Archive for November, 2009

Beyond the light and dark: Beer in Berlin
November 21, 2009

Cotton wool beers at Marcus Brau

Beer in Berlin: the consensus in the (English speaking) beer-o-sphere is that it’s a bit of a limbo; there’s nothing much going on.  I arrived armed with Ron Pattinson’s pub guide and an open mind.  In many bars I went to they just ask you if you want a light or dark beer, and that’s it.  Dunkel or pils, basically.  Maybe they were just simplifying things for the tourist, but I doubt it.

Light or Dark? Commemorative beer mats by artist Jean-Ulrick Desert

Much of my visit to Berlin, a very white town, could be shook down to that question.  The troubled notion of race here coupled with the amazing history of survival, heroic struggle and attrocity makes that simple question poignant. At the Schwules or Gay Museum, I spied Artist Jean-Ulrick Desert’s commemorative beer mats from Negerhosen 2000, a performance piece where he traveled around Bavaria in traditional costume, having his picture taken with Bavarians.  The project was essentially a playful take on Bavarian conservatism, and the artist is very much a Berliner, and the piece is very Berlin– ironic, sly, complex.  I wondered what would be the beer that would go with the mats? Something trad but playful, throwing something new into the mix.  I looked, but have yet to find that beer.

My go-to beer for the trip was a beer not brewed in Berlin, and yet it was everywhere: Warsteiner, which I first had with amazing vegan pho at a little nameless place in Danziger Strasse– the white grape note of the beer stood out brilliantly against the fresh basil and chili.

BarMas at the BittenBullet has a recent take on conservative German attitudes to brewing, and it’s true that the Reinheitsgebot, or the 16th brewing purity laws which most brewers still follow, would limit the chances brewers could take, and in turn the styles that are brewed.  Most German beer I’ve had  is perfectly pleasant, consistent– it asks little of the drinker.  Various smoky rauch beers aside, it is rarely extreme.

Mit or red?

Except when you consider Berliner Weisse, a young beer which, without the compulsory syrup, tastes very much like a Belgian lambic.  Sour in the extreme, what I consider refreshing others might see as undrinkable.  The mouthfeel is less of the lambic’s barley wine and more of a lively ale.  The most popular beer in Berlin in the 19th century, it’s now only brewed by Berliner Kindl. I drank it both with and without syrup, and confess to really loving the grün, or woodruff syrup, called waldmeister or forest master– a candy cocktail suitable for the great god Pan.  It’s normally drunk in the spring but if it was on the menu, that’s what I ordered.  I was pretty smitten with the unusual sourness and the lively mouthfeel.  Drinking it mit schuss made me feel like I was celebrating something. Others have compared drinking the cocktail to an alcopop, but I don’t see it– at 3% it’s not exactly a “get hammered fast and sweet” sort of drink.  It didn’t taste like a softdrink.  Even with the syrup you could taste the earthy wheat of the beer and a chamomile-like fruitiness, but of course these were more pronounced without the sweet additive.  Why it is served with a straw I’ve no idea!  Berlin is a cocktail-crazy town, full of fun little bars offering swanky, original takes on trad cocktails and it’s in this spirit the Weisse should be had.  In one particularly inspired version I had it with passion fruit liquor.  Still, no matter what local tradition dictates, I’m not drinking beer through a straw.

Light or Dark? At the Marcus Brau Microbrewery

I went to two microbreweries in Berlin– there might be more but I couldn’t find them.  The first was Marcus Brau, a microbrewery housed in a side street of tacky shops in the rather grim shadow of the Fernsehturm, on the outskirts of Alexanderplatz. Like many other bars, the choice here is simple: light or dark? Young Marcus himself, rather bored and annoyed to be interrupted from his web surfing, served us.   Mr. Malting had the pils and I the dunkel. we sat in a wooden booth, surrounded by blinking fruit machines and homey decorations from the 1970’s, possibly older than the brewer himself!  A table of three regulars consumed what little service there was to be had.  Mr. Malting wanted another pils and the guy couldn’t seem to be bothered. When he finally ordered, Marcus forgot to bring the beer.  I couldn’t finish the dunkel.  I know Boak and Bailey have often used homebrew-like as a pejorative and I didn’t quite get it until now.  The dark beer tasted like something had gone wrong, there was a iodine-aniseed note that was really hard to get past and I just kept thinking, homebrew. The pils was free from this aftertaste.  It was drinkable, but pils is not my favourite style.  It had a very subtle cilantro note, and was a bit grassy in a pleasant way.  Still, nothing special and certainly not worth waiting 20 minutes for the brewer to quit talking to the regulars and bring it to you.

photo of Brewer Philipp Brokamp of Hops and Barley by skpy on flicr

The other microbrewery we tried was far better. Hops and Barley brewpub in the happening neighborhood of Friedrichshain is an elegantly tiled bar with a smoking and non-smoking room (a big deal in Berlin if you are a non-smoker!).  This place has a real welcoming, community feel and is run by two friendly guys, one of which is Philipp Bokamp the brewer.  They let me taste everything, and even asked me if I was a homebrewer, and what styles I liked to make.  It’s clear they are passionate about beer here! The one guy kept chiding me about my “little black book of beer”– the Moleskine notebook where I was taking notes.  They wanted to know what else we’d had in town and what we thought of it.  I loved the beer I had there– everything tasted very clean and fresh.

