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Mash Tun #6

The Mash Tun is back! This regular series is my little mish mash of beer experiences, thoughts, and other tidbits. It is named after, of course, the large brewing vessel used to mix brewing grains with hot water kicking off all sorts of pleasant reactions that make beer what it is. It seems appropriate then that this segment contains some of those various odds and ends that continue to catalyze my facsination with beer. For this renewed edition, I’ll be sharing one particular resource that has fueled my curiosity recently as well as share a tasting of a brew from one of the most storied breweries in Germany. Let’s do this!

Beer As Art
One of the quirks of my personality is that I tend to get very excited to the point of obsession over topics that interest me. Many years ago, I started following the Beautiful Game, that is, soccer. I couldn’t content myself with simply picking a team, learning some of the rudimentary rules, and then simply enjoying the game. I spent months devouring everything I could get my hands on that illuminated every angle of the sport–players, leagues, personalities, history, tactics, and more. I couldn’t get enough. In much the same way, when I dove head long into my beer exploration back in 2010, I consumed whatever new information or knowledge about beer and brewing I could find. In fact, this blog is a result to that obsession.

tasting beerMuch of my earlier obsessive curiosity has resurfaced the past couple of months, and I have found myself once again seeking out whatever insight into beer I can get my hands on. One such resource that I’ve recently come across is the wonderful and informative book by Randy Mosher call Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink. Randy’s book is about the best thing I’ve ever read that paints a comprehensive picture of the multifaceted experience that is beer. He touches on just about every area including grain brewing’s rich history, beers intimate role within culture, as well as all of the nitty gritty about methods, styles, presentation, and tasting.

What fascinates me most about this volume though is Mosher’s obvious passion for beer. Throughout the book, he poetic waxes about the beauty, transcendence, and eloquence of the fermented drink. You get the impression as you read that this is his love letter to brewing. At one point he writes:

Beer is democratic. It does not depend on the finest real estate or limited geographical designations. The many choices made by the maltster and brewer create aromas, flavors, textures, and colors, transforming a few simple commodities into exquisite works of art. Anyone with skill, passion, and creativity can learn to make great beer. As a taster, each glance, each telltale whiff and studied sip of beer can be like peering into the soul of the man or woman who brewed it. This dependence on a human rather than a heavenly touch is one of beer’s great delights. (Mosher, 2)

He succeeds in educating on the various aspects of the beer world while at the same time passing his deep appreciation on to his reader as well. I’m not even finished with the book yet, and I can already say that he has given me enormous amounts of fodder to feed my deepening passion.

But, the book has also had a humbling effect. I’m reminded once again of how much of an amateur I am when it comes to beer. There are a lot of people out there who know so much more and have had a wider range of experiences than I. I’m still trying to develop even a basic ability to discern and fully appreciate what I’m tasting when I drink a beer. This realization is far from discouraging though. In fact, it has inspired an even greater inquisitiveness.

An Evening with Weihenstephaner
Nowadays I don’t get much opportunity to enjoy high quality German brews. This is a far cry from the last time I was writing on this blog when every trip to the grocery store yielded a different sampling of the German tradition. Living in Germany certainly had its advantages. That’s not to say that every bottle I bought at the market was the dark and malty deliciousness we tend to associate with Germany. The same industrialization that watered down American and British brewing with its weak Pilsners and pale lagers has had similar effects in Deutschland. Consolidation in recent decades has led to many of the traditional Starkbiers going the way of the dodo. A hand full of traditional breweries are still doing their thing, and fortunately for us many of these outstanding beers are available here in the US. One of these pillars of traditional German beer is also known as the oldest brewery in the world: Weihenstephaner.

vitusFounded in 1040 as part of the Benedictine abbey of Freising in Bavaria, the original brewery catered mostly to the resident monks and the occasional aristocrat. Since the brewery was secularized in 1803 (in the 20th century, it became known as the Bavarian State Brewery), its traditional beers have been enjoyed by an increasingly wider and appreciative audience. In addition to the German mainstays like Pilsner, Helles and a nice Hefeweizen, Weihenstephaner brews a renowned Doppelbock known as Korbinian as well as a hefty Weizenbock, the Vitus, which I recently was able to get my hand on.

Weizenbock is one of my favorite styles. As a Weizen, it exhibits mosts of the familiar attributes of German wheat ale–fruity and phenolic aromas, bready malts, unfiltered appearance, and ridiculous amounts of creamy head. But, a higher gravity and darker grain bill give them their more robust caramel flavors and higher ABV. It’s a perfect beer for those long, dark winter days warming the heart and the belly.

