Thursday, October 12, 2017

Berliner Weisse, Brett, and a Kürbislagerbier.

There is a lot of hype that inflates the reputation of "craft beer" in Berlin. Much of it is insular and unjustified, where quality is concerned (and some of the better stuff is not brewed in Berlin at all).

Meanwhile, the trendy set tend to overlook the longer-established local breweries.

Lemke is an obvious example here. Oli Lemke started at Hackescher Markt in 1999 by making loads of different styles on a wee brewpub kit --  In that sense he was ahead of his time in Berlin -- but soon settled on a few types that sold reliably to locals and tourists. The variety-beer trend kicked in much later, and Lemke got back into things like IPA, imperial stout... and very recently, after years of tinkering, a proper Berliner weisse.

Another Berlin brewery too often overlooked is Brewbaker, despite the fact that founder Micha Schwab has contract brewed for -- or rented out his kit to -- some of the local upstarts. Schwab jokes that he has "the world's worst marketing since 2005."

Like the much newer Schneeeule (which also rented his kit for a while), Schwab makes a Berliner weisse whose mixed-culture fermentation includes brettanomyces along with lactic bacteria. So does Lemke's new one, incidentally. It's become conventional wisdom here that an authentic Berliner weisse needs to have brett in it. Schwab was doing that before it was cool.

If the Schneeeule beers are bretty in the way that IPAs are hoppy -- they can punch you in the face with funk, very enjoyable to those of us that like that sort of thing -- Brewbaker's weisse is more elegant in the way of a finely tuned pils or pale ale. The beer is tart, lemony and dry, and the brett is relatively subtle, like cellar must in the backdrop. Schwab, who opened a few bottles for us Tuesday at the Bar Convent trade show, said that the brett is "stinkiest" after about six months in the bottle. But personally I found it more pronounced, with more "horseblanket" aroma, in the 2013 Jahrgangsweisse he uncorked than in the 2017 version.

The other one I couldn't pass up is Brewbaker's Pumpkin Lager. Living abroad the past 11+ years, I don't get drowned in pumpkin spice beers this time of year like those back in the US. I figure I'm missing out on a dubious cultural experience. This was an enjoyable beer, pale like a pils, with spice in the nose and flavor but not overly done, with enough bitterness to more than balance it out. Schwab said the mash is 10 percent pumpkin, which he buys whole and cooks himself first. Also notable: All his beers are organic these days.

Thanks to this decrepit old blog I learned that nine years ago I missed drinking his Pumpkin Lager by a only few days. Back in 2008 on a trip to Berlin my wife and I twice visited pub he had started in 2005, under the railway arches at the Bellevue S-Bahn station. We enjoyed the food and beers immensely, though he only had a pils and dunkel on that week.

These days you can find Brewbaker near the Buesselstraße S-Bahn station, with beer for purchase during office hours (Mo-Fr 09.00-17.30). You can also find the beers at several shops and pubs around town.

However, I don't notice them as often as I'd like.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Beer Awards: Poke at Them.

There are more beer firms than we can fit into the next edition of Good Beer Guide Belgium. By "beer firms," I mean those marketing offices that sell brands but are not breweries -- though some of them are happy for us, the consumers, to assume that they do have one. They are happy for us to assume all sorts of things.

That's a hobby-horse issue for me and I could go on at length. Today I'd rather hone in on beer awards.

One of those many Belgian beer firms is Tripick. Their office address is Boncelles, just southwest of Liège. I'd never heard of them -- they are new, and there are hundreds of these little firms -- until someone mentioned they were "the" "Belgium Winner" in the World Beer Awards. You can go to the website and see. They post the golden logo on the front page. Scroll down to the news section and you'll see the headline, "Tripick elected as best Belgian beer." If you look closer or read the article you'll learn that they won the "categories Lager and Strong."

(Disclosure: This year I was one of the WBA judges at a first-round session in Germany, and a few years ago I was one of the judges for the final round in London.)

Let's clear up a few things. Tripick won only one category --  Lager: Strong -- and only for Belgium. (See the country winners here. They are legion.) There were 1,900 entries from 36 countries in the 2017 World Beer Awards. There are 71 style categories in the WBA, and it's possible for any brand from any country to enter any of those categories.

How many Belgian entries do you suppose there were for the Strong Lager category? I asked. They said it was confidential. My guess: very few. Maybe only two -- Tripick Blonde and Tripel -- since there were no medals given at all, and no other awards given in that category for Belgium.

A couple of things must be said: If you are looking for great beers to try, you could do much worse than peruse the list of WBA's international winners, here. A beer doesn't get that far without technical quality, a winning personality, and some luck.

