Beer styles Germany

Investigating Festbier

We’ve generally found German-style Festbier (festival beer) alluring in theory and disappointing in reality.

Its appeal is twofold: first, it’s a seasonal rarity; and, secondly, it’s a traditional part of German beer culture.

The disappointment is that its base characteristics are not things we look for in lager, being:

  1. strong
  2. heavy
  3. sweet

The words we most often jot down when we’re drinking it are those classic cliches ‘cloying’ and ‘sticky’.

Simon Clarke has a more positive spin on the same flavours, though: “That sweet malty breadiness makes it totally ‘steinable’…”

As Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing put it in a post on BlueSky:

“I love the sense of occasion and tradition of finding and drinking them more than the actual beers, which are all very well made of course…”

But it’s generally hard for a British drinker to really get to know Festbier, unless they spend a lot of time in Germany, at the right time of year.

Andreas Krennmair, author of Bavarian Brewing in the 19th Century, and Louise Krennmair live in Berlin and are Festbier fans. As Louise says:

“It probably helps if you live in Germany or are drinking it in Germany as you get the atmosphere, and fresher beer. My favourite is probably Schönramer Festbier which comes out at the start of December and we drink it at a bar in Berlin on New Year’s Eve at Frühschoppen.”

Andreas says: 

“What makes it enjoyable for me is the fact that I can have that beer only once a year for a few weeks, so it’s always a surprise what a particular beer is going to be. If you remember what it was the previous year, differences, even if they’re subtle in the grand scheme, are noticeable. Is it more or less bitter? What about the hop aroma? This is sweeter than last year, where does that boozy taste come from, etc.. In terms of Bavarian beer (excluding Franconia), I think it is the epitome of what a good pale lager can be – if it’s brewed well, of course. And, most importantly, what makes it stand out for me from other seasonal beers or brewed for festivities: it is still very sessionable, a bit dangerous with ~6%,so you always have to pace yourself…”

A pint of slightly hazy yellow beer with the Moor Brewing logo on the glass.
Moor Brewing Festbier 2023.

Testing our prejudices in 2023

Festbier seems to be more available in the UK now than it has been in the past, which gave us a chance to drink a few different examples and test our prejudices.

As Bristol is now something of a lager-brewing city, we were able to find a couple of local examples.

Lost & Grounded brewed a Festbier for the Oktoberfest event at its taproom earlier in September. It had the benefit of tasting extremely fresh which added a layer of interest and complexity. Though in many ways a textbook example – dark golden, 5.6% ABV – it was also distinctly bitter, and therefore better balanced, at least to our taste.

As ever, though, we started to find it a little heavy even by the end of the first round, and had to take a break with their flagship Keller Pils. By contrast, Keller Pils tasted even more delightful: light, spritzy, flowery…

When we went back to the Festbier for another go, it still impressed us, but we noticed a certain boiled sweet sugariness that confirmed our previous views of the style. It’s authentic, and correct, but almost reads to us as an off-flavour.

Moor Brewing’s take on Festbier, at 5.8%, seemed less successful. To the standard sweet heat it added a layer of haze and chewiness. There was some spiky apple there, too. Perhaps this is what you’d find if you drank Festbier in some Franconian village? We’re glad to have tried it but it feels like an odd outlier.

By way of calibration, rather wonderfully, we were also able to pop to our nearest supermarket, a branch of Lidl, and buy a gift box including multiple bottled German Festbiers.

On the one hand, this really highlighted the importance of freshness as a characteristic of the best German beers. Several tasted papery and ancient, battered about by the chain of logistics that got them from brewhouses in Bavaria to a retail park in Brislington.

On the other hand, it also underlined a point made by Louise Krennmair: “There is more to Festbier than Oktoberfest.”

Wildbräu Kirtabier was dark, orangey and syrupy, almost like Spingo Special.

Teisnacher 1543 was well balanced with just a dab of welcome rustic character.

Irlbacher Gäubodenvolksfestbier read to us as something like a strong pilsner: pale, powerfully bitter, and our favourite of the bunch.

More interesting than enjoyable

The fundamental problem is this: much as we enjoyed exploring and pondering on Festbier, nothing we drank pleased as much as Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, or Augustiner Helles.

