Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Kölsch and Kavier on the Rhine, er, Spree.

You can find the whole world in Berlin -- Turkey, Sudan, Taiwan, Chile, Canada, you name it.

Hell, you can even find the Rhineland.

On the north bank of the Spree, but pretending it is the Rhine, is the Ständige Vertretung -- the "Standing Mission." This is near the heart of Mitte, across the river from Friedrichstrasse station, and close to things like the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate -- perfect spot for a tourist trap. But is it one? That depends on how you define "trap." Does it need to be overpriced and inauthentic to qualify?

There are plenty of places in Berlin where you can wallow in "ostalgia" -- a willfully forgetful longing for East Germany. Here at Ständige Vertretung the thing is "westalgia" -- a wistfulness for the days when the West German capital was in Bonn. The name alludes to the fact that West Germany could not recognize the East as a sovereign nation, so instead of an embassy there was a standing mission. In the Nineties one of the restaurant's founders campaigned loudly against moving the capital from Bonn back to Berlin -- partly, it must be said, to get publicity for his business. The Ständige Vertretung became an outpost of Rhenisch culture, ostensibly for all the uprooted bureaucrats whose work moved to Berlin. Tourists inevitably found it, lured by location, a splash of history, and layers of framed nostalgia.

Fresh Gaffel Kölsch is the beer here. At the bar they'll keep filling 20 cl stange glasses for €1.90 each (about US$2.15). If sitting at a table you can opt for 25 cl (€2.40) or half-liter (€4.80). You can even get a 10-liter pittermännchen -- a spigoted barrel for you and companions to pour yourselves. That costs €89, a slight savings. These prices are somewhat expensive for Berlin; less so if considering the location and specialty.

They churn out plenty of big meaty plates and flammküchen here, but consider the nibbles -- the "Kölsche tapas." You can get bread with lard and crackling (Schmalzstulle) for €2.90, a big meatball/patty (bulette) for €3.20, or (my favorite), the Kölsch Kaviar for €4.50 -- blood sausage on rye rolls with mustard and raw onion. They serve those into the wee hours, after the kitchen has closed.

There also is a Gaffel Haus pub on nearby Dorotheenstraße; it calls itself the Kölsches Konsulat. It's only slightly more expensive; the concept is similar. The scrubtop-table atmosphere is more like the big brewery pubs in Köln, but less cozy than the Standing Mission. (Sadly we don't have a Päffgen outpost here.)

Berlin also has several Bavarian-style beer halls serving Munich Helles, some Franconian-themed places, and even a few Swabian restaurants and pubs. I like the idea of a traveler on a business trip, maybe here for a conference, with no time to go anywhere else in Germany -- but they can still get a taste. Certainly there is such a thing as a useful tourist trap.


Monday, March 11, 2019

One More Road for the Beer: Amsterdam.

I think we managed to get through this show without mentioning coffee shops or the Red Light District even once. I mention them now only to mention that we don't mention them. Our focus here is on the beer, the brown cafés, the bitterballen, and a bit of genever.

It can be prohibitively expensive to stay in the over-touristed center, and we talk about how to get around that. But hey, Amsterdam is on your bucket list for a reason (the museums, no doubt). You should go. Other useful tips we discuss, briefly: The express train from the airport is easy. If you have a car, you can park at the airport and take the train right to the center. Or you can stay in Haarlem and take the train from there. Hell, you can stay in Antwerp and make it a day trip (80-minute train ride on Thalys).

Here are the places we discuss, and a map:
Pilsener Club
In De Wildeman
Foodhallen
Butcher's Tears
Arendsnest
Olofspoort
Elfde Gebod
Gollem (four locations)
De Zotte



And please remember to eat bitterballen responsibly. They are filled with meat lava.


Friday, February 15, 2019

One More Road for the Beer: Bamberg.

Our fifth episode is ready, all queued up for your doodads. We're on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, and most of those things that cast pods. Please enjoy our radio program while you hit the treadmill or walk the pupper or drive to work or stroll to your next pub.

