loser which wasn’t the alcohol free beer, but one of the most revered and celebrated beers in the world! However, before I reveal these exciting results, I have a confession to make. I only managed to correctly identify two of the nine beers. It was difficult, difficult I tell you! The Kölsch was less hoppy than I had expected, the Beck’s actually more hoppy and the cheese and onion crisps didn’t as much cleanse the palate as render it completely useless. Never mind, the way I see it, such a poor result is the perfect excuse to go on practising.

The results:
1) Meckatzer Weiss-Gold (31.5p)
2) Rothaus Märzen (31p)
3) Breznak Pils (27p)
4) Früh Kölsch (26.5p)
5) Wernesgrüner Pils (26p)
6) Tegernseer Hell (25p)
7) Beck’s Pils (22p)
8) Störtebeker Alkoholfrei (15p)
9) Pilsner Urquell (14p)

It should be pointed out that not all the participants were as fanatical about beer as myself, something which was also reflected in the scores – my lovely wife, for example, prefers dark beers to the lighter ones and therefore wasn’t exactly generous with the points since her average score was about 2.5. However, when the top two and bottom two were concerned, we were all pretty much in agreement, and I take that as a sign that it wasn’t entirely random.

The most noteworthy result, of course, is the fact that the famous Pilsner Urquell ended up rock bottom, even behind the alcohol free stuff. I think this might be the clearest message so far that the global brewing conglomerate, SAB Miller, should stop meddling with a once-great beer and start brewing it with the love and affection it once was. “Urquell” means “the original source”, and it is sad to see this beer now being brewed in various cheap places hundreds of miles from Plzen where it was born. I expect that this blog entry will make them see the error of their ways, and perhaps bring out a new version – they could call it “Urqurquell” – which tastes like in the good old days (which I seem to remember being crap at the beginning of this post, what the heck was I thinking?)

On the other hand, I was happy to see that Meckatzer’s Weiss-Gold was awarded the victory since I have repeatedly praised this very beer in this very blog, and it’s very good. Very well, that concludes today's long blog post - I hope you've been entertained and inspired. Blind tasting beer is a real eye-opener as it were (unless you're actually blind I guess, but then you're unlikely to read this blog), since you can't get away with knowing from the label what the beer is supposed to taste like. Actually, there's an idea: I'm going to do a real blindfolded test where I don't know anything about the beer beforehand and have to figure out everything by taste and smell. I'll keep you posted.


It's beer v beer time!

Any beer blogger with respect for himherself occasionally does a beer test. The advanced version of this is to test two beers at the same time, and compare them. The usual trick is to pick an awful and a really good beer and then slag off the awful one whilst praising the good one. That seemed a bit predictable (as well as a waste of liver damage where the awful beer is concerned), so I went for the adventurous approach: comparing two of my all-time favourite beers. Very exciting.

Having at the time of writing just drunk these two beers, I simultaneously have the advantage of being creatively drunk and the disadvantage of missing every second key on the keyboard, so I may well be sober before I finish this. Unless I have another beer, of course. Anyway, you're probably dying to know which two beers I have just compared. It's Meckatzer Weissgold and Wernesgrüner Pils Legende. Note the two dots over the u in Wernesgrüner. That's a German letter, folks. It's pronounced "ü".

I went about this momentous task in a very scientific way. First I went for a cycle ride in the sunshine to make sure I was really thirsty. Then I washed two beer glasses exactly the same way, even though both were already clean, just in case they had been washed differently, at different times or by different people. I used the same soap, the same tap water, the same brush, the same technique and I whistled the same tune whilst washing. Then I let both glasses air-dry until they were no longer wet.

The beers were stored in the fridge so I took them out 10 minutes prior to pouring time and opened the bottles to let the beer breathe. Well, if wine needs this why the heck shouldn't beer? I proceeded to pour 2/3rds of the bottles simultaneously into separate glasses, without tilting the glasses (which would in any case have been difficult since I only have two feet). Then I paused for exactly 97 seconds to let the head stabilize before I poured the rest.

I now had two beautiful looking beers in two extraordinarily attractive beer glasses from the wonderful Aass brewery. I waited two minutes to see how the head developed and multitasked by studying the colour at the same time. The Wernesgrüner was a smidgeon lighter, whilst the Meckatzer could be said to be a tad darker. The next step was to appreciateively sniff the beers in order to detect smells such as wet dogs, pine trees and Welsh footpaths. To me, both smelt a bit like, erm, beer, and I must admit that I couldn't at all tell the difference. Perhaps I need a nose transplant.