What is the problem Festbier is designed to solve?

A need for something special to mark an occasion. The desire to loosen up. And perhaps to add interest in a beer culture that prizes consistency and tradition over novelty.

And what problems do we, Jess and Ray, have? We’re uptight lightweights enraptured by the consistency and tradition of German beer culture.

Festbier is not built for us.

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 styles

Electric Bear’s brand new old school bitter

“You can’t get a pint of normal bitter these days!”

This isn’t a problem we have in Bristol. From The Swan With Two necks to The Sandringham, there’s one available in most pubs we visit.

Bristol Beer Factory Fortitude, for example, or Butcombe, or Bass, or Young’s Ordinary, or… 

Maybe what people mean, though, is that this isn’t where the excitement lies.

Just being able to drink bitter isn’t enough.

One won’t do.

They demand a choice, in even the hippest bars, and expect brewery research and development teams to be pushing the envelope.

But it’s bitter, and that’s not how it works, is it? It’s been perfected. There’s plenty of room for variation, but not for innovation.

When we saw A Bitter This A Bitter That by Electric Bear Brewing on the bar at The Barley Mow near Bristol Temple Meads station we ignored it at first.

There were more exciting and interesting beers on offer, not least a couple of lagers, and we tend to default to lager when we want an uncomplicated beer to drink while we chat, rather than to think about.

But we had been talking about Bath brewery Electric Bear only the weekend before, when a friend told us that it had got new owners in April 2022 – news we missed at the time.

In this incarnation, the branding has become plainer and cleaner. Less circus bus chic, more organised fun.

Wondering if their beer was still decent, in general, we ordered a pint, for curiosity’s sake.

And we’ll be blowed if it’s not an excitingly good, totally trad, brand new best bitter.

Perhaps being served with a sparkler helped. It looked and tasted like something we might have been encountered in a pub in Sheffield or Leeds.

Some craft brewery takes on bitter can be too full of crystal malt, too dark, and too chewy. This was between gold and brown with a pleasing dryness and lightnes – and perfectly clear.

There was some funk there, too. A touch of nail polish. A bite of apple. Just as you might find in beers from, say, Theakston’s. Complex in its own small way.

It was too good to have just one, so we stopped for another.

During the second round, looking at the pumps, it also occurred to us that, based on recent experience, it might well be possible to turn up at The Barley Mow and find on the bar:

  • this straight-up bitter
  • Left Handed Giant’s straight-up dark mild
  • Moor’s straight-up stout

An opportunity to party like it’s 1929, half-and-half and all.

Beer styles

On pastry beers and pastry sours in particular

Opinion: if it’s got ‘pastry’ in the description, it’d better taste like something you might have found on sale at Percy Ingle.

Most weeks, we write a note for Patreon about the most interesting beers we’ve tasted over the course of the weekend. This has had the positive effect of making us buy more unusual beers, just so we’re not always saying “Pilsner Urquell is good.”

We’re fortunate to live fairly near Pat’s News and Booze, a corner shop off-licence with a remarkable range of craft beer in cans.

That’s where we came across Yonder Brewing’s various pastry sours which we’ve been working our way through for a few months. There are lots for us to try yet but based on six or seven so far, opinions about so-called ‘pastry’ beers have begun to form.

As we say above, in our view, it has to taste like a sweet dessert – one with flour, butter, probably vanilla, maybe some spice. It can’t just be a very fruity, super sour or sickly sweet beer.

Obviously this subset of beer is not for everyone. Frankly, it’s not for us most of the time. But every now and then we like something a little silly to get us thinking about how far beer can be pushed – to define the outer limits.

Overall, we’ve probably had more misses than hits and our Patreon round-ups often include phrases such as “alarming” and “hair-raising”.

A few have stood out as particularly successful, though.

Yonder’s Cherry Pie Pastry Sour, for example, absolutely hit the mark. You can taste the pie case – melt-in-the mouth spicy crumby crumbliness – as much as the filling. Being pretty pink probably helps the illusion along.

Weirdly, though, the same brewery’s Blueberry Pie doesn’t repeat the magic. It was just muddy. Perhaps because blueberries don’t really taste of much in their own right.