Also: I've never encountered a Tripick beer in the wild, so I've never tried it. They might be amazing, I can't say. It has existed for less than a year.

But there are things I can say. The brand sells two beers, Blonde (6%) and Tripel (8%). Both are top-fermented -- not lagers, so why did they enter that category? -- and bottle-conditioned. The levels of bitterness sound right up my alley, probably more balanced than the usual, sweet-ish tripels and blonds. There are a few technical specs on the website, plus all sorts of promo materials you could download, if you were into that, but nowhere on the website does it say where the beer is actually brewed. Sadly this is standard operating procedure for many of Belgium's beer firms.

Ratebeer lists Tripick as a "client brewer," with the beers made at 3 Fourquets (which recently changed names to Lupulus to match its beers). Using the contact form on the Tripick website, I wrote them about a week ago to ask. I haven't heard back yet, but I'll update this if I hear back.

(Another disclosure: I have admin privileges at Ratebeer, so I can help to keep the Belgian stuff accurate. But generally the two Belgian admins they have are so on top of things that there is not much for me to do.)

Lupulus, led by Achouffe co-founder Pierre Gobron and his sons, is in my view one of the best breweries in Belgium. It has gradually improved its spicily-hopped, technically excellent beers over the years, and they were already good when they debuted a decade ago. If I were hiring them to brew the brand I was selling, I would boast about it. Lupulus is not likely to let a bad beer escape its gates. If they are brewing Tripick, that says much more to me about the beer than the "award."

About beer awards: The cynical view holds that they are really for brewers and marketing folks, not for consumers.

That's not a view I want to hold. Given the immense variety of beer we have these days -- much of it overpriced, much of it mediocre, some of it poorly made -- taking a look at reputable beer awards can be a useful way to cut through the bullshit and identify beers that in all likelihood are worth trying.

But does anybody do it that way?

I like to think about an imaginary shopper in the beer aisle, checking the labels to see if there is a gold or silver of this or that award competition stuck on there. If the prize is there, and only if the prize is there, the shopper will buy it, because that's how he or she knows it's a really good beer.

Why do I like to think about this shopper? Because it makes me laugh. It's absurd. Nobody does that.

I mean, it's plausible that someone iffy on whether to buy a beer sees that award on the label or website, and that information provides the final nudge that gets that beer into the shopping cart. More likely: We peruse lists of awards for breweries that we know or that are in our backyard, or possibly for the styles that we drink most often, for a couple of ideas on what to hunt. Then, maybe, we remember to keep our eyes out for it. Maybe.

But there are oodles of these competitions now -- some of them very well organized, some more mysterious, some international, some more local -- and I have to imagine it's increasingly difficult for typical drinkers to care or even notice them. In the absence of information, award inflation has devalued the prizes.

That is not to say that consumers can't use them for good. It would be helpful to identify the strongest competitions. Find out how many entries each competition gets, and from how broad a base in terms of geography and brewery size, and then look at how many prizes they give out in the end. I don't know what the percentage of prizes-to-entries ought to be. But it ought to be small. (And to the credit of the WBA, at the international level there is only one award for each style category.)

Another thought: Shops or pubs are in a position to know more about which awards and ratings are serious enough to be useful as recommendations. Tagging the shelves could help sell better beer to those who hunt it.

And this should go without saying, but if you see an award plastered on a label, website, or a brewery's office walls, don't take it for granted. Interrogate it. Looking at the fine print might tell you something about the quality of the beer. Or it might say more about those doing the boasting.


*First pic of a Lupulus, not confirmed to be the brewery that makes Tripick but it probably is.
**Second pic of the Brussels Beer Challenge, which in my view (biased, as a frequent judge there) is a world-class competition.
***More disclosures: WBA paid me a small stipend for judging a few years ago and covered my train ticket to Hamburg this year. Brussels Beer Challenge usually pays for my hotel room but not travel expenses. Airfare is cheap so I rationalize it as research and education. But also it's fun to do.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Beautiful Things: De Troch Oude Kriek.

Surprisingly dark in color, deep like burgundy or blood, absolutely plump with fleshy cherry, under-girded by the rustic funk of proper lambic. Redolent of lemon, cherry, almond, amaretto -- those from the cherries -- and oak, musty old bookshop, dusty old stable -- those from the lambic. Sourish but not puckering, its acidity checked by lush cherry, drying out to a lingering fruity-vinegar tang.

An astounding beer.

If that doesn't surprise you as much as it surprised me, I should explain: Two of the worst drinks I've ever experienced came from that old lambic brewery known as De Troch.

