2012-11-20

Nine more beers fight for much more glory!

The countless millions of people who are regular readers of this blog will no doubt remember one of the great entries of 2011, namely the one where nine beers were fighting for glory by tempting the palates of five lucky beer tasters assembled for the occasion in my flat here in Konstanz. This was so much fun that when two beer-loving mates from Norway came to visit a couple of weeks ago, I stocked up again for a repeat session, albeit with a slightly different selection this time.


To ensure some continuity, two of the beers from last time were allowed back in, namely the Meckatzer Weiss-Gold (the winner from 2011) and Wernesgrüner Pils (5th). The methodology was the same: I dressed up the beer bottles (all half-litres) in German newspapers and opened them before placing them randomly in the fridge. Then, one of my friends who hadn’t seen any of this would pick a beer randomly and pour it into three anonymous glasses. We then proceeded to sniff, drink and score them one by one whilst the empties were placed along a wall in the order in which they were served. Finally, once all were empty, we ceremoniously disrobed the bottles to reveal which beer was which.

The selection this time was based around golden-coloured beers of various types, namely two Pilsners (one of which was cheap, the other ridiculously cheap), three Octoberfest-style beers, two Helles, one Bock and last, but not least, a very expensive bottle imported from Britain, labelled “VSOP”, which I believe is short for "Very Sour Old Piss", but since it tasted rather good it is possible that I may be wrong there. Incidentally, just to illustrate the price range we're talking about: I could have bought about 15 bottles of the cheapest beer for the same price.

The results certainly showed that price is not necessarily proportional to taste or quality. Our two favourites were the cheap and the even cheaper Pilsners, whereas the VSOP didn’t quite make it to the throne. A note to British readers out there: the "p" stands for "points" and not the price of the beer in pence (though I wish it was). The results:
1)      Wernesgrüner Pils (25p)
2)      Ratskrone Pils (24p)
3)      Pedigree VSOP (21p)
3)      Schussenrieder Helles (21p)
5)      Andechs Bock (19p)
6)      Augustiner Octoberfest (18p)
7)      Meckatzer Weiss-Gold (17p)
7)      Maiser Heinrich Urstoff (17p)
9)      Augustiner Edelstoff (8p)

The podium! And the others. And the poor beer that nobody likes.

The unobservant reader has by now no doubt failed to notice that last year’s winner didn’t do quite as well this year – it finished way down in 7th place. There could, of course, be any number of reasons for this, such as coincidence and Act of Gambrinus. However, I strongly believe that all the non-winning German breweries have taken note of the results last year and worked very hard to improve their brews, whereas the winner last year may have been a little complacent, resting on the hoppy laurels and basking in the malty glory for a bit too long. I expect greater things from everyone next year.

It should also be noted that this event took place on a Friday when the weather was unusually warm, so perhaps the Pilsners had a little advantage there. Furthermore, since the beers were served from the fridge at the same, cold temperature, the beers that should ideally be served warmer (especially the bock and the VSOP) probably had a disadvantage. It must also be admitted that two of the three tasters were already blind drunk since they had been following the Norwegian tradition of knocking back all alcoholic beverages within earshot since leaving Norway. So essentially, this turned out to be a giant excuse to get drunk and had nothing to do with a proper beer tasting session. Oh well, never mind.

It’s good fun though, drinking beer and pretending you know something about it. Furthermore, judging something that cannot defend itself in other ways than by losing its head gives you a sense of power. Moah-hah-hah!

2012-11-07

Four more beers!



It’s been an inspiring few weeks for beer lovers. Whenever I’ve turned on the TV I don’t have (which, to be fair, wasn’t that often), read a newspaper or surfed the internet, I’ve been completely swamped by reports pouring in from a big country far, far away. The citizens of this country have, according to a Japanese news report I stumbled upon, just had a big erection. This sounds intriguing in its own right, but what I found even more interesting was images of crowds tens of thousands strong chanting “four more beers” whilst waving posters with logos for what I presume must have been various local breweries. I find such footage very stirring, and in my emotionally hoisted state I found myself drawn to my fridge. The rest is, as they say, a history I intend to share with anyone who can be bothered to read on.

