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.

Dark beer in Dortmund

Dortmund is one of those places whose name is famous amongst beer geeks, but  where it’s hard to find any very exciting beer.

We did track down Hoevel’s Original, though, which we found interesting. It’s another one of those German local brands which has its own town sewn up but which you don’t see anywhere else. Every building, bus stop and billboard in town has one of their glossy adverts featuring a seductive nymph.

Their brewery tap (see Ron’s pub guide for details) dishes up the beer in perfect nick. It’s served in a custom glass (we love custom glasses) which they call a ‘Victoria’ — tall, and the shape of a trumpet bell. To all intents and purposes, it’s an alt bier, being brown, nutty, fruity and altogether very like a smooth, tasty best bitter. Not really worth going out of your way for — the alts in Duesseldorf are better — but, as they say in German adverts, “Mmmmmm…. lecker.” That is, tasty.  There’s also a cloudy ‘zwickl’, which was a bit home-brewy.

In contrast, we also tried one of the local ‘premium pilsners’ which, in the case of most German brands, is a euphemism for ‘very bland lager’. Brinkhoff’s No 1 is probably the most boring beer we’ve ever had. It had less flavour and body than tap water. Worse than Cruzcampo. Sheesh.

Our holiday arrangements were pretty chaotic this time so we stupidly failed to pick up on Bergmann as recommended by Adeptus. If you are going to Dortmund/Muenster or anywhere in that region, make sure you check his blog before you go!

Porterhouse Oktoberfest

A pint of porter at the Porterhouse (photo by 1gl, from Flickr Creative Commons)
A pint of porter at the Porterhouse (photo by 1gl, from Flickr Creative Commons)

The Porterhouse in Covent Garden is a funny place.

On the one hand, it sets itself up as a beer-lovers paradise, with an extensive beer menu containing pages and pages of text about the integrity, commitment and passion of its founders.

On the other hand, from the time it opens at midday, it starts to fill up with stag-dos, parties of posh people, ex-pats from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, and confused looking middle-aged tourists. Most of the clientele — and we were looking — seem to drink wine, Magners, Corona or Porterhouse Chiller. Chiller, by the brewers’ own admission, is the least challenging of their beers (viz, it is very cold and fairly light in flavour).

So, it’s a beer-centred venue which could survive perfectly well if it didn’t bother dishing up any decent beer at all.

We’ve got a little soft-spot for the place, though, as it was here that we first tried Paulaner Salvator and some other beers that helped to open our eyes a few years ago. This particular trip was prompted by the Beer Nut, who told us that the Porterhouse’s own German-style altbier was on its way, and by his review of said alt.

We weren’t disappointed by the alt — it more than measured up the real thing, which we got to know and love earlier this year, and satisfied our persistent cravings. It was on the bitter, fruity side, similar to the output of the well-respected Duesseldorf brewpubs, and bore no resemblance to the rather burnt-sugar-like commercial alt from Schloesser which we see fairly often in London these days.

While we were there, and being fortunate enough to have a quiet corner to ourselves, we decided to reappraise the rest of the Porterhouse’s home-grown beers. Weird nitro-keg shaving-foam heads aside, the stouts are all pretty impressive compared to Guinness. And that, after all, is the management’s entire focus: beat Guinness. Bailey preferred the deeply bitter Wrassler’s; Boak liked the softer, maltier Oyster Stout. None of the other beers are mind-blowing, but it’s good to see such a range, including three lagers.

Maybe the chaps in charge could turn this venue over to the party people and open another somewhere quieter, where we can appreciate their hard work in the brewery? Perhaps next door to the Greenwich Union?

Photo from 1gl‘s photostream at Flickr, under a Creative Commons license. Thanks, 1gl!

Help — altbier in London?

Frankenheim altbier, sweating on a Duesseldorf pub table
Frankenheim altbier, sweating on a Duesseldorf pub table

Now that Zeitgeist is satisfying our occasional cravings for Koelsch, I find myself asking: is there honestly nowhere in London I can get a decent altbier on tap? I mean, where I can get anything other than Schloesser or Diebels from a bottle?

The landlady of Zeitgeist, who is from Cologne and therefore obliged to pretend to hate altbier, admitted that they had wanted it on tap, but had been told that no-one was importing it because it’s too like British ale.

With that similarity in mind, when I get the urge to drink alt, I’m having to chill London Pride half to death in the fridge, slop it carelessly into an altbier glass to form a huge head, and use my imagination. Not bad, but not ideal.

The Session #19 – German beer

The cap from a bottle of Rothaus Tanen Zapfle
The cap from a bottle of Rothaus Tannen-Zaepfle beer

This month’s Session has been set by Lootcorp 3.0 and is on the subject of German beer.

…the goal is to dig a little deeper and write about how German beers and beer culture have worked their way into your life (and hearts)…

We’ve already blogged about this — our conversion to good beer took place in Germany, so it’s a pretty key part of our beer-drinking lives. We try to go there at least once a year, and I’ve even started learning German so I can have all those fascinating conversations with Franconian brewers about their mashing schedules.

