Stuttgart: Beer is not the Main Event

Sign advertising Dinkelacker CD-Pils in Stuttgart.

In Frankfurt, we’re told, Apfelwein is the thing to drink rather then the rather bland local pilsners. Similarly Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg, is surrounded by vineyards, and seems more proud of its wine than its beer.

Nonetheless, there are several breweries in town, and even more brewery brands (takeovers), and so plenty to keep a beer geek entertained, if not necessarily happy, for a few days.

We know from our own experience that German city brewpubs are often disappointing, with sweet, yeasty beers that make us long for a properly made lager, however bland. Ron Pattinson’s European Beer Guide gave us no reason to expect differently of Stuttgart, but — the curse of the beer freak — we just had to find out for ourselves.

There’s not much to say about Calwer Eck‘s beer other than it was soupy, sweet and rather amateurish. The stronger, barley-water-like Braumeister (5.5% ABV) had marginally more character than the ‘naturtrübes’ pils (5%), but that isn’t necessarily a recommendation. (The food wasn’t much good either, including schnitzels which we guessed came from a packet in the deep freeze, and a ‘beer sauce’ which tasted suspiciously like instant gravy.)

We found Sophie’s Brauhaus a little more enjoyable, which isn’t saying much. From the outside, it looked like a knocking shop (red neon…) but inside, we found a reasonably cosy space full of excitable students, mostly drinking rather than eating. The pleasant pub-like atmosphere compelled us to stay for a second round, after which whatever charms we had found in the beer (the novelty of a Schwarzbier, and one that actually tasted dark, perhaps?) began to fade.

Sign advertising Stuttgarter Hofbrau.

Despite the ubiquity of huge glowing signs advertising Stuttgarter Hofbräu, we didn’t see their pils for sale anywhere other than fast food joints and at the football stadium. If anyone knows the story behind why this might be the case, we’d love to hear it. (Something to do with being owned by Radeberger, perhaps?)

Schwaben Brau Das Schwarze beer.The fact that we didn’t stumble upon any Schwaben Bräu is perhaps more understandable: the brewery merged with another local giant, Dinkelacker, some years ago, and, though SB beers are still brewed, they seem to be ‘second stringers’. The exception is the classy, coffeeish ‘Das Schwarze’, which was a favourite of Michael Jackson’s, and is on sale at the Dinkelacker brewery tap (a plasticky place on Tübingerstrasse) alongside a slightly-hazy Kellerpils under the Cluss brand (fancy delicate glass, distinct strawberry-leaf hoppiness) and a solid set of ‘Sanwald’ wheat beers.

Dinkelacker’s own brand is reserved for the mainstream big-sellers, CD and Privat, both perfectly pleasant pilsners at 4.9% and 5.1% respectively, with the emphasis firmly on golden-syrup-maltiness. Not hugely exciting, but not utterly bland either, and certainly not nasty.

It felt odd to be in a German city where beer is treated either as a replacement for water, or a sideshow to wine, which has its own museum and designated walking route, but we know, really, that Germany is far too large and complex to be summed up simply as a ‘beer country’.

Knut, the Gunmakers, and our latest jaunt

We spent yesterday evening at the Gunmakers (Jeff ‘Stonch’ Bell’s pub) with Knut Albert, the noted Norwegian beer blogger.

We enjoyed a couple of pints of Purity Mad Goose (a golden yellow beer in Jaipur/Hophead territory) and Caledonian Double Dark Oatmeal stout (sweetish and mild) and some top notch grub, too — Jeff’s not being big headed when he suggests the food at his place is quality stuff.

As well as putting up with a lot of inane questions about Scandinavia, Knut was also able to reassure us that Hamburg, where we’re spending Friday and Saturday night, is not a complete dump as Lonely Planet would have you believe. We’re in Brussels tonight, although getting in late, and then in Luebeck on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

We’ll let you know if we find any beer of note when we return next week.

Monkey beer

Schneider Aventinus (aka Monkey Beer) in action at the Pembury
Schneider Aventinus (aka Monkey Beer) in action at the Pembury

Schneider Aventinus is 8.5% alcohol by volume. That’s bloody strong.

A few weeks ago, we watched a pair of big lads in the Pembury drink about five bottles each without looking giddy.