Weihenstephaner’s Vitus falls right into this profile. Poured out of the bottle into a tall, tapering Weizen glass, a dense, tan head quickly fills its container releasing a wonderful banana and clove aroma into the room. As the carbonation begins to settle, the beautifully hazy, amber color becomes evident. Once in the mouth, the caramel sweetness takes over and is tempered only by a mild toasty flavor and the slightest Noble hop bitterness. This is a nice full-bodied but very drinkable beer that has a lively and sweet mouthfeel. While not as good as Schneider’s version of the Weizenbock, the Vitus has reminded me why I love this style so much.

I enjoy these moments that I get to relive some of my German beer memories. In a land like the US dominated by hopped-up malt bombs and crazy experimental brews, it’s nice to sometimes delight in one of the classics.

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Well, I’m writing my very first post from the Land of Freedom.  Our trip across the Atlantic Ocean went off without a hitch, and now my family and I are hanging out in the Chicagoland area before heading off to Ohio.  One of the first things I did once arriving in the States was find the closest specialty beer store.  I was able to pick up a few miscellaneous brews to kick off my American beer experience!  So, this Mash Tun will look at two American craft beers – one from right here in the Windy City and another from the Bluegrass State.

Goose Island IPA
I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I have never had an India Pale Ale.  It’s awful, I know.  Unfortunately, it’s a style that’s not very prevalent in Germany, so there hasn’t been much opportunity for me to get my hands on one.  Needless to say then, I was looking forward to finally experiencing this beloved brewing tradition.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I would like the hoppy profile of the IPA.  German brewing is not known for their heavy use of bittering hops.  Well, I had the chance to try my hand at the IPA my first full day back in America.

Although Goose Island wasn’t on my list of must-drink beers during my trip to the US, the brewery has been on my radar for a while.  During my initial beer shopping excursion, I had a slot left in my “build your own 6-pack”, so I picked up their take on the India Pale Ale.  This brew pours a slightly hazy orange color with light, quickly dissipating head.  The nose is citrus including orange and a little lemon plus sweet malts and nice dose of grass and floral hops. With orange and sweetness being balanced by grassy and floral hops flavor dominating, the taste resembles closely the aroma.  I was really pleased with the nice strong hop flavor which was not overly bitter. The brew had an amazing mouthfeel with light crispness, lively carbonation, and smooth aftertaste.  With one IPA now under my belt, I can definitely say that I’m looking forward to many more to come.

Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale
I’m noticing that it is a huge trend in craft beer right now to brew using casks from liquor distilleries.  By far the most popular is bourbon barrels, but I also seen beer from brandy and other whiskey casks.  Personally though, I have never experienced beer from this unique brewing art.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I have even had bourbon before.  It just so happened that the friends we were staying with in Chicago were big fans of a particular barrel aged beer – the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale from the Lexington Brewing Company.  According to my friend, it’s actually illegal to export the beer out of Kentucky making it a particularly distinctive acquisition.  I’m skeptical of the accuracy of my friend’s information, but I was nonetheless excited to give it a try.

I like cool bottles.  For some reason, beer coming from a cool bottle just seems more drinkable.  This brew comes in a classic, almost antique style bottle with a black silhoette of a horses head on the label.  Out of this bottle pours a rich copper beer with medium off-white head. Of course, you get the strong whiskey scent right off the bat along with a nice malty sweetness. The taste is heavy on the bourbon with some vanilla and a slight fruity sweetness as well. The really nice thing about this beer, in my opinion, was how it felt on the palate.  The brew is very smooth – almost silky – as well as well-balanced with a medium body making it very drinkable.  It wasn’t the mind-blowing experience that some people might make it out to be, but the bourbon barrel-aged beer is a definite must-try.

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The good times keep on rolling in beerland.  I’m in the process of researching a very unique beer locale in my adopted home of Cologne.  On top of that, my family and I are preparing for our first trip back to the States since we moved to Germany a year and a half ago.  Needless to say, my plate is pretty full.  What a perfect time for a new Mash Tun!  This edition explores some beer geek terminology as well as a tasting from a rather famous Munich brauhaus.

The Animator
One of the most storied breweries in the Munich beer pantheon is the Hacker-Pschorr Brauhaus.  This renowned brewer can trace its history all the way back to 1417 when the Hacker brewhouse was founded in Munich.  For several centuries, the two brewing families of Hacker and Pschorr remained distinct entities although they were related through intermarriage.  After surviving world wars, economic crises, and the ever turbulent changes in the beer market, the two houses finally merged in 1972.

I’ve been able to sample a few selections from this famous Munich establishment recently including their Münchener Hell and Sternweisse wheat beer.  The other day though I came across their Animator Doppelbock in the store, so I decided I had to do a write-up about this one.  Their take on the Doppelbock is one of their best rated brews, which meant I had some high expectations going in.

