Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The heralds of spring

Here in Scotland spring takes a long time to arrive.

When the sun finally comes out I take the first chance I get to sit in WEST’s beer garden with a litre of St Mungo, even if I do still have to wear a coat and hat (hat jammed on firmly to stop it blowing away).

The other sign of spring is the appearance of Forth Valley CAMRA’s Larbert Beer Festival, so I always look forward to this one.

You can say one thing about Larbert: it does a good job of reflecting trends. The first time I went there was still an abundance of “traditional” under-hopped beers called 70/– and 80/–. In successive years it went for pale ’n’ hoppy in a big way, and this year all manner of botanical beers were in evidence.

In addition to the expected local brews, there are usually some rarely seen English beers.

I started off with Mary Jane from the Ilkley Brewery which was superbly fresh and bitter, just the thing to wash down the dust. Manchester’s Boggart Hole brewery then supplied a Dark Mild, full of roast coffee, chocolate, light and sweet.

Liverpool Organic Best Bitter came next: sulphury nose, citrus, long bitter finish.

The beers from Edinburgh’s newest brewery, Pilot, have only just started appearing in Glasgow pubs. I’d previously only tried a tea beer from them which wasn’t my sort of thing; if I’m going to drink something that tastes like tea, I’d rather just have a cup of tea and save on the alcohol and the expense. But their Mochachino is something else. Sweet, dark chocolate liquor and coffee roastiness, reminiscent of Tia Maria.

Demon Brew are back on the scene after parting company with their previous home in Prestonpans. The beer is currently being brewed at Tryst in Larbert just round the corner, so should be as fresh as can be. Their Firehead IPA certainly doesn’t taste like a Tryst beer: full, sweet, slightly slick with balancing resin. Slight yoghurt, berry fruits, gooseberries, much heavier mouthfeel than the ABV suggests.

Windswept Tornado is fruity and woody, but the surprise of the afternoon is an old favourite – Tryst Raj IPA. You’d think it would be starting to taste a bit jaded alongside the new-fangled Um Bongo-hopped beers, but on the contrary it’s the best I’ve had it in ages, spectacularly, almost harshly bitter.

After Larbert, the festivals follow in quick succession: Paisley starts tonight, then in June come FyneFest and then the first festival put on by Glasgow CAMRA in a generation. Should be good.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Complacency and “craft” in Munich

The difference between Franconia and Munich is a bit like that between Yorkshire and London. The chic inhabitants of the wealthy, high-powered metropolis pity the backward towns and villages out in the sticks. The provincials, for their part, wouldn’t swap in a million years and think the residents of the capital must be soft in t’head to pay such extortionate prices for beer.

Our first stop is a place I’ve wanted to visit for absolutely ages, but never got around to – Augustiner’s beer hall at Marienplatz. Augustiner is generally the most highly regarded of Munich’s big six. In addition, it’s a Saturday shortly before Christmas, and the beer hall is bang slap in the middle of the main shopping street. That means it’s packed, but somehow we manage to squeeze in at the end of a table.

 It’s slightly disappointing to see that the default measure is no longer a litre – almost everyone we see has a half-litre glass in front of them. Oh well – one Helles and one Dunkles, bitte.

The Helles is clean, fresh, and … meh. There’s a good beer here somewhere but it’s been filtered to death, so there is sweet pilsner malt and not much else. The Dunkel is a bit better, medium-bodied with toasty dark malt notes, reminiscent of roast chestnuts and finishing dry and woody, but the glass is short-poured. I get the impression the beer hall has been resting on its laurels for a very long time. Oh well. In the past I’ve found the beers of the six remaining big Munich brands much poorer than their reputation suggests, but nonetheless it’s disappointing to have it confirmed on its home turf, where it ought to be excellent.

Since I last visited Germany a new wave of breweries has started to emerge, which are not content to compete with others just on the quality of their Pilsner or Helles. They are influenced by trends from abroad and chafe at the often staid conservatism of German brewing. This sets them apart from the previous wave of small brewpubs which were, if anything, more conservative than their bigger colleagues.

In principle this is a very good thing. The insistence of German “craft beer” fanatics in trying to force it into a template that was devised in another country and makes no sense here is, on the other hand, quite embarrassing. Well, the post-war trend to ape whatever is popular in America has always seemed to me to be a bit stronger in Germany than anywhere else.

