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.