Impressions of Berlin: a tale of 5 pilsners

Our first visit to Berlin in more than 20 years was marked out by pilsner beers, but that doesn’t mean they were all the same.

Our first drink in Berlin wasn’t even German, it was Czech.

Kohlenquelle in Prenzlauer Berg has the original golden lager from the tank, Pilsner Urquell, served in jewel-like handled mugs.

When we turned up in the early afternoon, after the advertised opening time, the bar was still shut. It looked shut down, in fact, with graffiti covering its shutters and ivy obscuring its windows. 

When it eventually opened, it felt a little hungover – quiet and bleary.

It’s a funny name, Kohlenquelle. As the official Pilsner Urquell website explains, it was a coal bunker in its days on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. It was converted to a basement bar in 2000 and got its Pilsner tanks in 2016.

The furniture and bar fittings feel simultaneously junk-shop hipster and somewhat Ostalgic – two aesthetics that fit together well. The bar counter, in particular, looks as it was pulled from a working men’s club c.1973.

It seemed odd to come to the German capital to drink Czech beer but then Czechia is closer to Berlin than Bavaria is. And for 40 years, politically speaking, even more so.

It tasted as it always does: bitter, rich, and weedy. And its shade of gold really is golden, or perhaps even coppery.

Beer styles

What’s Italian pilsner all about?

In Italy for the better part of a fortnight, we ordered Italian Pils whenever the opportunity arose, trying to understand it.

It’s not a sub-style we’ve particularly engaged with back home in the UK because:

  • the UK is not Italy
  • we think of pils as being about freshness

Having said that, we have tried the odd example, such as one that showed up at the Bristol branch of brewpub chain Zero Degrees. “Ever-so-slightly floral” we wrote of that at the time.

In Milan and Parma, the term seems to mean something quite specific.

As in, lots of beer menus have both ‘Pils’ and ‘Italian Pils’ as separate items.

The former tends to be something that might be badged as ‘lager’ in the UK – plain, not especially bitter; think Tennent’s or Carling.

The Italian Pilsners, by contrast, are:

  • dry
  • bitter
  • flowery

Our quick tasting notes, which we don’t overthink, show a theme emerging: we often can’t quite decide if they taste like pale-n-hoppy cask ale, or authentically Franconian.

St.Georgenbräu of Buttenheim has come up a couple of times.

An excellent blog post by Jeff ‘Beervana’ Alworth suggests that perhaps this is the point:

[Augustino] Arioli first brewed Tipopils in 1996 when he founded the brewery, but the inspiration emerged earlier, after a peripatetic journey through the different traditions of brewing. As he learned to brew, Germany was his first influence. Later he spent time and brewed in the UK, Canada, and US. All of this informed the way he thought about beer. “I [had] visited some English brewers and studied some more about English cask beer. I knew that they were using dry-hop in the cask. I thought, why don’t I do this with my Tipopils?”

We found a spectrum with Tipopils being very much the cleanest, most balanced beer we tried.

It’s a grown-up, commercial beer that has plenty of character, without being likely to upset someone who just wants a glass of cold, refreshing beer.

Others seemed to be hazier, and either tilted towards more floweriness (heavy dry hopping) or towards extreme bitterness. 

Almost as if they’ve been brewed based on a description of Tipopils, having never actually tasted it.

For example, on the flowery front, Birrificio del Ducato’s Via Emilia (bottled, 5%) is a remarkable beer which smells like hops straight out of the packet, before they’ve been anywhere near wort or beer.

Bringing it up to take a sip was joyful. A sort of magic trick.

We enjoyed drinking the beer a lot but it didn’t quite live up to the initial aromatic fanfare.

All the Italian pils we tried had a distinct European noble hop character, reminding us of a type of cask ale we used to see quite a lot in the UK: novelty single-hopped golden ales using, say, Tettnang, or Saaz.

Cask ale brewed with lager ingredients; lager brewed with cask ale techniques…

That’s an interesting middle ground, and a place we like to hang out.