After years of me wondering where all the German beer websites were, suddenly there are “craft beer” blogs, gleefully declaring that some burger joint that sells a few bottles of Brooklyn Lager is “the best bar in Munich”, and the German press is as full of stupid and ignorant “craft beer” articles as the British.

The new breweries are a refreshing innovation and it’s a shame that so many of them – and even more so the people writing about beer – are floundering about in the straitjacket of a divisive, exclusionary ideology.

Even sadder, the irreplaceable family breweries of Bavaria continue to close down while “craft beer” types try to market undistinguished copies of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Camba Bavaria is a brewery based in Truchtlachingen in south-east Bavaria. It was set up by brewery equipment manufacturer Braukon less than ten years ago and the brewery seems – rather like Weyermann’s brewing operation – intended as much to showcase the versatility of the company’s other products as to turn a profit in its own right.

Camba has recently dared to open what they call a “Tap-House” (being suitably fashionable, the name just has to be in English, cringe) in Munich. The novelty of this operation is that there is a huge range of beer available on tap, something new in Germany, where the overwhelming majority of bars (and beer festivals, for that matter) serve only one or two draught beers. It had only just opened, and it was on the way to our hotel, so why not?

The interior of the bar makes me think it was an Italian or Greek restaurant until fairly recently. We have to cringe again on seeing the words “Can you feel the HOPS” chalked on the wall in English. Most of the customers appear to be American immigrants. The only nod to local traditions are the bar snacks – Obatzda, a mixture of Camembert and butter seasoned with paprika, served with a pretzel.

FritzAle is one of the “craft” brewers. On tap, the IPA is hoppy, brown, sweet and one-dimensional, like a hundred other American IPAs.

Moving on, I have a very nice green-hopped pils from Schönramer. Head brewer Eric Toft of Schönramer has been making very good beers in a village in eastern Bavaria for the best part of 15 years, and the brewery has been there for over a hundred. Yet somehow he is regarded as part of a “craft beer revolution” which is purported to be a new thing. I’m ignoring all this nonsense and just enjoying his beautiful pilsner: a magnificent beer with delicious herbal aromas, sweet malt and medium bitterness that disappears far too soon.

It’s time to move on.

One old-fashioned brewery in no danger of closing down is the Forschungsbrauerei in Perlach in the south-east of Munich, where no-one, thank God, has ever heard of “craft beer”. It’s recently been taken over by new owners after the previous occupiers wanted to give up. It still looks pretty much the same as the last time I was here twenty years ago, but they are brewing a slightly wider range of beers nowadays (four instead of two).

It’s shocking to discover that even here the Masskrug has lost ground to the 0.5L vessel.
St. Jakobus is the blonde bock beer and the house speciality. Rich aroma, sticky malt, chewy, it’s one of the most ridiculously moreish beers I’ve tried. I can’t quite explain what makes it so good – oddly, this is often what happens when I encounter a really top-notch beer. Pears, bacon, fudge, tree sap, freshly baked cakes, eggs, so many flavours in the one mug.

Pilsissimus, despite the name, is regarded by the brewery as an export-type beer, not a Pilsner. It’s sweetish but does have a sneaky bitterness that sneaks up on you.

Both beers demand further study, but there is no time, it’s closing time.

The next morning there is just time for breakfast before heading to the airport. As we are in Munich, and on holiday, not just any old breakfast – a Weisswurstfrühstück, or “white sausage breakfast.” This consists of a soft Bavarian pretzel and a pair of poached herbed veal sausages. These can be quite intimidating to the novice, floating in hot water in a soup tureen and encased in a tough skin which you can either eat or leave.

I love them and the best place I could think of to have them was at the Schneider brewery tap in the centre of town. Purists say you are supposed to consume them strictly before noon, and fortunately we are just in time. It’s already bustling, and not just with the type of people you might expect to see in a pub mid-morning in Britain. Whole families and grannies are here. There is a group of musicians in lederhosen just opposite us, and every so often they play a tune. I’m not quite sure if they are being paid to be here, or if they are just an amateur band on a Sunday outing.

You do, of course, wash the Weisswurst down with a beer. The Schneider Weisse tastes just the same here as it does in Scotland, which is not something you can say for all German beers.

