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.