MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer

‘Why aren’t more British breweries tackling German-style wheat beers?’ Adrian Tierney-Jones has asked more than once. Intrigued by that question, we rounded up a few and gave it some thought.

Now, clearly, this isn’t one of our full-on, semi-comprehensive taste-offs — we didn’t have the time, inclination or, frankly, budget to get hold of a bottle of every Weizen currently being made by a UK brewery. One notable omission, for example, is Top Out Schmankerl, recommended to us by Dave S, which we couldn’t easily get hold of.

But we reckon, for starters, six is enough to get a bit of a handle on what’s going on, and perhaps to make a recommendation. We say ‘perhaps’ because the underlying question is this: why would anyone ever buy a British Weizen when the real thing can be picked up almost anywhere for two or three quid a bottle? The most exciting German wheat beer we’ve tasted recently was a bottle of Tucher in our local branch of Wetherspoon — perfectly engineered, bright and lemony, and £2.49 to drink in. How does anyone compete with that?

We drank the following in no particular order over a couple of nights, using proper German wheat beer vases of the appropriate size. What we were looking for was cloudiness, banana and/or bubblegum and/or cloves, a huge fluffy head and, finally, a certain chewiness of texture. That and basic likeability, of course.

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Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

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Session #116: Slightly Wrong Gose is Better Than No Gose

Gose, an obscure German beer style, has become a (small scale, low-key) battleground, and we’re not sure why.

Derrick Peterman is hosting the 116th edition of The Session where beer bloggers around the world post on one topic. This month, Derrick says:

Want to talk about the history of the Gose?  How about how American breweries are taking this style and running wild with it with different spice and fruit additions?  How else has the Gose manifested itself outside its German homeland?  Is the Gose here to stay or will it go the way of the Black IPA, once the hot style but slowly becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity?

We first encountered Gose in The Bible, AKA The Great Beer Guide by Michael Jackson. Back in 2008, when this blog was a year and half old, we travelled across Germany to the Czech Republic, stopping off in snowy Goslar and Leipzig on the way. So, before we’d ever tasted a fancified craft beer take on Gose, we had a good go on as near as there is to the real thing, at source.

We liked it, though some takes were better than others. It reminded us of a quirky cousin of Belgian wheat beer, and we like Wit, even, or maybe especially, Hoegaarden. (We realise this gets us thrown out of both The World Kraft Klub and the Ain’t Wot It Used to Be Society of Great Britain but we cannot lie.) Ritterguts had a bit more to it being a bit more tart. But, in general, what German Gose isn’t in the 21st Century is a deeply profound, complex, challenging beer: it’s a fun refresher, no more tangy than a can of Fanta, no saltier than a Jacob’s cream cracker, and with coriander present but hardly obtrusive.

For a long time Gose’s big champion was Ron Pattinson who called for the salvation of this endangered style while providing history lessons and setting some standards along the way. But the exuberant UK craft movement, focused primarily on IPAs and other hop-led styles, took a while to respond.

A breakthrough moment was the arrival of Magic Rock Salty Kiss in February 2013, brewed by Giada Maria Simioni (who has since left Magic Rock) in collaboration with Anders Kissmeyer. We don’t know that it’s the first example of a UK-brewed Gose — almost certainly not — but it was the one that made a splash. Magic Rock were, and still are, one of the buzziest breweries around and gave Gose a contemporary twist with the addition of sea buckthorn, rosehips and English gooseberries.

A can of Salty Kiss, close up.

We first tasted Salty Kiss in Sheffield in the summer of 2013 and, from the off, loved it. We’ve liked every variation we’ve tried — they’ve messed around with different fruits from time to time and tinkered with the recipe — and it’s become one of those beers we like to keep in the fridge at all times, if possible. If you’ve never had it you might imagine from the gloriously garish graphic design and the description that it is bright pink and tastes like fruit juice. It isn’t, and doesn’t: those additives are seasonings, not flavourings, and it really doesn’t seem hugely different to the beers we drank in eastern Germany eight years ago.

We tested that judgement recently when we got hold of some bottles of Bayerischer Bahnhof Gose from Beers of Europe. It was great, in that bright uncomplicated way — the kind of thing it would be a pleasure to drink from the bottle with a barbecue on a hot day. Salty Kiss is in the same territory but dialled up just a notch or two, arguably better, certainly no worse. It tastes how Gose tastes, it isn’t some sick mutation.

