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Archive for December, 2010

I’ve decided to start a periodical series of entries with brief notes of experiences on my beer journey.  Generally, they’ll be short clips of random beers I’ve been trying or perhaps a tidbit of trivia I’ve picked up along the way.  The mash tun refers to the vessel used in the brewing process where grains such as barley are steeped in hot water allowing them to germinate and release the simple sugars needed for fermentation.  So, the idea is that perhaps these small thoughts on various beer topics will provide some of the raw material for future, more in-depth studies.

Privatbrauerei Schwelmer
Living in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, you tend to get an ear full of the two dominant brewing traditions in the region: Altbier and Kölsch.  So, it’s nice to find a quality regional brewer in my area that’s producing something other than these two brews.  Although the town of Schwelm is less than 60km from Cologne, you surprisingly hear zip about Schwelmer beer where I live.  I discovered it while at my favorite specialty beer store in town and after a little research found out that there was some good buzz surrounding this traditional family owned brewery.

Out of curiosity, I picked up a couple of bottles of their Bernstein Bock, which is a traditionally brewed Heller Bock beer.  The brew pours a magnificent amber/copper color with a medium, dense head.  The taste was a definite change from the sweet and malty beers I’ve been having lately.  The Heller Bock is generally more bitter and less malty than its Doppelbock cousin, and this beer certainly fits that bill.  The flavors ranged from grassy and nutty on the front end with a hint of caramel to a very strong hop presence in the finishing.  All in all, it was a worthy representative of the style.  There will definitely be further sampling from this brewer on my wish list!

Our Salvator Is Nigh!
This is it, baby.  The original Doppelbock.  Whenever you hear stories of monks brewing liquid bread to sustain them through their religious fasts, they were originally referring to Paulaner’s Salvator.  My forays into the world of the Doppelbock have so far been pretty limited, but I am definitely a big fan of the style (especially Andechs offering, their Doppelbock Dunkel).  So, while I was shopping for beer the other day, I had some room in my crate, so I grabbed a few of these out of curiosity.

Salvator is actually Latin for Savior.  Not quite sure what the monks were trying to say when they christened this delectable brew.  In any case, the trend caught on.  It’s typical for Bavarian brewers to name their Doppelbocks with a variation on the -ator theme – such as Ayinger’s Celebrator or the Augustiner Maximator.  One US brewer even pokes a little fun at the usage by calling their Doppelbock Seeyoulator.

Well, when they call this stuff liquid bread, they were not kidding.  This is one rich, full-bodied beer. It pours a wonderful dark amber or brown color with light head.  The aroma is sweet and fills the air as soon as you open the bottle.  And, boy, the taste.  Quite sweet up front with notes of dried fruit and caramel, with a blast of wheat and bread in the middle, and a subtle grassy hop finish.  This is a complex, sippin’ beer.  Andechs’s Doppelbock is much softer and more subtle on the palate, so I would prefer it.  But, this one was definitely still pure beer-drinking delight.  The experience has all but guaranteed a future post on this amazing style.

Fellow Beer Bloggers
Recently, I’ve taken to patrolling the web finding interesting site on beer.  In particular, I’ve come across a few other bloggers who are doing a heckuva lot better job at this than I am.  So, I thought I’d pass on a few that I’ve really enjoyed.  I definitely recommend The Hopry.  These two Kerls out of Kansas City do video reviews of some of the best craft beers from around the world with a particular emphasis on brews coming out of the US of A.

Also, check out Tales of ales and more.  This guy is probably my Doppelgänger – an American living in London using his expatriate situation to explore the world of European beer.  He’s had some excellent posts on English beers as well as great info on beer drinking locales in London.

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On October 5, 1842, beer history was made.  The brewer magnates of the small Czech city of Plzen gathered around a cask for a sampling of what would become a beer revolution.  On this day, the Pilsner was born.  This straw-colored, amazingly clear lager was something beer lovers of the time had never seen before.  Although lagering and bottom-fermented brewing methods had been introduced in Bavarian centuries before, this new brewing art proved to be a sensation compared to the heavy, complex ales and cloudy, dark lagers of the time.  The new art created such a stir that within years it had spread all across Europe.  With the invention of refrigeration making the lagering process easier, the revolution was complete.  Today, over 90% of all beer produced in the world is the Pilsner style.