Undeterred, I proceeded to taste the beer. After all this time faffing about, you can imagine what a delight it was to finally let these great beers hit my frustrated taste buds. And the taste buds sure were happy. The Wernesgrüner is a very hoppy beer, and therefore extremely refreshing. A bit like a gin and tonic without the gin and the tonic, but with a lot of great beer. The Meckatzer, as I have previously described in an earlier post on this very blog, is both hoppy and malty. It has a more full-bodied mouthfeel, but lacks perhaps that extra sting in the bitterness department that the Wernesgrüner supplies so nicely.

After I had tasted my way down to the halfway point of each glass I moved on to the next stage in the comparison test, which was to see how the beers paired with food. More specifically, three day old Thai curry which had been combined with the leftover rice, reheated and now looked more like porridge. Potent porridge, bordering on deadly. As expected, the curry removed most of the taste of the beers, as well as any other taste sensation left in my mouth, quite efficiently - though I was still able to enjoy the way beer soothes the tonsils. Next time I'll try and pair the beer with food that doesn't require a two-week spa holiday for the tongue afterwards.

So, what's the conclusion? Which beer is best? There's no doubt that these two beers are both very good, perhaps even classic examples of their styles. The Wernesgrüner has been a favourite of mine for many years, and it is simply one of the most refreshing drinks you can imagine. It doesn't need to be accompanied by anything except myself. The Meckatzer, on the other hand, is a bit more of an all-rounder since it goes better with food and has a slightly richer, more satisfying taste.

Therefore it's a draw. 9 out of 10 points for each. Go and buy a crate of both, and if they're not available in your local supermarket then consider the fact that the German economy is booming, so there's no excuse for not moving here, unless you can't pronounce the letter "ü". Good lück.


Una birra, per favore!

Occasionally I go abroad, even if this means leaving the German beer behind. I have a fairly strict policy of drinking only the local beer wherever I am (though I admit that I occasionally have a coffee with breakfast instead). This time, my destination was Italy - and this blog entry is, as you may already have guessed, about Italian beer.

It’s hard not to love Italy. Italy has the best food made from the best ingredients, excellent wine, great weather, fantastic scenery, interesting cities and crazy traffic. However, when it comes to beer, there are some serious shortcomings – a couple of major breweries control the vast majority of the market, offering the standard, fairly bland, pilsner-style thirst quenchers. Well, at least this used to be the case until a few years ago.

My Christmas gift to my lovely wife was a trip to Venice. Not, as you may expect, to glide romantically up and down the polluted canals in a sleek boat powered by some stripy-shirted Casanova singing O Sole Mio at the top of his voice whilst charging so much it makes you wonder if he accidentally quoted you in Lire instead of Euros. Instead, the plan was to romantically stroll cross every single one of the 400-odd bridges and occasionally stop for a well-deserved beer.

We soon discovered that the beer scene in Italy is way more interesting than originally thought. Just like Venice itself, it is much more rewarding if you scratch a little below the surface and venture down lanes where few tourists ever go. You may then accidentally find yourself sitting by a canal in glorious sunshine, watching old ladies drinking their afternoon grappa whilst sipping a beer from Venice’s own microbrewery.
The biggest trend seems to be massive 750ml bottles with fancy labels and champagne corks that the waiter will open with considerable fanfare, even letting you test-taste the beer before pouring. The prices of these beauties are clearly set by the gondolier’s guild to make their gondola trips seem cheap, so if you fancy something to get you drunk on a budget then the house wine is a better choice. However, if you’ve grown up with insane beer prices or have more money than sense (most Norwegians have both), you should go ahead and try one. Once you disregard the normal continental sin of serving the beer way too cold in glasses that have been washed together with fatty foods (a blog post is coming up on this topic), you’re likely to enjoy a tasty beer with plenty of hop spiciness on the palate.

Even though the vast majority of the beer drunk in Italy comes from the standard brands – Moretti, Peroni, Beck’s and Heineken seem to be the ubiquitous ones – there’s clearly an increasing appreciation of alternative and more interesting beer styles. Italy is, after all, one of the few countries where family-owned small businesses still haven’t been swallowed by the multinational chains (there isn’t a single Starbucks in the whole country), and there’s a strong culture for eating and drinking local produce, and I like it.