It’s a bit easier to get a regular dose of German beer culture in London, now that Zeitgeist has opened up. So to celebrate this month’s session, so we popped along there.

Zeitgeist is aimed at homesick Germans, so the beer list reflects what Germans actually drink. Therefore most of what’s on offer is the usual mass-produced, nationally available lagers — Bitburger, Warsteiner, Koenig Pils etc. In a shrewd move, reflecting the tendency of Germans to boast about their local beer, they also offer a number of big “regionals” – eg Gaffel Koelsch (on tap), Schloesser Alt and Tannen-Zaepfle, by the Baden-Wuerttenberg state-owned brewery.

Last night, we had a little virtual tour round Germany. We started in the former DDR, with Wernesgruener, before moving to the far north-east west for some Jever (seriously cheesy website, BTW). I don’t think we’ve actually blogged about this before, which is surprising, given how much we drink it. There’s just something about its bitter kick that makes us come back for more. Tastes a bit like hay, in a good way.

Gaffel Koelsch went down well. While it’s not our favourite koelsch, we prefer drinking this one fresh out of the barrel than drinking a tired bottle of a better one. It’s always refreshing, and drinking it next to Wernesgruener and Jever brings out the malty, fruity flavours.

Then down to Baden-Wuerttenburg, where we sampled Eichbaum and Rothaus Tannen-Zaepfle. The Eichbaum was pretty dull (too much hopfenekstrakt and no hops?) and the TZ was OK. When we were on holiday in Heidelberg, we drank it there and noted that it’s a lot fruitier than other pils. It’s drinkable enough, but really not terribly exciting, unless you’re from the area and feeling homesick.

Finally, into Bavaria for Schlenkerla Maerzen. Mmmmm. Frazzles and fruit. Does it for me every time.

Boak

German beer festival at Zeitgeist

What better use of a day’s holiday than to pretend you’re in Germany? And how much easier when someone has gone and laid on a German beer festival for you, complete with many beers dispensed Franconian-style out of little wooden barrels.

This excellent little festival was brought to us by Zeitgeist, a great German pub in Vauxhall, Stonch’s beer blog, and Bier-Mania, who organise beer trips to Belgium, Germany and beyond.

This won’t be a detailed review, as we drank too much to remember many details — as did everyone else, by the sound of it … there are now no more festival beers left.

We remember a large range of beer from the Bolten-Brauerei from outside Duesseldorf, with their Alt being particularly nice. Hofmann Export Dunkel Lagerbier was a great example of the complexity that Franconian Dunkels can deliver. Our stand-out favourite was a Dunkel-Rauch by SternBrau-Scheubel which had a gorgeous Maerzen-like malt flavour and amber colour, with a hefty hoppiness and a subtle but complex smoke taste.

We thought the mix of people and the atmosphere was great – some tickers, some trendies, some locals, but everyone getting into it. It was the kind of place you could bring non-beer geeks to (we did) without worrying about whether they’d have a good time.

Also, the excellent range of Brotzeit really helped line the stomach – Obatzda is an acquired taste, but I love the stuff, and they make it well here.

This was easily one of my favourite festivals of all time. Do it again, chaps!

Boak

For another perspective, see Allyson’s write-up on her Impy Malting blog.

Ron Pattinson blogged about Hofmann here.

Duesseldorf part five – Frankenheim and further pontification on the nature of Alt

frankenheim2.jpgWe’re almost there. We ended up having Frankenheim twice. First, on Saturday night, after Schumacher and Schloesser, in a restaurant / pub called Brauerei Zum Schiffchen. It’s allegedly Duesseldorf’s oldest, going back to 1628. It doesn’t brew its own now, stocking Frankenheim instead.

Frankenheim was OK – good malt flavour with hints of chocolate, not much bitterness. Sufficiently decent to make us decide to visit their enormous brewery tap, which is about 20 minutes walk from the old town on Wielandstrasse. This place was considerably quieter than the old town pubs, possibly because of the distance, and possibly because it was Sunday afternoon, and even the Duesseldorf party animals have to rest some time. We also committed some kind of faux pas by sitting on a regular’s table. (Why else would they have sat on our table when the pub was two-thirds empty?)

So those were all the alts we got to try. There are a few others that we didn’t try – Diebels, Gatzweiler and Rhenania, to mention a few. Enormous thanks to Ron Pattinson for bothering to put together his Duesseldorf pub guide, as it certainly saved us considerable effort in planning this trip.

So, some conclusions. As a “style”, alt is very varied — the beers we tried had different bitterness levels, different malt flavours, different bodies. It’s certainly more varied than various Koelsches (more on that soon). Our favourites from the trip were Schumacher and Zum Schluessel, but this didn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the others.

We’re looking forward to a return trip, particularly as Duesseldorf is well-placed to get to other beer destinations (Muenster, Cologne, Dortmund). Plus there’s the draw of the “Sticke” — the stronger version, produced and sold on two days a year. See this article on Ron Pattinson’s Duesseldorf pages for more.

But, and this is perhaps the sacreligious part — the alt itself would not be the key draw. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy it enormously, but you can get similar beers in the UK.* It’s the atmosphere, the tradition and the liveliness. We’d happily move to Duesseldorf for a year or two to call some of these places our locals.

