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

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.

A visit to Speyer

Speyer is a nice day trip from Heidelberg, particularly on a rainy day. There’s a huge cathedral and a great Technik museum where you can climb on old Russian Antonov transporter planes and look close up at a bewildering array of fire engines, limousines, trains and submarines.

On the beer front, there’s the Domhof Hausbrauerei just behind the cathedral which serves up some rather bitter and interesting brews. The dunkles is very much like a Duesseldorf alt, albeit one of the less distinguished ones (Schloesser?). It’s got a bit of sweet crystal, but not too much. The helles reminded us of Young’s bitter, but fizzier – really rather refreshing when we got our heads round it. So, darker beers, on the bitter side, and worth the trip.

They don’t seem to get many English tourists, though, especially those under 50, so we attracted some attention from the locals who were trying to guess where we were from and why on Earth we were there…

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.