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.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Few Cruise Beers I Liked, and a Little About Them.

Somehow I only tasted eight of the 45 beers poured on Friday's Craft Beer Cruise, which kicked off the fourth annual Berlin Beer Week.

My relatively low tally may have had something to do with the perfect weather, best enjoyed on the top deck while watching Berlin's bustling riverbanks scroll slowly past. It looked like the whole city had come out to enjoy the sun and drink beer. ("Hey, you're drinking beer over there on that boat! Us too! WHOO!") Meanwhile the taps were all below decks. It surely also had something to do with the conversation. And the fact that I went back for seconds of a few that I really liked.

What beers I liked best, and a little about them:

Fürst Wiaçek Nimble: Session-strength cloudy hop nectar brewed in collaboration with Lervig of Norway, at 3.8% abv. Its tropical character reminded me of piña colada, with pineapple and coconut notes, making me wonder if it had those new Sabro hops (it didn't). Meanwhile it was clean, bitterish, dryish, and perfectly balanced. One of the very few "New England-style" ales I've had where I'd want multiple pints. It's proper Berlin-brewed too, as Fürst Wiaçek are now full-timers at the new CraftZentrum contract brewery in Spandau.

Schneider Weisse Tap X, Mein Nelson Sauvin: I don't need to say much about this one, because the Nelson Sauvin smelled and tasted muted -- nearly undetectable. (Tasting a couple of hop-bombs first thrashed our thresholds.) Which meant that it tasted basically like soft, gentle, sweet, strong Aventinus. So, world class. I also love the fact that the organizers have no qualms about embracing 146-year-old G.Schneider & Sohn aboard the craft boat. That's how it ought to work.

Heidenpeters/Hops & Barley Intense Pulse Lupulin: This amply hopped IPL was the only lager on the boat, and also one of the best beers on it (probably). Bitter and moderately dank rather than fruity. I look forward to getting to know it better over the next couple of months, when it's sure to keep appearing around town (as did the past couple of official BBW beers). Maybe it could've used more bitter-bite to balance the inevitable softness from so much dry-hopping. But then I'm nit-picking.

Kemker Elisabeth Farmhouse Ale: I'd never heard of them, and trying random saisons tends to be a masochistic exercise. So I was pleasantly surprised. I found distinct lemon-lime character from the hops (which I now see are Mittelfrüh) and grain (wheat and raw spelt). Because of that lemony grain taste I guessed wheat, but I didn't know. Moderately bitter, with a light tangy acidic impression, grassy and dry -- yeah, I could drink a lot of this. Turns out it's 4.5% abv too, very useful strength.

Kemker is a new firm based near Münster, in wee Alverskirchen. I don't know (yet) where this brew was actually made. In their garage, for all I know. I'm asking. Meanwhile they appear to be running a successful crowdfunding campaign to move their nanobrewery to a nearby farm. Could be a name to watch.

Friday, July 20, 2018

A Floating Fest on the Spree, and Its Variety Beers.

Berlin Beer Week launches this evening at 7 p.m. local time. That's when a passenger boat carrying about 330 people pushes off into the Spree for a three-hour floating beer festival.

The sold-out Craft Beer Cruise is the first event among more than 70 -- see the full list here -- planned for the Week's fourth year. It concludes July 28 with a big bash at Stone Berlin.

Cruise tickets sell out months in advance, snapped up by those in the know almost as soon as they are released.* Some of these folks work on the local beer scene in one way or another; many more are the fellow geeks and enthusiasts one tends to see at bars around town -- familiar faces. (Though I like to think there must be a few tourists with uncanny foresight.)

Berlin's beer scene is insular but friendly -- but I reckon most city's beer scenes are the same in that respect. That's what makes them "scenes" after all: like-minded folks gravitating toward something they enjoy. So if the scene is clubby, it's certainly not unwelcoming. That's a biased take from someone who often writes about these folks and their beers and bars.

The cruise features 44 beers from 44 different brewers (not counting several collaborations), plus the official Berlin Beer Week beer -- a "double dry-hopped India pale lager" called Intense Pulse Lupulin, brewed by Heindenpeters and Hops & Barley. Overall the list leans local with a good smattering of others from Germany and abroad. So each participating brewer (or firm) chooses one beer to send -- a presumably special beer, for a special event.

It may be instructive to break down the numbers, for a skewed snapshot of a Berlin-based variety-beer hootenanny.

