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Archive for the ‘Beer Styles’ Category

For my most recent tasting of various Belgian Tripels, I tried to think of some clever way to introduce it all in this post.  I wanted to come up with some sort of witty word play on triple, so I toyed with the idea of somehow referencing things like the triple play, Triple H, Triple Crown, triple lutz, and the Triple Entente.  It was all pretty lame.  This is understandable considering the creative and high reasoning center of my brain has slowly deteriorated over the last week due to near continuous exposure to music from Fisher-Price toys.  So, I decided to just put creativity and wit aside and jump right into the nitty-gritty.

In a recent post, I described my disappointment in one very famous Tripel.  I’m not sure if I had a bad batch or if the entire style just wasn’t my flavor.  But, Westmalle’s version just didn’t sit well with me.  It seemed so bland and monotone.  Considering the reputation that Westmalle has in the craft beer world, I figured I must had missed something.  I decided that I had to get to the bottom of this Tripel business, so I picked up a few more well-known examples in my recent shipment from the Bierzwerg.

It turns out that the story of the Belgian Tripel begins with the very same Westmalle brew that I found so uninspiring.  The term as we use it today has relatively recent origins.  In the mid-1930s, a Belgian brewery called Drie Linden first applied the term Tripel to a strong pale ale.  The head brewer also was connected with the Trappist brewery of Westmalle, and through this influence the monks released their own version of the brew under the name Superbier.  After World War II, Westmalle began tweaking their recipe by adding more hops which resulted in the Westmalle Tripel we know today.  Since then, countless other brewers in Belgian have taken up the term Tripel to describe their golden, hoppy, stong pale ales.

As far as its characteristics are concerned, the Tripel is a very interesting style.  Much like Pilsners, the Tripel should have a bright golden color with little to no haze.  Aromas should be mainly fruity including bananas, lemon, or other citrus, depending on the make.  There should be a fine malt-hop balance with a strong sweetness and corresponding bitterness in the finishing.  The typical ABV range for most Tripels is between 8% and 11%, which means that the brew can carry quite a bunch for such a pale beer.  Although the alcohol esters are certainly present, the best Tripels are able to balance and subdue their high alcohol content with their finely tuned malt bills.

My exposure to Belgian Tripels thus far has been very miniscule with only Westmalle’s and St. Bernardus’s versions counting toward my tasting experience.  With these two samplings, I couldn’t have found two greater extremes.  My opinion of the Westmalle was dubious at best, but I found the St. Bernardus offering to be a magnificent drinking experience.  To widen my horizons, I was able to acquire three new varieties: Tripel Karmeliet, Kasteel Tripel, and the Maredsous 10.

First up in the Tripel taste test was the brew from the Brouwerij Bosteels called the Tripel Karmeliet.  This beer has a tremendous reputation to say the least.  Both BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer. com each have this monster in their list of top five Tripels with it hitting the number one spot in the latter.  The aroma was right in line with the typical profile for Tripels – strong fruit esters with an emphasis on citrus along with some nice spice notes.  The taste is what actually surprised me about this beer.  It can be best described as vinous almost like you were drinking a glass of wine.  There was also some of that citrus flavor, especially lemongrass, coming out as well.  On the whole though, I really wasn’t blown away by this take on the style.  It definitely didn’t live up to the hype that I perceived surrounding this beer.

The next victim in the Tripel sampler was the Kasteel Tripel from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck.  This brew was probably the most disappointing from the bunch.  The appearance and aroma were right in line with what you’d expect – golden clear with a nose full of citrus, other fruits, and spice.  But, the taste left little to be desired.  For starters, this beer clocks in at 11% ABV making it one of the stronger Tripels out there.  Unfortunately, the brew didn’t do much to mask this high alcohol content, making the experience a little like drinking cough syrup.  Sure, you had the usual suspects present – decent fruit esters with a nice medium hop bitterness in the finishing.  But, the alcohol combined with a not so pleasant mouthfeel made this brew a chore to finish.

Finally, there’s the Maredsous 10 from the Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat.  Since this brew comes from one of the largest beer conglomerates in Belgian, I actually had slightly lower expectations going into it.  However, this beer proved to be a wonderful drinking experience and the winner of my mini Tripel taste test.  Again, the appearance and aromas were right in line with the style description we’re familiar with.  The taste is nice and complex with a wonderful balance of mild fruits including the typical citrus as well as grapes and a little banana.  The surprise was in the hop bitterness towards the finish, which was much more prevalent than any the other Tripel I’ve had.  It proved to add a very remarkable character to the beer.

Now that I have a little more experience with the style, it’s amazing to me just how diverse the various offerings out there are.  In the few tastings I’ve had, I have had some exceptional brews and some not so noteworthy ones.  For a style that enjoys such high regard, it surprised me that there could be so much disparity in not only the character but the very quality of the beers that I tasted.  Disappointing beers included, I can say that the endeavor has been worthwhile.  I’m happy to say that through the likes of brewers such as Maredsous and St. Bernardus, my appreciate of the Tripel has been opened wide.

