Impressions of Köln: expansion pack

On our recent visit to Cologne we mostly ignored the Altstadt beer halls in favour of neighbourhood places, and found quite a different vibe.

We’re referring to this post as an expansion pack because it’s an extension of the one we wrote a year ago setting out our thoughts and feelings about Kölsch beer and Cologne drinking culture.

When we wrote that, a lot of people replied: “But you didn’t go to Lommi!”

And we said, relax, this won’t be our last visit to a city with which we’re increasingly enamoured.

The back bar at Lommi with nick-nacks, tea towels, postcards, glassware and so on.

Lommi, or Gaststätte Lommerzheim, is an unlikely Cologne landmark. It’s on the wrong side of the river, in Deutz, a few streets back from any main road, surrounded by apartment blocks.

The building is out of step with its neighbours, being older, darker and more decayed. Forbidding signs warn of a broken step and issue instructions about queueing. Signs advertise Dortmunder Aktien Bier (DAB) – which, of course, the pub does not sell.

We’re going to call it a ‘pub’ because that’s what it feels like. We entered nervously, expecting to be directed by a waiter, or barked at, but instead found ourselves in an alleyway full of smokers who wouldn’t look out of place in Bridgwater or Bolton.

Eventually, we drifted towards the bar where nobody stopped us taking stools overlooking the service operation. And it’s what we’d call a machine.

Being a small place, with a small staff, it has to operate efficiently. So, glass washing is a big deal.

Our seats were in the splash zone for a big double sink with constantly trickling warm water (left) and cold water (right).

Dirty 200ml glasses would pile up on one side and every now and then a waiter with a spare moment would start washing them by:

  1. Grabbing two by their bases.
  2. Slamming them into the warm, soapy water.
  3. Working them up and down on two round wire brushes fixed in place.
  4. Dunking them in cold water.
  5. Stacking them to dry.

By our reckoning, they were able to wash 50 or so glasses in about a minute and a half. The secret being, perhaps, the knowledge that these apparently dainty, thin-walled glasses can take rougher handling than one might think.

The filling of the clean glasses was also highly efficient: they’re thrown or dropped into a Kranz (a circular tray with holes to hold glasses) which is then held under the tap of the wooden barrel and spun as golden Kölsch gushes in.

They kept bringing us beer and we kept watching the floor show as the pencil marks multiplied on our beer mat bill.

One waiter never smiled. The other never stopped laughing. After a while, we began to wonder if this was a coping mechanism, because he laughed hardest when the customers were being most obstructive and obtuse.

An older man with the air of a cowboy (perhaps a long-distance truck driver) alternated glasses of Kölsch and cigarettes in the courtyard.

Two burly lads ordered a Halve Hahn (cheese and a  bread roll) and methodically dissected it so they’d both have a small cheese sandwich.

As the crowd thinned and the conversation became louder, and more sloppy, the laughing waiter passed through the bar with a plate of snacks. “Frikadelchen?” he shouted, waving their aroma over each table with a sheet of A4 paper.


Impressions of Berlin: a tale of 5 pilsners

Our first visit to Berlin in more than 20 years was marked out by pilsner beers, but that doesn’t mean they were all the same.

Our first drink in Berlin wasn’t even German, it was Czech.

Kohlenquelle in Prenzlauer Berg has the original golden lager from the tank, Pilsner Urquell, served in jewel-like handled mugs.

When we turned up in the early afternoon, after the advertised opening time, the bar was still shut. It looked shut down, in fact, with graffiti covering its shutters and ivy obscuring its windows. 

When it eventually opened, it felt a little hungover – quiet and bleary.

It’s a funny name, Kohlenquelle. As the official Pilsner Urquell website explains, it was a coal bunker in its days on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. It was converted to a basement bar in 2000 and got its Pilsner tanks in 2016.