Of those 44 beers, based on their own descriptions:

  • Sixteen are some form of "IPA," plus one IPL. How do those IPA's break down? Three are "sour." Three are "New England," plus one "Mango Milkshake." Three are "double" or "triple." Three are "session." So there is variety, sort of.
  • Fourteen appear to have been brewed with fruit, plus one cider. (Reinheitsgebot, schmeinheitsgebot.) Other ingredients include hemp, chamomile, Earl Grey tea, and black salt.
  • Ten use the words "sour" or "wild."
  • Four are billed as "DDH" or double dry-hopped, including the official BBW beer. Double dry-hopping is not new and it's weird that people make a thing of it now, but hey, people like adjectives.
  • Speaking of the BBW beer, the India pale lager... that's the only lager on the entire list.
  • There are four Berliner(-style) weisse beers, though only one of those (Berliner Berg's new cherried Kirsch Weisse) is actually brewed in Berlin.
  • There are three Goses, two of them fruited. One is Dutch, another Hungarian, and the third is Berlin-brewed in collaboration with a Russian brewery. No doubt the brewers, over their kettles, bowed in the direction of Leipzig.
Quick take: The selection is postmodern, not having much to do with Berlin or Germany. Based on the styles we could imagine it transposed with nearly any other "craft" beer festival, anywhere in the world. Also, not many sound especially drinkable. Interesting and taste-able, sure. Anyway, what would happen if one of them turns out to be a great quaffer? Would my 15 cl tasting glass magically turn into a half-liter? Nah. It ain't that kind of party.

Other Berlin Beer Week events: There are more than 70 of them. These sorts of schedules can induce FOMO among unseasoned tenderfoots. You can't do it all. If I had to pick three, I'd do these:
  1. Berliner Weiße Gipfel, at Brauhaus Lemke, tomorrow (July 21) from 14:00-21:00. A celebration of Berliner weisse, and a quasi-annual event that has helped spur a local revival of interest. (But are the locals actually drinking the stuff? That's a different story.) The €20 admission includes wonderfully geeky talks and as much low-pH beer as your tummy can handle.
  2. Hof ten Dormaal meet the brewer, at Bierlinie, July 26 from 16.00-20.00. I always enjoy talking to the Janssens. They are free with their opinions and genuinely enjoy what they're doing. Also I could drink their undersung Saison pretty much all day.
  3. Cantillon tap takeover, at the Muted Horn, July 27 from 15.00. Self-explanatory. You know, on second thought, don't go to this. I'm sure it won't be any fun. Everybody stay away.

* Disclosure: I have a press ticket for the cruise, as I write for a couple of local magazines (WHERE Berlin and Bier, Bars & Brauer) and previously wrote about Berlin Beer Week for DRAFT.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Loudness and LagerQuestTM.

The bar is loud. There are gigantic TVs everywhere, the beer is tongue-numblingly cold with no foam of which to speak, and everyone is so gregariously friendly that it creeps me out at first, but it's OK because I can't hear them anyway. The bar is loud.

Must be back in America. I try to savor the surrealism of it while I can, before the reverse culture shock wears off, my accent returns, and it starts to feel normal again. Y'all.

Amid the overwhelming variety, or at least the illusion of it, it helps me to have a mission. Narrow things down, stay on the path, and out of trouble. So, I am on American LagerQuestTM. Now that I am completely spoiled by German and Czech lager, it's time to start tasting this American "craft lager" trend that y'all (gasp) keep talking and writing about.

Here is where I remind you that although I have been writing for American beer mags for more than 10 years, I have not lived in the U.S. for 12. In some ways my American beer-drinking brain remains stuck in the year 2006, and I like it that way. Perspective! So I get to marvel at all the marvelousness -- Voodoo Ranger IPA on an American Airlines flight! -- and also feel all smug and superior about things like the great travesty that is approximately 92.4% of American-brewed saison.

First go at LagerQuestTM last night, with the beer to help jet-lagged guy get a proper night's sleep, was underwhelming. Hotel bar has one called Tennessee Lager, so I had to, didn't I? From a brewery called Hap & Harry's, with a label/tap handle meant to evoke Jack Daniels and some measure of state pride. It tasted more bitter than its teeny IBUs thanks to ice-coldness and CO2 (read: fizzy). As such, it went down rather easily -- so, did its job. The malt sweetness was plain and understated. A bland beer but not badly done. But why pay extra when you could have a longneck domestic?

I promise not to judge America or even Tennessee by this one beer, painting with a broad and hugely unfair brush. I'll need to drink at least two more beers before I start doing that.

Friday, April 6, 2018

When and How German Beer Gardens Fall Short.