Bamberg is the smallest city we've done so far, and yet -- as always -- there are a bunch of good places we don't mention. Why? Because we like this format of 30 to 40 minutes. It's digestible, just enough time to give you the highest of the highlights for a weekend trip. Mind you, we would like to talk more. Oh we could go on. We're geeks and it would be easy to blather, start drinking beer, belch into the mic. Instead we're trying to be choosy about the info -- while still putting it into context and drawing you a picture, so to speak. Anyway, that's the goal.

With that in mind I want to mention a useful app for getting more out of Bamberg. Fred Waltman's Bamberg Beer Guide is another thing you can put on your doodad, available in the Apple Store and on Google Play. Or there is a website version here. Listen to Fred, he knows.

Meanwhile this is a pretty good introduction. Here's where we go in this episode, and a map:

Schlenkerla
Spezial
Fässla
Spezial Keller
Wilde Rose Keller
Greifenklau
Torschuster
Café Abseits

Also mentioned:
Hotel am Brauerei Dreieck
Keesmann
Mahr's



We have this rad idea for schwag: black T-shirts that say "One More Road for the Beer: European Tour 2019." On the back would be a list of the cities we're hitting. These shirts should be pretty metal, with skulls and whatnot. You'd buy that, right? If only we could afford schwag. Hey, would you like to be an underwriter?

Next week... We're not sure yet. Maybe Amsterdam or Budapest.


Friday, February 1, 2019

One More Road for the Beer: Warsaw.

Pull on your thickest winter socks, put your feet up, and pour yourself a glass of something thick and black. It's time to talk Polish beer. Here is our fourth show.

Something I forgot to mention: the Polish Beer Lovers' Party, because it's a cool part of the story of Poland's transition (or return) to being a more serious beer-drinking country after Communism. The Beer Lovers' Party had a brief heyday -- they had seats in Parliament and everything -- in the early 1990s when the possibilities of democracy must have seemed nearly infinite. Their main plank was to promote people meeting in pubs to talk and drink beer (instead of getting drunk on vodka). They were successful enough to splinter apart amid disagreements. When I imagine this happening, I picture the People's Front of Judea.

Warsaw is the capital and has more than 50 multitap beer bars, so the city made a convenient excuse to talk about Polish beer and Baltic porter. There are several other nice cities with thriving scenes though -- Wroclaw, Krakow, Gdansk, Poznan, and more. If you go, you may want to make use of the site OnTap.pl. Loads of multitaps and beer lists there -- far more than we could ever hope to mention.

Here's what we mention on the show, and a map:

Jabeerwocky
PiwPaw Beer Heaven
PiwPaw Parkingowa (their other main location)
Same Krafty
Same Krafty Viz-a-viz
Pijalnia Wódka i Piwa (but there are other locations)
Maryensztadt Craft Beer & Food
Pinball Station



We talked about smoky beers on this show but it appears we are just getting started. Next episode: Bamberg.


Friday, January 18, 2019

One More Road for the Beer: Rome.

Well, here is our third show. Prego!

We recorded it Tuesday. After doing my homework on this stuff all day -- ugh, how do you pronounce cacio e pepe again? -- it turned out that I had a hankering for cacio e pepe. So I cooked it for dinner and stuffed myself. Then we went and did the show and talked about all this food and so I got hungry again.

One of the highest compliments is when someone says the show makes them want to buy a plane ticket. After listening to the Rome show you might want to make yourself a tall mortadella sandwich on ciabatta, then buy a plane ticket. In fact I want one right now.

So, three cities in three countries so far, and pronunciation has been an amusing challenge. One mistake I caught this time is that for My Ale we say MEE-ah-leh when I think it might be pronounced MY-ah-leh. That's because it turns out the Italian word for pork is maiale, when I thought it was miale. Scusate!