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There’s a nasty rumor that has been circulating throughout North America for some time.  Astonishingly, certain misinformed people (I’m looking at you, Labatt) have claimed for awhile that ice beer was invented in Canada.  It seems that anything associated with cold, freezing, or ice can nowadays be pinned on the Great White North.  But, how did this particular scuttlebutt come to be?

To find out, let’s turn back the clock to that magical time known as 1993.  Those were heady days, my friend.  The Canadiens were engraving their names on Lord Stanley’s Mug for the last time.  BKS and Don Cherry were making beautiful music together.  And, a Prime Minister was single-handedly ruining her own political party.  It was also the year of the infamous Ice Beer Wars. In the spring of that year, the Canadian beer manufacturer, Labatt, announced that they had “invented” a process which could increase the body and alcohol content of their beer through partially freezing it.  Labatt Ice was born.  Not to be outdone, Labatt’s main Canadian rival, Molson, releases their own version of ice beer sparking a massive marketing war between the two brewers.

I’m sure any German at the time would have viewed this conflict with a good deal of incredulity.  To this day, Labatt claims to have the original patent to the ice beer process despite the fact that Germans have been utilizing the method for 150 years.  Known in Germany as Eisbock, maximizing flavor and alcohol levels through freezing is, in fact, nothing new on the other side of the Atlantic.

The process involved in creating both Eisbock and the Canadian version is essentially identical.  By cooling beer to just below freezing, you separate out a large portion of water from the alcohol, which has a lower freezing point.  You then skim off the ice crystals from the brew leaving behind a beer that is twice as potent as the original.  The major difference between the two is that typical North American ice beers usually have water added back into the beer in order to keep alcohol levels right around 5 to 6% as opposed to the 12 to 15% found in Eisbocks.

The other significant difference is, of course, that Eisbock has been around for over a century longer than Labatt Ice.  The story of the very first Eisbock is surrounded in myth and mystery.  According to the legend, the discovery of Eisbock was not the work of some ingenious brewer but, rather, a stroke of exceedingly good luck.  It all went down in the region of Kulmbach in upper Franconia in the mid-19th century.  During one particularly harsh winter, a lowly brewers apprentice was finishing up a day of grueling work at his master’s brewery.  Instead of rolling kegs of recently brewed Doppelbock from the courtyard to the cellar, the exhausted apprentice decided to knock off early leaving several barrels of the brew outside overnight.  The next morning, the head brewer was furious when he discovered the partially frozen beer left out by his underling.  As punishment, he forced the apprentice to break off the ice and drink the syrupy residue that remained in the barrels.  Far from being punishment, the dark brown, ulta-malty brew turned out to be a landmark development.

It’s unclear how much of this story is purely fictional.  In any case, the accidental discovery soon created a stir throughout Germany making Eisbock an instant classic.  Nowadays, many Bavarian brewers have taken the accident out of the process and have added Eisbocks to their already prodigious offerings.  The original Kulmbacher brewery to which this legend is linked continues to offer their version of Eisbock.  They are one among many that make the brewing of this beer a seasonal event.  But, perhaps the most unusual version in the Eisbock style comes from the wheat beer brewer G. Schneider & Sohn.  Unlike most other Eisbocks, which are made from Doppelbocks, Schneider’s variant is instead a Weizen giving the beer a unique character.

As I’ve mentioned before, I love Schneider’s Aventinus Weizenbock.  So, when I found out that their Eisbock was essentially a concentrated version of the Aventinus, I knew I had to get my hands on this one.  It turned out that Schneider’s offering was one of the few Eisbocks that I was able to find where I’m at.  At any rate, this puppy would definitely make a superb introduction to the Eisbock style.

So, what about the beer?  This delicious brew pours a deep brown, almost black color with effervescent off-white head.  The aroma, which is rich with dried fruits, yeast, and bread, hits the nose immediately.  The taste is huge in dried fruits, plum, raisin with typical Weizen banana and a big cereal malt flavor.  It’s probably an overstatement to call this beer syrup-like, but it is definitely full-bodied giving way to a hefty malt aftertaste.

Phew!  Is it just the room or is my head spinning?  It goes without saying that the alcohol content of this beer is a significant feature.  With 12% ABV, you’d think that it would dominate the flavor.  Although you get a strong rummy taste with the Aventinus Eisbock, it isn’t overpowering.  In fact, the warming alcohol taste balance well with the huge malt character making the beer very drinkable.  You definitely want to take it slow though.  This sucker will mess you up quick.

I suppose that Labatt and Molson can be excused for their claims to originality.  What gets me though is the overreaching boast of ice beer’s potency.  In comparison, Aventinus Eisbock might as well be Absinthe.  Regardless, the likes of Labatt Ice in no way rob the German variety of ice brewing from its authenticity and ingenuity.  Brewers such as Kulmbacher and Schneider’s will continue to produce the world’s best and truly original ice beer.

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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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