One unfortunate consequence of Pilsner’s conquest was the rapid decline of regional varieties of beer production.  Local styles were quickly displaced by the exploding popularity of the Pilsner.  In fact, by the turn of the 20th century, you would have been hard pressed to find any sort of commercial ale production in Germany.  The absolute conquest of the pale lager is quite astonishing.

Well, there was at least one area of Germany where the Pilsner onslaught in the end did not prevail.  In the lower Rhineland region of the country, a persevering commitment to the ale brewing of old won out.  In Düsseldorf, this old style, bitter brown ale is known as Altbier, which literally means “old beer”.  A few kilometers south of Düsseldorf in Cologne, Germany an even more unique ale tradition now holds sway – Kölsch.

Now, I am not a beer expert.  However, if there’s one area of beer knowledge that I’m familiar with, it’s Kölsch.  This is mainly due to having lived a significant chunk of my adult life in the city of Cologne, and the first type of beer that I drank on a regular basis was the city’s own brew, Kölsch.  I love the city, its people, and its beer

The word Kölsch does not simply refer to the fermented beverage.  Kölsch is actually a language, a culture, and an attitude.  Contained within the city of Cologne and it’s outskirts, Kölsch is an island of unique cultural expression that has no parallel in the rest of Germany.  In contrast to the stoic and emotionless stereotypes of German people, Kölsch is laid back, tolerant, and boisterous – so much so that many Germans call Cologne the Italy of the north.  The people of Cologne love life, and they express that love every day in their openness to all that the world has to offer.  The ultimate expression of this  is the local Kölsch dialect that is still spoken by a large number of native Kölner.  It is said around here that Kölsch is the only language that you can also drink!  The tongue is so exceptional that many times native Germans from other parts of the country are unable to understand it.

Above all, Kölsch is egalitarian.  All of the Kölsch brewers in the city long ago agreed to refrain from using such marketing phrases as “premium” or “limited” in their advertising.  Cologne was also one of the first cities in Germany where it was social acceptable for women to drink beer along side of men.  Karl Marx once remarked that his socialist revolution would never succeed in Cologne because all of the factory owners went to the same pubs as the workers.

With all of this culture and history surrounding Kölsch, it was surprising for me to learn that Kölsch beer as we know it today was a relatively recent development.  Cologne and its environs actually were, like the rest of Europe, lager territory for a long time.  The present Kölsch style didn’t emerge until around 1900, and it didn’t achieve the market dominance it enjoys presently until the 1960s.  But, since that time Kölsch beer has been synonymous with the vibrant culture of its native city.

So, what about the beer?  The brew has a rather narrow profile which makes differences between the various individual brewers difficult to discern sometimes.  By definition, Kölsch is a top-fermented ale that is lagered or conditioned at cold temperatures.  It is light yellow or straw-colored with a light-bodied crispness.  The taste is generally sweet with a medium hop flavor and low bitterness.  Notes of wheat and a fruity subtlty is frequently evident as well.  It is a refreshing beer that tastes amazing on a warm summer afternoon.

Like Champagne, Kölsch is actually an Appellation Controlée meaning only brewers producing in the city of Cologne (or the region around) may legally bear the designation Kölsch.  This arrangement was solidified in the Kölsch Convention, which lays out specific guidelines and protections for the 24 brewers producing Kölsch.  This makes sampling the best of the style particularly easy for one who lives in Cologne, which is exactly what I decided to do.

As I mentioned, the profile of Kölsch is pretty narrow, which means that the actual difference between the various brands of the beer is minor.  So, in an effort to avoid a long-winded rundown of each individual Kölsch, I figured I would present a few of my Kölsch awards based on my tasting of 13 different brewers.  Without further ado, my first award is:

LSB’s Yum-Yum Award – These are the best of the best.  If you ever find yourself in Cologne, these Kölsch are a must  have.  This honor goes to two outstanding brews: Mühlen Kölsch and Päffgen Kölsch.  Mühlen is the sweeter of these two, and probably has the best body and finish of any Kölsch.  Having more hop bitterness, Päffgen is the more rounded flavor-wise of the bunch.  Both are awesome.

