Thursday, 29 January 2015

Bamberg beer blog pt.2

Michaelsberg Abbey
The next morning we walk up to the enormous, stark and very beautiful cathedral. Here, at the top of one of Bamberg’s many hills, I decide that ticking off every destination on the Bamberg beer trail is not my priority. This may be one of the world’s great beer destinations, but it’s also a stunningly beautiful town, well worth a visit even for teetotallers. A relaxed look around the cathedral and the nearby Michaelsberg Abbey, taking in the views and strolling along the canal in the ‘Little Venice’ area of the city, having some nice, quiet meals together; these are all important aspects of our trip, too, and I’m glad we didn’t miss out on them in favour of rushing around every single tavern.

Not that I’m not keen to sample my fair share of local beer while I’m here, mind you. We stop at a quiet café down the street from Schlenkerla for lunch, and local breweries are served on tap here. I try Keesmann’s Herren Pils, which is a solid pilsner with a respectable bitterness. It’s very drinkable, but doesn’t knock me out. Mahr’s Ungespundet, on the other hand, does, and is perhaps one of the finest lagers I’ve ever tasted. It’s unfiltered, similar to kellerbier, and matured in an open vessel which produces little carbonation. Mine is served in a steinkrug with a beautiful head of foamy suds peeking out over the top. The first several gulps are nothing but foam, and even this is delicious, and when I get to the liquid itself I’m blown away. There’s a certain reaction I have to beers that really knock me out, whereby I tend to widen my eyes and move back from the table a little as if in disbelief – the ungespundent induces this reaction. The yeast lends a delicate hint of ripe banana, and there’s just a wisp of smoke in there, together with a massively refreshing lemon bite. Schenkerla’s rauchbier aside, this is my favourite beer of the trip, one I can’t stop thinking about now that I’m home and wish I could try again.

We’re still getting our bearings so, after lunch, we consult the map app on our phones and head out on the suggested route towards Obere Königsstraße , home to both Fassla and Spezial breweries. It’s a long and uncertain walk across something of a grey no-man’s land between the old and new sections of the city, and we have to wonder on several occasions if we can possibly be going the right way. When we eventually do arrive, Spezial is the first casualty of some very erratic opening hours in the city – it’s closed. Most of the shops are, too, although it’s Saturday, and the actual opening hours of most establishments don’t seem to match up with what’s published on their websites or on display in shop windows. Still, across the street, Fassla is open, and the man behind the serving hatch provides us with two glasses of their lagerbier. This is the kind of solid, endlessly drinkable lager I love, with comfortingly sweet malt and refreshing, citrusy hops. As we’re leaving, we realise where we are, and that the Iphone map has led us on a wild goose chase around the city in place of what could have been a very direct 20 minute walk. I mention it because, if you are visiting Bamberg, it’s probably worth having a more planned out itinerary, and examining a map more carefully before going out, than we did.

Our next stop is Klosterbrau. I’m not sure what to expect from this place – the lady who owns our apartment recommends it as the oldest and best brewery in the city, but pieces I’ve read online don’t seem to regard it as an essential stop. It’s also suspiciously quiet in comparison to the buzzing Fassla – we’re even blessed with a seat here, which is welcome, but makes me wonder if the locals don’t rate the place. I order their seasonal bock; not a style I’d profess to love, but it’s cold outside, and dark bocks work well as winter warmers. Thankfully, it also tastes great, with a depth of chocolate and liquorice flavour that is frankly astonishing.

The next morning, we return to Spezial, hoping it will be open this time. It is, but unfortunately, lots of locals have had the same idea – the place is teeming, with no available seats. The serving hatch in the schwemm is closed, and actually appears to be something more like the old fashioned English 'off-sales' window, with no overflow drinkers in the vicinity. We have to admit defeat. Instead, we head towards Café Abeits, in the modern part of the city. It’s another uncertain walk, our surroundings becoming increasingly residential the further we walk and seeming an unlikely setting for a great beer bar, and those bars we do see look somewhat intimidating and divey, last night’s empty bottles still littering the pavements outside. I haven’t been feeling myself all morning and, somewhere along the way, I take a turn for the worse, almost overcome by a wave of nausea that has me thinking I’m about to vomit all over a neat German lawn. It comes from nowhere – it’s not a hangover, and can’t have come from anything I’ve eaten – just completely random. Still, I’m determined to find the café, and eventually we do. After a momentary panic when I mistakenly think it’s closed, we take a seat in the appealingly unfussy dining room. 