We now hear from a friend that these chaps are regulars and love Aventinus so much they rarely drink anything else. And they call it ‘monkey beer’. Because of its banana-like yeast aroma?

No — because it makes them act like monkeys.

Bloody great barrels

As well as being home to some decent pubs, Heidelberg also boasts an enormous barrel as a tourist attraction. In fact, they’ve got several, going up in size as you go into the castle.

The biggest (in the photo) has a capacity of 220,000 litres and is referenced in books by Mark Twain and Jules Verne, among others. However, it’s a tiddler compared to the porter barrel that burst on Tottenham Court Road in 1814, drowning seven people. Stonch wrote about that here.

Apologies for the lack of blogging action recently and in the next few days. We’re mostly drinking mass-produced lagers in the sun, so not a lot to write about really.

Pretzels — the definitive recipe

I’ve been trying to work out how to make proper German-style pretzels for a couple of years now. They’re just perfect with a pint — filling, salty and, well, German.

Today, I finally nailed it.

There are lots of recipes around and I tried most of them, but none quite seemed to do the trick. The texture was never quite right – it should be chewy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. Our recent trip to Germany only made me more determined to crack the problem — I couldn’t bear the thought of waiting until our next holiday to have another pretzel!

Boak did manage to find authentic pretzels in a German bakery on the Brompton Road and it was inspecting one of those that helped me perfect my recipe.

Almost any fluffy white dough will do. The tricks are all in the finishing. Specifically, the shape you roll the dough into before you make the famous pretzel shape; the fact that you boil it before baking; coating it with a solution of bicarbonate of soda [UPDATE: use about one level teaspoon of bicarb]; and slashing the top with a knife.

Recipe after the jump.

Continue reading “Pretzels — the definitive recipe”

Fraenkische Schweize (3) – the most idyllic beer garden in the world?

“Idyllisch” is a word our Wanderfuehrer likes to use. A lot. But the place that deserved it most, in our humble opinion, was the beer garden on top of the Staffelberg, a hill outside Bad Staffelstein.

The picture is our attempt to capture the view from the beer garden, across the valley. It doesn’t really do it justice. On tap is the wonderful hop-bomb that is St Georgen-Brau Kellerbier and the almost-as-good Pilsener. They also have Weissbier from the nearby Staffelberg-Braeu in bottles (not so exciting, but cold and refreshing enough). There are a few snacks available, including some very tasty and cheap home-made cake. What more can one ask?

Notes

To get there, it’s a steep hike uphill from Bad Staffelstein (follow the Mainz-Donau way) or a more gentle hour and a half walk along the Jakobsweg from Vierzehnheiligen.

Brauerei Neder, Forchheim

A sign for Forcheim.We stopped off at Neder-Brauerei on the way back from our Unterzaunsbach visit. Of all the breweries in Forchheim, we was most keen to try this, as we’d had a lovely beer from them in Landbierparadies in Nuremburg.

It was an interesting experience, to say the least.

The export beer itself is wonderful, with toffee-apple flavours, like a Belgian beer but less sticky, and with great hoppiness.

The pub is not really a place for the casual beer tourist, though, particularly if you’re under fifty. Boak was the only woman in the place (apart from the barmaid) which was also a bit weird. We’re getting used to being stared at when we go into these kinds of pubs, but this was taking it to a whole new level, with the whole room literally stopping what they were doing to gawp. This is definitely a local pub for local people.

We stuck it out for a pint, and it was fascinating to watch the interactions. Everyone has their regular table and their regular glass or krug. There were a couple of random nutters, who joined us on the non-regulars’ table. They first talked to each other, about us — our Ober-Fraenkisch is not good enough to work out what they were saying, but the subject matter was obvious (that is, one of them pointed straight at us and said: “Diese?”). Then one left, so the other stared and stared at us until we couldn’t avoid eye-contact anymore. We were trapped.

He was friendly enough, and seemed quite happy to chat to us in the knowledge that he couldn’t understand us, and we couldn’t understand him. It was a long and slightly painful conversation during which we learned two things:

1. He had lived and worked in Norway for a long time but never learned English while he was there.
2. Scottish people have red hair. All of them. He was insistent on this point.