Color Me Surprised Award – This award goes to the Kölsch that most surpassed my expectations.  Here the honor falls on Sünner Kölsch.  To be honest, I always thought that this Kölsch was the Billy Bob Thornton of the bunch – abrasive, cheap and low brow.  But, it was surprisingly very enjoyable.  What made it stand out was that it had one of the most unique flavor compositions of all the Kölsch I tried.  Along with the typical wheat and sweet malt flavors, I detected a bit of sour apple and fruity hints, which made this beer quite nice to drink.  And, I later found out that Sünner has the strongest claim to being the original Kölsch.  It was the first brewery to use the name to refer to its beer back in 1918.

Plain Jane Award – This is the award for all of those average joes – the ones that you would certainly be allowed to grace your refrigerator but they won’t necessarily make your toes curl in beer drinking enjoyment.  They are good solid Kölsch that you gladly drink on a regular basis.  And, they are Reissdorf Kölsch, Gaffel Kölsch, and Früh Kölsch.  These three dominate the largest market share of Kölsch sales in the city.  They are the brewers you see most often in the restaurants, Kneipen, and grocery stores.  While not exceptional by any means, these brews are more than merely drinkable.

I Just Couldn’t  Finish It Award – There are very few beers out there that were so weak that I couldn’t finish the bottle.  Unfortunately, there is a Kölsch that made its way on that short list.  Sadly, the award goes to Peters Kölsch.  The beer was watery and thin, and it barely had any of the distinguishing marks of Kölsch.  What was most disappointing was this beer came in a handsome 330ml beugel bottle making me think that I was in for something sophisticated.  You just can’t judge a beer by its bottle, I guess.

Well, there you have it.  The world of Kölsch neatly summarized.  If only it were so easy.  In truth, it’s a culture and a beer that I will be getting to know for many years to come.  It is the people and their history that give this brew its beautiful character, and I’m glad that I get to experience them on a daily basis.

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During the first half of our day in Belgium, we scored some really nice weather.  We were graced at Orval with warm sun and blue sky.  But, as we drove into Brussels that evening, that distinctive northern European drizzle started rolling through.  Because of poor planning on my part, we ended up hitting the outskirts of the city right when rush hour traffic picked up.  Sitting in traffic is not the best way to start your evening.  After a good bit of stop-and-go, we finally reached the city center, where we made our way to our first planned stop – the famous brewer of Lambic beers, Cantillon.  Well, our initial disappointment with Brussels continued as we found out when we arrived that we had missed the brewery’s visiting hours by a half an hour.  Nuts.  So, after an hour in Belgium’s capital, it was already Brussels 3, Visitors 0.

Well, Cantillon would have to wait for another day.  We made our way through the rain-soaked streets to the historic center of town where we parked our car and proceeded on foot.  Our goal was the world-renowned bar and beer mecca, the Delirium Cafe.  However, the moment we stepped out of the garage in which we parked, the light northern European drizzle turned into southeast Asian monsoon forcing us to flee for cover under the nearest awning.  It seemed that our time this city would end in futility.  But, whenever you think things are at their worst, something always seems to come along to shine light on a dreary situation.  For it just so happened that the awning under which we took cover belonged to a quaint little store called Beer Planet!  Things were looking up!

Beer Planet would have to wait though for soon the rain let up enough to allow us to continue on to Delirium.  Delirium is known around the world as the bar with the most available beers for sale – totalling over 2,000!  The bar is located in a narrow side alley a mere few hundred meters away from the extravagant Grand Place.  The inside would remind you of just about every other bar you’ve been in before – worn down wooden bar stools, antique tin signs on the walls, young people sitting around chatting while drinking and smoking.  But, the real treasure of the place is not in the decor but in the beer offerings.  First off, there is no menu per se that you use to select a beer you want.  You actually have to spend 5€ to purchase a magazine-like catalog with a list of all of the beers available.  Once you figure out how to procure that, then the real challenge begins.