One of them would be Chapeau Banana. It tastes to me like soda pop made from candy made from banana essence made from -- somewhere farther down the line, perhaps -- actual bananas, badly overripe. You should try it! What an experience.

The other would be De Troch's actual unblended lambic poured from casks at the brewery. This was a decade ago as part of the Toer de Geuze. This young-ish amber liquid was either badly flawed or simply in those awkward stages of metamorphosis where one should never, ever walk in on what's happening. It reeked badly of cooked, rotting vegetables. (In retrospect, the smell might have been mercaptan, a nasty compound produced by some anaerobic bacteria.) 

I've talked to enough lambic brewers, blenders, enthusiasts and know-it-alls over the years to realize, eventually, that I was unlucky (in the second instance). Most of them regard the base lambic at De Troch pretty highly these days, even if they look the other way with the jokey fruit beers.

Even so, I can't help but take it with a fat grain of salt whenever people praise the more austere, traditional 'Oude' beers coming out of Wambeek -- the Chapeau Cuvée, a.k.a. De Troch Oude Gueuze, and the De Troch Oude Kriek, the latter of which re-appeared in 2015 after nudging from U.S. importers. It says '2014' on the bottle because that's when they brewed the base lambic.

Anyway, I grabbed a bottle at Dranken Geers last month. Popped it open a few nights ago. Some like to sit on their fruit lambics a while and see how they evolve. I say, drink 'em if you got 'em.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Is Berlin Over-saturated with Craft Beer? Only in Parts.

My educated guess is that Berlin can handle plenty more variety-beer bars... but not if they all keep opening in the same few neighborhoods. Maybe you can spot some of these symptoms in parts of your own cities.

Another cool beer bar seems to open every other week. Is this new bar going to attract new people? Or is it hoping to share the same drinkers with all the other bars?

Faux-Coney-Island-frito-pie-hipster bar the Pier in Mitte shut not long ago (after Brewdog opened nearby, notably), but I can't think of too many others that have closed. More will close, no doubt, but many more will arrive. So my pessimism just is a hunch, based on some anecdotal observations:

1. You go to these new bars and see the same people you saw at the less-new ones. Are they still going to all the other ones?

2. Often they're not very crowded.

3. Many bars try to saturate the calendar with special events, which smells of desperation. Would people not want to go to them otherwise? Why not?

4. There are finite limits to the number of people who will spend a bit extra on variety beer, how much beer they can drink, and the number of places they can visit in an evening or a week.

5. Most of these bars are concentrated in the same few neighborhoods, all roughly on the eastern side of the Berlin map.

It's that last point that sticks out to me most, because I am a selfish hedonist and I live on the western side of the map. Thing is, so do lots of other people -- people with money who like to drink beer.

Like us. Most of the time we are content with our well-stocked fridge and proximity to Foersters, which for my money and particular taste is the best pub in town. But when we're feeling daffy we hire a kid-sitter and ride an hour-plus on the train each way -- more than two hours of the evening counted already, money in the sitter's pocket -- to get over to Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain or Prenzi.

Hey, nothing like a romantic pub crawl.

That's what we did weekend before last: Munched on salty-lime peanuts and tasted Mexican-inspired house brews at Tentacion Craft Beer/Mezcalothek -- lovely beers, balanced, well-made, and adequately smacking of the agave (Mala Vida) and corn (Gualicho) that went into them; stopped into cozy, antlered Friedrichs Wirtschaft for a Rittmayer Kellerbier and promised to come back sometime for the food; popped by the Getränkefeinkost shop to say hello and walk round the block with hoppy cold ones (me a Zinnebir, her a Lemke Spree Coast IPA); tried the new bar across the street called Protokoll with 24 taps -- we didn't even know it existed -- where she did a sour-sweet pairing thing with BRLO beers while I enjoyed a Weiherer Keller-Pils; had quickies at Hops & Barley, reliably some of the best beer in Berlin; looked in on Home, rather snug with the upholstery but chasing us away with iffy avant-garde live music; ate some late-night Sudanese, which is a thing, and is characterized chiefly by lakes of peanut sauce, and I am cool with that; and finally to the last spot of the evening, easily my favorite, called Victoria Stadler.

Sometime maybe I'll go back and scribble notes to craft a wordier post about this one bar, but here is the gist: it's a dark, affordable Eckneipe (locals' corner pub) that only pours Schönramer beers -- the Pils being a special favorite of mine. Now, you may or may not know that Schönram is waaayyyy down in southern Bavaria, near Berchtesgaden and the Austrian border. Its beers show up in Berlin but to find a pub totally devoted to Schönramer here is a strange and wonderful thing to me. (My impression is that Schönramer have something like a cult following soon to get less cult-ish; they just picked up three golds and a bronze at the rather competitive European Beer Star awards.)