To be fair, even I don't require a large selection of top-quality beers to enjoy Italy. It's a great country for a holiday, with the possible exception of Naples where they apparently haven't collected the rubbish since 2009, though even that sounds oddly interesting. On the other hand, it's also nice to get back to Germany where everything is organised and the buildings don't look like they're about to fall down, even if they sometimes do anyway.


It's Bock o'clock!

It's time to write a bit about my favourite subject: beer. And not just any beer, but a beer most people never drink or possibly haven't even heard of, yet a beer so delicious and tasty it makes you wonder why you bother drinking anything else. I am obviously talking about Bock.

The Bock beer style originates, according to Wikipedia and just about every book I own (except, oddly, "Catch 22"), in the German Hanseatic town of Einbeck. From there it mysteriously drifted upstream to Munich where the jolly townfolk liked it quite a lot. In the local Munich dialect, Einbeck sounded a bit like "Ein Bock", which in German means "a billy goat", so the name was swiftly shortened to "Bock".

This was hundreds of years ago, so I suspect that today's Bocks taste a bit different, and very likely much better. Nevertheless, Bock is a recognized beer style in Germany and elsewhere. There are many different interpretations of the style, but the one thing they all have in common is alcoholic strength. These brews very seldom clock in at under 7% alcohol, yet are very easy to drink, frequently resulting in unsuspecting drinkers losing control of their legs, bladders, livers and other essential drinking organs.

Bock is almost always a darkish beer, though the colour can vary from amber to dark brown. It's malty with some sweetness on the palate, which may or may not be balanced with a generous helping of hops, though the hops will never dominate. The best full-bodied variants induce a feeling of extreme well-being, not just because they get you tipsy rather quickly, but also because the taste is rich and satisfying. It should certainly not be served straight from the fridge (unless the fridge is broken) because the Bock tastes best around 12 degrees or so. Of course, it is pretty much impossible to leave it out of the fridge for several minutes to warm up once you've decided to have one, so I usually pour it into a glass and warm it up carefully with a blowtorch.

In Drammen, Norway - where I grew up - the wonderful Aass brewery has for very many years brewed a Bock which has actually won considerable international recognition. It is, if my memory serves me right, quite a sweet, but well-balanced variant, and it probably explains to a large extent why I was pretty happy during my teenage years, though my memory - unlike the beer - is a little bit hazy for some reason. According to legend (also known as Michael Jackson), the beer goes really well with creamy cakes.

Here in Germany the whole country goes bananas in early spring, because that's when the breweries release their Maybock beers. This is a very long tradition, and it stems from the fact that brewing used to be impossible during the hot summer months, so the breweries needed to brew something so strong that everyone would stay drunk until autumn. If you happen to be in Germany in April or May, you can pretty much get on any local train that takes you to place you've never heard of such as Schweinfart, Bad Kissingen or Rimsting and be pretty sure that there's a Bock beer festival going on. German festivals are great fun. They all involve extensive beer drinking in huge tents coupled with singing traditional folk songs that have equally traditional Europop disco beats whilst merrily slapping your thighs and dancing on benches that tend to collapse at regular intervals.

If that isn't enough for you to go bockers, then the Germans have, not being satisfied with a mere 7% beer, invented a style called Doppelbock (literally "Double Bock"). Guess how strong it is? Yes, that's correct, it's typically between 8% and 9%. The name actually comes from the gravity of the beer, which is the invisible force that pulls you to the ground once you've had one too many. Doppelbocks are typically released in the middle of winter and given names that end in "-ator" such as "Salvator", "Celebrator" and "Terminator". These brews are not just absolutely delicious, they are also incredibly dangerous, which is why you have to buy a special insurance before being allowed to drink one, just like you have to have insurance for your car before you're allowed to drive. Actually, that's a lie. But perhaps a good business idea.

Anyway, to round off this long post I would like to encourage you to run to your nearest alcoholic beverage outlet to get some exercise. Once you're there, you might as well stock up on some great Bock beers if they're available, or move to a different country if they're not, and keep them in the cellar for special occasions such as breakfast, lunch and dinner. You won't regret it, at least not until the next day.