I’m nervous about ordering beer, unsure if I can keep it down, but plump for Schlenkerla’s weissbier. It’s a strange beer, with intense smokiness blending with subtle clove spice, and probably not one I’d have again. Along with some very good food, I finally taste Spezial’s rauchbier lager. It pours an amber colour closer to a traditional marzen, and the smoke is more balanced than Schlenkerla’s version; it’s relatively sweet, with a pronounced vanilla note which, in combination with some refreshing lemon flavours, reminds me of an ice cream float, especially when served with a big, rocky head. Another strange beer, but I really enjoyed it.

Sadly, my stomach doesn’t quite recover, which means no more beer. I had hoped to nip over to Wunderbar and pay a visit to Keesmann and Mahr’s, which sit on opposite sides of the street, before leaving the next afternoon, but I simply can’t face it. I’d be disappointed if I hadn’t had the opportunity to taste them on tap just down the road the day earlier in the trip. They tasted so good then that I doubt they could have got very much fresher.

This won’t be my last visit to Bamberg, and when I return, I’ll make sure I stop by the breweries we didn’t get around this time. The determined drinker could certainly get around most of them, even if you’re just in town for a day, and I’d highly recommend a trip. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Bamberg Beer Blog pt.1

I’ve wanted to visit Bamberg long before a Schlenkerla rauchbier had ever touched my lips. How could you go wrong with a trip to a picturesque German town crawling with breweries? And, as I began to pick out bacon-like smoke as an enjoyable element of certain dark beers, when I eventually did try a bottle of Schlenkerla’s marzen, I found myself firmly on the fanboy side of this divisive beer. My girlfriend, Sidony, never seemed too enamoured with the idea, though, and I got used to hearing answers along the lines of “we are not going to bloody Bamberg!” whenever I brought it up. Imagine my surprise, then, when she gave me a handmade guide book this Christmas, containing all the details of a trip to Bamberg she’d booked without me knowing, to take place in just a few weeks’ time. I was blown away, and without doubt this is the greatest gift I have ever received.

The space between Christmas and our beery holiday was full of agonising anticipation, but soon enough we were on our way. A problem emerges shortly after our arrival at Nuremberg airport; an inspector on the very plush train we’re on doesn’t like the look of our ticket. We’ve unknowingly boarded a luxurious direct train instead of the stopping service our ticket entitles us to. Nervous at the prospect of a hefty fine before we’ve even arrived at our destination, we plead innocence. “Where is your home?” he asks. When we tell him we’re English, he gives us a look of recognition. “I was waiting for the next one”, he says and, bowing somewhat sarcastically, bids us “good evening.” This incident establishes something of a theme of the whole trip; blundering tourists (us/me) draw attention to themselves by not understanding how anything works. We spent so much of our time here trying to figure out how or where to order a beer, opening the door to a tavern’s kitchen when trying to find the bar, or just simply baffling the locals by our mere presence. But this is all part of the fun, makes it more of an adventure, confirming that removing yourself from your comfort zone can be an exhilarating experience, even if you’re essentially just going to the pub.

There’s a welcoming bottle of Schlenkerla waiting for us in the apartment we’re staying in, and the lady who owns it gives us directions to the tavern, just a few minutes’ walk. A rowdy but friendly crowd drinking on the street outside tells us we’re in the right place and, stepping inside, we find a beautifully shady, high-beamed building teeming with people, everyone holding a glass of the same near-black brew. There are no free seats, so we head for what I understand to be the ‘schwemm’, a kind of covered courtyard where beer is served through a small hatch and often drunk standing up. With quite some anticipation, I join the small queue leading towards the hatch. Only the famous marzen beer is available here, tapped directly from traditional wooden barrels via gravity. This suits me, a confirmed rauchbier fan, down to the ground, but Sidony is sceptical about smoked beer – I’d previously reassured her that she could have the helles, which picks up a little smoky flavour but isn’t brewed with smoked malt. She’ll have to go for the full on rauchbier experience instead.

I order two glasses and, as expected, it’s a revelation, with a depth of flavour that no bottle at home could ever hope to achieve. Whilst I’ve never thought of rauchbier as an endlessly drinkable beer, I polish my glass off in no time, perhaps encouraged by the speed at which the beer is poured and the transaction completed. I love the initial hit of notorious bacon flavour, but continue drinking and the intensity of the blended Frazzles notes fade, and what remains is a remarkable dark lager. This is, without doubt, the greatest beer experience of my life so far, and proof that travelling for beer is worth it – it’ll never taste better than it does here, and the buzz in the tavern as the queue in the schwemm grows, practically pinning us to the wall, is intoxicating. If I had to go home in the morning having only visited Schenkerla, I’d still say it was worth it. And a rauchbier naysayer is converted – Sidony loves it, too.