Note that even the beer glass is right
The first beer I could lay my grubby mitts on was a fairly local one, in fact one that a colleague of my wife very kindly gave me a few weeks ago: a “Schwarzes Wäldle” brewed by Lammbrauerei from Weilheim, a small village tucked away behind some other equally obscure villages in the south-west of Germany. According to the Internet, this village has, together with its neighbouring village of Rietheim, a grand total of 2637 inhabitants – and one brewery making about 800,000 litres of beer per year. This corresponds to about one litre of beer per day per inhabitant, which sounds about right. I have tried both the pilsner and the “Schwarzes” (black beer, though it's not that black as you can see from the picture above) from this brewery, and in keeping with the output from almost all such small breweries around Germany, the beers are very good without being truly memorable.

A couple of weeks earlier, my wife and I decided to celebrate the unexpected arrival of winter by running a race in southern Bavaria, not far from Munich. After pounding through about 7km of mud with the snow whipping around our whiskers, it was a great relief to discover that the neighbouring hamlet, which boasted a total of 23 houses, had a very nice little brewery called Rössle-Bräu, with a pub attached. Therefore, after collecting a terrific toothbrush as the race prize, we made a beeline for the bar and begged for beer. The lady behind the bar obligingly started to pour me one, but then thoughtfully decided to change the barrel, which meant that I had the privilege, for the first time in my life, to drink the very first beer drawn from a completely fresh cask brewed less than 20 metres away from where I was sitting. Needless to say, this was a special occasion, and the beer did not disappoint: like all good Bavarian house beers it was copper-coloured, malty and beautifully balanced on the palate.

A copper-coloured blogger and ditto beer
The next day brought the opportunity to visit another two local breweries. First up was the Lövenbräu in Bad Wörishofen, a little spa town close, but not too close, to the motorway that goes through Germany. The brewery was classic Bavarian, essentially a brewpub except that unlike its many modern counterparts it’s been brewing for more than 100 years, serving the local population with tasty brews throughout this turbulent time in European history. I had the Export, which again was wonderfully fresh and malty even though it was just after 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning.

Finally, we made a brief stop at the Storchenbräu in Pfaffenhausen, which is situated conveniently a little further from the motorway. Sadly, the brewery pub had closed there, so we had to find the nearest outlet that served their beer, which was a whopping 120 metres away. They actually had a very good black beer, which I tried, but since I’ve forgotten what was nice about it I shan’t try to describe its lovely roasted coffee and dark chocolate notes.

No prizes for guessing what "storch" means
All in all, these four breweries illustrate very nicely what makes Germany such a great country to drink in. Most breweries are small, traditional, family-owned enterprises that serve up very good beer for the local population, and are happy to just do what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years without desperately needing to expand to foreign markets or employ fancy marketing tricks to appeal to new customer groups. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for innovation and new ideas when it comes to beer, but to balance this out it’s also great to have these old breweries where the only change happens every 30 years or so when the next generation takes over.

Anyway, I just heard someone say “oh bummer” on the radio, so perhaps this erection is finally over. Someone mentioned that it’s been the longest and most expensive one in history, so I hope it was worth it. Speaking for myself, the beers I had were certainly worth their malt and my time, and I look forward to yet another four more beers very soon. In the meantime, drink smart and have fun!

2012-10-02

Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!



In my last blog post, I had a little go at the lack of German beer culture and the fact that whilst most people may regard the Oktoberfest in Munich as a beer festival, this is exactly what it emphatically is not. It is a festival of fun and drunkenness fuelled by beer, as I experienced myself last week together with three of my best friends from Norway. Since I survided to tell the tale, even if I can't remember all of it, I will try to give you an impression of what it was like to drink part in the mayhem.

