Saturday, December 15, 2007

Germany trip: concluding thoughts

Over the past couple weeks I've posted rather lengthy recaps of our November trip to Germany. If you've yet to read them, here are links to our posts on each region: Leipzig, Bamberg and Düsseldorf/Köln. I've made the posts rather thorough so they can serve both as a personal record (which is why I started this blog in the first place) and so they can be useful to others planning a trip to any/all of these cities. Anyway, to wrap things up I thought I'd do a final post (yes, after this I'll shut up about my Germany trip) that's basically what I learned from my trip. Here it goes...

1. Head is good

All jokes aside, Americans don't really seem to concern themselves with the proper head on a beer. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure most brewers (and homebrewers) pay attention to head retention, and many recipes call for adding wheat malt or dextrin malt to help form a rocky head. But that's only part of the equation. You also have to pour the beer properly. If you're pouring into a pint glass (which is meant for British ales with virtually no head), you'll either have too little head or too little beer. When I first studied in Germany I thought it was lame that the fill line on their glasses was so low... I'm getting ripped off, right? Well, now I understand that it's necessary to allow space for the head. And what does the head do? Well, besides simply making a beer look awesome (and presentation counts for something, right?), BeerAdvocate notes:

"The foam created by pouring a beer acts as a net for many of the volatiles in a beer. What's a volatile? Compounds that evaporate from beer to create its aroma, such as hop oils, all kinds of yeast fermentation byproducts like alcohol, fusels and fruity esters, spices or other additions. So a glass that promotes a healthy foam head may enhance the trapping of certain volatiles."

So, the bottom line is, head is important to a good beer, particularly if it's a German-style beer. Just one more variable for me to fret about while brewing.

2. Lagers are boring? Bullshit.

Two common misconceptions I hear among beer snobs: 1.) German beers are much more boring compared to, say, Belgians; and its more general corollary, 2.) lagers are much more boring than ales. Just this past week somebody posted on BeerAdvocate asking why lagers are more popular than ales when ales are so much more flavorful.

All I can say is head to Bamberg and then tell me lagers are boring, or that German beers can't stand up to Belgians. Now I'll grant you, Belgians do more funky things than Germans, and I understand why people appreciate that. But to draw a musical comparison, think of Belgians as the Beatles and Germans as the Rolling Stones. Sometimes you're in the mood for something experimental (e.g. Sgt. Pepper) and sometimes you're in the mood for something more basic and rootsy (e.g. Exile on Main St.). Doesn't mean one's better than the other. And in terms of flavor, a good Kellerbier, Bock or Rauchbier--fresh from the source--will challenge your perception of lagers. I think one problem is people associate German beer with Beck's and St. Pauli Girl. If you're going to do that, then judge Belgians by Stella. I think the other problem is that Germans, being more delicate than big Belgians, don't travel well, so it's hard to make an even comparison in the United States. Bottom line, however, is there's a world of flavors in German beer, even if most is limited by the Reinheitsgebot.

3. Americans may have to carry the torch of the German brewing tradition

After the 1960s, Americans took jazz for granted, and the greats began to tour Europe extensively, where they were better appreciated. I think there's a bit of a reversal of that going on with German beer. I found a lot of the pubs I visited to be filled with old-timers. The big push from the German beer industry right now is Diesel (half Coke, half beer) or Radler (half lemonade or Sprite, half beer). If you go in a grocery store, you see bottles of these concoctions taking up prime shelf space. And of course you see lots of Budweiser, Carlsberg, etc. Here I am, thousands of miles from home savoring the opportunity to try world-class beers, and the locals are drinking Coke mixed with a crappy pils. What the hell??? I know a lot of German breweries have felt the pinch of mass consolidation, but it's important that these traditions continue, and I hope that the influence of the American craft beer movement (which seems to be slowly spreading its tentacles worldwide) helps the German tradition survive.

4. America is the greatest place in the world for a beer lover to live

This may seem counterintuitive, as I clearly love German beer and I'm very jealous of the locals who can stop by Uerige or Spezial or Ohne Bedenken any time they want. However, I realized something while shopping for beer in Köln. I was less than 30 miles from Düsseldorf but I couldn't get any of the Altstadt Altbiers in a liquor store. I was 250 miles from Bamberg but I couldn't get any of their Kellerbiers or Rauchbiers. It's a mere 300 miles from Köln to Leipzig (the same distance as that between Chicago and St. Louis) but forget about finding a Gose in the Rheinland. Of course, back in Chicago (a mere 4248 miles away), I can get Reissdorf Kölsch, Uerige Sticke Alt, Schlenkerla Rauchbier and Bayerischer Bahnhof Gose at the better beer stores in town, not to mention beers from virtually every state in the U.S. and countries ranging from Brazil to Lithuania to Japan. I'm no expert, but I would guess that we Americans have greater access to more beers than anybody in the history of the world (save, perhaps, Michael Jackson).

Anyway, I think that's all I have to say about my Germany trip, and I'll finally shut up about it now. We will now return to our regular programming of me complaining about what went wrong on my brew days. Enjoy!


Blogger Adam said...

I think there are others who feel the same way about the availability/distribution of beer outside the US. Funny...I guess the pendulum is swinging here in the States. I haven't traveled much so all I can do is live vicariously through people like you.


9:16 AM, December 17, 2007  
Blogger Brian said...

Great post. Sorry to say it took me a long time to track this blog down. Looking forward to future entries.

11:52 AM, December 18, 2007  
Blogger Ted Danyluk said...

Thank you for sharing your beer & culinary adventures in Germany. What a great story. It was most enjoyable to read, and I like all the pictures.

I visited Germany back in March of 2003. I went mostly to visit a good friend serving in the military at a base outside of Munich. I was only beginning to brew, and I didn't know too much about German beers. But, I was looking forward to trying out a lot of them.

Unfortunately, I didn't go prepared and was pretty much on my own for a good stretch of it. So I really didn't know where I was, and where to get a good brew. Oh well.

I feel like you have detailed so many of the things I missed. I really do love German beers, so if I ever go back, I will be sure to revisit your story, and take good notes.

1:12 PM, December 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for that great report.

Speaking of music metaphors for beers: I read an interview with Jack White once where he talked about how the idea behind the White Stripes was to impose a whole range of limitations on HOW they could make their music and then go out and show how they could do amazing things within those limitations. I feel like the Rheinheitsgebot is the same sort of thing. Imposed limitations to promote a certain sort of creativity. Also, it was there so that brewers would use hops as a preservative instead of soot (we'll leave that as something for Ted to try).

I lived in Germany for a year, and I really do feel that German beers get short shrift here in the states at the expense of the Belgians. I was 16 when I moved there, and since it was basically legal for me to drink, my beer education was German through and through. In fact, when I started brewing, it was with the desire to brew German style Pilseners and schwarz biers like Koestrizter (it was Otto von Bismarks beer. what more could you want?).

12:18 AM, December 24, 2007  

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