So when we read that Ron regrets wishing for more Goses (because everyone is getting it wrong, as we read it), or Ed being disgusted by Salty Kiss, or Alan describing most modern Gose as ‘Gatorade alcopop’, we feel a bit downhearted. Is their distaste about beer, or beer culture? We agree that a few more straight Goses without fruit and other sprinkles would be nice but, still, this feels like at least the beginning of a success story — a beer style so neglected it nearly disappeared altogether is now nearing ubiquity! As with IPA, getting people excited and engaged about the idea — letting them have fun — is step one. Getting the history right, at least at the sharp-end, in the brewhouse, can come later.

News, Nuggets & Longreads for 30 July 2016: Belgians, Bark, Berlin

Here’s all the beer and pub news, opinion and pondering from the last week that’s made us sit up and take notice, from eccentric Belgians to Berliner Weisse.

For Draft magazine Kate Bernot has taken an in-depth look (1,700 wds) into the use of roots, bark and other bits of tree in the outer limits of brewing experimentation:

Wood is not uncommon in a brewhouse; beers aged on fresh oak or made with spruce tips are familiar. But brewers, especially those in arborous domains, have recently begun to eye entire trees—bark, leaves, sap, needles and all—as ingredients. Juniper, cedar, birch, Ponderosa pine, white fir and other timbers all confer their own distinct flavors, from vanilla to citrus to herbs. More than that, brewers say the final beers express the rusticity of their surroundings, that desirable sense of place that has led to a revival in foraging and local sourcing.


Dany Prignon portrait.
By Breandán Kearney from Belgian Smaak.

At Belgian Smaak British Guild of Beer Writers’ Beer Writer of the Year Breandán Kearney has profiled the enigmatic Dany Prignon of Brasserie Fantôme. It’s an interesting long read (2,000 wds) altogether but it was this bit that really made us spit out our cocoa:

And it’s odd that as the owner and production manager of a brewery, he doesn’t even drink beer. “I don’t like it,” he says, as if this assertion were completely normal. “I taste it, but I prefer soft drinks.”

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Magical Mystery Pour #8: Aus Bayern

Magical Mystery Pour logo.We finally found time to sit down and enjoy the final batch of beers suggested to us by Joe Stange, all three of which are from Bavaria, and two of which we’ve had before in one form or another.

We bought them from Beers of Europe and they were all in 500ml bottles:

  • Keesman Herren Pils, Bamberg, 4.8% ABV, £2.09
  • Ayinger Jahrhundertbier, Aying, 5.5%, £2.39
  • Weltenburger Asam Bock, Weltenburg, 6.9%, £2.69

Glass of pale golden beer. Of Herren Pils Joe says:

Repeat visitors to Bamberg typically go through their Rauchbier and Ungespundet phases before they emerge from their pupas as beautiful Herren-swilling butterflies. (And then, weirdly, the phases start over again.) There are times when I drink this and decide it’s my favorite beer in Germany.

We poured it into one of our favourite Pilsner Urquell mugs (Boak’s proudest moment is mangling Polish into Czech to negotiate the purchase in a pub in Prague) where it looked very pretty and very pale. The head, as you can see from the picture above, was very well behaved.

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QUICK ONE: Reinheitsgebot as Flashpoint

We expected the 500th anniversary of the German beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, to generate lots of coverage but we hadn’t expected it to be so testy.

It turns out that this has become another flashpoint in the battle between two vague, fuzzy-edged groups within the world of beer.

The Reinheitsgebot stifles innovation!’ say the cavaliers; ‘“Innovation” my arse!’cry the roundheads.

And the Campaign for Real Ale’s Revitalisation project (consultation closes on Saturday, by the way) seems to have caused a flare up in another stretch of the previously fairly calm demilitarised border area.

POSTER: Captain America: Civil War

As we say, the edges are fuzzy, but it seems to be more or less the same groups bickering over clarity vs. haze, cask vs. keg, strong vs. session, boring vs. balanced, weird additives vs. malt, hipsters vs. squares, craft vs. ‘craft’, Simcoe vs. Fuggles, and so on.

The division feels weird to us — on both sides, more about attitudes, feelings, personalities, grudges and prejudices than anything concrete. It’s tribal, even almost religious.