Disaster strikes on the way to the Flughafen. We spend just a little too long marvelling at the displays of sausages in the Viktualienmarkt and miss the S-Bahn to the airport. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but the next S-Bahn is cancelled. We are now running late and miss the bag drop. But the flight itself is delayed by several hours, so the check-in people let us check in our bags anyway.

The delay would be a blessing in disguise if we were still land-side, because Munich Airport has its very own brewpub, Airbräu. I remembered the Pils being pretty good. But we are stuck airside and have nothing to do but sit around the one snack bar in the departure lounge. But there is beer. So, unexpectedly, my last beer in Germany is a König-Pilsener. This is one of the “TV-Beers” that “craft beer” snobs look down their noses at. Yet although it’s no Schönramer, it’s a decent beer with respectable bitterness. If only the beer was this “bad” in other airports I’ve travelled through.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Retreat to Bamberg

The whole of Bamberg is a place of pilgrimage. The devout visit the cathedral, which looms over the town from its site atop a hill. Even in December, day-trippers wander around in groups, following their tourist guide. The locals brave the biting cold to stand in the snow drinking mulled wine at any of a dozen stands. For me, it is like a retreat. As far as I am concerned, this is the home of beer.

It is a walk of only ten minutes or so from the railway station to Obere Königsstrasse, a run-down street in the process of redevelopment, but home to two breweries. Directly across the street from each other are Fässla, maker of Bamberg’s strongest beer, and Spezial, the lesser-known of the town’s two Rauchbier breweries. 

Dropping into Spezial for a quick Seidla before exploring the town, the Lagerbier is crisp: deep amber-bronze, lightly smoked and tasting of sweet malt and wood. Sadly, it’s too fizzy. The Ungespundetes on the other hand, a pale lager described as “hoppy, with less CO2”, is a revelation. Aromatic with citrus, it smells like something a pale ’n’ hoppy brewery such as Oakham back home might have made.

The beer is so good that a quick Seidla turns into two and then dinner. I just can’t resist the Kloß, the strange bouncy, springy potato dumpling that comes with the roast pork. I’ve spent ten years trying to make these damn things at home with no success.

This pub alone would make any town a respectable beer destination. But we have only just started. A pleasant walk across the river into the city centre and out again takes you past half a dozen defunct breweries, if you know where to look. Bamberg still has ten breweries today, but in the past it had scores of them.

Many pubs in Franconia feel a bit churchy, due to the habit of hanging a crucifix on the wall. The huge Schlenkerla tavern in Dominikanerstraße is positively ecclesiastical. The dark panelled walls everywhere you look give it a monastic feel, while the beer drinker can find his or her own rapture on drinking deeply from the plain half-litre tumblers in which the Rauchbier is served. I have drunk so much of this stuff that I barely notice its intense smokiness any more, but I do get dry wood, vanilla and chocolate. It’s silky smooth too. Draught Märzen from the wood in the church-like surroundings of this tavern is as close as a beer lover can get to praying.

The pubs close early in this town, so it’s an early night.

Which is just as well, because they open early too. After a hearty breakfast involving garlic sausage, we find ourselves in Fässla’s Gaststube – and we are definitely not the first or only customers. At Fässla they brew more superficially conventional beers, but on tasting them they are definitely idiosyncratic. The Lagerbier is crisp and fresh with a Burton-like minerality – the water in Franconia is hard. Cold and malty, it’s a perfect post-breakfast beer.

Into town again, turn left at the cathedral. Next to God, Schlenkerla dominates the town; so much so that even the cathedral souvenir shop sells bottles of Rauchbier.

But the next stop is Klosterbräu. It took me several visits to Bamberg before I was able to reliably locate this tavern. It is easily visible from various places in the town; just finding the right narrow street to wander down is the difficult part.

I’ve never yet been impressed by Klosterbräu’s beer and this visit did not improve their rating. The Pils is thin and metallic with little aroma and quite aggressively fizzy. Stir a bit of the gas out of it with a fork and you discover soft, sweet malt. A scratchy bitterness on the finish is presumably what makes it a Pils. But the tap room is nice in a rather shabby, monastic way.

 We’re not here for Klosterbräu anyway. A new opening in this part of town is Eckert’s, a plush, modern bar and restaurant for the stylish and upmarket. Being Bamberg, of course they offer regional beers next to the prosecco. (I can think of several would-be upmarket establishments back home in Glasgow that could learn from this example). Eckert’s has a view over the river (it is actually built on a bridge) looking down to the old town hall. Inside the décor is ultra-modern with mood lighting, light jazz and pine. It’s a place for Kaffee & Kuchen and fine dining, yet for once the beer list is comparable in quality with the wines on offer. A whimsical nod to tradition are the wooden screens in the loos with cut-out hearts, Hansel and Gretel-style.