Sadly, it's an hour and 15 minutes for me to get to Victoria Stadler by train. And it's there among a thousand other bars. The saturation is good for pub crawling, obviously. But that's not how most people do pubs, most of the time.

About the western Berlin beer spots: BRLO, Foersters and Vagabund, among others, appear to be doing quite well. Lots of people in those places, and not the same faces you see in the places out east. Upmarket craft-beer-and-sausage restaurant Meisterstück just opened a second restaurant on Ku'damm. That one is well backed, and I reckon they've done their market-research homework.

Berlin is a sprawling city of neighborhoods, you see, and the western ones are far from saturated. There's my counsel, should you be looking to open a Berlin bar specializing in fancy variety beer.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Long Road to a Fine (Belgian) Pils.

Once upon a time I remember telling myself: Hey, a blog post doesn't have to be about anything important. It only has to be daily. You can throw any old nonsense up there. It will be fine. Just keep it going.

Fine, fine. So I see my last blog post was in January 2016. No biggie, only eight months, wait... [blows dust off of calendar] Shit. Twenty months ago. In that time my wife and I had seven children, they all grew up and moved out of the house, I earned two additional useless college degrees to bring the total collection to 17, I grew rich on royalties, pissed it all away on donuts and cognac, grew three beards, and even read a book. Dog is still here though. Old damn dog, pees on the rug more than he used to, back in January 2016. Time is trippy, that feels like only 19 months ago. But no, says here it was 20.

I have about a million things about Belgium to share. Notebooks full of stuff, hundreds upon hundreds of photos. I aim to do something useful and (spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch) profitable with them. Oh, and half a million things about Germany, especially Berlin (where I live) and Franconia (where I hope to retire). And too many odds and ends about other places I have managed to go, thanks to a tolerant spouse and the magic of discount airfares. I aim to regurgitate some of it here in the sort of beautifully unrefined form that takes, I hope, very little time each morning. Lots of not-very-well-thought-out jokes too, inevitably.

Well, here is a moment I wanted to share. It happened, as so many fine moments do, on a Wednesday. Five weeks ago to be precise, though it feels like only four and a half. This was toward the end of a long-ish day in the middle of a long-ish week of visiting as many Belgian cafés as possible. This was all, as you might have guessed, for the next edition of the Good Beer Guide Belgium. We are about a month away from deadline on that. Look for fresh copies of it in spring 2018, if nothing goes awry. It's the best book on Belgian beer that I know, and also the most useful guidebook I know, but I admit I'm biased.

No really, it's awfully fucking good. Anyway.

I got to more than 90 cafés that week. Also 10 breweries and four museums. Sounds like a hoot, right? Well, it is! But not like you imagine. Most of this is by car, self-driven. That means drinking a lot of coffee and water (I like the fizzy kind). Later on, once I've earned it, I may indulge in a small, lighter beer while still touring. That's what happened here, in a village called Dikkelvenne, along a cycle path near the river Scheldt, about 15 crooked miles south of Ghent. (Later on, once I get to where I'm staying for the night, a few more beers are inevitable -- maybe at a nearby pub, maybe with local friends, or maybe sitting in a room with the manuscript, tasting from bottles picked up along the way.)

This café is called the Rotse, and it's the lovely sort of simple country pub at which Belgium seems to excel. This one is not loaded down with tacky beery bric-a-brac -- though I enjoy that -- but instead is neatly appointed like Grandma's house out in the country: white walls, antique wooden furnishings, a few select pictures hung. It has all the beers from Contreras of Gavere, so we call it an "unofficial brewery tap." I like these. I'm not sure why anyone would want to visit a brewery when they could visit an atmospheric local café where all the beers are enjoyed in their proper setting -- the local culture from which they sprouted. But then, I've toured hundreds of breweries and I get bored with them. They are all a bit different and yet they're all the same. I don't seem to get bored with visiting cafés/bars/pubs. You can learn a lot in either sort of place.

So here I am out on the front terrace, on the small crossroads. This is where a poshy-quasi-suburban area near Gavere finishes leaking out into cow pastures and bike paths near the Scheldt. A few of the punters drive here, as I did, but several more arrive on bike or foot. I'm the only foreigner (I think) and the staff are not friendly -- this aloofness is so normal in rural Flemish cafés, and in Berlin for that matter, that it doesn't bother me anymore -- so it's mostly old fellers drinking and laughing and chatting, all in Flemish. There are cows across the road, and their smells and that of the warm grasses remind me of, well, my own Grandma's house. Not sure what your Grandma smells like.