Continuing the clueless tourist theme of the trip, I make a horrendous blunder when it’s time to order my second beer. A sign on the wall advertises two items; one is a glass of marzen, at €2.60, and the other is something called ‘glasspfand’ at €2. Not speaking German, I don’t know what this word means but, being a dickhead, I decide it’s a seasonal beer and try to order it. It is, in fact, the deposit that you pay on your glass. I’m saved from total embarrassment by the barman simply plonking two glasses of marzen down without listening to what I was saying anyway, but I feel like a total prick and vow not to be so cocky in future. 

To be continued...

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Brown Ale pt. 3 - Three 'modern' brown ales

I like and admire Pressure Drop immensely. After being disappointed by a pricey half-pint of Stone’s Ruination IPA a few months ago (it tasted like it had had a long, hard journey to get into my glass, and the hop hit I was prepared for just never quite happened), a superb pint of Pressure Drop’s Bosko confirmed that there really isn’t much point importing hoppy US beers when British breweries can provide beer which is just as good, and much fresher. I also love the fact that a hip London brewery would include something as esoteric as a foraged herb heffeweisse alongside US influenced pale ales in its core range. And I love the fact they brew a brown ale.

This is the first of the brown ales that pours truly brown. I joked about expecting the Newcastle Brown Ale to look like water from the River Tyne, but this really does look like Thames water - with a beautiful effervescence and off-white head to lure you in, of course. The nose gives a lot of roasted malts, akin to porter or stout territory. The mouthfeel is endlessly satisfying and chewy, and those roasted flavours make themselves known straight away. Neither the label nor the Pressure Drop website tell us what hops go into Stokey Brown, but I’m guessing they’re American. They lend a fruity quality and a dry background, with oranges and mangoes on the nose and clementines on the tongue.  I struggled for a while to put my finger on the flavour I was getting from this beer and I almost don’t want to write it because it’s so wanky, but… there’s a certain taste going on here that I can only compare to the caramelised parts of roasted sweet potatoes. Believe me, I know how that reads, but that’s what I taste.

Are there similarities between this and the more traditional examples I’ve already encountered? Well, if I really search for it I think I can detect a hint of that treacly malt flavour, but it’s a stretch. A pattern I am beginning to see throughout, though, is characteristics I’d expect from a porter or stout appearing in brown ales in a somewhat muted form, which makes sense – brown logically sits between pale and dark. The roasted malt flavour here supports this idea. Stokey Brown is far more generously hopped than the other beers, but it’s easier going than a punchy black IPA. It’s also very, very good and a beer I would love to drink again and again.

I particularly wanted to include Hastings because they’re relatively local to me and I really like what they do. They brew a Best Bitter and proudly brand it as such, which is something few new wave craft breweries do, but they also make more self-consciously ‘craft’ beers under the ‘Hastings Handmade’ brand, which is unusual for a small regional. Most importantly, all the beers I’ve tried have been exemplary, and for me they’re by far the most exciting of the numerous new-ish Sussex breweries.

Now, I acknowledged before I embarked on my mini-survey of brown ales that it was slightly unfair to compare traditional brown ales to their modern, super-hopped equivalents. By calling their version an India Brown Ale, Hastings make it clear that this one really is all about the hops, so including it is even less fair. But again, this demonstrates the way in which beer styles develop and are tweaked and spiced up by brewers all the time. Hastings add yet another tweak in bypassing the US and making their brown ale with two varieties of Slovenian hops.

The beer is an inviting dark brown not unlike the Samuel Smith’s version. I have to be honest and confess that my nose lets me down on this one; I get almost no aroma at all. This makes the huge grapefruit punch in the first mouthful all the more pleasant a surprise. This calms as I continue to drink, settling into a prickly dance on the tongue. Zesty citrus dominates and, in a blind taste test I could easily mistake this for a pale ale. It’s delicious, but frankly a completely different beast to the likes of Harvey’s Lewes Castle. Their varying shades of brown are all they have in common.