The house beer is brewed by Drei Kronen in Memmelsdorf a few kilometres away. But it’s the Zwickel-Pils that impresses me. Andy Gänstaller has been brewing outstanding beers for years, first at Beck-Bräu in Trabelsdorf and now at his own brewery. It’s the first beer I’ve had under his own label. All thoughts of Klosterbräu disappear – this is what a Pils should be like. It’s not hazy as the Zwickel- would lead you to believe and appears to have been filtered. In character it’s not too far from the Spezial Ungespundetes from last night – I have thought for some time that there is a definite Franconian style of Pils alongside the other local beers. Huppendorfer Vollbier, another ultra-local brew, is quite different: bready, sweet and malty with an intense aroma and a short, only slightly bitter finish.

There is more Franconian Pils out to the east on the oddly named street Wunderburg – “Miracle Hill”. It is truly miraculous, for it is home to two more breweries. Keesmann Herren-Pils is possibly the bitterest Bamberg beer with herbal, minty hops. Over the road, Mahr’s Bräu has the perfect complement, the malty beer known only as “U”. Sadly, by this stage we are too drunk to fully appreciate it, but we enjoy the cosy tavern nonetheless.

The next morning we say goodbye to Bamberg, but there is one more thing to do.

One of the most delightful customs in Franconia, even better than the early opening pubs, is the fact that many taverns allow you to bring in your own food. Since the local bread and sausages are every bit as good as the local beer, this is a very good thing indeed. In the side room of Schlenkerla in the mid-morning there are people at every other table with a glass of beer and a little parcel of goodies just purchased from the butcher along the street. My choice is the Franconian salt pretzel, smaller than the Bavarian Brezn and without its glossy brown skin, and a slab of Leberkäse, smooth and very salty.

And then, it’s time once more to head to a railway station.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Kölsch in Cologne

A while ago on the train, I was watching a video that featured Michael Portillo up at the top of the Westminster Clock while Big Ben was striking the hour. Being right up close to the bell is quite an experience, even for a former MP, though he had of course heard it thousands of times before. Up close, you feel it as well as hearing it and the tone is more intense than it ever is when heard from further away or over the radio.

That’s kind of the feeling I got drinking Kölsch in Cologne.

Arriving from Belgium, Cologne is the first major city in Germany and an ideal stopping point. Not a few Dutch and British people arrive here and decide to stay. Its pubs and beer halls are unlike those anywhere else, apart from perhaps an hour up the Rhine in its rival Düsseldorf.

For sentimental reasons the first place I go is always the P. J. Früh beer hall. It’s just around the corner from the main railway station and round the side of the cathedral. Inside, in the vault or Schwemme, one member of staff does nothing but stand behind the counter, pouring one glass of beer after another. The waiters, called Köbesse, make a bit of a show of their job and there is constant banter between them and the tapster.

There is no poring over beer lists here. You raise a finger or catch the eye of the Köbes when you want a beer, and he brings you one. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask. The 0.2L glasses empty fast, and are immediately replenished.

To be honest, I come to Früh because it’s a classic beer hall and I wasn’t expecting the beer to be spectacular. I have always found this Kölsch to be a bit more elegant than some others, but it was never my favourite.

But I was surprised just how good it was. Delightfully fresh, as you might expect coming from a barrel three metres away. Slight sulphur notes, fruity with a very light touch of apple. The stipulation in the Kölsch-Konvention that Kölsch should be hoppy is more wishful thinking than reality these days; despite that, the beer isn’t bland at all.

The next stop is a classic Cologne boozer. Hans Lommerzheim ran his pub in Deutz, on the east side of the Rhine, for nearly fifty years. In that time not much seems to have changed except the facade becoming shabbier and shabbier. Only a few years ago “Lommi” finally retired, and passed away soon afterwards. There was talk of dismantling the pub and placing it in a museum, but instead the Päffgen brewery took it over and re-opened it, to the great delight of aficionados.