Weirder again was the truly excellent Pie Saison by Little Earth Project which we drank a couple of years ago. It looked flat and smelt like vinegar from the pickled onion jar, but then, wow, how the flavour developed. Apple, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, buttery biscuit base – real Willy Wonka stuff. How did they do it? It could just be the power of suggestion, we suppose, but are we really so susceptible to Jedi mind tricks?

Proving that you can go beyond the pie was New Bristol Brewery Lemon Drizzle Donut Sour (5.5%) which we had at a mini-beer festival at the Llandoger Trow earlier this summer. Jess tested it blind on Ray, who hadn’t read the title or description, and he said: “It tastes like a Mr Kipling fondant fancy.” It was definitely cake-like with a powerful vanilla character at first, before a citric lemonade fizz kicked in – specifically, the sensation of sucking on an R. White’s ice lolly. Just delightful.

Which other examples strike you as particularly successful? By which we mean, both delicious and convincingly pudding-like.

Beer styles london

Finding stout and porter in London

“What are the best places to find stout in central London?” asks Stuart via Patreon. It’s a good question.

London is strongly associated, historically, with porter and stout but these days it’s hard to find, apart from Guinness which is, of course, almost everywhere.

Anthony Gladman recently wrote about the resurgence in London porter for Good Beer Hunting. That’s worth a read if you want to understand the broader context. It’s interesting how few examples he was actually able to point too, though.

Some that were around a decade or so ago have all but disappeared, too, such as Meantime and Fuller’s. The latter is a bottle-only product these days – and even so, rarely seen in pubs.

On our recent tour of classic London pubs we didn’t notice much dark beer on offer at all.

The Sutton Arms had a dark lager; The Carpenter’s Arms was all bitter and golden ale; and The Pride of Spitalfields had nothing darker than Fuller’s ESB.

We know that The Pembury Tavern, one of our favourite pubs in London, always seems to have Railway Porter, one of our favourite dark beers, on cask. But it’s hardly central.

Bristol brewery Moor has a very good straight-up cask stout called, uh, Stout, which seems to be regularly available at their London taproom. Bermondsey is a bit easier to get to but still not central, though.

The Royal Oak at Borough, still maybe the best pub in London, full stop, had Harvey’s wonderful porter on cask when we visited a couple of weeks ago. If not that, there are always bottles of Harvey’s wonderfully funky Imperial Stout behind the bar. We think this counts as central, even if it’s not West End.

Samuel Smith pubs, of which there are many in London, have an own-brand Guinness clone that’s we’ve always enjoyed. They may also have bottles of Oatmeal Stout, Taddy Porter and Imperial Stout in the fridge – but at a premium.

Anspach & Hobday also have London Black which they call an “independent nitro porter” with a handy map showing all the pubs that serve it. There are quite a few in central London.

In general, visiting pubs with wider-than-usual beer ranges will probably pay off, especially in autumn and winter. Cask in Pimlico, for example, or The King’s Arms in Bethnal Green. If there’s going to be a guest stout or seasonal porter, this is when and where you’ll find it.

If you know of a London pub that always has porter or stout on offer, let us know in the comments below. ⬇⬇⬇

Does Britain do regional styles?

Stuart also asked a related question: “Can you visit a city and find places that specialise in a particular style of beer? What does this say about the UK if we don’t have the same definable geographic association as German cities?”

What immediately sprang to mind for us was Midlands mild country, highlighted memorably by Robbie Pickering many years ago.

We recently revisited The Great Western at Wolverhampton where there was not only cask mild but also a choice of the hyper-local light golden ale style, from both Batham’s and Holden’s.

And down in the West Country there’s maybe an argument to say heavy, brown, sweetish ales are a thing – Blue Anchor Spingo, St Austell HSD, and a few others.

“London murky” (another Robbie Pickering contribution) almost became something but that now seems universal. It’s certainly the dominant style in Bristol.

But, yes, Stuart’s right: beyond that, it’s hard to say “Oh, you must go to city X which specialises in beer style Y.” Perhaps Britain is just too small to carry it off.

Or maybe we’re wrong. Are there living beer styles you associate strongly with a particular UK town, city or region?