The beer -- which I felt that I had earned -- is the Contra Pils. Lots of Belgian breweries make a pils mainly for local consumption, and Contreras is one. Most of them, like Belgian pils in general, are totally unremarkable. Just imagine Stella without all the marketing. Nothing there, right? Their most enduring features are freshness, low price (should be €2 or less), and those elegant, narrow tumblers with the finely ribbed bottoms that are so nice to hold in your fingers -- one my of favorite drinking glasses in the world.

Too bad the contents are so often disappointing.

Man, Belgian pils. I could write an eloquent defense of it as a cultural practice, as local tradition. I think every beer tourist ought to try it, to participate in it. But to look at the stuff objectively, as beer, and compare it with the world's better lagers, well... It's empty stuff.

But then, I'd argue that Belgian pils isn't meant to be characterful. Not everything has to be.

This one is though. I'd had Contra Pils before and found it to be a bit more bitter than most, if nothing special. This glass of it, poured fresh from the tap, is not only more bitter than I remember but also with plenty of hop flavor -- herbal, earthy and edged with citrus, like they had some extra Saaz and said "fuck it" and just dumped it all in the kettle at flame-out. It's not IPA-ish, mind you, it doesn't punch you in the face with aroma or bitterness, but it does offer plenty of flavor to that light-bodied, thin-cracker-malt frame. And so we have one of those rare nexus of personality and drinkability that makes a beer worth hunting.

I can't say for sure if Contra Pils has recently improved, if the beer was always like that but my palate returned to Earth in the decade or so since I last tried it, or if just tasted especially good that day because, as I said, I'd earned it. But given the success and quality of the Valeir range in recent years -- on the watch of Frederik de Vrieze, who took over in 2005 -- it would not surprise me to learn that they added some zip to the Pils. (Well shit, now I'd better ask.) It's a remarkable brewery, really, and I know that without even seeing the kit. Next year it will be two centuries old but the range is fresh, not especially hindered by unnecessarily conservative traditions or cynical recipe. Belgium's other long-established family brewers could learn some things from Contreras.

So, there's some nonsense for you. Let's do this again "tomorrow." See you in 2019!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"You'll Be Hearing a Lot About the Reinheitsgebot This Year."

You'll be hearing a lot about the Reinheitsgebot this year. In fact, you'll be reading at least a few articles that begin with the sentence, "You'll be hearing a lot about the Reinheitsgebot this year." I will probably write at least two of them.

Anyway, it's the so-called purity law's 500th birthday. That's right, I said "so-called," even though Reinheitsgebot literally translates to "purity law." It's because the popular name is a misnomer. I hope to explain more about that in an upcoming piece for DRAFT. That piece might even start with the sentence, "You'll be hearing a lot about the Reinheitsgebot this year." You've been warned.

Especially here in Germany, the R-word seems to invoke a lot of feels. Proud feels. Thirsty feels. Angry feels. Some people really like it. Others really hate it. I find a healthy like/hate relationship to be the most professional approach, if in doubt.

Some of Germany's newer/smaller/edgier brewers are organizing an "Anti-Reinheitsgebot" night, on April 23. Their goal, I would say, is not to be jerks about it but to promote creative freedom for brewers. Sebastian Sauer of Freigeist -- a beer commissioner that revives and revises some weird and forgotten German beer styles -- posted a thoughtful screed about the whole thing on Facebook yesterday. But I don't like to send people to Facebook, since I often avoid going there myself. So he gave me permission to post the whole thing here. Warning: my attempt to avoid posting links to Facebook includes links to Facebook. I am weak.

That's all. Here it is, unedited:

You'll be hearing a lot about the Reinheitsgebot this year...
No, no. That was a joke. Here is the real one:
Let's talk about the "Reinheitsgebot" (German purity law) today. Yes, of course, we talk about the "Vorläufiges Biergesetz" which is the official name for it, but to also talk about it's symbolic character, I will stick to the name "Reinheitsgebot". As quite a few of you already saw, I wrote a posting these days and created an event for the day of the 500th anniversary of this document for more liberation in the German beer scene and for celebrating brewer freedom. For everyone who didn't checked it out, here it is: https://www.facebook.com/events/1549997495290780/ 
Well, I didn't mention too much, yet, and just wanted to see the first discussions and actions on its own. It's great to see how many people reacted and to see how controversial the whole subject is. In Germany and especially in Bavaria, the subject feels like you are talking about something forbidden and I'm sure many people - breweries, shops and gastronomy - would love to join, but don't want to get opressed and want to deal with being uncomfortable. It's part of our freedom to be able to want this brewer freedom in Germany and everyone should be able to get informed about the facts of the situation in Germany. 
There are many discussions going on about the Reinheitsgebot and everything about it. The fact is that it was not created as a consumer protection in first place and that it's not constantly in power since 500 years. Many international people think that the Reinheitsgebot doesn't have any relevance in Germany anymore which is wrong - especially in Bavaria, brewers have to follow it very strictly. The important parts about it is that for top-fermenting beers, you can use all different type of malted grains and can also use sugar while you can't use other normal ingredients then water, hops and yeast. For bottom-fermented beers, you can only use water, barley malt, hops and yeast and no other malted grains. Of course, there are many other obscure facts that the original document doesn't mention any wheat malt, but it's still used and everybody is completely fine with it as they explain the use of wheat malt would be logically included and it's within the expectation of the consumer. Why they think that the consumer never changes and would never expect any other natural ingredient in his beer isn't clear to me. But I don't want to bother too much talking about that as there are plenty of information about all those obscurities around already. 
There are discussions of the Brewer Association and other people to modernize the Reinheitsgebot for the future. Their goal is to update the rule to allow certain natural ingredients, but to keep the whole general idea and not to drop the rule. From my perspective, that's just a slow, tiny little step and wouldn't stop further discussions for the very close future. In general, it should be clear that brewer should be able to use any natural and not health damaging ingredient for their beer like all other food and alcohol producers - no matter what. This is the situation in the whole world and only in "the country of beer" (from German view), we are happy to limit our own creativity so much. Just go out there and see what you can find - so many wonderful things just waiting for interested people to try. And yes, you can create great things with the basic four ingredients and yes, I don't add anything else to certain beer types as well because it's not necessary, but using all the other fantastic ingredients is multiplicating the positive possibilities thousands of times. The whole conservatism from many, not only German brewer and associations is rooting in unreasoned and self-loving chauvinism about their own products and a xenophoby and disrespect for other products. Well, I don't have a problem when people have their own view and are so in love with the Reinheitsgebot that they don't want to brew and don't want to taste anything else. There are also people out there who don't want chocolate with spices and bread without nuts and fruits. But it's a problem for me when it's touching other people's and in this case also my own personal view and is forbidding something which shoudn't be illegal and is nowhere else illegal in the world. 
The law situation in Germany is telling the German consumers what kind of beer they should drink and that is manipulative and patronising. People in Germany should have their own choice within the legal frame (which is obviously not touched with beers brewed with fruits, spices etc.) to pick the beer they want to drink. That's one of the main philosophies behind the "Aufklärung" of Immanuel Kant and I can't believe we still have to fight for it after that long time.
I also saw some discussions in an Italian forum after I posted about the campaign and there were voices saying that they don't like Germans to use American hops because then the prices are getting even higher. Well, the use of American hops doesn't touch the Reinheitsgebot, so...... 
Other voices said that they like the classic way and the normal beers and they wouldn't need new beer styles in Germany. That's fine if that's their view, but German brewers are not only their for brewing the classic styles over and over again without a change just because tourists like it. Italians also wouldn't care if Germans would think (and trust me, there are plenty of people of that type here) who think that Italians shouldn't brew beer and should focus on what they are famously known for - making red wine and baking pizza. But that's an ignorant way of viewing things. 
The development of the German beer scene will make it's own way and it will take time.... a lot of time. But I'm very optimistic for it. 
Please join the event. It's enough for joining if you just drink a beer non-conform to the Reinheitsgebot on the 23rd of April 2016. If you have a bar or a shop or you are a brewer, please feel free to join in whatever way you want to show how great the beer diversity can be and to inform your visitors and customers. Let's finally liberate the German beer scene!!
* Sauer, before he was Freigeist, once crashed at my house after we tasted some rare fancy beers and watched music videos for most of the night and he brought a pony keg of smoked bock that blew up on my front porch but my dog Truman just lapped it up like the bacon juice it was. True. That's a disclosure of sorts.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bopping Around Friedrichshain. Or, Berlin-Style Surrealism.

I could write thousands of words trying to give you a feel for Berlin's indie beer scene today. Maybe a few photos (and a few words) would do just as well for now.

I found this sticker on the wall of a restroom in trendy Friedrichshain. This is a lively neighborhood colonized by a cosmopolitan mix of twentysomethings with enough time and money for things like locally roasted coffee, interesting beer, and street food. I try to avoid the H-word or any labels that marginalize. In my late thirties I live a quieter life on the quieter and decidedly less cool side of town, shuttling kids to soccer or preschool and not always choosing to splurge on sitters so I can go explore pubs out in the eastern districts (although I do, sometimes). So I am a bit jealous and I hold nothing against friendly people living exactly where I often wish I'd been living in that time of my life.