Out of the 500ml bugel bottle the beer poured a reddish-brown, hazy color with only a little off-white head.  The aroma was grainy with some fruitiness and hints of caramel.  The taste was mostly those malted grains with a corresponding sweetness that included some slight hints of fruit (perhaps peach?).  The most disappointing aspect of this beer, in my opinion, was how it sat on the palate.  For a Doppelbock, it seemed a little too watery and light.  Along with very weak carbonation, the mouthfeel didn’t leave much to be desired.  So, on the whole it was a pretty average Doppelbock – certainly enjoyable, but not nearly what I was hoping for from a brewery with such a reputation.

Not Quite NA Beer
I’ve been exploring the vast universe of beer now for about six months.  In that time, I’ve learned that there is a very specialized vocabulary when you’re talking about beer.  Whether it’s phenolic or a growler, if you’re going to be a beer geek, you gotta learn the language.  One such phrase that particularly interested me lately was the term “session beer”.  Usually, you find it a sentence like:  “Wow!  I’ve just downed 4 pints and I’m not totally wasted.  This would make a great session beer!”

BeerAdvocate defines a session beer as “any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters and, typically, a clean finish – a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability.”  The goal of a good session beer is that it permits the drinker to indulge in multiple glasses without the messy consequences of intoxication.  Apparently, the term is rooted in blue collar England where factory workers were only allowed a certain period (or “session”) in between shifts where they were allowed to drink.  Therefore, they would seek out particular beers that could quench their thirst without leaving them shnookered when they returned to their jobs.

From the craft beer perspective, a good session beer needs to be light on the ABV but still meeting a high standard of quality and drinkability – meaning Miller Lite need not apply.  To this point, I’m not sure how many true session beers I’ve come across.  Typically, the high-octane brews are the ones that get the most attention in the craft beer world.  But, the next time I’m at the brew pub with friends, I’ll know what to look for.

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Today I received a new shipment of beer from the Bierzwerg!  So, I’m really looking forward to some of the posts that I have planned in the coming weeks.  It also means that I have a lot of beer to drink as well.  But, before I get into the new batch, I thought I’d throw out another Mash Tun.  This post deals with a curious sign in my neighborhood as well as two classic brews that I recently sampled.

Star of Brewing
Just down the street from our apartment, there is a traditional Kölsch tavern called Em Golde Kappes.  With a history going back to the 1910s, this brewhouse is a fixture in the cultural of my neighborhood in Cologne.  Along with Kölsch and great bratwurst, this biergarten has some very interesting symbols, images, and emblems that harken back to the city’s brewing history.  One such symbol is hanging above the main entrance in front of the brewhouse.  Suspended from an awning above the door, there is a large gilded cabbage (Em Golde Kappes means “At the Golden Cabbage”) above which is, what appears to be, the Star of David.

Ever since we moved into this neighborhood, I have wondered what the origins were of this curious symbol.  What, if anything, does a Kölsch tavern have to do with Judaism?  I decided recently to do a little research surrounding this symbol, through which I found out that it has nothing to do with the Jewish Star of David at all.

It turns out that the six-pointed star, or hexagram, is one of the oldest symbols of a brewing guild.  In medieval Germany, local aristocrats would issue licenses (for a small fee, of course) to brewers granting them the right to brew and serve beer.  In order to notify customers that a licensed brewer was operating, taverns would post so-called tapping signs at their entrances.  The hexagram became one of many tapping signs common throughout Germany.  For more information, I highly recommend a great article discussing the history and significance of these signs.

It’s Wheat, It’s Bock…It’s Delicious!
G. Schneider & Sohn is quickly becoming one of my favorite German breweries.  Wheat beer is the name of the game for these guys.  This exclusively wheat beer brewery, which is the oldest in Munich*, has one of the best Weizen line-ups in the world.  Awhile back I got to sampled their classic Hefeweizen, which got me curious to delve more into their beer offerings.  Much to my joy, I found in a local supermarket a few bottles of perhaps their most famous brew – the Aventinus Weizenbock.

I find the whole idea of the Weizenbock just plain awesome.  This beer definitely delivers with a beautiful marriage between the fruit and spice flavors of the Weizen and the caramel and bready goodness of the Doppelbock.  The beer pours a rich, opaque dark brown color with a light, effervescent head.  The aroma of caramel and yeast if evident but not overpowering.  With the taste you get a whole range of flavors.  The front end is dominated by the banana and clove typical for a Weissbier which is then followed by the powerful caramel and cereal flavors.  Robust and full-bodied, this brew is a real heavy hitter.  I love this beer.