If British brown ales are rarely seen, brown ales with an “American accent” (as Brooklyn nicely put it in describing theirs) are slightly more visible, even if a British brewery has produced them. The US hops in Fourpure’s version hit you as soon as you pop the can, with a waft of tropical fruit accompanied by a pungent smell that reminds me of ammonia, only much more pleasant. The fruity hop flavour is balanced by a deep, rich, roasted malt flavour, but the bitterness lingers. This moreish bitterness and dry finish remind me of the Samuel Smith’s ale I tasted – the comparison I made to red wine tannins applies here, too, although the presence of robust hops makes the Fourpure a very different beer.

I could quite easily have polished this off in just a few glugs if I didn’t deliberately pace myself. The initial hop hit followed by warming malt is pleasing enough in itself, but as the dryness takes over, you find you’re taking another gulp without even knowing it, the bitterness nudging you to go back to the glass again and again. American brown ale might just be my new favourite beer style and the Samuel Smith’s comparison and the gentle presence of warm, stouty malt flavours draws a clear link between the traditional and the modern.

Incidentally, thank you to Sidony for not only encouraging me to write a beer blog, but actually getting excited at finding this beer and buying it for me.

To conclude… if the British brown ale is vanishing, perhaps we can attribute this to the hazy definitions of what constitutes a brown ale. It’s a bit of a non-style, somewhere between bitter and porter, and it’s easy to understand why it might not be at the top of brewers’ to-do lists. That transatlantic conversation between American craft brewers and their British counterparts is promising for brown ale, though, and as much as I love a good black IPA, I’d love to see more breweries trying their hand at American brown, which offers many of the same pleasures in a subtler form.

Your recommendations are more than welcome, and I’d be interested to hear the views of brown ale haters and believers alike.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Brown ale pt. 2 : Three 'traditional' brown ales

Brown Ale #1 - Newcastle Brown Ale

It makes sense to start here, doesn't it? Newcastle is likely to be the principle point of reference in many people’s idea of what brown ale is. It is also the only brown ale I was able to find in any supermarket or mainstream off license in Brighton. And, aside from anything else, I haven’t tasted it in years. After deciding to include it in this post, I had to think about whether I knew I didn't like it, or simply suspected it wasn't very exciting. I know I've drunk it before, but I think my main motivation for doing so was to appear more interesting by choosing something other than lager; I didn't make any tasting notes, put it that way.  Still, I’m determined to give it a fair chance and reserve judgement before I objectively taste it.

The first thing you’re likely to notice about Newcastle Brown Ale is that it isn't especially brown. When I imagine this beer, I’m picturing something akin to the water in the River Tyne; murky, maybe even a little gloopy. In fact, there’s an attractive translucence about it, and indeed the brewery are said to have tinkered with the colour for some years in an attempt to make it more visually appealing. This might explain the clear glass bottle, too. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a lightstruck beer, but nevertheless, clear glass is always a warning sign for indifferent brewing.

The nose is dominated by malt, and actually reminds me of lager more than anything. As the beer warms, the aroma gets a little grassier, maybe with a little hay, too, but there’s not much going on here. And the taste isn't exactly a revelation, either. It’s surprisingly sweet, and again, the most prevalent flavours are those you’d expect from a much lighter beer; lager-like malt dominates, with a slight lingering bitterness from the hops. If you try really hard, you might detect the slightest notes of stewed apples, ground almonds and hazelnuts. But that might just be wishful thinking. Imagine a drink that’s half Belgian dubbel and half tap water and you’re getting close.

Bland though it may be, this beer is at least refreshing, especially considering its usually consumed at temperatures far below those usually recommended for ale (mine spent about 45 minutes in the fridge before drinking, for what it’s worth). But my bottle is borderline flat, and the mouthfeel is thin and flimsy; it makes for easy drinking, but it’s fundamentally unsatisfying.

Would I drink it again? I might, if I happened to be stuck in a terrible pub where the only alternatives were awful mass-produced lagers. But I’d rather drink almost anything else. The bar is certainly set very low for the remaining brown ales in my selection.

And to follow, how could I resist Harveys' tongue-in-cheek “tribute”, featuring the eponymous castle on the label? My relationship with Harvey’s has been up and down; I've found some of their beers extremely disappointing and bland and some of them wonderful. I despised their Best Bitter for years until a revelatory few pints just before Christmas (in a student bar serving nothing but Best, Carlsberg and Guinness, of all places) confirmed that it is a terrific beer worthy of its reputation, and I suspect my disappointment with it in the past was due to poor conditioning in local pubs.