It's early April, a wonderful and frustrating time to be a beer garden enthusiast in Germany. Spring has sprung, the sun has too, and as the warmth grows so does our thirst. We need to get out there. Our kids need things to climb and room to run; our skins need Vitamin D; we need beer and laughs in the out of doors.

It's a great feeling -- to work all day or all week then go into the warm sun for cool beers with friends, while our kids run rampant in a place where such things are encouraged. The Biergärten are the best things for thirsty families. They kill a lot of birds with one cool, shady stone. Their existence is absolutely one of the highlights of living here.

But they are not perfect. Rather than get all rhapsodic it's far more interesting, as usual, to get cranky and talk about the bad stuff. There are drawbacks. Maybe they will help you to feel a little bit better about that place in the city you like to go that charges and arm and a leg for imported beer and is full of twentysomethings who give your kids the hairy eyeball for daring to be in the presence of fermented beverages.

1. We all wish they'd open sooner.

The first problem is, they don't officially open until the first weekend of May -- or thereabouts. So right now is when the flipping of calendar pages seems to slow down or even reverse, like the watched clock in the classroom that ticks backwards (Risky Business, was it?). A few places start earlier -- some open for nice weather, no matter what. The thing is, you've got to guess, or check in advance. Come May you can pretty much rely on them to be open, no planning needed. But then there is the additional problem of false springs... There is always another cold snap or rainy weekend just around the corner, especially in the north, and especially in spring.

2. Most of them are pretty shit for beer.

Granted, this is a matter of perspective. Many people would be happy as clams to drink fresh Warsteiner at long tables among the trees at a fair price (but it ain't always; see No. 3). Germany's most boring beers are still of a relatively high quality, ensuring that you can drink something reasonably decent if you are not very fussy. I can be fussy though. All things considered I'd prefer to be out there drinking beer of character, especially if I'm going to make an afternoon of it. Oh I can drink Berliner Kindl Pils, sure, but I'd prefer an Augustiner Hell. Got something Franconian? Even better. Got Schönramer? I may weep. But finding the places with this stuff takes another level of research (unless you're in Franconia). One local pitfall in Berlin is the Prater Garten, where the "house pils" is really just re-labeled Berliner Kindl. At least the price (€3.50 for 40cl) is fair, compared to some others in town...

3. They can be expensive.

This is another point where Franconia is an exception. Generally, beer gardens there are cheap and plentiful and likely to have local beer well worth drinking. The rest of Bavaria is pretty reliable but then the country varies widely, with the bigger cities offering more than their share of traps. One of the loveliest spots in Berlin, for example, is near the Zoo at the shady, lakeside biergarten of Café am Neuen See... where you can pay Tokyo-like prices for half-liters of Franziskaner. Makes no sense unless you're a tourist. Nice alternatives include the Zollpackhof, near the Hauptbahnhof, with its Augustiner Edelstoff vom Holzfass (from a spigoted barrel) and huge ancient chestnut tree; or Eschenbräu, a Wedding brewpub with nice urban-but-leafy garden and underrated beers.

4. The playgrounds can be junk, or non-existent.

This is not a priority for everyone. The "non-breeders" offended by children may want to look for the beer gardens that lack Spielplätze altogether. Many others offer only a pit of sand, or tiny, rickety pieces of rusted-out equipment that ought to require liability waivers. The real winners have huge, sturdy play structures though -- in Upper Franconia, be sure to check out Roppelt's Keller in Stiebarlimbach, or the Schmausenkeller in Reundorf. In Berlin, the rooftop garden at Golgatha in Kreuzberg has full views of the public park's equipment, while the long-running Fischerhütte on Schlachtensee has a big playground, swimmin' hole, smoked mackerel, and fresh Augustiner.

The best will have enough to do that you can enjoy your beers while your kids run off and forget their Apfelschorle... in which case you'd best cover the glass with a deckel, lest you attract No. 5... my nemesis.

5. The fucking wasps.

They don't tell you about this in the tourist guides. A culture that loves eating and drinking outdoors all spring, summer and fall also nourishes a certain kind of wildlife. These aggressive, pitiless creature feed on ice cream, soda pop, various leftovers, innocent children, and any parents willing to fight. Remember when you were a kid, and your parents said those wasps will leave you alone, if you just leave them alone? Yeah, that's bullshit. These "wasps" look like at first glance like black-and-yellow bees but are really what we call hornets or yellow-jackets in the States. And they are mean bastards. In my opinion, having defended my kids from them on multiple occasions -- not always successfully -- they are evil incarnate. And so, naturally, they are protected by various German laws. Back home we would find and wipe out their nests with a powerful spray bought for a few bucks from the hardware store. Here, it's not so easy. They feed and feed and are allowed to propagate.