So this particular sticker was in a café called Szimpla. It features good coffee, belly-warming Hungarian snacks and lunches, some sofas, layers of concert posters, a kicker table, attractive people, and sometime in the past year it added nine taps and the subtitle "Craft Beer Bar." Often the beers are from small Berlin outfits; when we visited last month there were several from Poland. I drank a Polish stout and a tasty German lager... but I lack notes since we were engrossed in conversation after a visit to the nearby Stasi Museum. Fascinating place. But I'm pretty sure that dry, hop-forward lager was Pilsz from the Spent Brewers Collective -- a beer firm that hires its brews from various places. There are several of those in Berlin.

That sticker comes from Berlin's Bierfabrik (not to be confused with Amsterdam's Bierfabriek). This was until recently another beer firm, hiring various breweries to make its Wedding Pale Ale and other varieties. Now Bierfabrik is an actual brewery in Friedrichsfelde, about six kilometers east of Szimpla. So you can be pretty sure, now -- if you care about such things -- that a Bierfabrik beer is a Berlin-brewed beer.

Trying to drink local beer in Berlin is a shell game. There are firms with offices in Berlin, and they market their hired products as Berliner, but a bit of research often finds that they are brewed in Bavaria or Lower Saxony or Denmark. If you know me then you know that this annoys the piss out of me, on your behalf. I often know where the breweries are, but I also get the idea that when people pay to drink something local they actually want to drink something local. You are paying extra for specialty beer, and its origin story -- is it a true one? -- might well be part of why you pay. (Whether that's a good reason to pay more for beer is another discussion.) The firms are often honest about this if asked directly, but to regular drinkers the information is typically missing from tap lists and beer labels, occasionally confined to fine print on the website. If it is there at all.

Oh, I've digressed.

If you like park bench drinking -- who doesn't? -- or if you're staying in this neighborhood, or maybe you're just thirsty and want to walk around sucking from an open bottle, which is perfectly OK here by the way, then I should tell you about the shop across the street from Szimpla. It's called Boxi Kiosk. It looks like a typical corner convenience shop until you walk in and see two walls of refrigerated beer -- some novelties and imports, but also plenty of good traditional German beers in half-liter bottles too. There are other beer shops and bigger selections and better selections, but rarely do you see so much refrigerated beer in Germany. And this one is open until 5 a.m. Anyway, who needs summer beer gardens when you have Boxhagener Platz?

Oh and there is a brewery a couple of blocks away. Hops and Barley is a smallish brewpub and underrated, depending on who is doing the rating. I think a generation of samey '90 era German brewpubs trained us to overlook them as nothing special. This one is different though. Yeah, OK, there is a pils, a dunkel and a wheat beer -- I know it sounds boring but they're pretty good -- plus meanwhile there is a rotating choice of seasonal that tends to be boldly hopped. I drank a strong, brown lager smelling and smacking of fruity hops, bitter but stopping well short of resinous. They called it Bohemian, but if I described it as an Indian Brown Lager, would you get the gist? Nice people too. No secret where the beer comes from. The kit is right there. Cozy corner dive atmosphere.

Back to the sticker. I like to think the irony -- "Don't believe the craft beer hype" -- is intentional. I want to believe this is the "ceci n'est pas une pipe" of Berlin beer. But marketing is marketing. Ultimately we'll judge it by what's in the container anyway. And whether that liquid can compete for a place in our short, busy lives, and in our limited budgets. Sitters cost money, you know.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Session #104: Our Navels Are Dark and Cavernous, Yet We Must Gaze. Alan Said So.

My policy on this blog, until today, was to never write about writing. I might have wavered once or twice, but mostly I thought it would bore people. Which is odd, since I happen to like the topic. I'm a writer after all. So are you, I reckon.

So with this post, my contribution to the 104th Session, I'd like to formally announce my rejection of that policy. From now on I might write about writing here, or blog about blogging. Executive decision. I won't even bring it up with the committee (which anyway only has two standing members: myself and the beagle intern-for-life).

The thinking behind the policy was that anyone reading a beer blog was interested in beer, not beer writing. In retrospect that was wrong -- or at least it is wrong now. It now sounds like plain common sense that most of the people who read blogs are bloggers themselves. The others left, or were never here. You are a writer, probably. Or maybe you are one of those "beer communicators." I'm not 100 percent sure what that is -- like beer evangelism, except more honest since everyone knows you're getting paid? -- but fuck it, you're welcome here. I've been reading your stuff too, when I should have been working.