Meanwhile, in the real world (as we Tweeted yesterday) Cascade hops and dark lager are still regarded as exotic, and we couldn’t buy a hazy beer in Penzance if we wanted to.

Porter for Breakfast, 1924

Bottle of stout w. glass.

The following passages, for obvious reasons, grabbed my attention in the opening pages of Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, about a young Hamburg man exiled to an Alpine sanatorium before World War I:

So he grew up; in wretched weather, in the teeth of the wind and mist, grew up, so to say, in a yellow mackintosh, and, generally speaking, he throve. A little anaemic he had always been, so Dr. Heidekind said, and had him take a good glass of porter after third breakfast every day, when he came home from school. This, as everyone knows, is a hearty drink — Dr. Heidekind considered it a blood-maker — and certainly Hans Castorp found it most soothing on his spirits and encouraging to a propensity of his, which his Uncle Tienappel called ‘dozing’: namely, sitting staring into space, with his jaw dropped and his thoughts fixed on nothing at all.

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BrewDog Dü Altbier

We were pleased to hear BrewDog had attempted an Altbier given recent evidence of their knack for brewing textbook examples of classic styles. Is it a beer worth shouting about?

When we were in the very earliest days of learning about beer, using Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide as our manual, we were desperate to try Altbier, the speciality of the north-western German city of Düsseldorf.

Then, in 2008, when we’d been blogging less than a year, we finally made the pilgrimage, and did little but drink Alt for several days. We had a great time — the city is fascinating, the pubs are great, and there’s an irresistible charm to almost any regional speciality with its own persistent culture.

The beer itself, however, seemed to us rather like heavily chilled, bog-standard British bitter, saved only from blandness by super-freshness and context.

Candy Kaiser (we paid £2.75 for 330ml from Beer Ritz; it’s available for £1.80 direct from BrewDog) was first brewed in 2014 under the name ‘Amber Alt’. In this latest iteration it tastes (if our seven-year-old memories can be trusted) almost as good as, and pretty similar to, the real thing.

Which is to say, despite a characteristically overblown BrewDog blurb (‘a full throttle attack on your taste buds’) it is accurately unexciting.

It is suitably conker-brown, has an appropriate hard-toffee, brown sugar sweetness, a touch of dark roastiness, and — its saving grace — plenty of serious, unsmiling, business-like bitterness. Other than that, there was little else to latch on to, which is true to style — Alt is for drinking in volume with your pals, not chatting about — but makes it hard to recommend as a beer in its own right.

It doesn’t capture the magic of drinking Alt at source but it does come closer than most bottled versions, so if you’re curious about can’t make it to Düsseldorf, it’s probably the best substitute on the UK market this side of a cold bottle of St Austell HSD.

Does it Work and is it Worth a Tenner?

Schneider’s Meine Porter Weisse is, as the name suggests, a cross-breeding of English porter and Bavarian wheat beer — an idea intriguing enough to convince us to part with £9.99 for 750ml.

Our first guess was that this would have something to do with Brooklyn Brewery but, no: publicity materials suggest that Georg Schneider conceived this beer with his friend ‘Alistair’, a brewer in London. Presumably there are legal reasons for the coyness — this is not a formal collaboration — but there’s only one porter-obsessed global craft beer aristocrat who really fits the bill.

From its wheat beer ancestry it gains high carbonation and opacity, while the porter side gives it a rich red-black colour. It could look muddy (as dark wheat beers often do) but actually pulls off velvety richness.

The aroma is dominated by wheat beer characteristics: some pineapple, a little banana, and vanilla. With the first gulp, porter takes over with a burnt-toast and dark chocolate bitterness which works unsurprisingly well with the creamy texture. Ultimately, as the head dies away, the Dark Side comes to dominate, though a hint of tropical fruit persisted to the end.

We were reminded a little of Schneider’s own Aventinus and also of Anchor’s mouth-coating, chewy Porter, though this isn’t as good as either of those beers. It’s not a clumsy clash as many of these German-US-UK hybrids can be, but nor is it quite in balance, and our final impression was of wateriness — like drinking mild. That’s unforgivable in a 7% beer.

Though Bailey (who’s soft about mild) liked it more than Boak (who hates pineapple) neither of us would rush to drink it again, and certainly not at this price.