The best defense, frankly, is (1) to avoid sweets and messes, (2) cover your drinks with deckels, and (3) drink enough beer to heighten pain tolerance, get brave, and possibly tolerate a sting or two.

After all, it would be a damn shame to let those pests -- or that overpriced, corporate beer; or that tetanus-trap of a playground -- ruin such a beautiful day.

(This is my contribution to The Session; for more info see here. Pictured above, twice, is the Wilde-Rose Keller in Bamberg. Pictured below is the Bootshaus on the Regnitz river, also in Bamberg.)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

It's Daytime in Berlin. Where to Get a Decent Beer?

Let's not make a big thing of this, but Berlin is not really a proper beer city. It's a cocktail city. An all-night, fancy-drinks, then-go-out-clubbing cocktail city.

Yet... this is still the capital of Germany, which happens to be one of the all-time great brewing and beer-drinking countries. So it's a paradox. Meanwhile the city is big enough and lively and versatile enough -- as I've written elsewhere, not easily pigeonholed -- to offer pretty much whatever you want, if you know where (and when) to find it.

Here is something relatively hard to find in Berlin: Good beer spots that are open in the daytime. By daytime, I mean before 4 or 5 p..m. This ain't Bavaria or Belgium, where it's acceptable to drink a beer with lunch or as part of a leisurely afternoon (or even morning sometimes). For the most part, it's a night-drinking city. Yes it's still Germany, so beer is a staple food. But if we judge these things by opening hours, public day-drinking in Berlin is not all that common. It may be because people are sleeping off hangovers, or else they are, you know, at jobs.

(Prussian virtues? Maybe. Incidentally Max Weber, the political theorist who coined "Protestant ethic," was Prussian. It is sensible to suggest that people should not be drinking in the daytime, because they should be working. This sensibility is unhelpful to tourists.)

In my view, day-drinking is not supposed to be a regular thing. If it were, it would be much less enjoyable. I like it a bit naughty, rather than pedestrian. So, there are times when it's fun and/or useful to find a place where you can do it.

For example: If you are writing a magazine article and need to find a certain type of beer... but you also need to be home to meet the kids' school bus in the afternoon. Hypothetically, of course.

Better example: You're a tourist in central Berlin, on a hard-earned vacation, and can't think of any reason why you shouldn't put on a good beer-buzz during daylight hours.

Just to back up my point, here are the opening times of many of the top beer spots in Berlin these days: Birra, 6 p.m.; Foersters, 4 p.m.; Herman, 6 p.m.; Hopfenreich, 4 p.m.; Monterey Bar, 5 p.m.; Muted Horn, 5 p.m. (3 p.m. weekends).

Right, so I like to be useful. With no further ado, here is an easy crawl -- the North Mitte Mile, let's say -- that might be handy after the museum, or after sleeping in, or while hunting street food, or whatever else it is you like to do while on holiday.

Kaschk: At the Rose-Luxembourg-Platz U-Bahn, less than 10 minutes walk north of Alexanderplatz. This one opens first (8 a.m., or 10 a.m. weekends) so we can start here. Excellent coffee, to say nothing of 10 changing taps and an interesting bottle selection. The beers lean Nordic; it's typical to find To Øl (whoops sorry, that's Belgian) here, besides several locals. They usually have Schönramer Pils, a personal favorite of mine. Daytime also happens to be the easiest, quietest time to use the shuffleboard tables downstairs (when one costs €9/hour instead of double that).

Brewdog: Opens at noon, and serves good from-scratch pizzas. Those who want to eschew it as the Starbucks of craft beer, go on, you won't hurt my feelings. Personally, I go to Starbucks because Starbucks is fucking useful. Same deal here. Nice upholstered booths, pinball, board games, wifi, endless pitchers of water, and 30 taps that balance company beers with interesting guests -- including, it must be said, real German lager most of the time (right now: Gänstaller Rauch Royal, a beautiful smoked doppelbock).

Castle: Previously in Gesundbrunnen, this pub is now just down Invalidenstrasse from Brewdog, and bang across the street from the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station. Like Kaschk, it opens at 8 a.m. (10 a.m. weekends) and doubles as a coffee house -- another potential early starting point. It's also very near the excellent Berlin Wall Museum and Visitors Center. The 15 taps specialize in unusual and local independents; the downside is the price (rent in that spot must be high). I don't stay for long, but it's so convenient I usually pop in for one if in the neighborhood. I can't remember what the house Pils is, but it's decent and costs maybe €3.80 for a half-liter. Compare that to between €6 and €7 for smaller 40 cl measures of the variety ales. Consolation: They have those rotating snack dispensers for various nuts and Pringles. Those are cheap, anyway.