Exploring the Fraenkische Schweiz (1) – Brauerei Meister, Unterzaunsbach

Contrary to what some guidebooks would have you believe, you can explore the Fraenkische Schweiz and get to many of the little breweries on your own two feet. There’s a useful branchline from Forchheim to Ebermannstadt, and loads of local buses. Best of all, there’s a network of (fairly) well marked paths, so with a good “Wanderkarte” you can improvise as you go along. Nowhere is particularly steep or tough going – you don’t need hiking boots or even expensive anoraks

There’s even a “Brauereien und Bierkellerweg” you can follow – it’s more designed for cyclists, but is a useful reference point

As a starting point, we bought “Ein neuer Wanderfuehrer fuer Biertrinker” by Dietrich Hoellhuber and Wolfgang Karl. They suggest 22 walks and profile around forty or fifty breweries and beer gardens. It’s a very useful little book, with hand-drawn maps, and important information about opening times of the breweries, and beer reviews too. Our German is not that great, but it’s not that difficult to follow the gist, although I do suggest getting a proper map of the area with the cycle/ walking routes marked to supplement it and work out where you are if you get lost

We tried walk 21, a circular walk from Pretzfeld to the supposedly amazing Penning-Zeissler brewery in Hetzelsdorf, having checked with the book that the day wasn’t a “Ruhetag”. It was a really lovely walk, through orchards of pears and cherries and fields of barley. Unfortunately, when we got to Hetzelsdorf, the brewery had decided that Monday was going to be a Ruhetag as well as Tuesday. Moral of the story – phone before you leave

However, having a look at the map and the book, we improvised a new route back, via the little village of Unterzaunsbach. After an hour or so of getting lost in a wood, we found ourselves outside the front door of Brauerei Meister. It appeared to be open.

We went in, slightly nervously. There was an old lady sitting at the table, who must have been over a hundred. After greeting each other, she shouted into the kitchen, and a younger lady (still over seventy) came out to serve us. She was slightly bemused by us, but spotted our “Wanderfuehrer”, said something in an impenetrable local dialect (probably “I know your type”) and smiled.

The brewery does a Vollbier and a Zwicklbier on tap. We think that the Zwickl is an unfiltered version of the Vollbier, i.e. not a different recipe. Both were amazing, obviously. Very ale-like, both in colour and bitterness. Very full malt flavours infused with orange and perhaps some smokiness too. With the Zwickl, you seem to get the different flavours more slowly.

We said nice things about the beer, and she gave us a beer mat and a box of matches.
They do food and bierschnapps too. Incidentally, there’s a bus-stop over the road, so I imagine you could get a bus directly here from Forchheim too. But I bet the beer wouldn’t taste as amazing…

Boak

Brauerei Meister is at Unterszaunsbach 8, D-91362 Pretzfeld. I was very surprised to find that they have a website, which you can find here. I don’t think it’s been updated for a while, though.

Here’s a link to find out more about the Fraenkische Schweiz, including a list of 72 breweries in the area.

Drinking in Heidelberg

Anyone who tells you that Britain has some kind of monopoly on binge drinking and rowdiness obviously hasn’t been to this borderline twee university city. Perhaps it was the football, or maybe the warm weather, but the local youths were certainly full of beans as they barreled around the old town knocking back tequila and chanting:

“Jawohl, jawohl – ich liebe alcohol!”

Which is not to say that it was remotely threatening. Rather charming, in fact. They were probably singing the same song at the university of Heidelberg in the 19th century. At least these days they don’t cap a session in the pub by dueling and scarring each others faces.

We spent a couple of lunchtimes in local brewpubs which, again, we found through this website.

Vetters is the best pub in terms of atmosphere and we were impressed by their relatively adventurous approach. Their seasonal special, “Heidelberg Frisch” is a Koelsch-style “obergaeriges” beer served in 200ml stick glasses – something we’ve never seen outside Cologne before. They also offer a ludicrously strong barley-wine type beer, Vetters 33. This has an original gravity of 33%, pours black with a brown/yellow head (saffron!?) and tastes mostly of treacle cut with vodka. Not that nice, in itself, but a refreshing change from the endless premium pilsners…

Scheffel’s Kulturbrauerei is a bit snooty inside, though it has a nice garden, where we took this picture. Their range includes a remarkably good kellerbier which, once again, reminded us of an Alt, or perhaps of a Belgian special. It was amber coloured, bitter and with a lot of orange flavours. The krauzenbier was good, too – very light, almost Hoegaarden like, with grapefruit and lemon flavours. We thought it might be missing a bit of malt flavour, though.

