Saturday, November 24, 2007

Germany trip recap part II: Bamberg

After a relatively short train ride, we arrived in Bamberg early Monday afternoon. By the time we checked into our room at the Brauerei Fässla, it was too late to eat lunch at Brauerei Spezial across the street, so we found a local Imbiss and Leah got to try her first Döner Kebap. For those who have never had one, a Döner is a Turkish sandwich very similar to a gyro, and it's very popular in Germany (like hot dogs or burritos in the U.S.). The place we went happened to have excellent Döners. They were huge and came with both garlic sauce and a feta-like cheese. After that we headed back to Spezial. I first tried their Märzen Rauchbier (despite Bamberg's reputation for Rauchbier--German beer brewed with smoked malts--only Schlenkerla and Spezial actually brew Bamberger Rauchbier, and only Schlenkerla exports to the U.S. EDIT: I recently discovered that Spezial's Rauchbier is indeed available at fine beer stores in the U.S., which is good news to me!). It was awesome, with much more of a roast character than the Schlenkerla I had in the states. I thought the roast notes complemented the smokiness very well, which I guess explains why many American brewers have chosen porter as the style of choice for their smoked beers. I tried their Bock as well, which seemed to be a maltier, hoppier version of their smoked Märzen. While the Bock was also great, I think I actually liked the regular Märzen better because it allowed for the subtleties of the beer to shine, while the Bock sort of hid them. Leah had their Ungespundet Kellerbier (an unfiltered lager) which was unfortunately bottled but very good nonetheless. The travel day was quite exhausting, so while I took a stroll around the Altstadt that evening we didn't hit any other breweries.

The next day, we grabbed lunch at Klosterbräu, which is perhaps best known for its Schwärzla black lager. It was very good, though quite roasty to the point of having porter-like qualities. While some call Schwarzbier "the black Pils," nobody would mistake this for a Pils. As our lunch came out (I had local sausages--which were good, not great--and Leah had some sort of deep-fried rolled up potato pancakes stuffed with a soft cheese-- which was amazing), I tried their Bock. It turned out it wasn't a Dunkeles (dark) Bock like I would have expected but a Helles (light) Bock. It was an absolutely beautiful pour, with the snow white head towering above the mug. The beer itself was good, though a little too sweet for me. I tried Leah's selection, called a Braunbier (brown beer), and it was awesome. BeerAdvocate has it listed as an Oktoberfest, and while it was the color of an Oktoberfest, it had more caramel flavor and less toasted flavor than what I think of as an Oktoberfest. A very flavorful beer.

Next we headed to Mahr's, which actually exports some of its beer to the U.S. While they are most famous for their Ungespundet Kellerbier, they--like Spezial--didn't have it on tap. This would be an annoying, reoccurring theme in Bamberg: while their breweries make multiple wonderful beers, they only have at most two on tap at a given time. Perhaps this isn't such a big deal at other times of the year, but during Bockbier season, this meant that one of their regulars was demoted to bottle status. Not that I'm complaining, mind you... It's just a stark contrast to the U.S., where part of the fun of visiting a brewpub is getting their slate of regular offerings plus their specialty beers. Anyway, Marh's did have their Helles on tap, which proved very flavorful. It was much more floral than your typical Helles, but not overly hopped by any means. I next tried their Bockbier, also the Helles variety. (On a side note, my other disappointment was that most Bocks available in Bamberg proved to be the Helles kind, when I was expecting darker offerings.) Like the Klosterbräu Helles Bock, I thought it was nice and flavorful, but it just didn't stand out. Though most sources consider Helles Bocks to be the same as Maibocks (traditionally brewed for May consumption), I suspect that their fall Helles Bocks aren't as strongly hopped as Maibocks, and I think if you brew something as malty as a Bock you need either an extra hop kick (as with a Maibock) or some extra roasted notes (as with a dark Bock or Doppelbock) to keep it from being too sweet. Nonetheless, I certainly didn't mind drinking it.

Before I get to our last day in Bamberg, I'll mention one other oddity about Bamberg breweries. They really don't have bars like we do. When you walk in to each pub, there's a long corridor/lobby, and there will be a door to the right or left (or sometimes both if it's a big place) through which you enter the restaurant. In the restaurant are long rows of wooden tables, where you can sit down and drink and/or order a meal. However, if you just want to hang around and drink (like you would in a bar in the U.S.), you'll notice a window in the lobby, through which you can order a beer "to go." So often the lobbies are crowded with people loitering with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I haven't seen that in any German city other than Bamberg, so I figured it was worth noting.

Anyway, for our last day in Bamberg, we headed out to Schlenkerla for lunch. This is the most famous Bamberg brewery, and it was pretty damn crowded. I had their Bock (which was of the dark variety) and found it to be less sweet and smokey than their bottled version I've had in the U.S. I don't know if the character of the beer changes over time or if this batch just came out differently, but the smoke just didn't seem as assertive. I should also mention that we tried their Bratwurstsuppe ("bratwurst soup") which was awesome. Imagine if you took French onion soup, strained out the onions, and replaced them with a few chunks of bratwurst. That's basically what this was, only it tasted way better than you'd think based on my description. Leah also tried their Weizen (wheat beer) which was interesting because the smoke was somewhat subdued but still very much there, and it had to compete with the typical Weizen yeast bite. Very good and perhaps a worthy introduction to Rauchbier for someone new to the style.