The furniture and bar fittings feel simultaneously junk-shop hipster and somewhat Ostalgic – two aesthetics that fit together well. The bar counter, in particular, looks as it was pulled from a working men’s club c.1973.

It seemed odd to come to the German capital to drink Czech beer but then Czechia is closer to Berlin than Bavaria is. And for 40 years, politically speaking, even more so.

It tasted as it always does: bitter, rich, and weedy. And its shade of gold really is golden, or perhaps even coppery.

Generalisations about beer culture Germany

The Way of the Wegbier in Berlin

It’s normal in Berlin to drink a bottle of beer as you wander between pubs… or wander anywhere, for that matter.

We hadn’t been in the city long before we noticed just how many off-licences there are.

Or, rather, convenience stores that just happen to be piled high with crates of beer.

In Berlin, they’re usually labelled as ‘Spätis’, from Spätverkaufsstellen, meaning ‘late shopping outlet’. It’s a culture that originated in the former Communist East.

Our favourite, glimpsed from a tram, had stolen Spotify’s branding and was called, of course, Spätify.

Alongside dirt cheap mass-produced or local beers there are also exotic imports from Bavaria. Tegernsee Helles from Bavaria, for example, at €2 a pop.

But there’s nothing remotely pretentious about these shops. They also sell Monster energy drinks, chocolate bars, ice cream, vapes, and bog roll.

That the beers are being sold to drink on the go is underlined by the presence on the counter of a bottle opener.

Hand over your cash, knock off the cap, and you’re away.

And that’s exactly what people do. Visiting some Kneipen with Berlin-based friends we lost sight of one on the subway. He reappeared 30 seconds later with an open bottle of Sternburg Export which, he told us, cost €1.

“Back home, people look askance if you‘’’re carrying an open bottle of beer in the street,” he said. “In Berlin, on Saturday night, they look askance if you’re not.”

There’s an old Berlin joke about this, as Evan Rail quoted in an article for VinePair back in 2019:

“Someone said that the police stopped a person to check his papers on the Oranienburger Strasse… It turns out he was a Canadian tourist. And the police stopped him because he was the only one who didn’t have a Wegbier, so he looked suspicious.”

Nor did it take us long to start noticing empty bottles on pavements, and the men who make a living collecting them for the deposit.

Even in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate they dodge between American tourists filling tattered carrier bags, clink, clank.

When our pub-crawling companion – otherwise a very tidy, law-abiding sort – finished his Wegbier, he placed the bottle carefully on the ground near a bin.

Why make the professional scavengers dig around in the filth?

And it’s not as if it will be there long.

It’s a very efficient system, exploitative as it might be.

Wegbier isn’t the preserve of rebels and youngsters, either.

One weekday afternoon we watched a smartly-dressed thirty-something couple escorting their small children along the street.

Both parents were carrying open bottles of lager as casually as someone in Britain might carry a to-go cappuccino.

What if you can simply decide not to be drunk?

What if you can drink constantly, without a Teku glass in sight, and retain total responsible respectability?

Though it didn’t come naturally to us, we decided to try to fit in. We popped into a Späti for a between-pub pick-me-up and, overwhelmed by choice, also went for Sternburg Export.

It’s not the most exciting beer in the world but it doesn’t need to be when you’re swigging straight from the bottle on a busy street in one of the most interesting cities in the world.

Under the glow of traffic lights and kebab shop neon it felt positively glamorous, or delightfully seedy. It adds a swagger to your step.

Looking down into the gutter, we laughed. The road surface was studded, of course, with hundreds of rustling bottle caps pressed into the tar. And a layer of fresh bottle caps had already begun to form, like a tide line.

“We should do this more often,” we said.

Then, on our last morning in Berlin, we saw another bottle of Sternburg swinging past in the street.

Glancing up at its owner we saw a face that looked as if it had been hit by a brewery dray. Yellow eyes, bloody nose, bruises, and a look of forlorn befuddlement.

Perhaps, after all, it is good to pause.