There are plenty of other pubs in Heidelberg – Unterer Strasse (parallel to Hauptstrasse and the Neckar river, up near the Marktplatz) is a good place to start, with a range of places from young and trendy to old and trad. There’s a place where you can get a range of Hoepfner brews, although unfortunately not their porter.

Notes

Vetter im Schoeneck is on Steingasse, just off the Marktplatz leading down to the Neckar. Kulturbrauerei is on Leyergasse, parallel to Steingasse about four streets east. Both are handily listed in the Lonely Planet guide to Germany.

A pub / brewery with an identity problem (Heidelberg)


Entepreneurs trying to start breweries/brewpubs in Germany seem rather torn about the way to market their beer. Many just go straight for the Olde Worlde market, using gothic typefaces to explain how their beer may be something like something that was once brewed in the area and how they’re carrying on a grand tradition. They fill their pub with dried hops and bits of breweriana, load the menu with pork, and hope you’ll go along with the pretence.

Others (for example, the excellent Bar Fuesser in Nuremberg) are more willing to admit their recent roots – they may experiment with trendier typefaces, diversify the decor, and perhaps even offer a vegetarian option in amongst the ten cuts of pork. However, there will still be plenty of reassuring nods to “tradition” – a copy of the Reinheitsgebot in germanic script seems obligatory, for example. Even the modern pubs can’t help themselves indulging in mock-historical “fuckery-foo” (thanks, Charlie Brooker).

But we’ve never come across a place so confused as “Brauhaus & Backwerk”, a pub belonging to the Welde brewery, right on the main square in Heidelberg.

We’d done a bit of research before we came about pubs and breweries in Heidelberg, but hadn’t heard of this one. Naturally, our attention was grabbed by the fact it appeared to be offering its own beer. Inside, the place was done up like a tacky medieval theme-park, but they did list five or six types of beer on one of the mock velvet scrolls, so we sat down despite the fact it was almost deserted.

The menu was all mock-medieval too, with dishes for “our little knights”, for example. We assume that referred to children? Like many pubs in Heidelberg, they were clearly trying to cater to the Japanese and Americans “doing Europe” by offering beer by the litre and pretzels, Bavaria-stylee.

However, we then noticed this dreadful beer mat (above), which was totally at odds with the rest of the branding of the place. We couldn’t work out whether it was supposed to be a trendy brewpub, a tourist trap, or possibly a brothel.

Only one thing for it – try the beer. In amongst the usual pils and weizen, they also offered a dunkle-weizen (“Schwarze Wonne”) and a Zwickl, which sounded more exciting than it was. The beer was drinkable, although tasted a bit home-brew-like, as with many trendy brewpubs in Germany. We wondered if the pub would be better off located outside the main part of town, where they could drop all the faux-medieval stuff and concentrate on the beer and the home-made bread.

I’ve since had a chance to look at their website. You can find it here, but I warn you, you’ll be greeted by a dreadful jingle and a video featuring naked ladies. I’ve seen some pretty tacky sub-porn on German beer sites before, but this takes the biscuit.

For those of you that haven’t followed the link (well done!), I can tell you that you don’t need much German to understand how Welde want to market their beer. There’s little mention of the range of products, and a lot of mentions of ladies with bierdeckels for bras.

Talk about a confused marketing strategy. If you’re just going for the saucy angle, why bother making a Zwickl and other seasonal specials? If you’re proud of the beer, why undermine it with awful gimmicks or cod-medieval toss?

Boak

Notes

“Brauhaus & Backwerk” is right opposite St Martin’s Church in the main square, next to a kebab shop with pretensions. We may have the name slightly wrong, but you can’t miss it. We rather enjoyed the pils, tacky marketing or not.

Heidelberg does have loads of great pubs and interesting local brews, so we’ll put up some more about it in due course.