Looking back it was probably a good thing, but I didn’t really know enough about Belgian beer to make the massive selection terribly overwhelming.  I knew that I would choose my first beer based on a recommendation from a friend who lived in Belgium.  At the bar, I picked myself up a bottle of the Trappist Rochefort 8.  This Belgian Strong Ale poured a beautiful dark brown color with a medium head.  The aroma was rich with dried fruits and dark sugars.  The taste was complimentary with a strong raisin flavor combined with alcohol making it almost rummy.  But, this fruitiness wasn’t overpowering, and it didn’t remain – the light hop finishing balanced out the malty sweetness.  This was a worthy follow-up to the other Trappist delight we experience that afternoon.

Being in Belgium and knowing we had missed out on Cantillon, I thought it almost a duty that I try at least one Lambic beer.  So, beer #2 on the hit list ended up being Oud Beersel‘s Oude Kriek.  Now, I must say, I’ve never been a fan of Lambic beers.  I never quite developed a taste for that funky sourness that marks the style.  But, I figured that this trip was all about being open-minded, so I gave it a whirl.  Poured into a nice sniffer glass, the brew looked attractive enough – a nice deep red color like cherry wine.  The beer, however, didn’t quite do it for me.  The cherry-like sourness combined with a sort of beer-esque hoppiness is probably acquired taste.  But, it was an interesting enough taste experience that I wouldn’t consider it a waste.

On our way to our final beer destination of the evening, we made a pit stop at our former rain sanctuary, Beer Planet, to shop for a few bottles of take-away beers.  This place had within its tiny confines essentially every Belgian beer out there for sale.  It was a convenient place to pick up a few souvenirs.  However, there was one particular brew that Beer Planet could not offer us.  The Trappist monastery of St. Sixtus in western Belgium produces what many consider to be the most coveted beer in the world – Westvleteren 12.  This beer is even more difficult to find than its six other Trappist brothers owing to the fact that the monastery only sells it by reservation at their location in Westvleteren.  But, fortunately for us, we found out about a pub in Brussels that served this rare brew.

But, it turned out finding the Best Beer in the World would be a bit more challenging than we had expected.  We ended up wandering around the streets of Brussels for a good hour trying to find the locale.  We finally stumbled upon it in a dimly lit back alley not far from the Grand Place.  Walking into this pub was like being transported back 100 years to the time of aristocrats and robber barons.  The place looked like one of these swanky old establishments that have been around for centuries catering to Brussel’s upper class residents – genuine wood-paneled walls, brass bar rails, old gentlemen sitting in the corner booth smoking pipes.  My friends and I definitely de-classed this joint a few rungs simply by walking in.  But, if you tried to imagine the bar the served the Holy Grail of beer, you figure it might look something like this.

We would not be intimidated though.  We found a nice quiet corner to sit down and flipped open a drink menu where we found spread out on one entire page in large type: “Westvleteren 12 – ‘The Best Beer in the World’ – 10€”.  The deep dark brown brew came to us served in a typical Belgian goblet.  The aroma was nice enough – spicy and caramel smell with a nice dried fruit sweetness.  But, honestly, I was a bit disappointed when I took my first sip.  The taste was a lot more mild than I figured it would be.  I guess it was a problem of expectations.  When you anticipate drinking the greatest beer on earth, you might expect the first sip to send you into immediate convulsions of rapture.  Perhaps we were expecting too much.  But, in the end the beer did indeed satisfy.  As I took more sips, the real complexity and subtlety of the beer began to emerge.  By the end of glass, we knew we had experienced something special.

By the time we left the place, we knew the hour had come to make our way back home.  After walking around the city center in order to work off some of the lingering effects of the night’s consumption, we climbed in our car and hit the road back to Cologne.  After a full day of Belgian beer exploration, I was struck by a few things.  First, I realized that I had seriously misjudged the Belgian brewing tradition.  There was a whole world of beer here that I had never taken seriously but was now open to me.  Secondly, my foray into Belgian beer had expanded my appreciate for beer in general.  After experiencing Belgian brewing, German beer in my eyes was not any less wonderful.  On the contrary, the Belgians gave me an even greater love for the unique and beautiful aspects of the German art.  In the end, it was this trip that led to the creation of this blog and my desire to know more about beer.  Each beer style and culture has something to offer – whether it is German, English, American, or Belgian.  Our joy as the consumer is that we get to find out what that is.