A first take on this post first appeared on Patreon, while we were in the middle of our holiday and still thinking it through.

beer reviews london

Magical Mystery Pour #20: Five Points Pils

The second of a series of beers chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is Five Points Pils, a lager from East London that comes in a can.

Rebecca says:

This was my beer of summer 2016. Last year, I was entirely dedicated to sours and saisons, turning my nose up at pilsners in particular. My boyfriend favours the pilsner style, but I was perpetually underwhelmed. This year, my palate has changed, making me more receptive to pales and pilsners. And it just so happened that one of my favourite local breweries released this little number, which has become a staple in our household. I still enjoy sour beer in moderation, naturally, but I don’t miss the acidity burning my throat after a lengthy session… Instead, this clean and bright Pils is the perfect Sunday afternoon beer that pairs easily with food or can be savoured by itself.

We’ve encountered a few bottled Five Points beers over the last year or two and always found them fine but middling rather than mind-blowing, with the occasional venture into accidental complexity. We gather the way to really enjoy them is on draught, and some people we think of as fairly aggressively discerning (that is, grumpy and fussy) seem to rate them too, so we’ve put our past shrugginess down to a combination of personal taste and problems arising from packaging/storage/distribution.

What we hadn’t got round to trying was their lager, partly because we weren’t sure how a brewery whose beers tend to the hand-carved would cope with this most technically demanding of styles.

We bought our cans from Honest Brew at £2.49 per 330ml. It has an ABV of 4.8%.

Five Points Pils in the glass.

It looked beautiful in the glass — perfectly clear, golden, with a soft, steady, organically architectural foam. So far, so good: no misplaced haze, the right amount of carbonation, but not fizz.

We couldn’t get enough of the aroma, either — we just kept huffing away making happy noises and thinking of a sunny day in Bavaria. Unusually for a lager it is dry-hopped and that absolutely works, surrounding the glass with a perfume mist wholesome, green, leaping-with-life summer leafiness. This is the kind of small, non-showy technique we’d like to see more German breweries play with rather than jumping straight to double IPA.

(There might have been a discordant note of something pulpy and vegetal but we didn’t agree on that and, anyway, it was hardly distracting.)

People sometimes talk about wine or beer having ‘structure’ and it sounds daft until you taste one that does. Drinking Five Points Pils we could somehow sense the flavour’s three-dimensional shape and texture: a sandpaper-grit sharp leading edge; a round, fruity centre; and then a fantail of of chewy grain sweetness. It was light but never watery, mellow without being dull. It didn’t taste of dandelions or spicy salad leaves but that’s what it made us think of in some less direct way. A real market garden of a beer.

We spent a bit of time trying to think which other specific lager it reminded us of and then it came to us: St Austell Korev. Like Korev, it isn’t some leftfield ‘take’, but a sincere attempt to mimic the Real Thing — to simply give lager drinkers an excellent lager to drink rather than obnoxiously challenging them. We think, on balance, that Five Points might be better than Korev — less reined in, only by a whisker, but enough to give it the edge.

If you like German lager, you’ll probably like this. If you don’t like lager, it might even go some way to changing your mind, nodding as it does, very subtly, in the direction of pale’n’hoppy.

Four thumbs up.

About to wrap up our review there, a paranoid thought began to nag at us: given that it is so convincing and clean, how we can be sure Five Points aren’t Pulling a Camden (as it is known) and actually having some or all of it brewed in Belgium or Germany? Well, it turns out they are, under exactly the same arrangement, described in much the same words. After exchanging some messages, however, we know for certain that any Five Points Pils in cans is being brewed and packaged in London. The stuff you find in kegs in pubs, which we haven’t tried, is likely to be Belgian-brewed, but we are assured that is also unpasteurised and unfiltered.


Tettnang Hop Museum and a Profound Pilsner

Hop poles in Tettnang, Germany.

A short bus ride from the yachts and ice cream parlours of Lake Constance, up in the hills, lie the fields where the world famous Tettnang hops are grown, along with a small museum erected in their honour.

