Hoppy days are here again

After several excursions to faraway lands I thought the time was ripe to return to matters closer to home, and the topic of this blog post is therefore a lovely plant that to a greater or lesser extent is present in every serious beer in production today. You can’t smoke it, you can’t eat it, you can’t make love to it, but you definitely can drink it. I’m talking about one of the key ingredients in beer, in fact one of the four allowed under the German purity law from 1516. Known as Humulus Lupulus in Latin and as Humle in the other world language (Norwegian), in English it ain’t skips, it ain’t jumps, but it sure is hops.

To most people, the humble hop is something that’s known to be present in beer, but isn’t really a great concern when beer is being purchased. Whereas the sugar or fat content of most foodstuffs is almost always listed in considerable detail on the label, most drinkers don’t know, or don’t care, what particular hops go into their favourite brew, or in what amounts. The fact that the vast majority of breweries can’t be bothered to print this basic information on the label clearly does not help. In fact, quite a few of the world’s biggest brewers would rather keep this information secret, partly to protect their ancient recipes, but mostly to avoid having to reveal how little they actually bother to add. This is just plain wrong, and has to change right now. I suggest that you all write to your local Member of Parliament, Senator, Governor or Dictator and ask him or her to change the consumer laws immediately. Whilst we wait for this long-overdue change, I will supply you with some mildly interesting facts.

Hops are the spices of beer. Whereas malt provides the body, hops add that little extra that makes all the difference. First and foremost, the refreshing bitterness in the beer comes from the hops, and the general rule is that the more the brewer adds, the bitterer the beer will be. Additionally, this wonderful plant increases the beer’s microbiological stability – in other words, acts as a preservative – and stabilizes the foam to boot. However, the story does not end there. There are a huge number of different varieties that impart subtly different spicy flavours in the beer, and many skilful brewers use a combination of hops to arrive at the desired taste profile of the finished product, much in the same way a master chef blends herbs and spices to perfect a recipe.

No prizes for guessing what this plant's called in Norwegian
Hops are grown in many temperate climates around the world, and some of the most famous hop varieties are named after the region from which they originate: Zatec (also known by its German name Saaz), Hallertau and Tettnang are some of the best known. The fact that the biggest hop growing regions are found in the south of Germany is evident whenever you watch a big sporting event, such as downhill skiing, from this region. Whenever the athlete passes by, the audience will start to scream "hop hop hop", which is a direct encouragement for the athlete to go faster since the top prize is typically a half litre of the hoppiest local beer. Well, that's what I like to think, anyway.

In the last few years, decades of research and development has gone into creating new hop varieties, resulting in lots of new ones – many from the New World – where unusual flavour components dominate, resulting in exciting tastes such as pineapple, citrus, black pepper and aniseed, to name but a few. Together, all of these varieties can be used by adventurous brewers to create crazy concoctions that taste very unlike the standard stuff you knew you had to learn to like when you were a spotty teenager.

With such an array of incredible tastes available to the brewers of the world, it may come as a surprise to you that the vast majority of the beer on the shelves in shops and bars contains very little. There is actually a measurement scale for the bitterness of beer, known as the International Bitterness Units (IBUs). A bland, international mass market lager typically has only 5-10 IBUs, whereas a good pilsner from a worthwhile brewery typically has around 30. Pale ales are higher still, and then we have the IPAs and double-IPAs where the IBU scale is being pushed towards the 100 mark. Some of the most extreme variants should be treated with care, as you’re unlikely to taste anything else for the next couple of weeks after finishing the bottle.

Now why am I suddenly writing about this topic? Well, the reason is that my local supermarket has started stocking a new beer, and it may not surprise you to hear that it’s a tasty, bitter one. What may surprise you is that this beer comes from one of the biggest breweries in Germany, and what may actually shock you is that, for once, I am going to write something positive about a big brand. The brewery is Warsteiner, and the beer is simply called “Herb” – which is actually German for bitter, dry or tart. It seems that what’s happened is that someone high up in the brewery’s hierarchy decided that the general public is getting a little bit tired with the same anonymous pilsners all the time. The standard Warsteiner is drinkable enough – if it wasn’t, they’d have to export it all – but tastes more or less the same as the other 6 or 7 major brands in Germany. The solution was astonishingly simple: double the amount of hops, change the colour of the label to green and attach the “Herb” brand, and hey presto – we have hop-off. Having tried not one, but eleven whole bottles of this stuff I can attest to the fact that it’s a vast improvement, and I hope that other brewers will take notice and follow suit.

