Ale Like Champagne

Champagne.

Brut IPA is the niche beer style of the moment in the US and has been the focus of several substantial articles with headlines such as:

BRUT IPAS ARE THE BONE-DRY, CHAMPAGNE-LIKE BEER HOPHEADS CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF

Apart from making us thirsty all this got us thinking about the tendency to compare beer to Champagne and how far back it goes.

Without too much digging we found this in an edition of the Dublin Evening Post from 1783:

LEINSTER ALE -- sparkles like champagne.
SOURCE: The British Newspaper Archive.

Bearing in mind that Champagne as we know it was still in the process of being invented in the 18th century, and that its tendency to sparkle was still considered a fault by many, this rates as pretty quick off the marks.

The most famous reference to beer resembling Champagne is one most of us came to via Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson who said that Napoleon’s troops called Berliner Weisse “the Champagne of the North”. As he wasn’t much of a footnoter we haven’t been able to identify his source but this German book from 1822 says (our translation, tidied up from Google’s automatic effort, so approach with caution):

Berlin’s ‘Weissbier’ is a very popular drink in Berlin, which, when it is of good quality, is distinguished by a yellowish color, a wine-like body, a slightly acidic taste, and a strong sparkle, so that the French military gave it a name: Champagne du Nord.

Really, though, it’s just an irresistible comparison, isn’t it?

Often the similarity is merely superficial — most lagers would look like Champagne at first glance if you poured it into flutes — but sometimes there is a real similarity of flavour and mouthfeel. Mostly, though, it’s just irreverent fun to suggest that the Toffs are wasting all that money and effort acquiring Champagne when if only they weren’t such snobs they could have something just as good for a fraction of the price.

John Ridd on Beer

We’re both reading R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone at the moment — a pleasingly booze-filled novel.

Published in 1869, it is set in the 17th century, and the following passage occurs when the hero, the burly Exmoor gentleman farmer John Ridd, is a guest at the house of a ‘foreign lady’ near Watchett in Somerset:

John Ridd, uncredited illustration c.1893.
John Ridd, uncredited illustration c.1893.

“Now what will ye please to eat?” she asked, with a lively glance at the size of my mouth: “that is always the first thing you people ask, in these barbarous places.”

“I will tell you by-and-by,” I answered, misliking this satire upon us; “but I might begin with a quart of ale, to enable me to speak, madam.”

“Very well. One quevart of be-or;” she called out to a little maid, who was her eldest child, no doubt. “It is to be expected, sir. Be-or, be-or, be-or, all day long, with you Englishmen!”

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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’.

Stimulus from the World of Wine

Close up of The Thinker

We recently asked people to recommend books which weren’t about beer but which could help us better understand beer, prompted by reminders from Knut and Alan that books on other topics do actually exist and can be all the more illuminating for their distance from The Obsession.

Gareth, who writes the Beer Advice blog, and has a background in wine retailing, suggested Questions of Taste: the Philosophy of Wine (Ed. Barry C. Smith, 2007), a collection of essays exploring what it really means to ‘taste’ wine. Is it possible to taste objectively? Which qualities are an essential part of the wine and which are projected by the taster? Are some wines really better than others in an objective sense? And so on.

If you’re allergic to the merest whiff of pretension, you won’t enjoy it, but, so far, like Johnny Five in search of input, we’re finding it very thought-provoking, and are already itching to write posts based on ideas therein.

Here’s one example from the essay ‘The Power of Tastes: Reconciling Science and Subjectivity’ by Ophelia Deroy:

Am I objective when I say that this wine tastes like ripe pineapple, or do I just indulge in association of memories, condemned to remain purely personal? Do I try to find rare tastes or fine adjectives to conform to a social ritual, in an arbitrary and perhaps pretentious way? But, even if socially codified, do these practices and ways of talking about wine transform the experience we have of it?

This set of all kinds of fireworks in our brains. We’ve certainly found ourselves thinking: “We can’t just call this beer hoppy — people won’t approve,” and so sipped, sniffed, struggled, trying to unlock a particular elusive aroma or flavour; and we recently saw a novice beer reviewer (one with a provocative sense of hubris) shot down for the lack of finesse in his tasting notes — for not going deep enough.

What if those elusive flavours just aren’t there? Or the label we’re putting on them only makes sense to us because we’re recalling a particular mango, of a particular variety, at a specific point of ripeness, that we ate at a particular time in a particular place?

Other recommendations — the further removed from beer the better — very welcome! Picture from Flickr Creative Commons.

British Monastic Brewing

006 Buckfast Abbey

Perhaps if Henry VIII had left them alone, Britain’s monastic communities would be big players in brewing today. As it is, Buckfast Abbey in Devon is as close as we get.

The monks of Buckfast don’t make beer, though: as perhaps befits the French origins of the monks who took over the Abbey in the nineteenth century, they produce fortified ‘tonic’ wine. What’s more, Buckfast wine does not have a good reputation. The first time we heard of it was in an episode of Rab C. Nesbitt.

Watching the oddly stilted video presentation in the visitor centre, we were struck by several things: the contrast between the simple monastic life and the huge, branded tankers transporting wine “all around the world” (Scotland); the glasses of beer visible on the table during footage of the monks at lunch; and the shot of the monastic produce shop.