Although the Oktoberfest in Munich has spawned countless copycat events around the world, the original remains by far the biggest, the maddest and the most frustrating/fun party in the world. The festival area, known locally as the “Wies’n”, is massive and so are the 15 or so festival “tents”, each of which can keep several thousand drinkers dry, warm and lubricated. Arriving on the Saturday when the event opened, we were immediately struck by two things: rain, and the overwhelming number of people trying to get into one of these tents. There where queues everywhere, though none of them seemed to lead anywhere, at least not somewhere dry, warm and beery. In the end, all four of us tried to find some shelter under a disintegrating umbrella and a piece of wood, and before anyone could say “brrrr” a waiter came over and offered us a litre glass of ice-cold beer each, as long as we were prepared to fork out almost 10 euros for each of them – ridiculously expensive by German standards, but still a bargain seen with our blue-ish Norwegian eyes. Any sensible person would have left the area and headed for an uncrowded and cozy bar somewhere else, but the Oktoberfest is not the place for such clever thoughts so we gratefully accepted and started drinking.
The entrance to the Wies'n


This was hardly an auspicious start to the fun, so things could only improve. Unfortunately, they didn’t. We had another litre, got lost, lost each other, discovered that mobile phones don't necessarily work all the time, accidentally found each other again, drank too many wheat beers whilst still being rained on and, finally, gave up and left. At no point did we even get a sniff of being inside one of these hallowed tents. Rejected and wet, we cursed in several languages and headed for the suburbs where we successfully located both our hotel and a nice brewery.

We hadn’t travelled for hundreds and thousands of kilometres to give up so easily, though, so the next day we turned up bright and early at 10am, expecting to yet again be rejected at the door. However, to our immense surprise we found that not only were we allowed in, we also found a table without any problems. With such startling early success, we decided to simply settle down for the day – and finally, the spirit of the Oktoberfest descended upon us. One litre was magically replaced by another as soon as it had mysteriously disappeared, we were joined by one jolly crowd of people after another, we made several sets of lifelong friends that were immediately forgotten when they left, and in the end we got thrown out for tipping the waitress too much. Well, that’s the only thing we could remember doing wrong, anyway.

Opening parade - with one of the "tents" in the background
The tent we were in was the amusingly fish-themed tent known as “Fischer Vroni”, and the beer we enjoyed was from the only remaining independent, privately owned brewery in Munich, namely Augustiner. The beer was good, both in terms of taste and in terms of generating Gemütlichkeit – a German word that encapsulates nicely the feeling of immense happiness combined with an urge to sing jolly songs in German and dance on the benches together with a few thousand newly found friends of all ages. Generally, Oktoberfest beer is quite strong – just shy of 6% is the norm –and quite malty. Naturally, the breweries put emphasis on drinkability, so the taste isn’t exactly memorable, but it certainly isn’t bland either.

Now having been to the Oktoberfest twice, I consider myself somewhat of a veteran. I will therefore issue the following survival tips. First and foremost, do not bother turning up on the opening day of the festival unless you have tremendous amounts of luck or a very cunning plan indeed. Instead, aim for a weekday or at least a Sunday, and get there early – unless you prefer rollercoasters to beer, it is best to be inside one of the tents. Once at a table, have a beer or five, sing along even if you don’t know the songs and make some friends. You won’t regret it, at least not until you try to leave and find that your muscles for some strange reason don’t work the way they usually do anymore. In fact, it is not a bad idea to leave a bit before closing time anyway, since the crowds tend to thin out a bit towards the end, leaving only those who are too drunk to realize that they should have left long ago.

In conclusion – unless you hate beer or people or both, you should probably try the Oktoberfest at least once. I realize it’s not everyone’s pint of beer, but one of the lasting impressions is just how many different nationalities and age groups find their way to this event. It is not unusual to see young people drinking beer with their grandparents, or Japanese tourists dancing on the benches with Australians whilst singing German drinking songs. So head for Munich, it’s still a few days left of this year’s festival and just over 50 weeks until the next one. Have a great time!

2012-08-26

What beer culture?