On the front of the building a 1960s (or earlier) sign proclaims the availability of Dortmunder Actien-Bier. In reality the pub sells Päffgen Kölsch, just as it did in Lommi’s day. Inside, there is no music, no TV, and no choice. Kölsch is the one beer they sell, and what a Kölsch it is. Wonderful dense foam, atop bright golden beer, creamy and malty.

The next morning there is only time for one more place before the train. But the Päffgen brewery tap, back on the other side of the river, opens at 10, and we are the first customers; at least the first to be drinking beer.

Our Köbes seems to be taking a long time, until we realise it’s because he’s rolling out and tapping a fresh cask. Don’t feel guilty about this – the tiny casks only hold about 15 litres and will be emptied soon enough.

The beer tastes fresher than the previous evening, more aroma of crushed grain alongside the light maltiness, spicy and slight honey notes, and that bit of sulphur is back. On the second glass the sulphur has dissipated somewhat. The bitterness starts coming through about the third glass. I could have sat here all day. But the train schedule dominates our time, just as the cathedral dominates the city centre. The advantage of the tiny 0.2L Kölsch glasses, though, is that you can always squeeze just one more in, however short of time you are.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Continent By Rail

I’ve done a fair bit of drinking in Germany, but I haven’t actually been back there since before I started writing this blog five years ago. Worse than that, I haven’t been in Belgium even longer, since you paid for your beer there in francs.

If you time things right, you can drink top-notch beer in three great beer countries in one day. Taking an early flight from Glasgow gets us to London for opening time. We have to change trains at London Bridge: the Market Porter is just around the corner, where they serve a splendid pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best. Sadly there’s only time for one here.

Arriving at St Pancras Station for the train, Sourced Market is a godsend, stocking fresh beer from London’s tiniest breweries. Yes, it’s not cheap, but neither is it extortionate. At least, I didn’t come away feeling cheated – like I do when I find myself paying over the odds for a mediocre beer in the type of outlets that have dominated station retail for so long. How much more civilised it is to stroll onto the train with beer from the likes of Five Points and Pressure Drop to keep us going until Belgium.

We arrive in Brussels with a twenty-five minute delay due to vandalism – apparently cable theft is also a problem in Belgium. This is rather annoying, because we have only scheduled in an hour and a half here in the first place. Brasserie Cantillon, just round the corner from Midi station, closes at five – is it worth even going? What the hell, of course it is!

Some people will say Cantillon is in a dodgy part of town. It doesn’t look any worse than where I live in Glasgow (make of that what you will). Although we come through the door at five minutes before closing time, they are still gracious enough to serve us a glass of straight unblended lambic. Wonderful stuff it is too.

For a last beer we make do with one of the unpromising-looking cafés on the north side of Midi station. This area has been redeveloped since I first changed trains here, and all the little cafés either side of the station have gone, replaced by fancier places with less character; which is a shame.

I used to drink Vieux Temps on the cross-channel ferry, back when there were cross-channel ferries. I order one out of nostalgia, and it’s terrible, a sugary pale with little memorable about it. Oh well. But look around: there are people drinking Trappist beers, yet it’s not a specialist beer café. That’s the joy of drinking in Belgium – good beer is ubiquitous, right next to the commodity stuff – as we discover when we pick up canned Rodenbach in a convenience store before getting on the train again.

The train from Brussels to Cologne is a pleasant enough trip in which to sup a bottle or two of lambic. The coming third beer city of the day is much less revered by geeks, but as we step off the train in the vast, cavernous Cologne Hauptbahnhof I know exactly where I’m heading. More of that tomorrow.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

This is Drygate

The unprepossessing grey shed in these pictures is going to be Glasgow’s newest brewery in around a month’s time. Look at the roof and you can see where the company logo came from. The huge tanks in the background belong to Tennent’s next door.

When I first heard about this project I thought, “nice, but who is going to go there?” I couldn’t have been more wrong – there are going to be plenty of potential customers in the vicinity. Just round the corner is the vast new Collegelands development comprising offices, student accommodation and a 200-bed hotel.

Just minutes away to the north and west are three of Glasgow’s top tourist attractions (yes, we do have some), the cathedral, the city’s oldest house Provand’s Lordship and the Necropolis, while Strathclyde University is just a few minutes’ more walk. To the east is Dennistoun, whose inhabitants have few going-out options that don’t involve going all the way into the city centre.

There’s not much competition out here. A good position for a new venture to be in.