Maybe we can just enjoy some fresh air on the walk between pubs.

And keep Wegbier as a treat when we’re in Germany, doing as the Germans do.

Beer styles Germany

Investigating Festbier

We’ve generally found German-style Festbier (festival beer) alluring in theory and disappointing in reality.

Its appeal is twofold: first, it’s a seasonal rarity; and, secondly, it’s a traditional part of German beer culture.

The disappointment is that its base characteristics are not things we look for in lager, being:

  1. strong
  2. heavy
  3. sweet

The words we most often jot down when we’re drinking it are those classic cliches ‘cloying’ and ‘sticky’.

Simon Clarke has a more positive spin on the same flavours, though: “That sweet malty breadiness makes it totally ‘steinable’…”

As Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing put it in a post on BlueSky:

“I love the sense of occasion and tradition of finding and drinking them more than the actual beers, which are all very well made of course…”

But it’s generally hard for a British drinker to really get to know Festbier, unless they spend a lot of time in Germany, at the right time of year.

Andreas Krennmair, author of Bavarian Brewing in the 19th Century, and Louise Krennmair live in Berlin and are Festbier fans. As Louise says:

“It probably helps if you live in Germany or are drinking it in Germany as you get the atmosphere, and fresher beer. My favourite is probably Schönramer Festbier which comes out at the start of December and we drink it at a bar in Berlin on New Year’s Eve at Frühschoppen.”

Andreas says: 

“What makes it enjoyable for me is the fact that I can have that beer only once a year for a few weeks, so it’s always a surprise what a particular beer is going to be. If you remember what it was the previous year, differences, even if they’re subtle in the grand scheme, are noticeable. Is it more or less bitter? What about the hop aroma? This is sweeter than last year, where does that boozy taste come from, etc.. In terms of Bavarian beer (excluding Franconia), I think it is the epitome of what a good pale lager can be – if it’s brewed well, of course. And, most importantly, what makes it stand out for me from other seasonal beers or brewed for festivities: it is still very sessionable, a bit dangerous with ~6%,so you always have to pace yourself…”

A pint of slightly hazy yellow beer with the Moor Brewing logo on the glass.
Moor Brewing Festbier 2023.

Testing our prejudices in 2023

Festbier seems to be more available in the UK now than it has been in the past, which gave us a chance to drink a few different examples and test our prejudices.

As Bristol is now something of a lager-brewing city, we were able to find a couple of local examples.

Lost & Grounded brewed a Festbier for the Oktoberfest event at its taproom earlier in September. It had the benefit of tasting extremely fresh which added a layer of interest and complexity. Though in many ways a textbook example – dark golden, 5.6% ABV – it was also distinctly bitter, and therefore better balanced, at least to our taste.

As ever, though, we started to find it a little heavy even by the end of the first round, and had to take a break with their flagship Keller Pils. By contrast, Keller Pils tasted even more delightful: light, spritzy, flowery…

When we went back to the Festbier for another go, it still impressed us, but we noticed a certain boiled sweet sugariness that confirmed our previous views of the style. It’s authentic, and correct, but almost reads to us as an off-flavour.

Moor Brewing’s take on Festbier, at 5.8%, seemed less successful. To the standard sweet heat it added a layer of haze and chewiness. There was some spiky apple there, too. Perhaps this is what you’d find if you drank Festbier in some Franconian village? We’re glad to have tried it but it feels like an odd outlier.

By way of calibration, rather wonderfully, we were also able to pop to our nearest supermarket, a branch of Lidl, and buy a gift box including multiple bottled German Festbiers.

On the one hand, this really highlighted the importance of freshness as a characteristic of the best German beers. Several tasted papery and ancient, battered about by the chain of logistics that got them from brewhouses in Bavaria to a retail park in Brislington.

On the other hand, it also underlined a point made by Louise Krennmair: “There is more to Festbier than Oktoberfest.”