Last night I went to a party here in Germany where most of the people were around 30 years old, in other words a year or two younger than I am. It was great fun – everyone was eating, drinking, chatting and dancing and the mood was relaxed and friendly. All in all very civilised, except for one thing: the beer selection.

It is quite common for the person hosting a party in Germany to also provide drinks – typically wine, a bit of bubbly, beer and various soft drinks. The worrying thing is that young Germans, despite being brought up with some of the best beer and greatest beer traditions in the world, seem to regard beer as just ordinary plonk, to be bought in bulk and required only to taste as little or as awful as possible. Quite often, the beer of choice is Beck’s, a beer which originates from Bremen in the far north of Germany, but which nowadays is owned by the world’s biggest brewing behemoth, namely AB InBev, or whatever they’re called this month after the latest round of mergers and acquisitions.

Beck’s is well-known for its pilsner, which is sold worldwide in small green bottles at ridiculous prices, but in Germany Beck’s also sells numerous other beer concoctions, including Beck’s Gold which is Germany’s attempt to emulate the tasteless big-selling brands from the USA, and some diabolical mixtures such as Beck’s Lime. The latter tastes so awful I wouldn’t even want to flush it down my toilet, since I think my toilet deserves better.

This saddens me a little bit. Germans are very conscious about environmental issues, and are in general a very illuminated lot who ought to know better. There are approximately 834 breweries in Germany that are closer to Konstanz than Beck’s, and although not all of these beers can easily be bought at the local supermarket, there are a few good local ones that are readily available. Why, then, is Beck’s so bloody popular down here in the south despite having travelled the best part of 1000km to get here?

I think the answer is twofold: first, there’s the ever-important marketing aspect and second, there’s the fact that despite Germany’s strong beer traditions there’s a distinct lack of beer culture, at least in this particular part of Germany. Beer remains an integral part of daily life here, but it’s a bit like a staple such as milk or bread – you buy a crate of beers which taste like beer and you drink it without thinking much about its taste and aroma, nor its heritage or whether it comes from a local family-run brewery or a big industrial plant outside Düsseldorf.

A typical local brewery making excellent beers
This is also reflected in the fact that Germany has a strange lack of beer festivals and associations that concern themselves with the preservation of beer traditions and styles. In Britain, for example, there’s the national CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) group with more than 130,000 members which has been phenomenally successful in first saving and then steadily increasing the popularity of the traditional British ales. CAMRA also runs the Great British Beer Festival as well as hundreds of local beer festivals where the focus is to showcase the range and variety of British beer on a local and national level. Germany, on the other hand, has the Octoberfest – certainly the most famous and biggest event in the world that is associated with beer. However, the focus is not the beer itself, but the drinking of it whilst slapping your thighs and singing drunken songs together with about five thousand other people in an enormous tent. In fact, only the six big traditional Munich breweries (three of which have merged anyway) are allowed to sell their beer at the festival, and they all taste more or less the same. It can be great fun to take part in this, but it is not a beer festival.

So what’s the conclusion? Germans are, I think, a little complacent. They still have a phenomenal variety of interesting beers and some of the best breweries in the world, but my impression is that this is just taken for granted. Meanwhile, many medium-sized local breweries that for centuries have served their local villages, towns and cities are giving up because of increasing costs and decreasing sales – not least, I think, because young Germans buy the trendy beer brands with added lime or grapefruit rather than the boring, local beers that their parents used to buy before they started drinking wine instead.

Founded in 1793, the Hirschenbrauerei serves just one tiny village, but for how long?
There is hope, though. Just like elsewhere in the world, new micro-breweries are opening up and starting to brew tasty and interesting beers, some even trying to resuscitate or improve traditional recipes. Sadly, there are none of these near me yet, so until one opens (or I open one myself) I will seek out the best local beers and bring them with me to parties, even if other people think I’m the biggest weirdo south of the Rhine for doing so. Well, I’m Norwegian, I’m weird, and I don’t care. At least I can enjoy a beer full of flavour and aroma, and perhaps even spark some interest amongst the other partygoers who notice my pleasurable slurps and  accompanying smile while they try to force down some god-awful mixture of beer, gunk and cauliflower invented by the marketing people in Bremen.


