For this week’s post, I had originally intended to review a well-known local microbrewery and brewpub here in Cologne.  At the last minute though, my plans to visit the locale with a friend fell through, so I’ve been scrambling to find something to post for this week.  Therefore, I’m going to do what every good college student does when they’re up against a deadline – find something you did in the past and recycle it!

Well, it really isn’t a complete recycle job.  I’ve been a fan of the Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus for a long time.  However, I’ve only ever sampled their Pils, which is incidentally one of the finest German Pilsners out there.  Just recently though, Rothaus’s seasonal spring beer, their Märzen Export, has started showing up on store shelves.  I figured this would be a good pinch-hitter for this week’s entry.

Like so many other German breweries, Rothaus was original founded as part of a monastery.  In 1791, the abbot of St. Blasien Abbey, a certain Martin Gerbert II, established a small brewery in the upper Black Forest region of southern Germany.  In this economically challenged district, the dutiful abbot wanted his new brewery to help support development in the surrounding area.  The monastery’s brewing activities did not last long though.  In the wake of the Napoleonic invasions, the region was secularized in 1806, and ownership of the brewhouse was transferred to the Grand Duchy of Baden.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the small Rothaus brewery remained confined to this remote and picturesque country.  Through the years, the brewhouse survived revolutions, fires, depressions, and wars.  After World War I the monarchy was abolished, at which point the brewery found itself again under new management – this time the new federal state of Baden.  As a state-owned operation, the brewery didn’t make many waves in the German beer scene.  This all changed in the 1990s, when under the leadership of a former state official the brewhouse doubled its output.  Rothaus, still owned by the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, enjoys a sterling reputation that extends far beyond the Black Forest.

So, what about the beer?  As part of my sampling, I was able to snag their classic Pils, their Hefeweizen, as well as their seasonal Märzen Export.  While Rothaus beers are not the kind that are going to turn a lot of heads, there is some really quality in this line up.  Let’s start with the Märzen!  This brew pours a nice deep golden color with medium, somewhat fizzy head.  Sticking your nose in the glass, you get an aroma that is sweet malts with a particularly fruity emphasis.  The taste is mostly the corresponding sweetness including some nice fruity notes, particularly grape. The hop flavors are grassy but subdued with very little bitterness.  All in all, it’s a nice representative of the Märzen.

From the bottom-fermented, we move now to the ale arena and Rothaus’s take on the Hefeweizen.  The appearance on this sucker is a relatively clear orange color with some sediment and a huge, creamy head.  The nose is dominated by the Weizen notes – banana, clove, and some floral elements with a flavor profile that is heavy on the banana on the front end.  In contrast, there is a light, herbal hop bitterness that moved the beer into a crisp finish.  The palate was the most disappoint part of this beer.  The mouthfeel was pretty watery, especially for a Weizen, with a distracting fizzy carbonation.  The brew had some amazing flavors but couldn’t quite deliver on the palate.  Regardless, it was a pretty delightful Weizen.

If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you know that I’m on an ongoing search for well crafted German Pilsners.  Rothaus’s version is one of my favorite brews in this style.  The beer has all of the characteristics of a great Pils.  There’s the classic clear, golden appearance along with the sweet bread and malt aromas.  The taste is sweet with the bread and slight floral elements coming through.  But, there’s also that crisp grassy hop flavor that balances the sweetness very well.  This is definitely the kind of beer that you want to keep stocked in your frig.

I’m a sucker for breweries that have not only quality beer but a long history.  After over 200 years of brewing great beers, Rothaus has proven that they’ve got the stuff.  Although these brews aren’t super flashy, they are definitely quality.  In a country that is slowly loosing its grip of its brewing reputation, Rothaus is steadfast holding the line of good brewing craftmanship.


Mash Tun #4

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.

The Belgian Tripel

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.

St. Bernard of Beer

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there are as many as ten Catholic saints with the name of Bernard.  My favorite is probably the abbot and scholar, Bernard of Clairveaux.  The saintly monk was known for establishing hundreds of monasteries across Europe and for being the private tutor to four different Popes.  Then there’s Bernard of Corleone.  This guy elevated the medieval tradition of self-flagellation to an art form.  And, let’s not forget Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of mountaineers and skiers, who is probably most famous for having a dog named after him.