Here are the places we mention in the Rome show:

Luppulo Station
Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà
Bir & Fud
L'Osteria di Birra del Borgo
Birra e Sale
Be.Re
Birra Piú
My Ale
Pork 'n' Roll



Bear in mind that in any of these cities we are only scratching the surface. We might well have mentioned Birra Baladin or Brasserie 4:20, for example. Hey, you should go there too. But we like the length of these shows. So we each pick a handful of favorite must-dos and let the chips fall where they may.

Another source I'd recommend for anything food-related in Rome is Katie Parla. She has a website, an app, writes books, does guided tours. Listen to her. She won't lead you wrong.

You should be able to find our show on iTunes, Stitcher, Castbox, Podbean, Spotify and Soundcloud. For technical reasons because we're based in Germany, we haven't figured out how to submit to Google Play yet. Not sure what's going on there but we're working on it.

Next show: Warsaw. The Polish beer scene is humming and I get to talk about Baltic porter. No doubt we will pronounce everything perfectly.


Friday, January 4, 2019

One More Road for the Beer: Prague.

So, here is our second show. It's about one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, which happens to be the capital of one of the greatest beer drinking countries on Earth. If you like Prague, or Czech beer, or if even if you just like lager, you'll want to insert it into your earholes. This will make you thirsty and hungry and stoke whatever fire it is that burns the hours searching for discount airfares.

We give kudos to Evan Rail. He taught us much. Here are inexpensive used copies of his Good Beer Guide to Prague and the Czech Republic, published 10 years ago but still useful for some older breweries, pubs, and the context of Czech brewing and drinking culture. Let's all tell him he should write another one. He could crowdfund a new Prague pub guide. We would all throw wadded fistfuls of cash at him.

Speaking of cash, we at One More Road for the Beer are looking for sponsors. Or underwriters, if you prefer. Fair warning: I've been an independent journalist/critic type for more than 20 years. So I feel compelled to clear my throat and note that all editorial content remains totally independent. I might even be tempted to say horrible things about you just to prove it. Just the same, you'd reach a curious and growing audience of anglophones who like to spend money on food, drink and travel. But since I do not sully my hands with this filthy lucre, if you or your company is interested, please reach out to Zach at zach dot johnston at uproxx dot com. (Do people still need to spell out email addresses that way? I do not know.)

Here are the places we mention in this, our second useful episode, followed by a neat map:

Lokál
Zlý časy
U Šumavy
Kolkovna Olympia
Pivovarský Klub
Brevnov cloister and brewery
Klášterní šenk
Hotel Adalbert
U Medvidku brewery and hotel
U Dvou Koček
Letenské Sady beer garden
Riegrovy Sady beer garden
První Pivní Tramway



The shows are on Soundcloud, iTunes, and other services like Stitcher that deal in podded casts. I don't know much about them. If you can't find it on a particular service or app-thingy, let us know and we'll oil whatever part of the machine is creaky.

We plan to record another show or two again very soon. We're not quite sure what city we're doing next but we have lots of ideas. Warsaw? Rome? London? Bamberg or Berlin or Düsseldorf or Munich? Antwerp or Bruges or Ghent? Feel free to nudge us.

Friday, December 21, 2018

One More Road for the Beer: Brussels.

So, we're launching a podcastZach Johnston of UPROXX and myself. It's many months in the making, starting with a long series of those late-evening half-drunken "Wouldn't it be cool if..." talks that you don't really think will go anywhere.

It's called One More Road for the Beer. Put it in your earholes as you travel home for the holidays, or on your next commute. Let us know what you think.

Each episode will focus on a different city; we're trying to keep each one to 30 or 40 minutes... We want to hit the highest of the highlights, plus a few obscurities -- the places you'd want to visit if you're on a business trip or only have a couple of days in town. And we aim to put it all in context. We want to put you in the atmosphere. We want the beer foam to tickle your nose. We want you to smell the local snacks.