That’s it for now. Until next time, drink the local stuff. It might be good. Prost!

2012-06-04

Hupp hupp hurrah! The beer blogger is bock!

Germany is a great place to drink beer. First, there’s an insane number of breweries to try, second, the beer is really cheap and third, the beer is really good. However, the level of insanity reaches really crazy proportions when you go to Bavaria. There, the number of breweries per square inch is higher than anywhere in the world, the beer is cheaper and it’s also even better than in the rest of Germany. Then, just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any better, you may be lucky enough to stumble upon this slightly obscure part of Bavaria called Franconia. Yes, you guessed it – the density of breweries gets even higher, the beer gets even better and the prices, for some bizarre reason, are so low that you feel dizzy. Put simply, it’s the beer drinker’s heaven on Earth.

Centred on the beautiful city of Bamberg, itself sporting no less than 9 breweries that work tirelessly to quench the thirst of the 70,000 or so inhabitants, the region has more than 200 breweries that invariably brew really high quality beer. Add this to the fact that the region is very picturesque and easy to get around on the beer lover’s best mode of transport, namely the bike, and you have a great recipe for a very long holiday.

Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to go there for several years now, so I was extremely grateful when a friend and loyal follower of this blog did the second best thing to bringing me to Franconia  – he brought Franconia to me. In fact, he brought back 4 lovely bottles from the Huppendorfer brewery in Huppendorf, a village so small it could fit comfortably onto a beer mat.

A huppy pils
To stretch the enjoyment, I have been drinking the beers one at the time, and I shall follow this strategy of enjoyment prolongation by reporting on them one at the time. First out was the Pils. This is a beer the Germans seldom get spectacularly wrong (unlike most of the rest of the world), but conversely it’s also one that is seldom very memorable. I was therefore not surprised, but nevertheless strangely pleased, to find that this beer was good, but not fantastic. It had a decent amount of hop character, a good balance and contained plenty of refreshment. In summary, a promising start.
A fantastic vollbier

Next out was the Vollbier. Now those who have experienced Franconia will nod knowingly at this point, because the Vollbier is in many ways the region’s specialty. It’s a medium dark and quite malty, and beautifully balanced with the hops to create a beer that satisfies every conceivable organ in your body and probably a few you didn’t even know existed. It’s not a beer I want to drink all the time, but whenever I get one it leaves me with exactly the same feeling I imagine art lovers get when they visit Florence for the first time.
A zippy zwickl

Then it was time for the Zwickl. For those unfamiliar with this style, it’s normally an unfiltered beer that is otherwise not dissimilar to a pils or a helles. I like Zwickl quite a lot for the same reason I like to throw herbs and spices into all the food I cook – it’s tasty. The unfilteredness of the beer means that a lot of taste, which the world’s big brewers spend a lot of time and effort getting rid of, gets left in the beer and it ends up tasting the opposite of bland, which is dnalb. So, basically a bit like the Pils but with more hoppy spiciness on the palate.

The fourth beer is the Weizen, which I’m saving for a sunny day. So perhaps I’ll report on that another time. For now, I am just pleased to have managed to write another blog entry, Google knows that I haven’t been doing much of that lately. I’ve got loads of ideas for new posts though, so watch this space. Meanwhile, why don’t you plan your next 3-4 summer holidays by checking out the relevant web resources for Franconia. Bamberg is a great place to start, and should be on the itinerary of any person vaguely interested in enjoying the world’s favourite drink. Then you can rent a bike and go bumming around the countryside to marvel at all the lovely barley ripening in the balmy summer wind, and whenever you come across a village that you’ve never heard of, chances are that there will be a tiny little brewery with a nice beer garden outside where you can quench your thirst whilst you think how good life is and how unbelievably more complicated this sentence would be if you had to stick the verb at the end, like Germans do. Well, nobody’s perfect.