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I am a complete Germanophile.  I absolutely love anything having to do with Germany – the culture, its language, and the people.  This bias toward all things German was also prevalent from very early on in my love affair with beer.  After all, I reasoned, Germany is the land of beer!  It just seemed to confirm my suspicion that German was the greatest living culture on earth.  As I learned more about beer though, it became evident that there were competing claims to beer supremacy.  In particular, I was confronted with those who touted Belgian brewing tradition as the vastly superior example of fermented goodness.  No, thank you, I said.

One of the things I’ve always loved about German brewing is the tradition going back centuries.  Specifically, I loved how the oldest statute in German law is the so-called Reinheitsgebot of 1516, which declared it illegal to brew beer with anything other than malted barley, hops, and water (yeast was added to the list in the 19th century).  This absolute commitment to purity in brewing appealed to me – especially when most large American commercial brewers supplement their barley with cheaper grains like rice and corn.

When I first learned about Belgian brewing, I could do nothing but scoff.  How could those Belgians dirty up their beer with things like fruit, spices, and other ridiculous things.  Spontaneous fermentation, indeed.  Belgians were like your crazy, coked-up cousin who likes to set things on fire.  German beer, on the other hand, represented order and purity.

Well, I’m writing today to declare that I have eaten my words.  A few weeks ago, while some friends were visiting from the States, we drove to Belgium to do a little sightseeing.  Included in the trip was a few visits to beer producing locales around the country.  The experience would challenge my deeply held Belgian beer bigotry.

Fortunately, Belgium is a pretty small country.  Since Cologne is only a mere 80 km from the Belgian border, it makes quick jaunts into the country rather easy.  We set off early in the morning for our first stop in southern Belgium near the border with France – the Trappist abbey of Orval.  As one of only seven brewery/monasteries allowed to carry the name Trappist, we figured that this community of brewing monks would know a thing or two about beer.

Incidentally, I don’t think I had much of a concept at that point of how significant the Trappist brewing tradition actually was.  These monks, drawing on centuries of brewing wisdom, produce their special brews – not for commercial profit – but as a means of sustaining their charities and insular monastic communities.  Most of these monasteries brew only a limited amount of beer each year making their offerings highly prized and sought after.  The monks themselves generally shy away from outside attention.  They are simply content to live their lives of solitude and prayer while at the same time brewing their amazing beer.

Like most of the Trappist monasteries, Orval does have a small visitors center attached to but isolated from the main monastery, which handles the numerous beer pilgrims attracted to the place each year.  But, Orval is unique because it allows visitors to tour the ruins of the original 13th century monastery that was destroyed by the French in 1793.  The tour of the ruins provides a really interesting insight into monastic life and community.  And, it’s an absolutely beautiful place to boot.

Along with the beautiful sights, the visitor’s portion also includes a nice gift shop where you can purchase Orval ale as well as their various cheeses which the monks also produce at the monastery.  However, if you actually want to sample their tasty beverage, you have to make your way to the welcoming restaurant just off the monastery grounds.  Here you can sit outside in the sun enjoying a few glasses of Orval and some of their amazing cheese.

So what about the beer?  Well, I can say that Orval changed forever my perception of Belgian brewing.  The beer itself is a Belgian Pale Ale that is bottle fermented.  Served in a traditional Belgian goblet, the beer pours to a nice golden brown-yellow color with a rather dense head.  What sold me immediately about this beer was the aroma.  Wow!  Waves of citrus, spices, and wheaty hoppiness fill your nose, and you know at that point this is going to be a good beer.  The taste is nice and complex with lemon citrus and wheat hay flavor on the front end and nice clean hop bite to finish.  I had been converted.

We left southern Belgium a few hours later with new excitement.  What else does the rest of Belgium have to offer the eager beer palate?  Unfortunately, the various Trappist breweries are spread all over Belgium (with one in the Netherlands), so further visits to these remote beer hideouts would have to wait.  However, we were soon to find out that Belgium is no one-hit wonder.  The brewing arts run deep in this small country.  So, we decided that the most appropriate place for a concentrated sampling of this multifaceted beer culture would be the capital.  Therefore, we set out on the 3 hour drive north for our next stop – the city of Brussels.

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