In case you listen and want to look them up, here are the places we mention in the first show (and a map!):

Grand Place
Cantillon
Moeder Lambic Fontainas
Moeder Lambic Original
Poechenellekelder
Nüetnigenough
Fleur en Papier Doré
Les Brasseurs
Bier Tempel
Delhaize on Anspach
Petit Filou



We also mention beers from Cantillon, Senne, Tilquin, De Ranke, Oud Beersel, Dupont and Boon... more or less in that order.

Obviously we can only scratch the surface in each city. When possible we'll point you toward additional resources... In this case we're in my wheelhouse, and I'd humbly suggest Around Brussels in 80 Beers or the Good Beer Guide Belgium.

Notable correction: When talking about Cantillon in the 1970s, I should have said Jean-Pierre Van Roy was responsible for starting the nonprofit museum side of the operation. For some reason I just said Jean, which the name of Jean-Pierre's son who is now in charge. First-show nerves, maybe.

Next episode: Prague.


Monday, December 17, 2018

What's Up with All Those Belgian Christmas Beers, Anyway?

The world's best-known festival of Christmas and winter beers happened over the weekend. There they poured 187 different beers -- all made special for the season, all Belgian-brewed. Mind you, there are only about 240 breweries in Belgium. Not a bad ratio.

The Kerstbierfestival is in Essen, at Belgium's North Pole (near the Dutch border). The organizers go to great lengths to source every Belgian Christmas beer they can. Their first was in 1994, when they were able to find 38 of them. At that time there were about 110 breweries in the country.

What we can draw from this? For one, we can see that the number of special Christmas brews has expanded right alongside the number of small, independent breweries. That makes sense. It also makes sense (to me, anyway) that the existence of the festival in Essen has had something to do with it. Brewers know the event and want their beer to be a part of it.

So those are a couple of the possible answers to the question of why Christmas beers have become such a big thing in Belgium. Here are some other explanations I've heard or read at various times:

The faux-historical one: In the legendary old days the Belgian farmer-brewers would have had surplus grain after the harvest, so they would brew stronger ales to enjoy for the winter holidays. It's somewhat plausible and makes a nice story. I haven't found any evidence of it.

Palm started it: In 1947 it released Palm Dobbel, a somewhat stronger version of Palm delivered to clients as a thank you, and also to celebrate the brewery's bicentennial (based on a now dubious date shrouded in mist; in 1747 it would have been the De Hoorn farm brewery, which is older than that). Off the top of my head I can't think of any present-day Belgian holiday beers older than this one. That doesn't make it the first.

No, Artois started it: The story goes that Artois in Leuven introduced Stella as a Christmas beer named, sort of, for the Star of Bethlehem. However our friend Evan Rail has had a look at the brewing records. Trouble is, the brewery had fermentation problems with its earlier batches and didn't release the beer commercially until August 1927. From then on it was year-round. Thus I feel reasonably confident in declaring the Stella Christmas story to be nonsense. (Interestingly, the AB InBev site says it released Stella as "une bière de Noël, respectant en cela une coutume de l'époque," or "volgens de toenmalige traditie." That is, according to the custom of the time. So, maybe holiday beers really were a thing back then. Or, maybe we should be careful not to trust anything found on marketing websites, and this one in particular.)

Blame the British: Senne brewmaster Yvan De Baets -- whose Zinnebir Xmas is one of the best -- once told me his theory that the Belgians got the idea from the British, especially after World War I. This was a time when the Belgians were trying out pale ales and stouts too, so why not Christmas ales? (But as with other consumables, the Belgians have a special way of adding their own panache.) This is a rather plausible theory that also matches up somewhat with the timing of the Palm and Stella stories. If it was a "custom of the time," maybe this is why.

The capitalistic one: It's the money, stupid. You don't need to go to the Kerstbierfestival or fancy bottle shops to find Belgian Christmas beers. You can go to nearly any supermarket in Belgium and find endcap displays full of them. Or you can visit many corner cafés to find table tents and posters advertising brands like Palm Dobbel, Bush Noël, or Tongerlo Christmas, to name a few of the more common ones. They're nominally only available this one time of year, so many customers go for it. Not many brewers want to miss out on that.