Apples in Tettnang.The HopfenMuseum is easy to find, sitting at the end of a walking route marked by information boards bearing the smiling (sinister) face of Hopfi, the badly-drawn local cartoon mascot. We visited after the hop harvest and so found the fields bare, the wind causing the wires supporting the huge poles to whine pathetically. It was not as bleak as it might look from the picture above: tons of efficiently cultivated apples, pears and elderberries were still on their branches, providing Technicolor highlights.

On entering the whitewashed farm building, we were struck at once by the most delicious aroma of recently-packed hops — as intense as that perfume fog that makes it hard to breathe in branches of Lush, only (for beer freaks, at least) much more pleasant.

Now, there are two main types of museum, as we see it: gleaming, grant-funded interactive learning experiences; and wonky local clutterfests with shop mannequins in moth-eaten costumes. The HopfenMuseum is of the latter variety — charming, but by no means slick.

The Hopfensau of Tettnang.
The terrifying Hopfensau — much better than Hopfi.

One of the highlights is a gallery overlooking the hop-processing line with a cheesy video which explains how the picking, plucking and drying machines do their thing. Elsewhere, we appreciated the numerous items of ephemera — labels, sacks, posters and so on — and anecdotes and photographs of the days when hop-picking was a working holiday for town and city dwellers.

Bowls of hops gave us the opportunity to rub and sniff new varieties Mandarin and Polaris, part of an attempt by German growers to compete with American hops. Mandarin smelled like mandarins (or was that the power of suggestion?), while Polaris seemed to have a more complex pine-and-pith aroma.

At the end of our tour, we stopped, of course, for a drink at the on-site pub — a large wood-beamed, cosy place, crammed with elderly people on coach tours enjoying coffee and cake.  The beer list is extensive, however, with specialities from all over the region in bottles, as well as a few ‘craft beers’ from Braufactum, and even a couple of US imports. We found a corner and ordered two glasses of the beer of the month, Meckatzer Zwicklbier, supposedly brewed with fresh Tettnang hops. Dark orange, cloudy, it tasted more of porridge than beer, and hops were little in evidence.

Kronen Keller-pils, Tettnang.

Back in Tettnang itself, we found a much better showcase for the local product in Kronen (Tettnanger) Keller-pils, which we enjoyed with Maultaschen (the local dumpling dish) at the brewery tap. It was truly bitter and intensely perfumed, but not at all flowery. Leafy, perhaps? We were reminded of the burst of fresh greenness that comes from tomato plants when they’re brushed against in a greenhouse. A real change from grapefruit/mango/peach/orange axis, at any rate. Perhaps, before they get on to IPAs, more German breweries should ensure they have a beer like this in their range?

An adult ticket for the HopfenMuseum costs €5 and it is open from 1 May until 31 October. If you want to see hops on the bines, visit before late summer. You can read more about Tettnang, the museum, and local traditions in Stan Hieronymus’s For the Love of Hops, which is where we heard about it.


Memorable Beers #5: Hasselbacher Pils

We’d underestimated both the temperature and the distance when we set out to walk the banks of the Ilz from Passau in the summer of 2012 2010. After several hours, we reached our destination, only to find the beer garden closed

We nearly gave up but, consulting our maps, decided to push on.

We got redder in the face, sweatier and wobblier on our legs, until we were almost delirious. Eventually, even the sheltering trees disappeared and we found ourselves on a plain in the midday sun. The only thing that kept us going were worn-looking signs every few hundred metres: “Biergarten.”

What we found at the end of the trail was a village with chickens in the road and no sign of life. The signs directed us to what looked like the back of a residential property where there were two patio tables under the washing line. Sure enough, though, an old lady in a pinny appeared and we gasped our order: “Zwei Pils, bitte!”

Can you imagine how good the beer in the picture above tasted?

You might start to notice a theme emerging here: that the most memorable beers are often not, in themselves, especially distinguished. Time and place and all that…