Our final stop in Bamberg was to the Weissbierhaus, the sister restaurant to Maisel Bräu, whose brewery was on the edge of town and a bit too far of a walk for such a cold, rainy/snowy day. I had German meatloaf (which I thought was pretty gutsy since who knows what they were throwing in there) and Leah had curry chicken. Leah had yet another Kellerbier from a bottle (alas, we never got to try a Kellerbier vom Faß--on tap--the entire time in Bamberg) and I had another Helles Bock. Both were great, but I have to say I was in need of something to break the Helles Bock monotony. I was hoping to find out if the Bockbier at Brauerei Fässla (where we were staying) was actually a dark Bock instead of another Helles, but we then found out that the German train engineers were going on strike and we would need to figure out how to get to Köln (Cologne) and Düsseldorf the next day. Fortunately, I finally figured out that the strike meant a consolidated schedule as opposed to no schedule at all, and we could get to Köln without having to rent a car. Unfortunately, the train we needed to take would leave at 6:45am and by the time I figured everything out I forgot to run down to the Fässla pub and try their Bock. As a result, I never tried the beer in the very pub we were renting a room from. Oh well. It was time to say goodbye to Bamberg and hello to the land of Kölsch and Altbier!

Jump to Part III: Düsseldorf/Köln.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Germany trip recap part I: Leipzig

So, I would have blogged more in anticipation of our trip to Germany, but there's a little paranoid part of me who was afraid somebody would figure out where I live, know I was out of the country for the week, and rob me blind. So I didn't post any specifics of our trip. However, now that I'm back in the U.S. of A., I can announce that we were in Germany from Nov. 9th to the 18th for our first major vacation since our honeymoon four and a half years ago. It was also our first vacation with Dorrie, our 15-month-old daughter. Our itinerary was two days in Leipzig, three in Bamberg, and three in Köln (a.k.a. Cologne in English) and nearby Düsseldorf. Since this is a beer blog, I will only recap our trip from a beer perspective. And I'll break up the posts by region. So, without further ado, here's our recap of Leipzig, home of the elusive Leipziger Gose.

We arrived in Leipzig--quite jetlagged--late Saturday morning. As tired as we were, we basically got to the hotel and slept until around 4pm. The fact that it was around 40°F and raining didn't exactly motivate us to get out and explore either. When we finally woke up, we decided to grab an early dinner at Ohne Bedenken, one of the two Gosenschenken ("Gose distributors") in Leipzig. For those who aren't familiar with Gose, it's a soured German wheat beer brewed with coriander and salt. I've had the Gose brewed by Bayerisher Bahnhof in the U.S., which inspired us to brew our own Gose with great results (though some beer judge down in Lubbock described it as "drinking sweat"). The Gose from Bayerisher Bahnhof was actually quite similar to a German Hefeweizen or Belgian Wit, but I had heard the Gose from Ohne Bedenken is more assertive in terms of sourness and spice, so I was curious to try it.

After a brisk mile-long walk, we arrived at Ohne Bedenken. All I can say is, if you go to Leipzig, you HAVE to go to Ohne Bedenken. The place is rather small (I would estimate six tables), all aged wood with rustic aluminum Gose ads on the walls. It's a good thing we got there early, as every table was reserved for later in the evening. Our waiter was super nice, teaching us about Gose (in English, thankfully) and explaining that for a Gose you don't say "Prost!" (traditionally "cheers" in German) but "Goseana!" (like "Hosanna!"). The beer was amazing. Quite tart, almost as strong as a Berliner Weisse. The salt was indeed assertive, but not too much. It really balanced well with the sourness of the lactic acid, giving it an earthy, mineral-like quality moreso than a brothy or sweaty taste. The beer also had a very yeasty aroma, and I was surprised to find the coriander quite subdued. Overall, an incredible beer that I hope I have a chance to try again soon. Like Berliner Weisse, many people mix their Gose with various syrups to make cocktails. Leah decided to try a banana Gose and I must admit it was very good as well. The sourness of the lactic acid and mineral bite of the salt really meshed with the banana, and I generally don't like sweet drinks or banana-flavored food or drink. Pretty amazing overall.

As far as the food was concerned, it stood out nearly as much as the Gose. We both started out with a wonderful cream and potato soup. I had a small ham hock with roast potatoes and sauerkraut for my main entree, and Leah had Gose-stewed roast with red cabbage and what I guess I would describe as potato balls (sort of like dumplings but made from grated potato). Really good stuff. An awesome way to start our trip. That evening at the hotel I tried a bottle of local Schwarzbier, Ur-Krostitzer (not to be confused with Köstritzer, which is available in the U.S.). Good but nothing worth writing home about, so I won't.