This turned out to be quite a lecture! You now know more about hops than you ever knew was worth knowing, presumably because you mistakenly believed that beer was a simple drink. Well, we can all be wrong from time to time (though I’m not sure I’m right about that), so you can do a couple of things to make amends. For example, the next time you’re in a bar or a pub, ask the barman where the different beers are on the IBU scale. Then ask him what particular hops go into the different brews. There’s little point asking a third question since you will have been thrown out by now, but you have made a start: slowly but surely the hop-ignorant masses will learn, absorb and start to care, at which point the world will truly be a much hoppier place. Now go and have a beer. Cheers!


Alt for Norge!

Those of you who understand some Norwegian will have no problems deciphering the title of this blog post, whereas those of you who don’t may think I’ve gone mad. What is he on about, this weird blogger from the northern lands who has settled amongst the Germanic peoples in the centre of Europe? Well, dear bleaders (that’s blog readers in one word to save time, but since I have to then spend dozens of words explaining what the heck it means then perhaps it would have been better to write it out properly in two words in the first place), it will all be revealed in due course. Read on, and ye shall learn.

My last blog post was a big rant about the forthcoming Norwegian election. Well, the election came, said “screw you, Norway!”, and left. As predicted, a large number of parties are now represented in the rather modest parliament building in Oslo known as the Storting, and, as also predicted, they all still hate beer. The only interesting thing is that the on-going negotiations to form a government between four parties covering the political spectrum from around the middle to pretty right-wing, involve the party that hates beer the most and the one that hates beer the least. I suggested that they resolve their differences by having a giant beer drinking competition, but apparently they don’t take an emigrated Norwegian who blogs in English from Germany seriously, despite all the dozens of readers of his blog.

Anyway, back to the title. “Alt for Norge” is actually the Norwegian King’s slogan, and most gullible Norwegians (i.e. most Norwegians) are lead to believe that it means something like “Everything for Norway”, seemingly not very contentious for someone who’s the nominal head of state and descends from a long line of Brits, Danes and other non-Norwegians. The problem is that I have, since deciding that beer is the greatest drink on the planet and moving to Germany, discovered the truth about the slogan: it actually translates as “Alt for Norway”. And we’re not talking about any old “alt”, we’re talking about the famous beer from Düsseldorf: Alt, which is short for Altbier. Clearly, what the Norwegian king really wants is for the Düsseldorf breweries to export more of their stuff to Norway. And, to be fair, who can blame him?

I’ve briefly mentioned Altbier before in my now legendary blog post about Cologne. As I mentioned there, a very strong rivalry exists between the people of these neighbouring cities along the Rhine, especially when it comes to beer. Order an Altbier in Cologne and you’ll end up in the Rhine with something heavy tied to your feet. Order a Kölsch in Düsseldorf and you’ll end up on the train to Cologne, and by “on the train” I mean on top of the train with the overhead wire around your neck. It’s not the type of mistake you make twice.

Füchschen - "small fox" - a very nice, tasty Alt.
Personally, I like them both – of course I do. Both are top-fermented, so in English terms that means they’re ales, and both tend to be served in rather small, straight glasses when you order them in the pub. However, that’s where the similarities end, because while Kölsch is light in colour, slightly fruity, hoppy and supremely refreshing, Alt is fairly dark, malty, full-bodied and supremely satisfying. The two beer styles are, in other words, very different indeed, even though they originate only a few dozen miles from each other.

Düsseldorf has, just like Cologne, a bunch of brewery pubs in the city centre where you can try the local specialty, and these tend to be a lot better than the stuff churned out by the big breweries that have been bought out by you-know-who (no, not Voldemort - the other, more evil one). To truly enjoy Altbier, you have to either get a good friend from Düsseldorf to bring a few bottles along, or simply go there yourself. Düsseldorf may have a really funny name, especially since “dorf” means village, but it’s a nice enough city with an old town, a great big river, a dodgy airport and a lot of pubs. When you’re wandering around looking for good beer, you may want to look for “Füchschen”, “Uerige” and “Schumacher”, all of which are very good and currently well represented in my fridge, unlike the political parties of Norway.

Uerige Alt - darker and maltier than Füchschen, and my favourite.
I don’t know which of these pubs is the Norwegian king’s favourite, but I guess it can’t be that hard to figure it out – just look for the old geezer sat in a corner having a great time with a crown on his head and a couple of discreet body guards. Thinking of our dear king, I am certainly of the opinion that Norway should ditch democracy and its overpopulated parliament and reinstate the good old absolute monarchy. Then, instead of the large number of crappy political parties in the Storting, there could just be one hell of a party with loads of beer. The king could then change his slogan every week or so – “Kölsch for Norway”, “Pils for Norway”, “IPA for Norway”, and so on – and I think it’s safe to say that the general population would be a lot hoppier than what’s currently the case. On this hopful note I shall once again bid you farewell and wish you all a fantastic time in Düsseldorf, and please give my beeriest regards to the king when you bump into him. Skål!