Harvey’s version of brown ale pours much darker than Newcastle’s. It is almost opaque, looking something like a porter or stout. The aroma shares characteristics with several of the brewery’s beers – perhaps it’s the house yeast I’m recognising here. It’s slightly vinous, or maybe closer to malt vinegar. The taste, thankfully, is more palatable than this would suggest, however, with black treacle, plums and some bread and cereal notes.  There’s a little sweetness, especially as the beer warms, with the slightest hint of chocolate. The mouthfeel is much more substantial than the Newcastle, thicker and with a pleasing tingle of carbonation on the tongue.

Given the choice, I’d probably opt for the more robust porter from the same brewery, but this is a very enjoyable beer, particularly well-suited to a wintery Sunday afternoon on the sofa.

If you’re looking for traditional examples of pretty much any indigenous British beer style, Samuel Smith’s beers tend to provide a good guide. Not every beer in their portfolio is great, but several are; Taddy Porter is a favourite, and I’m also very partial to their Imperial Stout, full of flavour at a very low ABV for the style. It makes sense that they’d brew a straight-up brown ale and, somehow making it sound even less exciting than it already does, they call it Nut Brown Ale.

It pours a caramel colour, far darker than Newcastle but nowhere near stout territory. The nose has more of that vinous quality I noted in the Harvey’s, mixed in with treacly malt and a little walnut. The flavour recalls wholemeal bread, and actually reminds me of biting into a nut; it’s very dry and bitter. If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, I’d also point out that it’s very refreshing. The lingering bitterness in the finish and aftertaste reminds me very much of red wine, and drinking this I even get a little of the warm feeling in the chest that I get whenever I stray from the grain over to the grape.

It’s not the most exciting beer in the world, but for sheer drinkability, I’d rate Sam Smith’s the highest of the three traditional brown ales I've tasted. The red wine comparison and absence of overly bold and intrusive flavours make me think that this could accompany a wide variety of foods, and indeed the label suggests pairing it with dishes as diverse as roast grouse and biryani.

To conclude… it’s difficult to take a great deal away from this mini-tour of traditional brown ales. Newcastle Brown Ale has very little in common with the other two beers I tasted, but that’s to be expected from a beer produced by a multinational corporation rather than a small regional brewery. There were some characteristics shared by both Harvey’s and Sam Smiths; that molasses-like malt flavour is present in a somewhat muted form in certain porters, but is a key feature of both of these brown ales. Could it be a defining feature of the style? Both beers have a certain moreish dryness, too. Beyond that, there’s not much going on to define what I mean what I say brown ale. I’d try more to get a broader cross section if I could, but further traditional examples are simply not available in my area (I had hoped to sample at least Mann’s, which I understand is sweeter, but it doesn't seem to make it down to Brighton.) For the ‘modern’ breweries I’ll be sampling next, the canvas is almost blank.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Brown Ale pt. 1

Brown is used in craft beer circles as a synonym for boring. Admittedly, people are usually talking about bitter (Boring Brown Bitter) when they use this slight, but there is a clear preference for beers that are either decidedly pale or decidedly dark. And let’s face it, the humble brown ale hardly screams “glamour”, does it? New Zealand’s 8-Wired brewery, whose Pacific-hopped Rewired is an excellent interpretation of the style, wonder, have the mass brewing companies driven the style into oblivion by claiming it for their most unattractive products?” They might have a point there – the rather undistinguished Newcastle Brown Ale is probably the prominent example for British readers.

Brown ale remains a bit of a blind spot for me. I feel as though I like the style based on some versions I’ve tried – Brew By Numbers’Willamette and Summit variety was memorable on keg, and a bottle of Brooklyn Brown Ale really impressed – but I almost never see it around. So I decided I should fill in some gaps and seek out some current examples of the style. I’ve tasted six beers, split into two very broad categories – ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’.

Now, allow me to acknowledge the flaws in my own plan before someone else does; some of these ‘modern’ examples use US hops, and may even be billed as American Brown Ale. This is a flaw in that it isn’t exactly fair to compare a beer spiked with US hops to an example using all British varieties, especially if I confess a preference for assertive New World hops. However, I think it’s valid in that it follows the evolution of the style – like so many other half-forgotten British beers, US craft brewers have made their own interpretations and this in turn influences the current wave of small British breweries. If I was doing a similar round up with IPAs, for example, I’d be tempted to include both Worthington White Shield and Punk IPA, because these two very different beers would give you a sense of the way the style travels and is constantly reimagined. So there.

Part 2, featuring three 'traditional' brown ales, will follow tomorrow.

(Incidentally, I hit upon this idea before discovering Boak and Bailey’s excellent porter taste-off, but you should definitely read that too.)