*Note of Correction:  The G. Schneider & Sohn brewery is no longer located in Munich.  From 1872 to 1945, the brewery was indeed the largest and oldest wheat beer brewer in the city.  However, an Allied bombing raid in 1944 completely destroyed their production and brewing facilities.  After the war, the brewery relocated to Kelheim, Germany where it still operates today.

Westmalle
Ever since my trip to Belgium, I’ve had it as a goal of mine to sample every Trappist beer out there to enjoy.  The seven official Trappist brewers produce, by my count, 25 individual beers.  So far, I have gotten my mitts on 7 of them including brews from Westvleteren, Rochefort, Orval, and Chimay.  This past week I added Westmalle to my list.

Specifically, I was able to sample Westmalle’s Tripel.  Now, this was my very first forray into the world of Tripels, so I was going on minimal experience in my tasting.  But, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed in this beer.  I was expecting a complex brew with a range of fruit flavors and a good malt-hop balance.  What I got instead was a one-sided flavor profile with some malt sweetness and fruit notes along with very little hop character.  I’m not sure if I got a bum batch or if it just went over my head, but I found this beer no match to either an Orval or Rochefort.  However, with the outstanding reputation that Westmalle has in the beer world, it’s very likely that I simply didn’t get it.  In any case, I’m planning more samplings in the Tripel style, so hopefully I’ll be able to get more of a grasp on it.

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In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing some arduous research as part of an in-depth look into a renowned German brewery.  By “arduous research”, I mean drinking a lot of  beer.  It’s a tough assignment, I know.  So, I probably won’t be able to publish my next major post for another week or so.  In the meantime, I figured this would be a good opportunity to put together another Mash Tun.  This edition will include a look inside the ingredients end of the brewing process as well as a lament for the German beer industry.

Tettnang
For our vacation last summer, my wife and I spent a week relaxing along Lake Constance in southern Germany.  While we were out and about one afternoon, we drove past a whole bunch of farms that had these strange vines on massive wooden trellises. For the life of us, we just couldn’t figure out what they were growing on these things.  Our best guess was that it was some sort of grape-vine, but it was unlike any grape cultivation we had seen before.  For months, it remained a mystery.

Well, the mystery was solved this past week.  While browsing around on the internet, I came across this picture.  It turns out that these farms were growing hops!  The Lake Constance area is a major producer of the Tettnang variety of Noble hops.  The region exports this valuable commodity to breweries all over the world.  Because of its rich floral aromas and low bitterness, this hop is most commonly found in German Pilsners, wheat beers, and many American lagers.  These puppies are the ultimate aroma hops producing a refined, flowery aromatic.

In retrospect, I’m a little bummed that we didn’t realize what we were looking at.  It would have been cool to explore a little more while we were in the area.  I found out later that there’s even a hop museum near the town of Tettnang that’s supposed to be pretty amazing.  As I grow more interested in the subtlties of the beer world, it’s seeing stuff like this that really fascinates me.

Poor German Pilsner
In recent years, the German beer scene has been in decline.  Sure, there are still amazing breweries in Germany that are making some of the world’s best beers.  But, for the most part, the trend in Germany since the 1990s has been consolidation with an accompanying decrease in quality.  Most major German brewers have abandoned brewing starkbier in favor of flavored products such as lemon beer (Radler) or the awful Cola-beer mix.  You can’t blame them though.  They are simply following their market research which says that their most important consumer – young people – are moving away from traditional beers to sweetened varieties.

No other style has taken more of a beating than the Classic German Pilsner.  This once proud tradition was the unquestioned conqueror of the entire beer world.  However, the unfortunate consequence of this dominance has been a gradual decline in the overall quality of Pilsners that are produced.  Most German Pilsners barely fit the traditional characteristics of the style being mostly generic, pale lagers.

A few months back, I set out to find  brewers in Germany who were still brewing quality German Pilsners.  I sampled most of the national brands like Warsteiner, Bitburger, Radeberger, and Krombacher as well as some regional varieties.  Most of the national producers – beers we normally associate with German imports in the States – were rather disappointing.  However, among all of the weak, watered-down Pilsners, a few national brands stood out as brews that were upholding the Pilsner tradition.  I specifically enjoyed the offerings from Jever and Flensburger both of which had a really nice malt character balanced by a light but fine herbal hoppiness.  Despite these two decent showings, the real German Pilsner is nowadays found among the local and regional companies – breweries like Rothaus, Schwelmer, and Waldhaus.  It has given me impetus to continue my search for authentic examples of this much-maligned style.

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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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