More thoughts from De Baets: "As a brewer I can tell you what gets us moving, sometimes at least: We see clients, pubs, making an emphasis on Christmas beers at the end of the year and all the customers having their interest focused on them. So, what do we do? Well, we simply make one also. It maintains a interest in our products, it's as basic as that."

The truth may be some combination of all these things (er, minus the Stella bit): old traditions, good marketing sense, and a whole bunch of smaller breweries well versed in cranking out variety and oddities -- what's one more, to them? Why not join the fun?

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Pubs of Berlin: The Strassenbahn.

How near to your home does a "local" need to be?

I don't live in one of the hipper parts of Berlin that are chock-a-block with bars. I live in a sleepy, green, leafy part of town where bars -- even smoky old Kiezkneipen* -- are far less common than retirement homes and samey, mediocre Italian restaurants. So I think anywhere within about 20 minutes' walk qualifies, to me, as a potential local. So what about a 20-minute bike ride, does that count?

I can walk to the excellent Foersters Feine Biere in about 20 minutes, and that makes me lucky. I call it my local. But at the moment it's closed for cleaning and repairs after some water damage in the summer. I wonder if the other regular punters in the neighborhood feel like I do... a bit rudderless without it. Even if I only pop in there once or twice a month, I like to know that I can.

There is another candidate not too far away: the Strassenbahn. It's been on my mind because I ride past it on the bus sometimes. A Kloster Andechs sign hangs out front, and that gets my attention. Eventually I remember to look the place up and see what it's about. Not long after, I invite a friend to meet me there, to finally go and have a look-see.

It turns out I can bike there in eight minutes, whereas the walk would be a little less than half an hour. I'm going to activate the bicycle loophole here; it increases the radius of qualification. Strassenbahn is thus eligible as a backup local, in a pinch. By definition you can only have one real local, in my view. But maybe you can have alternates.

The Strassenbahn's name means "streetcar." It sits just outside the Ring, halfway between the Bundesplatz and Heidelberger Platz stations. The busy bridges for S-Bahn trains and car traffic are visible from the pub's shady terrace, whose venerable trees nearly dominate the intersection.

Inside is plenty of dark wood, lampshades, old signage and photos -- strong signals of Gemütlichkeit.** A chalkboard overhead lists various dinner specials, all scratch cooking, most of it in the range of €5 to €8 per plate. Traditional North German things like herring share the menu with veggie moussaka or Thai curry soup. The main front barroom is non-smoking. I gather there is a smoking room somewhere, though I never notice it.

Unusually for a place like this, there are eight taps. The favored house pils is Franconian -- from Frankenwälder Burgerbräu in Naila -- so we start with that. It's the cheapest on the menu at €2.95 a half-liter, which suggests a concerted effort to have a beer of that size under €3. It implies some combination of nostalgia and general principle. (As you can see in the photos, the beers are also beautifully poured here.) The 1464 Pils itself is pretty fine; relatively thin for its region, moderately spicy-bitter, clean. For a Franconian pils it tastes a bit Northern. You could drink a lot of it without much arm-twisting.

Next I go dark, to one listed on the menu as Bruno Schwarzbier. I've done my homework and already know it to be a tmavý ležák, one of those Czech-brewed dark lagers that tend to be richer and more malty than any German Schwarzbier. At 3.8% strength it is a 10-degree tmavý, which is pretty unusual in Czechia. In Germany it's legally a Schankbier. It tastes bigger: light caramelized sweetness, note of spicy licorice mingling with the roast. A lot of character but, again, very easy to drink. Later, when I think about going back to the Strassenbahn, this is the beer I think about most. That lush foam sticks in my memory too.