After leaving Ohne Bedenken, we pretty much crashed at the hotel. The next morning we enjoyed our continental breakfast and headed out to see the town. It was freezing cold and raining, and being a Sunday pretty much everything was closed. Great. When I studied in Germany in 1999, I spent a day in Leipzig, and all I remember is visiting the Thomaskirche (where Bach played organ) and noticing everything was under construction. That pretty much sums up my take-aways from this trip as well. We walked around the city center, stopping by a few things here and there but the only thing that stood out was the Thomaskirche. Being cold, wet and hungry, we decided to head over to the other Gosenschenke, Bayerischer Bahnhof.

Bayerischer Bahnhof is built in an old train station (much like our local favorite, Flossmoor Station), and it was much larger than Ohne Bedenken. It had several large rooms and seemed to be winding down from a Sunday brunch special. I started off with a Gose, which tasted pretty much like I remember from when I had it at the Map Room in Chicago. The lactic acid and salt were definitely toned down compared to Ohne Bedenken. If you're not sure you'll like Gose, this is definitely the one to start with. I think you could make a beer spectrum with Berliner Weisse on one end and Hefeweizen on the other, and this would be near the Hefe end of the spectrum, while Ohne Bedenken is on the Berliner end. Still very good, just more subdued. I then had their Prellbock (which I believe is seasonal) and that was fabulous. A nice caramel color with flavor to match. Just enough bitterness in the finish to keep it from being cloying. A pleasant surprise.

The food at Bayerischer Bahnhof was good, though it didn't stand out like Ohne Bedenken. The service was also adequate but not exceptional (perhaps because the waitress didn't speak English). I don't mean to sound like Bayerischer Bahnhof was mediocre... it was still a great time. I think we just went in the wrong order. If you go to Bayerischer Bahnhof first you'll love it, and then you can proceed to Ohne Bedenken and step things up a notch.

Speaking of proceeding to Ohne Bedenken, we decided to stop there again on the way back to the hotel (with a little more unimpressive sightseeing on the way). Our waiter from the day before (I forget his name) was just leaving, but our new waitress, Julianna, was just as nice. She even humored me by letting me talk in my horrible German. After another Gose, I tried their Schwarzbier (which is actually brewed by a different local brewery Dr. Something-or-other). It had a slight caramel flavor but was good overall. There was also another couple there with a 13-month-old baby boy, and Dorrie ended up kissing him. Granted I don't think she knew it was any different than kissing our dogs, but I didn't think I'd have to watch out for the boys this early. Oh well. All the more reason to drink another beer.

Speaking of which, I tried one more bottled beer with our take-out pizza (everything else was closed on a Sunday evening) before going to bed. It was Reudnitzer Ur-Bock, and it was quite good. It was a Helles (light) Bock, and it was surprisingly bitter and somewhat dry for a Bockbier. I would almost say that I would categorize this as an "Imperial Pils" as it was relatively light with a noble hop bite, but almost 7% ABV. A great find for about $1.50 at the grocery store. And that would be the last beer in Leipzig, as we left the next morning for Bamberg. Lots more beer awaiting us!

Jump to Part II: Bamberg.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Martin Luther and Beer

Yes, yesterday was Halloween. But it was also Reformation Day. And to celebrate Martin Luther's world-changing action 490 years ago, I'm reprinting a post by BeerAdvocate user ColoradoBobs that I thought was pretty cool:

490 years ago today (October 31), Martin Luther posted on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany 95 Theses for debate regarding the practices and doctrines of the Roman church. What followed turned into the Protestant Reformation. During Luther's years of preaching and teaching as well as informal conversation, his students wrote down verbatim most of what he said and recorded it in dozens of volumes of "Table Talks." Among the hundreds of astonishing and sometimes controversial things he said (wouldn't you hate it if all your casual conversations were copied and published!?), Luther talked more than a couple of times about beer.

After consuming some bad beer in Dessau,
he wrote to his wife Katherine, "Yesterday I drank something which did not agree with me, so that I had to sing: 'If I don’t drink well I have to suffer,' and yet I do like to do it. I said to myself what good wine and beer I have at home, and also what a pretty lady . . ."

On moderation:
"God does not forbid you to drink, as do the Turks; he permits you to drink wine and beer: he does not make a law of it. But do not make a pig of yourself; remain a human being."

On the devil:
"Whenever the devil pesters you, at once seek out the company of friends, drink more, joke and jest, or engage in some form of merriment."

On aging:
"We old folks have to find our cushions and pillows in our tankards. Strong beer is the milk of the old."

On the mode of baptism:
“Besides, the Word [i.e., the Bible] is the principal part of baptism. If in an emergency there’s no water at hand, it doesn’t matter whether water or beer is used.”

And this one was a joke (he didn't actually believe folks get to heaven by being good):
"Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!"

So, let's raise a glass to good old Martin Luther. And may all the Lutherans among us show us how it's done!

Well said, ColoradoBobs. Ein Prosit, ein Prosit der Martin Luther! Prost!