Yes, there is beer at Buckfast after all — bottles of Chimay and Andechs on sale to tourists, alongside honey, sweets, soap and trinkets made by monks all over Europe.

The Abbey is weird but worth a visit, especially as it’s near the Valiant Soldier. Entry is free and it’s open every day, all year round. Pic from Flickr Creative Commons.

Sucking up a social class

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLoVF7vcBtY]

In his column in the 5 December issue of New Statesman, Will Self, on the subject of wine, quotes his French translator who says “when I have a glass of wine, I’m imbibing the region where it comes from.” Self ponders this and suggests that “when an English person drinks wine, she’s sucking up a social class”.

Is that also what’s going on when people drink craft beer? Is it becoming an accessory for those who aspire to, or wish to emphasise, middle class credentials?

We like to think that beer is in the process of being stripped of any specific class associations — that it’s becoming socially mobile, as comfortable at an Islington dinner party as in a working men’s club. But maybe we’re kidding ourselves.

Either way, there’s plenty of work to be done before beer is quite welcome to a seat at the shabby chic dining table in front of the Aga. The Cheese Shop in Truro — one of the most middle class shops you can imagine — has wine, port, sherry, sparkling cider, soft drinks… but not one drop of beer. Not even a politely packaged Fuller’s Vintage Ale getting dusty in a corner. Shame.

This agonising over snobbery and social class isn’t going to end anytime soon, we’re afraid. It is much on our minds.

Franconian beer and wine: surprisingly similar

A glass of wine in a beer garden in Franconia

Wüerzburg is a city which is not only blessed with wonderful beer gardens, but also highly regarded vineyards. Wherever you are in the city you can see them covering the steep hills all around.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, when you’re in a beer garden, you’re almost as likely to see someone drinking the acclaimed local wine as you are to see them with a beer.

Although we’re not especially interested in wine, we certainly don’t dislike it, or subscribe to the view that you need to choose sides in an imaginary battle between beer and wine. So we decided to give it a go.

We tried white wines made with a couple of different varieties of grape (Riesling and Silvaner) and (bearing in mind we’re no experts) found them sweeter and more acid than we’re used to. We also began to notice that they really were floral and fruity. Elderflower, strawberry — all those flavours you hear wine critics banging on about really were there.

And, guess what? Those fruity flavours are also in the local beers. Do the very pale pilsners from Würzburger Hofbräu, Distelhäuser and Oechnser taste similar to the local wines because of the water? Because of the soil in which the grapes, barley and hops are grown? Maybe they just reflect a preference among the core market for these products — the local drinkers.

Historical roots of beer vs wine snobbery? A Spanish perspective

Our amigo Chela has posted an interesting entry on the “Compañía Asturiana de Amigos de la Cerveza” blog about the supposed battle between wine and beer. He suggests that in “wine countries”, wine has always been democratic in its appeal to high and low society alike. In traditional beer-drinking countries, on the other hand, we’ve developed a bit of an inferiority complex towards wine over the ages. And from this has recently emerged the trend for trying to make beer “the new wine”, and leading in some cases to a “Manichean battle” between beer and wine, or at least lots of words being written on why beer is superior to wine.

This can be seen from googling “beer is the new wine”, and is a topic that recurs on American beer blogs in particular. Appellation beer, for example, have a whole series of posts about beer and wine, making “beer is not the new wine” one of their rules. Amen to that. There are enough bloody know-it-alls as it is, without making beer into some rarified “interest”. That said, it would be nice if it had a bit more respect, i.e. articles in the weekend papers, the odd nice beer in a restaurant, that kind of thing.

Back to Chela’s post. There were many interesting comments in response about people’s preferences, whether one really was better, and trends in shopping for wine. But what really interested me were the historical reasons put forward for the cultural superiority of wine. Obviously, in the UK, it’s always been a status symbol, as only the rich could afford it, but why should it be considered a superior drink in countries where it’s common, cheap and easy to produce, like Spain? Galguera suggested it has its roots in the Roman empire — wine being associated with the sophisticated Romans, while the barbaric huns drank beer. Cotoya suggests the religious influence is more important — you don’t get communion beer, after all.

I thought these were interesting points. I’ve had the occasional debate with a wine-lover about how sophisticated beer can be, how it can be just as complex as wine, but I’d never really thought about the origins of our cultural prejudices, or how common they were across Europe, despite the differences in drinking cultures.

Notes

Chela, Cotoya and Galguera all contribute to Compañía Asturiana de Amigos de la Cerveza. If you don’t speak Spanish, Google translate does a pretty good job these days, but don’t trust it to translate English into Spanish.

Boak

D'oh! Stupid tastebuds…

tongue.jpg Yesterday, the BBC reported that wine drinkers tested by scientists thought a wine tasted better when they were told it cost $45 rather than its actual cost of $5.

I thought this was really interesting.

I really don’t think price has ever affected my judgement — it certainly didn’t in the case of pricey Belgian ‘champagne beer’ DEUS.

But I am happy to admit that beers sometimes seem to taste better or worse to me depending on context, presentation and my own expectations.

I suspect that I might be sucker enough to favourably review, say, UK-brewed Fosters, if it was presented to me in a big German stein and I was told it was traditionally brewed in Augsburg.

I’m a marketing man’s dream.

Bailey