Beereau: Opens at 2 p.m. six days a week, basically at Oranienburger Tor, just off Friedrichsstrasse. Formerly known as Berlin Beer Academy, and still hosting the occasional tutored tasting, the shop/café here has taken on an identity (and name) of its own. Its selection of 300-odd beers are mostly on display in fridges next to the small bar, where there are also a few more on tap (including, recently, gorgeous Keesmann Herren Pils out of Bamberg for €2.50 per half-liter). The emphasis is on local Berlin breweries -- including every Berliner weisse they can get their hands on -- with choice bits of Franconia and international independents. Something for everyone here.

A few others to mention: Along the walk from Kaschk to Brewdog (or vice versa), Mikkeller Bar Berlin opens at 3 p.m. Nearer to Alexanderplatz, Marcus Bräu (noon weekdays; 2 p.m. Sat; 4 p.m. Sun) is an old-fashioned, underrated, cozy little brewpub doing it all themselves, while Lemke am Alex (noon) is impressively large for a brewpub, with more choices, but tourist-pricey. Meanwhile nearby Aufsturz (noon) is an underrated arty bar that does some alt-Berliner cooking and about 100 bottled beers that include classics like Schlenkerla, St. Bernardus and Achouffe.

The Bavarian spots: I have no problem recommending these to tourists who only rarely get to Germany and aren't able to visit Munich -- or to anyone, really. Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt (10 a.m.) offers the real experience, plus spigoted barrels of Edelstoff lager poured starting at 6 p.m. daily; Hofbräuhaus Berlin (10 a.m.) is a big proper beer hall with huge Sunday brunch buffet (kids eat free) and live oompah; while Weihenstephaner Berlin (11 a.m.) is an elegantly wooded, casual restaurant on Hackescher Markt featuring the usual pitch-perfect Hefeweissbier and Helles, among others. And even as I write about them I think, "Oh yeah, I should go there more often."

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Session: Jay's Three Questions. My Answers. That's It.

Been a while since I've done the Session. Years, probably. So ask me if I feel bad about responding three days late.

This month Jay asks three questions and says not to think about them too long. Here goes.

1. What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?


In the beers I try I'm not looking for one-night stands. I'm looking for future wives. I'm looking for the ones you invite into your house because you might want to live with them, to grow more familiar with them; they walk in on you in the bathroom and you don't even mind. Few beers are so easy to get along with. Few offer the sort of depth that allows a lifetime of getting acquainted.

2. What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Schönramer and Oud Beersel.

Both are highly regarded and oft-awarded, so maybe "underrated" isn't the best word here. But Jay sets a high mark when he suggests that "everything they brew should be spot on."

If there is a dud anywhere in the Schönramer lineup, I've never had it. For my money the Pils and Hell are two of the best in Germany -- very repeatable, very comforting beers.

Meanwhile I think lambic geeks tend to look past the Oud Beersel blendery, maybe because people still associate them with the larger Boon brewery. They lavish much hype upon Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen and increasingly Tilquin -- all with good reason -- but those prices have risen and bottles are harder to find. Meanwhile Oud Beersel is relatively accessible, quality is very high, prices are reasonable, and the character of the beers has grown in confidence over the years. In particular I'd single out the fruit lambics, especially the Oude Kriek, as among the juiciest and most fun beers to drink in Belgium.

3. Name three kinds of beer you’d like to see more of.

1. Czech-style pale lager, properly decocted, hopped and poured.
2. Bitter. Plain old beautiful bitter.
3. Baltic porter.

Why these three? See No. 1.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hello from 35,992 feet.

This Delta flight, on which we are traveling back to America for a little more than a week to celebrate Thanksgiving, has complimentary cans of hoppy liquid on board. Sweetwater 420. Never thought I would see such a day.

Now you will tell me this is becoming somewhat more common, on trans-Atlantic flights or even domestic U.S. ones. I don't know. The great majority of my flying in recent years has been on Squeezy-Jet or Ryan Air. Because cheeeeeeaaaap. Flew from Berlin to Brussels for €10 one way a couple of weeks ago. However many euros I saved, I just see those as gueuze tokens.

On this plane: When the beers are for sale they cost $8. Or you can go cheaper and pay $7 for... Miller Lite. Which is the better buy?

Then they charge you nearly $30 including taxes to use wifi so you can hustle and get that next section of manuscript to the publisher. Robbery, or another miracle at 36,000 feet? We take our joys where we can find them.

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 home 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.