It's almost liberating, dispensing with the fiction that you're a general audience. Of course you're not. You never were, excepting that large subset that found the blog by googling Westvleteren. But they left. You came back, even when I didn't. You're (we're) the niche within the niche within the niche. Maybe what I naïvely imagined as a general audience was just a writing circle all along. Well, that's OK. We need those. The beagle is a good listener but he never really contributes much to the convo, you know?

Is it the writers' circle within the geeks within the beer world? Or is it the geeks within the beer people within the writing world? Maybe both. I'm not sure if I can draw that Venn on the back of a deckel. But I'm going to try, and you'll find the inevitably awkward result there on the right.

Seems like the two-pronged spirit of blogging was that (a) it was fun and (b) eh, maybe there is a professional use for it. To me -- a freelance writer's perspective -- "professional" means working for money. There are two important parts of that: working, and money. So much for (b). Blogging never stopped being fun for me. It just... stopped.

It's not like I ever look at my blog sitting over here, gathering dust in the corner, and think: "Can't be bothered, there's no money in it." On the contrary, I suspect that is exactly why I should do it. But lately -- and I reckon this is a good problem to have -- I must look first to a stack of projects that do pay. Can't do it all, so paying the bills comes first. Doesn't stop me from fucking around in any number of other ways though, does it? In retrospect blogging is one of the healthier ways to fuck around.

Oh dear. Next thing you know I'll be blogging up beer reviews. That was another thing I vowed never to do here.

Nah, on second thought. Boring! Who wants to read about beer anyway?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Postcard from Oberfranken

Sitting in the small courtyard beer garden of the Gasthaus Dotterweich in Reundorf. Not the Reundorf north of here near Lichterfels; this is the one in Bamberg Landkreis. You have to now your Reundorfs.

It's not a great biergarten, and it doesn't have a great playground. But it does have a box full of large lego-like blocks. The boy just built a towering church. The actual village church is just across the road. We can hear the singing, now the bells. I think I prefer the hubbub of the Stammtisch over there, well under way by 10:30 a.m.

Mönchsambacher Lager here. Smells of bread and honey, fairly sweet taste with just enough dusty bitterness to pull it off. A comfort beer.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Session #99: What's YOUR Mild?

I have an hour left in my somewhat arbitrarily self-determined work day before I go an open a bottle of something easy to drink. And I see that today is the day of the Session, the first Friday of the month, when a bunch of beer bloggers tackle the same subject. And then I think, "Oh shit! I still have a blog. Why not?"

Alistair Reece at Fuggled has an agenda with this one. He is promoting mild. That is ostensibly a style of beer. And Al is simultaneously proposing and promoting American Mild Month. Which starts today. This is one of the noblest goals I can think of, and not just because I like the style "mild." To be honest I'm not sure mild represents a style or vice versa. But I love what mild stands for: flavorful yet easy-to-drink. To me it's comfort food in a glass.

I have had a few great British milds and a couple of good American ones. Stuff I would drink again without hesitation. But that was not Al's question. He wants us to localize it.

Localizing is tricky for me.

[Stands up from desk. "HONEY! WHAT COUNTRY ARE WE IN TODAY? GERMANY? OK!" Sits back down to write.]

I grew up in Missouri. The one there that pops into my head is the Bird and Baby from Rolla's Public House -- a brewery largely devoted to session beers -- but all of that came long after I left the state.

But right now I'm in Berlin and will live here for a few more years. The local I have chosen to be mine is called Foersters, and I can walk there in 20 minutes. I happen to think it's the best bar in Berlin, but I'm also biased because a lot of the hip beer joints are across town. So far.

OK, wait. Let's abstract the mild a bit. Let's suppose my "mild" is the one that's always at my pub of choice, the first thing I order every time I walk in, it's flavorful -- delicious, even -- but unchallenging. It is comforting like a baby's bottle.

That one for me, at Foersters, is Weiherer Kellerbier. Hazy gold, sweetish, bitterish, with a creamy vanilla impression. Oh there are better kellerbiers out there. In fact there are better kellerbiers at Foersters. But it's the one that's on draught, every time I walk in, and I don't have to use my brain to order it, and sometimes I don't even have to order it -- it just arrives, like a friend who can finish your sentences.

American beer drinkers are getting more and more familiar with the word "session" -- which is great, even if it's always attached to "IPA." Time to take the concept further. Mild could do it, why not? At the very least it could be a much needed calming influence.

But if not mild, explicitly, I'd be more than content to settle for what mild represents. I usually am.