For my third and last beer I go with the one that drew my eyes here in the first place: Andechser Spezial Hell. At 5.8% strength this is no ordinary helles; it's a proper festbier. It's harvest time, you know? It pulls off that great Bavarian balancing act of sweet fulsome malt, gentle bitterness, and a finish just dry enough to keep you wanting more. Hey, some people think these beers are boring. I meet them sometimes, like this American working in Munich who says he doesn't like Bavarian beers, he only wants IPA. These people exist. I pity them.

There is another interesting thing about the Strassenbahn: It calls itself a Kneipenkollektiv -- a collectively owned pub. Six friends founded it a few weeks before I was born -- that is, a few weeks before Star Wars premiered. According to the website, they suspect that they are the oldest remaining collective in Berlin. Everybody who works there gets paid the same. Some proceeds go to charity.

No pricey pale ales here, no fruited IPAs, no selection of 100 bottled beers. Just a handful of well-brewed and perfectly poured lagers at fair prices. This is why I scratch my head when I visit Stone and see something like Mahrs U going for €6.50 per half-liter. Because it's robbery, that's why. There is no need to pay that much for a good lager if you're willing to look around town a bit, and visit some local institutions.

* Neighborhood bars, including Eckkneipen -- corner bars. Important Berlin institutions.
** Coziness.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Bastogne, and Beer.

My memory of the Bastogne Historical Center before it was refurbished is probably unfair. I remember it as a dusty collection of wartime junk and an old-timey fake news reel or two to put you in the mood. Surely there was more to it than that. My clearest memory is an old bottle of Fort Pitt Pilsner that would have been some GI's beer ration.

The center reopened, after a much needed refurbishment, in March 2014 as the Bastogne War Museum. Focusing (naturally) on the Battle of the Bulge, it immediately became one of Belgium's most enthralling history museums.

The audioguide is obligatory, and it does most of the work. As you walk around to various exhibits, reading to your heart's content, the earphones tell a story that switches between four different perspectives -- four characters who were "there." Besides the obligatory American paratrooper there is a Nazi German officer, a local school boy, and a young teacher who has collaborated with the Resistance. Video screens stationed around the museum add depth, replaying interviews with locals as well as German and American veterans who remember. The interviews themselves are a treasure.

The story reaches an emotional climax when the characters' stories intersect in a recreated Bastogne estaminet -- or rather, in its cellar. The seats for museum visitors are wooden café chairs with tables; all that's missing is a cool glass of beer (though there are plenty of opportunities for that in Bastogne afterward). Old-fashioned signs for Orval hang on the walls, though I doubt they're period-accurate. No harm done, since Orval's style is timeless.

Other beer artifacts spotted in the collection: a small printed world atlas for British soldiers, provided by Bass and with its familiar logo on the front; a large German beer bottle whose molded letters are hard to read, but appears to be from a brewery in Koblenz; and those familiar old bottles of Fort Pitt.

About that beer ration: I'm sure it was welcome, but perhaps not the godsend we might imagine -- not for soldiers in the European theater, anyway. Anecdotally, US troops had a taste for stronger stuff and found plenty of it in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany -- cellars and shops full of wine, cognac, schnapps. At times the locals shared it freely; more often it was simply taken. One of the surprising things -- or perhaps not so surprising, all things considered -- about World War II anecdotes from US soldiers is how often they were drunk.

Outside the museum, a "screaming eagle" sculpture honors the 101st Airborne, donated by the "city and citizens of Bastogne." It appears poised to drink from a helmet -- based on the story of a paratrooper who comforted his wounded buddy by filling his own helmet with beer (twice) from a local tavern.

In recent years a sweet, strong brown ale named Airborne, brewed at Bouillon, has taken over the cafés of Bastogne. The deal is you drink it from a ceramic beer helmet -- the sort of gimmickry at which Belgium excels. The beer itself is no showstopper but it doesn't need to be. Think of all the old-timers who come and give it a go -- plenty of American tourists visit Bastogne, for obvious reasons, and they still include a few veterans.

They're unlikely to forget the experience.