Which Bernard became the inspiration for St. Bernardus Brouwerij, I have yet to figure out.  I’m guessing it’s probably not the flagellation guy.  At any rate, the jolly old monk that graces each bottle of St. Bernardus beer is more than likely fictive.  The name of the brewery is actually derived from a location rather than a person.  The Refuge of Notre Dame de St. Bernard in the Flanders town of Waton was established in the 19th century by monks fleeing anti-clericalism in France.  Like many of their monastic cousins, the refuge became  known for their production of cheese and beer.  After the community returned to France in 1934, a local resident adopted the St. Bernardus name and developed a thriving cheese business.

The story of how this family of cheese makers moved into brewing involves another famous monastic community known for beer – namely, the St. Sixtus Abbey and their Westvleteren Trappist ales.  Prior to World War II, the Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus practiced within their confines their centuries-old tradition of brewing beer.  This production was originally meant solely to supply the needs of the monastic community.  But, after the war, the abbey decided to expand their production and distribution making their Trappist ale available to a wider market.

The brewing of the beer, which was marketed under the name St. Sixtus, was licensed to an independent brewer who sold the it under the Trappist name.  The brewer who received this lucrative license was, you guessed it, the same family that ran the St. Bernardus fromagerie.  The original St. Sixtus Abt 12 was born.  As a part of this license, the St. Sixtus monks supplied their rent-a-brewer with their recipes and yeast strains making the St. Sixtus beer a faithful representation of the brew enjoyed by the monastic community.

The deal came to an end in 1992 when the Abbey of St. Sixtus joined the other Trappist brewing monasteries in forming a protective brand.  From that point on, only beers brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery could carry the name Trappist.  However, this was not the end of the brews from Watou.  The family was allowed to continue its operations under the resurrected name of St. Bernardus.

Since then, St. Bernardus has become world-renown for its amazing Belgian ales.  Using the traditional numbering system based on alcohol content, the main line-up of St. Bernardus features two Abbey Dubbels – the Pater 6 and Prior 8 – and a mind-blowing Quad, the Abt 12.  Over the years, the brewery has also added several other offerings, including two Abbey Tripels, a Witbier, and dark ale called Grottenbier.  For my tasting and your reading pleasure, I was able to procure the two Dubbels, their mainstay Tripel, and the delectable Quad.

So, what about the beer?  The story of the Pater 6 is one of subtlety.  The beer pours an opaque red-brown color with light head.  A light aroma of hay, Belgian yeast, and raisins fills the nose.  The taste of this brew is very subdued.  Fruity malts with only a mild sweetness make up a relatively narrow flavor profile.   There’s also a pronounced doughy yeast flavor along with some resin hops balancing it all out.  With a light to medium body and a soft carbonation, the beer has a very pleasant mouthfeel.  It’s not the best stand alone beer, but it would go really well with some appropriate food pairings.

The next step up is their Prior 8, which is in essence a beefed up version of the Pater 6.  The brew pours a rich opaque brown color with two fingers of head that has some gorgeous lacing.  Aroma is sweet with dried fruits especially plum and raisin, and yeast.  The taste is complimentary with a prominent dried fruit flavors, along with spice, doughy yeast, and alcohol esters.   It’s very smooth on the palate, medium-bodied, and has a sweet-bitter balanced aftertaste.  This is what I think of when I hear the word Dubbel.

The grande dame of the bunch is their Quad, the Abt 12.  This beauty is dark brown, almost black in appearance.  The aroma is extravagant – heavily floral with distinct notes of yeast, dried fruit, and citrus. The taste is dominated by the malt flavors, mostly yeast and raisins, but also a touch of banana.  But, the beer doesn’t stop there.  These flavors also bleed into a very firm base of citrusy hop bitterness that carries over into the finish.  What I found out later was that the Abt 12 is using the same Westvleteren yeast strain that the brewery acquired under its license agreement almost 60 years ago.  So, if you’re having trouble getting your hands on a Westy 12, this brew is not far off.

Considering my limited but disappointing history with Tripels, I was looking forward to giving St. Bernardus’s variety a spin.  This version pours a nice opaque golden orange color with a significant amount of dense head. The aroma is citrus, rose-water, floral, and spice.  There’s a corresponding taste of citrus, sweet malts, with a hint of cinnamon.  The brew also has a very mild bitterness – almost like orange peel – towards the end that merges into a lightly bitter finishing.  St. Bernardus has succeeded in getting me excited about the Tripel.