The Norwegian Rant

Well, dear readers, it’s come to this. I’ve had enough. I need to let out steam. Therefore, I shall proceed to write a blog entry about my home and native land, which happens to be Norway. If you have no idea where this might be, here’s a tip: look for a smallish ultra-rich country stuck up in the very north of Europe, most of it so far north that you wonder why anyone would want to live there, because it’s windy and cold for most of the year, especially in summer, except in good summers, and the skiing is much better in the Alps. That’s not the point. The point is: on September 9th this year, the people of Norway who have the right to vote (myself included despite the fact I’ve lived abroad for almost 18 years) will elect a new parliament, which is likely to include at least 6, possibly as many as 9 different political parties, all of which seemingly agree on only one single issue: beer is the root of all evil. 

Norway has a fairly proud brewing heritage. Sure, in comparison with the great brewing nations in Europe it’s not much to drink about, but there used to be many small, family-owned breweries dotted around the county that would brew half-decent beers to quench the thirst of the populace, at affordable prices. That is, until the politicians decided that beer is evil, and raised taxes to such eye-watering levels that today you’re lucky to get a half litre of beer for less than 10 euros in a bar or a restaurant. To put this into perspective: I just had a pizza AND a beer in my local German restaurant, conveniently located in the neighbouring building. The total bill was 8 euros, though to be fair this is slightly cheaper than the average for Germany. In the shops in Norway, the cheapest half-litre can of beer will set you back about 3 euros. I just bought a can of pretty decent German beer for 39 cents. You see my pint: somewhere, something is wrong and that’s not right.

To add insult to injury, the Norwegian politicians have decided that the breweries are not allowed to provide information about their various beers on the web. Unsurprisingly, Carlsberg and Heineken think this rule is fantastic, because internet-savvy Norwegians have discovered that they can easily reach foreign-hosted web sites by typing in a web address that’s doesn’t end in “.no”, whereas the Norwegian breweries cannot even display a picture of a glass of beer on their sites. This makes absolutely .no sense, and it makes me somewhat angry. To be fair, I think the world, and possibly even Norway, has greater problems, but since I’m perhaps ever so slightly above averagely interested in beer it makes my blood boil at whichever temperature blood boils (which reminds me that I need to look this information up).

There have been positive developments. Enterprising individuals have succeeded in opening up microbreweries that brew interesting beers of various types, and some of them are very good. These beers are so expensive that they single-handedly have caused a shift in the Norwegian beer drinking culture: it’s now socially acceptable to buy only one or two of these and call it an evening, since you’ve made a massive dent in your bank account anyway. My feelings towards this are ambivalent, though I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

Nevertheless, the fact is that most Norwegians regard beer as something to get you drunk on the weekend, and not a nice drink that you can drink after exercise or when you’re heading home on the train after a hard day’s work. Sure, this attitude is also slowly shifting, but my point is that this is despite, and certainly not because of, the politicians’ anti-beer legislation over the last 30 years.

OK, so this does perhaps sound like a luxury problem, I admit. With climate change, over-population, poverty and war rampant all over the planet, a great big rant about the Norwegian beer situation seems to somehow fade into insignificance. This, of course, could be wrong. Just like a butterfly that flaps its tiny little wings somewhere in the Pacific could cause a gale in Ireland 12 days later, the complexity of the world is such that the insane Norwegian anti-beer legislation could directly or indirectly cause all the world’s problems – which makes it even more important that the voters in Norway turn out for the election. Shame there isn’t a party to vote for, since they all hate beer. There’s probably even a law banning the sale of beer on Election Day. On this depressing note, I shall bid you all a fond beerwell and crack open a bottle of my favourite brew, which will probably lift my spirit level and cause me to horizontally regret posting this negative drivel. Cheers!


Bikes, beer and Bavaria!

Bavaria, or Bayern as this part of Germany is known in the native language, has it all, with the possible exception of a coastline. Big bustling cities, small charming towns, snaking rivers, non-snaking canals, tall mountains, refreshing lakes, cycle-friendly roads, non-smoking legislation and lively folk-fests on a weekly basis – what more could you ask for? Well, there’s beer of course. Luckily, Bavaria has more of that than anywhere else on this planet as well as all other planets I’m aware of. So why do people go to Italy on holiday instead? Because people are stupid, that’s why.