———-

*To recreate the Alt effect at home: Get a nice brown bitter that you like, chill it for a couple of hours, and pour it carelessly into a 250ml tumbler so that it eventually settles down to half beer, half head. We tried it — it works. A good alt is very like a cold, super bitter English ale. In our humble opinion, this better recreates the alt experience than buying a tired bottle of boring Diebels from your local specialist beer emporium.

Duesseldorf part four (oops) — Brauerei Zum Schluessel

schluessel2.jpgOn Saturday night, we couldn’t get through the door of Brauerei Zum Schluessel. The pub was packed to the rafters and the street outside was crammed with football supporters celebrating a win. We cut our losses and came back for lunch on Sunday.

Duesseldorf’s pubs are arguably not as atmospheric at lunchtime. In the evenings, there’s a real buzz — they’re full of people of all ages crammed close together talking and laughing. Duesseldorf is a very touchy-feely place by German (or British) standards. But at lunchtime, they seem to be colonised, in the main, by middle-aged couples. There is a murmur of conversation, rather than the roar of jolly bacchanalia. This is still a pleasant atmosphere, but hardly exciting. A necessary compromise, though, which allowed us to sit down, eat and stroke our chins in nerdish appreciation of the beer.

Schluessel’s alt is a beauty. Ron isn’t kidding when he says it’s hard to choose between them — they all have their charms. This one was on the dry/bitter side, partly from hops and partly from some burnt sugar flavours. It also seemed to have a fuller body than some of its competitors.

But enough waffle — look at this:

schluessel3.jpg

Hmm. That’s made us thirsty. We’re off to the pub. More tomorrow.

Duesseldorf part three — Schumacher and Schloesser

schumacher.jpgSchumacher is another of Duesseldorf’s smaller breweries whose business seems to go on mostly in the cosy confines of their brewery tap.

Schumacher’s brewery/pub on Oststrasse was extremely busy. We mentioned that Duesseldorf isn’t a tourist city, but its economy is fuelled by conferences and fairs. During our visit, the Boot Messe was on. That’s a yacht show, you’ll note — not a pair of muddy wellies. So the place was crowded with people in very garish, expensive yachting anoraks who were, it must be said, a jolly bunch.

Having now got the hang of how Duesseldorf boozers work, we crammed ourselves into a corner, said a cheery hello to the middle-aged couple whose space we’d invaded, and within seconds were brought a couple of glasses of alt. The tally was marked on the beermat. The waiter barked and rushed off with his tray.

By this point, we were getting used to topping up with alt every few hours, and this one went down very nicely. We’d need a return visit to Duesseldorf to catch all the subtle diferences, but suffice it to say that we liked Schumacher. It is less bitter than Fuechsen’s or Uerige’s, and distinctly malt-accented. It’s nothing like as sickly as Schloesser, though, and still a crisp, dry, refreshing drink. Boak’s favourite of the trip, in fact.

The highlights of this visit: seeing a tiny, bent-backed, faintly magical cellarman emerge from a tiny door beneath the bar to stretch his legs, and watching a fresh wooden barrel rise magically through the bar on a lift.

You want to hear more about Schloesser? Well, we drank it with our dinner because the only place we could squeeze into to eat (Brauerei im goldenen Ring) was serving it. It tasted OK, to be honest, but the difference between the big alts and the local ones is astounding: after Schumacher, it was like drinking fizzy pop.

Finally, in case you’re getting bored of pictures of buildings and signs, here’s a mouthwatering trail for tomorrow’s post:

schluessel1.jpg

Notes

Schloesser’s website is here, but it crashes Firefox.  Schumacher can be found here, in German only.

Duesseldorf part two – Im Fuechsen Alt

fuchschen1.jpgFollowing our drinks in Uerige, we tried to get into Brauerei im Fuechschen, but just couldn’t squeeze our way in. So we went back the next day for lunch. If you want to try altbiers in the old town in slightly more “relaxed” circumstances (i.e. seats, more than an inch of personal space) then a meal is definitely the way forward.

The alt here was quite different from Uerige — lighter in colour, and less bitter, although there was still a good hop kick. With slight orangey notes, it reminded us of London Pride, although the alt is more bitter. We also tried the weizen, Silber Fuechschen. It’s always interesting to have a German wheat-beer that isn’t from Bavaria (or at least doesn’t have that banana yeast in it), and this was very pleasant and refreshing. Like one of the more interesting Belgian wheatbeers, such as St Bernardus. But we still preferred the alt, by nine drinks to one.

As for the food, well, if you like traditional German food, you won’t be disappointed. Big joints of meat with knives stuck in ’em. Luvverly.

Duesseldorf is obviously a bit of a party town. Even in January in the pouring rain, people were sitting outside drinking away, and a few were even… shouting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such “rowdiness” in Germany — although, to be fair, the shouters were getting dirty looks from most of the locals. We also saw some youths drinking bottles of Frankenheim Blue (don’t know, didn’t ask…) in the street and then carefully hunting around for a recycling bin. You don’t see that in Leicester Square.