As much as I love Trappist beers, St. Bernardus just proves that quality is not necessarily in a name.  I would gladly stack any beer from this family brewery against any of those monk ales.  Because of their enduring commitment to quality and tradition, St. Bernardus has earned its place in the pantheon of beer greats right alongside the likes of Westvleteren.

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.

Mash Tun #3

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.

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.

Nothing elicits the ire of craft beer enthusiasts more than the mere mention of the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Law.  At best it’s seen as an outmoded relic of a by-gone era and at worst the medieval equivalent of capitalistic evil and stain on the history of beer.  One blogger comments that “while it is often portrayed as tantamount to tradition, the famed German purity law is hooey, plain and simple.”  Another blogger simply says that the Reinheitsgebot is an “old load of bollocks.”

On the other side of the fence, many – mostly Germans – regard the decree as the very protector of purity and quality in the brewing arts.  So, who’s right?  Was the Reinheitsgebot merely, as some claim, an attempt to prevent valuable wheat and oats from being diverted away from the production of bread?  Was the decree actually Wittelsbach protectionism designed to preserve a royal monopoly on wheat beer?  Or, could the law have indeed been the Western world’s very first example of consumer protection regulation?  I figured that as my exploration of the beer universe deepened, it would be helpful and interesting to get to the bottom of this controversial piece of history.

As I read contemporary criticisms of the Reinheitsgebot (and, believe me, there is a ton of criticism), I’m struck by how the majority tend to anachronistically project modern prejudices, sensibilities, and beliefs in analyzing the law.  In order to avoid this pitfall, it’s instructive to take a look at the medieval context out of which the decree arose.

The Reinheitsgebot of 1516 entered the scene at the tail end of a dramatic transition in the history of brewing in Europe.  Prior to the 13th century, the main producers of beer in Germany were religious orders who brewed for local consumption.  The emergence of large-scale commercial economies starting in the 1200s meant that beer production began moving from the monastery to the private commercial brewer.  Unfortunately, that transition was not always smooth.  The traditional brewing methods that had been passed down through generations of monks were often neglected (or just plain ignored) to the detriment of beer quality.

Regional differences also played a huge part in the commercial growth of beer in the late Middle Ages.  In northern Germany, where the commercial revolution was most evident, powerful guilds managed to create strict regulatory controls on the production of beer.  In addition, the guilds ensured that good craftsmanship in brewing were well promoted.  For these reasons, the best beer in Europe in the 14th century was coming from northern Germany.  The situation was much different in southern Germany where the feudal aristocracy retained more control over economic activities including brewing.  The feudal lords were slower in adapting to the new commercial realities, which resulted in a lack of competition from southern brewers.

Nowadays we tend to take for granted modern food safety regulations.  We simply assume that no matter what beer we purchase it will be, in the most literal sense of the word, drinkable.  Such was not always the case during the commercial revolution of the late Medieval period.  Aside from various spices that were frequently used to preserve beer like rosemary, caraway, or juniper, more nefarious ingredients were utilized in an attempt to cover up off-flavors.  Cheap fillers such as chalk, soot, and even hard-boiled eggs were thrown into the wort making beer drinking an unpleasant, and sometimes even dangerous, proposition.

In response to these conditions, local lord and city councils all over Germany began passing ordinances in an attempt to regulate the type of ingredients used in brewing.  The earliest known regulation was issued in 1156 by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in his legal code declaring that ” any brewer making bad beer or using unjust measures shall be punished.  Offenders shall have their beer destroyed or it shall be distributed to the poor.”  In attempt to improve their beer quality, the city of Nürnberg in 1293 issued a decree limiting ingredients as well as setting a minimum lagering time.  The city followed this decree with strict enforcement, which resulted in the situation where, by the 15th century, Nürnberg was known for good beer.

Let’s not kid ourselves though.  The lords and city officials of medieval Germany weren’t necessarily working altruistically for the common good.  These regulations were economically motivated.  As southern Germany lagged behind the north in terms of beer quality and production, the beer business in southern principalities floundered.  People wanted the northern variety, creating a situation where exports from the north began displacing local production.  This lack of competition from southern brewers had a tremendous impact on the taxes and duties the princes were able to collect.  The math was simple:  good beer equals full coffers.