I’ve spent most of the last couple of weeks inside the “Free State of Bavaria”, as it’s known to the locals. It might technically be part of Germany, but only because the locals choose this out of their own free will, you understand. This is very important. Should Berlin try and impose some restrictions on the Bavarians that they don’t like, you can safely assume that Europe will gain another independent nation before you can say “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän”.

There’s an on-going debate as to where the beer-drinker’s heaven on earth is actually located. Some say Belgium. Others say the Czech Republic. Nobody says Iran. I say Bavaria. Mostly because of the fact that in this state alone, there are more than 600 operational breweries that fuel the aforementioned folk-fests and other jolly occasions such as Tuesdays. The vast majority of these breweries are several hundred years old, family-owned, and – not surprisingly – very traditional. This does mean that there’s a certain predictability as to what you will get when you order a beer – almost all have a portfolio consisting of a very drinkable pilsner, an very quaffable helles (light lager), a rich and malty dunkles (dark lager) and a fruity wheat beer. In addition, many also have a Landbier or Vollbier, which is an amber, malty and full-bodied beer.

My lovely wife and I went on a cycling trip through Bavaria a couple of weeks ago. As mentioned in previous blog posts, cycling and beer is a great combination. First and foremost, cycling makes you thirsty, especially on a hot summer’s day. Second and middlemost, you can cover relatively large distances on a bike, so you can visit several breweries in a day. Third and lastmost, a bit of pedalling between breweries means that you sober up sufficiently to avoid risking your own or anybody else’s life due to the combination of your mode of transport and the state of your mental awareness. In other words, with a little bit of planning you can easily visit 4-5 breweries during a happy day of relaxed cycling and even live to tell the tale.

We chose to start our trip in Frankfurt. Not because this is a lovely, charming city (it isn’t), nor because it’s got great beer (it hasn’t), but because it’s got a massive train station that has direct connections from everywhere except Iceland. By following the river Main, which is a tributary to the slightly more well-known river Rhine, you very quickly cross the border into Bavaria – and not just any part of Bavaria, but Franconia, which is where they make loads of wine, until you move a bit further upstream to the region around Bamberg and those nasty vineyards disappear and they start making beer instead.

Small brewery with beer garden

I shan’t describe in detail each and every brewery we visited, since they numbered 42 by the end of the 9th day in the saddle. There’s a photo of my good self in front of each and every one, but since drinking at all of them would have been somewhat suicidal, especially on the day we visited 11, I’ll limit this blog post to more general observations. Here they are:

1) Most breweries are very small and supply the drinkers at only a handful of pubs, or even just the one where the brewery is situated. In this respect they are similar to modern microbreweries. The main difference is that the vast majority of these breweries have been handed down about a dozen generations of a family with the name Schnausenfutter (or similar), and are therefore typically several hundred years old.

2) The majority of these breweries are found in very small towns or villages where there’s very little sign of life, and a surprising number of these have two or more, often within a few bottle lengths of each other.

3) Each brewery with respect for itself has its own Bierkeller (beer cellar), where people drink in summer. You may think this sounds strange. That’s because it is. What happened was that the brewers needed a cool place to store (lager) their beers, which they found in small underground caves at the local hill – the cellars. Then, the thirsty local people would be drawn like dehydrated magnets to the hill, demanding fresh beer. The brewer, sensing a business opportunity, duly planted a couple of massive trees to provide shade, put up some tables and some chairs, and the rest is history.

4) The beer is, without exception, very good and sometimes absolutely wonderful.

One of the larger ones
Of course, there are plenty of other things to see and do in Bavaria as well. However, since this is a beer blog, I’ll just encourage you to read a travel blog if you crave details on museums, art and outdoor pursuits other than sitting in the beer garden. Meanwhile, you could do worse than cancelling your planned trip to Italy next summer and going to Bamberg instead, which is arguably the beeriest town in the world, being host to no fewer than 9 breweries, including ones that brew beers that taste like bacon, ideal for breakfast. The real treasure is the land that surrounds Bamberg, though, where the main output of most brewers is a malty amber lager that tastes so good that it makes you want to drink nothing else for the rest of your life, which in which case would be happy and short, though considering the number of old fellows seemingly spending all day in the bar, perhaps the opposite is true. The fact that the price of a half litre of this amber treasure is around two euros also means that your holiday budget will stretch very far.

In conclusion, Bavaria should be a mandatory stop on every beer lover’s agenda, and just attending Oktoberfest in Munich does not count. Visiting in summer is recommended, since the shady trees of the Bierkeller provide the ideal environment in which to enjoy a half litre or nine. There’s still time this year, so off you go! See you there - I’ll be the one in the corner with the sweatiest bike and the happiest smile.