Wildbräu Kirtabier was dark, orangey and syrupy, almost like Spingo Special.

Teisnacher 1543 was well balanced with just a dab of welcome rustic character.

Irlbacher Gäubodenvolksfestbier read to us as something like a strong pilsner: pale, powerfully bitter, and our favourite of the bunch.

More interesting than enjoyable

The fundamental problem is this: much as we enjoyed exploring and pondering on Festbier, nothing we drank pleased as much as Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, or Augustiner Helles.

What is the problem Festbier is designed to solve?

A need for something special to mark an occasion. The desire to loosen up. And perhaps to add interest in a beer culture that prizes consistency and tradition over novelty.

And what problems do we, Jess and Ray, have? We’re uptight lightweights enraptured by the consistency and tradition of German beer culture.

Festbier is not built for us.

beer reviews France

Diverse ideas of sour beer in wine country

One thing that struck us in France and Italy is that sour beer is as popular as in the UK but with more range in what constitutes ‘a sour’.

In particular, we got the impression, based on limited data points, admittedly, that there’s more overlap with the flavours and character of wine.

When Jess ordered Odissea by Birrificio Menaresta in a craft beer bar in Milan (pictured above) she was warned about the sourness by the staff. Presumably they’ve had one too many customers complain. But it really wasn’t what we in the UK would think of as a sour beer at all. It was more like beer (golden) with a shot of red wine in it. It had fruit tannins rather than fruit acidity. Looking it up later we learned that it is brewed with “top quality Mantua Lambrusco must”.

On the opposite end of the wine spectrum was Viti Vini Vici by Brasserie Dunham. Dunham is a Canadian brewery but we drank it in Les Cuves de Fauve, Paris. We understand this to be a series of beers matured in grape barrels but didn’t get a note of the particular batch we had – 12, maybe, or 14? But it certainly used a white grape and, boy, did that come through in the flavour. It was also intensely sour, with a character very like beer from Cantillon.

At Birrificio Italiano Polock en rouge was described as a 4% sour fruit Grodziskie. This presented a challenging, almost vinegar sourness, reminiscent of Duchesse de Bourgogne. It’s interesting that DdB is such an iconic beer and yet there are so few clones. But perhaps there’s an obvious reason for this.

We did also find some sours that were like the ones we get at home, and resembled fruit juice or fizzy pop. For example Peace Connection Unitaire by Sainte Cru tasted like a fresh tropical juice drink from a can, as purchased at the local corner shop. Nothing like beer but a nice thing to drink after seven hours on the train from Milan to Paris.

In contrast, Yoyo by Effet Papillon, at La Binouze in Paris, was described as a mango and redcurrant sour, but really wasn’t especially sour, or even sweet. There was a very subtle fruitiness but this suggested papaya or guava, and was barely there. It also had a hefty body, a proper head, and a good bitter aftertaste, all of which are quite unusual in our experience of sours.

Then there was also some playing around with sour notes in beer styles not badged as sour. For example, Blue Edith by La Debauche was a salted raspberry stout, where the raspberry aroma was noticeable but the flavour was extremely subtle. Raspberry often gets lost in beers; here, it added a pleasing layer of complexity.

And finally, we’ve been talking about wine influences in beer, but what about beer influences in wine? We took the opportunity in Italy to visit a few wine bars. We absolutely do not want to “get into” wine, because we already overthink beer and want to keep wine just for fun.

But we did find ourselves intrigued by Mare d’Inverno, a natural wine refermented in the bottle which therefore came with a little fizz and a small head. Fizzy reds are not unusual in that part of the world but it was interesting how funky this tasted. Our tasting notes make it sound more like an imperial stout: tobacco, leather, cocoa…

When we wrote Brew Britannia in 2012-14 the idea of hybrid beer-wine-cider struck us especially interesting. It’s never quite become A Thing – beer drinkers want beer, wine drinkers want wine – but we still wonder if there’s potential here.