Beers of the Year

An irrelevant photo of an old Guinness marketing gewgaw in Clapham, South London
An irrelevant photo of an old Guinness marketing gewgaw in Clapham, South London

This year, we’ve been all over the place, including almost a full month in Germany, so we’ve had plenty of opportunity to stretch our palates (corrective surgery scheduled for the New Year). After some bickering in the pub, and in no particular order, here are the 10 beers we’ve tried and enjoyed the most in 2008.

  1. Uerige Alt — like a British ale, but not, thanks to some subtle, intangible quality of the yeast and the wonderful, alien manners and customs of the Duesseldorf pub scene.
  2. Oakham Hawse Buckler — dark, strong, heavy, hoppy as Hell, with that combination of chocolate orange/coffee and grapefruit people either love or hate.
  3. Zywiec Porter — was this sticky, treacly Baltic porter as good as we thought, or were we just delighted to finally get our hands on it after a couple of years hunting?
  4. Brewdog Punk IPA — smart marketing means we’ll be seeing this being swigged from the bottle by trendy types all over the country by next Christmas. And a good thing too, as it’s full of flavour and full of life.
  5. SternBrau-Scheubel dunkel-rauch — the highlight of the first Zeitgeist beer festival, organised by Stonch and Biermania, was this smoky, amber wonder which was so good, we drank them dry.
  6. Mahrs Brau Ungespundete — our return trip to Bamberg was a bit of ticking session but this is one beer of which we wanted second-helpings: dark, cloudy, spicy and liquorice-like.
  7. Vollbier, Brauerei Meister, Unterszaunsbach — this dark, ale-like dark German beer tasted great, although that might have been something to do with the fact we’d trekked over most of Franconia to get to it, and because the lady in the pub was nice to us…
  8. U Fleku, Prague — treacly sweet and fruity sour, the black beer here is a wonder; shame the pub’s such a world-class hole.
  9. Kout na Sumave desitka, Prague — we’d never have found this one ourselves — Velky Al recently described is as the best lager in the Czech republic.  Haven’t had enough Czech beers to compare (can one ever?) but this was a beautiful easy-drinker with an impressive hop flavour.
  10. Frueh Koelsch (but not out of a bottle) — we weren’t that impressed when we first tried Frueh at the brewery tap in Cologne, but have now been back twice — it’s so subtle and so perfect that it’s become our favourite whenever we’re passing through Cologne.

Velky Al has been rounding up his beers of the year, which is where we nicked the idea what inspired us.

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.

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.

Duesseldorf part one — Uerige

uerige1.jpgUntil Friday night, our only encounters with altbier had been one bottle of Diebels in London, and a bottle of something else (maybe Gatzweiler?) in Aachen. We’d found it pleasant enough, but not especially remarkable.

Our first 250 millilitres of Uerige Alt came, therefore, as something of a shock. It was intensely bitter — the comparison that sprang to mind was Sam Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, only drier.

The beauty of a beer so dry and bitter is that it simultaneously quenches and intensifies your thirst, and it was hard to say no to the waiter who appeared, as if by magic, with fresh glasses every time ours were nearly empty.

There was standing room only — Duesseldorf isn’t exactly a tourist town, but it’s busy all year round — however, our spot by the bar was fantastic. We watched the impressively moustachioed Bismarck-alike behind the bar filling glass after glass from the wooden barrel, each one nothing but two-thirds of foam at first, but settling out into a perfect serving, brown at the bottom and cream at the top, every time.

He didn’t stop except to prop the barrel on a piece of wood when it reached the end. The space behind the bar was his — no-one else dared invade it. The glass-washer stood on the other side with the customers, dunking and rinsing glasses as frantically as the barman could fill them.

So, we were off to a good start. As we walked back to our hotel, we noticed something we’d never seen in Germany before: people in the streets being ever so slightly drunk and rowdy. More on that tomorrow.

We're off to Duesseldorf

Probably no updates until Monday or Tuesday, as we’re off to Duesseldorf. Trying to explain this choice of location to non-beer-lovers has been quite interesting. We’ve obviously very excited; we’ve tried a couple of good Alts outside Duesseldorf and can’t wait to drink it at source.

We will of course be using Ron Pattinson’s European Beer Guide as a key source, as he’s handily put together a map and guide to Duesseldorf. If anyone else has any particular recommendations, do let us know. We’re toying with the idea of going to Muenster as well, to visit Pinkus Mueller, but don’t know if we’ll have time…