Stumbling Upon a Gem

We went to Cheltenham to look at buildings and so did no research whatsoever into pubs and beer, but luck was on our side when we found the Sandford Park Alehouse.

After an hour or two’s nosing around, we eventually got hungry and thirsty, at which point, we saw a sign outside a plain-looking, white-painted building: CHEESE TOASTIES £4.99. ‘That’ll do,’ we said, and went in.

Immediately, our Spidey-senses began to tingle: a map of Belgium? As in the country where the beer comes from? Our first glimpse of the bar confirmed our suspicion: somehow, we had managed to stumble upon Cheltenham’s own ‘craft beer bar’.

Sandford Park Alehouse: bar.

A bright, airy, multi-room pub with décor just cosy enough to prevent it feeling sterile, enlivened considerably by maps on every wall. It reminded us, in fact, of Cask in Pimlico before it got its corporate makeover.

There was also lots of beer, though the selection wasn’t as large as at some better-known bars, and was perhaps also (thankfully?) a touch more conservative. A row of hand pumps offered cask ales from multiple Golden Pint nominees Oakham, among others. We couldn’t fault the condition of Oakham Citra or Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, though we wish we hadn’t drunk them in that order. (You can’t come back down the hop-ladder.)

zwicklThe real highlight was a kegged beer from Germany, via a row of taps behind the bar. Bayreuther Bierbrauerei Zwickl, at £3.90 a pint, didn’t seem exorbitantly priced (we pay £3.40+ for Doom Bar in Penzance) but we hesitated until the barman leaned over conspiratorially and said, ‘It’s served in one of these’, waving a narrow, handled ceramic mug. ‘People who like this beer really love it,’ he told us, and he was right. It was a Bavarian holiday in a jug — a little sweetness, gentle lemon-rind notes, and just enough dryness at the end to prompt another swig. It was probably (intentionally) cloudy, but we couldn’t tell, and didn’t care.

Once we’d got comfortable under a fascinating map of the Middle East, it was hard to move, and we drank one more than we had intended as we observed the crowd. The people around us were a little more middle-aged and tweedy than at the ‘craft’ places in Bristol, perhaps, but then that might just be Cheltenham. We, hurtling into middle age (though not yet into tweed), felt quite at home.

On the basis of this first visit, it felt as if the Sandford Park Alehouse might as well have been designed with us in mind, and, when we visit Cheltenham again, it will be with the specific intention of verifying that feeling with a second equally lengthy session in the same cosy corner.

The Sandford Park Alehouse is at 20 High Street, ten minutes walk from the city centre, and 30 minutes from the station.

At least one decent beer in Luebeck

braubergerluebeck

Brauberger in Luebeck is a brewpub in a lovely old building in a quaint part of the old town. There are various implications that the brewery and the pub are pretty ancient although, when you get down to it, the beermats suggest it was founded in 2006.

Nonetheless, the keller is very cosy and their one beer, a hazy yellow zwickl served in tall  straight glasses with handles, is actually pretty good. It’s definitely a step up from the standard modern German brewpub fare. It has a distinctly yeasty flavour but in a good way — refreshing and slightly fruity rather than overpowering and dusty. A mild bitterness at the end makes it a lively accompaniment to the hearty food.

In short, don’t go out of your way to try it, but if you’re in Luebeck, Brauberger is definitely worth a visit.

Luebeck itself is a fascinating and sometimes beautiful place, if a little quiet after the Danish coach parties have departed. If, like us, you sometimes visit places for reasons other than beer, we’d recommend a night or two.

That's what Oktoberfest is about

Just surfacing after last night at Zeitgeist.  My stomach is turning somewhat thinking about beer, so this is not the time for detailed beer reviews.  Suffice to say, we had a great time, and so did our non-beer-geek friends.

Can’t really remember a lot about what I drank, but it was all good stuff.  Standouts for me were Scheubel-Sternbrau Dunkel Rauchbier and (in a bottle) Kanone Zwickl.   Go Go Go (but do line the stomach first…)

In case you’ve forgotten, all the details are here.  It’s due to run all weekend, and they may just have enough beer this time…we’d go back, but we’re Never Drinking Again.

Boak (never has my nom de plume seemed more appropriate)

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.

Wuerzburg part 2 – Wuerzburger Hofbrau

Wuerzburger Hofbrau dominate the town. Their logo is all over the place, and is one of the first things you see when you get out of the station. They also have three beers in Michael Jackson’s “Great Beer Guide” (aka The 500).

Their Ausschank is over the river, on the Marienburg side, in an enormous beer garden. The pub and garden combined probably has the capacity for several thousand people.

We wonder whether Michael Jackson may have been (overly) influenced by the wonderful surroundings, because although his selections from the Wuerzburger offerings are very nice, they’re not that special, in our humble opinion. For example, the Schwarzbier was better than say, Koestritzer, but still tasted mostly like fizzy watered-down treacle. The dunkleweiss was also not that exciting – rather sweet and unbalanced.

However, there are loads of other offerings at the Ausschank. The Zwickl lives up to potential, being a nice fruity, partially cloudy lager. It’s refreshing, with a long aftertaste. And once again, the pils did well – it’s very bitter and aromatic. It’s nice having all these great pils – it can be such a boring style.

Finally, we had “Werner Alt-Fraenkischer Dunkel”. Werner were taken over by Wuerburger in 1999, according to their website. This was a luvverly drop, toasty, nutty and ale-like.

All in all, worth the walk as it’s a delightful beer garden with lovely beer.

PS – if you’re going from Heidelberg to Wuerzburg, you can do it for just eight euros by getting a couple of local trains and going via Osterburken. It only takes a little longer than going via Frankfurt, and is 36 euros cheaper, plus it goes up the Neckar valley and is much more picturesque. Just thought this information should be somewhere on the web in English.

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.