The Dukes of Bavaria knew they had to do something in order to compete against the flood of quality beer from the north.  By the mid-15th century, there were only 30 breweries in Munich, which is miniscule compared to the hundred or so that filled the small town of Einbeck in the north.  So, in 1447, the Munich city council ordered that only water, barley, and hops be used in the beer brewing in that city.  It was this ordinance that provided Duke Wilhelm IV and his brother and co-ruler Duke Ludwig X the pattern for what would become the Reinheitsgebot.  On April 23, 1516, the legislative assembly of Bavaria meeting in Ingolstadt passed the law at the behest of the brothers.

To gain a sense of the real purposes behind the Reinheitsgebot, it’s instructive to actually read through the decree (English translation of the law).  Interestingly, the question of ingredients only takes up one sentence in the actual ordinance.  The majority of the law deals with pricing regulations.  Specifically, the price of beer was capped at 1 pfennig in the winter and 2 pfennigs in the summer – the difference was to compensate for the increased cost of brewing and lagering in the summer months.  So, aside from regulating ingredients, the Reinheitsgebot had the obvious purpose of providing definitive price controls on the sale of beer in the realm.

Given the context of brewing in the Middle Ages, it seems to me that the quality of brewing as well as pricing controls were forefront in the minds of the Bavarian dukes.  But, the question is then, Why did the Reinheitsgebot exclude all other grains in brewing?  Many point to this fact as evidence that the decree’s main purpose was reserving the wheat supply for bread production.  While this motive certainly was present, I believe that it was secondary to more political concerns.  At the time, there was one noble house in Bavaria that possess a royal license to brew wheat beer.  It just so happens that this family, the House of Degenberg, were rivals to the ruling Wittelsbach family.  Instead of revoking their royal chart, which would have been in bad form, the Dukes could use their purity decree to help stifle the Degenberg’s monopoly.

Attributing a single motivation to the Reinheitsgebot would be fool-hardy.  It’s clear that the quality of beer produced in their realms was of major concern for the aristocratic lords of the day.  Quality in brewing resulted in greater sales, more exports, and, therefore, higher customs and tax revenues.  In addition, the Reinheitsgebot was clearly designed to establish some sort of regulation in the pricing of beer.  You can then throw into the mix various political, personal, and protectionist motivations that certainly played a part in the decree’s passage.

Perhaps what is more interesting in this discussion is not the motivations of the decree at the time but, rather, what the Reinheitsgebot evolved into.  Following its issuance, the decree seems to have had the desired effect.  Bavarian beer quickly caught up to the northern brewers in both quality and reputation.  As the Hanseastic League began to crumble in the 17th century, Bavaria was able to surge ahead to become the center of brewing in Germany.  The renown that Bavarian beer enjoys today can, in many ways, be linked directly to the decree of 1516.

Over the centuries, the Reinheitsgebot has rooted itself deeply into the imaginations of Germans.  When German Unification became a reality in the 1870s, Bavaria made it a provision of its entrance into the German Empire that the Reinheitsgebot would be adopted by the rest of the nation.  This was certainly a blatant example of Bavaria attempting to preserve its beer monopoly from northern competition.  However, its key to note that the decree didn’t come into full force throughout Germany until 1906 by which time much of the medieval brewing traditions of the north had been almost completely supplanted by the Pilsner.

Although the European Court of Justice struck down the German Reinheitsgebot in 1987, the decree still plays an important part in German brewing tradition.  Today, the Reinheitsgebot is almost synonymous with good beer.  This is an unfortunate development.  As critics rightly point out, limiting ingredients to water, malted barley, hops, and yeast does not guarantee a good beer.  Despite this fact, German brewers today use the Reinheitsgebot as a marketing tool in order to provide their brew a seal of legitimacy and quality, which they frequently do not deserve.

A further consequence of this deeply rooted tradition is the lack of innovation.  For centuries, the Reinheitsgebot has, for better and for worse, defined the character of German beer.  Today, there is little desire among German brewers to innovate beyond the Pilsners and pale lagers that dominate the market.  Even in Bavaria where quality beer is still the order of the day, tradition shackles brewers keeping them from developing their craft beyond the bounds of the narrow precepts of the 16th century decree.  As long as German beer continues to be limited by the Reinheitsgebot, neither an American style craft beer revolution nor Belgian ale tradition will ever be possible.  The alternative is growing irrelevancy in the beer world.

Looking back, however, I believe that the Reinheitsgebot were a positive development for the time.  Although dubious motives such as greed, politics, and personal rivalry certainly were present, the spirit of the decree was the promotion of quality, affordable beer.  Such a goal is something both critics and supporters of the declaration can agree on.