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.