The Friedrichshainer Amber was my favourite– with a kumquat nose and strong presence of Brewer’s Gold hops. Philipp said there was another kind of hop in here as well, something that grew near a large lake in Southern Germany, but I didn’t write it down because I confess I was rather tipsy.  The dunkels had a big chocolate front with a very light mouthfeel, making it easy to drink more of it despite the richness.  My second favourite though was the delightful cider: cloudy, tart and just sweet enough to round out the yeasty, grassy middle.  Beautiful stuff!

At one point I asked Philipp if he would ever consider brewing his own version of the Berliner weisse (the name is proprietary– technically only breweries in Berlin can make it.)  He explained, politely, no way.  It would be too much of a risk for a small scale brewery to willfully use lactobacillus, something that is considered an infection in a normal beer. He felt that weisse is basically a brewing error now marketed to people who don’t know any better, and if he were to make it no one would drink it, and if no one drinks his beer he would have to close up shop.   That would be a very bad thing, indeed.

(My discussion of my (non-beery) Mauerfall visit to Berlin can be found at Feral Strumpet Teatime. )

Mo Town
November 6, 2009

Sure, a beer can say it's handsome, but without a mustache, how can it prove it?

It’s Movember, that time of year when every sensible soul capable of doing so grows some facial hair to raise donations to fight prostate cancer.  I love Movember– I love mustaches.  And I love a savvy charity that knows just how to get younger guys to start thinking about prostate health early and talking about it. (The campaign is silly, ironic and hip, really genius).  Prostate cancer was always remote issue until it affected my family quite recently.

BrewDog’s Movember beer donates  25% of the sale price to the Movember foundation.  Cheers to the brewers who once again avoid cliche here– I was expecting something with a thick head that would leave a “mustache” on the drinker.  Or maybe I was just letting my imagination get away with me (again).

This beer is lucid– sunny and lager-like with a tall head that quickly dissipates while releasing all kinds of estery brightness– there’s a strong note of melon– not unlike that Korean chewing gum (does anyone know what I’m referring to here?).  The nose has a chamomile note and some soapiness that I forgive. The malt hits you first, kind of sweet but mellow– the beer has the mouthfeel of a lager, cut with some lovely hops to dry it all out so you’re left with only a bit of sweetness.

This beer really needs some fried foods to go with it– bhajis, chips.  Tempura. Wheat-meat drumsticks with chipotle mayo would rock with this.  You get my (veggie) drift.  It’s a companionable beer (I won’t say quaffing– that word makes me blush.)  You could totally drink loads of this while waiting for lip hair to grow.

As it mellows in the glass the cantaloupe really comes to the fore, yet the body is so light and the hops balance out really nicely.  I can’t place the hops…perhaps in growing this mustache I have lost my hop-sense?

If I can grow one, so can you!

To donate to the charity on behalf of this “mo sista”  just click here.  Who knows, by the end of the month I might rival my favourite cookie duster:


Henry Wellcome: drug magnate, collector and facial hair farmer extraordinaire

Poppy Appeal
November 4, 2009


A field of California Poppy by Tianna9 on flickr

BrewDog’s Dogma has some intense flavors, ever shifting. In the label’s words it’s a “conspiracy of transcontinental ingredients” which includes guarana, California poppy, kola nut and Scottish heather honey.

The first time I had this beer it was called Speedball.  There was the ridiculous controversy, created by the Portman Group, around the name which refers to a drug cocktail of cocaine and heroin.  I didn’t especially like the beer– dominated as it was by a sharp, mineral tang.   Speedball has a new name (It’s now sold in the UK under its original US name, Dogma) and there’s an extra .7% (originally 7.1 now 7.8%) alcohol just to make things interesting.

I’m not a big fan of honey beers but there is no cloying here– all that’s left of the honey is an earthy tinge and the heather of course.  I can taste that clearly, and it’s the most loveable note. The flower is quite present in the nose and there is a sour, bread-crust finish.  There are elements in this beer I can’t taste- like the poppy seed.  I can summon the kola nut if I try but it is mixed up with the malt.  Having never had guarana, I couldn’t tell you if I’m tasting it. There is a profound bitterness at the back of this beer that isn’t hops.  Maybe that’s the fruit?

Is this beer caffienated? It may very well be– as I near the halfway point I feel vaguely irritable, as if I’ve had too much coffee.  I’ve never had an energy drink; I’m a downer girl at heart.

Have you ever driven through a field of California poppies?  (Of course you were driving, it’s LA.)– there’s nothing Flanders Fields about it– no brave larks or torch passed.  It’s amnesiac Cali where everything is 15 minutes away and a few years old.  The poppy sea dazzles the sun.

Have you ever taken a little coach through a narrow country road cutting through a moor furred with heather, and the fog rolls in so that you see nothing for a moment? You might as well be in a cloud in the sky if it weren’t for the sheep ambling from the tarmac.

Eventually you have to choose between the two and you do, forever after feeling a bit of impatience with in-between things.  Dogma is a limbo beer, too close to home. Though as long as it’s a quid at Sainsbury’s, I’ll be drinking it.

A field of Scottish heather

A field of Scottish heather

Why Porters Served in Highballs? I Speculate No More.
November 2, 2009


Antique Children's Mug...the perfect glassware?

Why joys so scantily disburse,
Why Paradise defer,
Why floods are served to us in bowls, —
I speculate no more.

–Emily Dickinson

There has been some discussion amongst beer bloggers about glassware, especially as it pertains to the woman drinker.  I thought I had no opinion on this until last Saturday when my strong feelings on the matter ambushed me over a half of Fullers London Porter.

On Saturday I donned my bog-standard witch outfit, it being Halloween, and I sat sipping comforting, potent London Porter in the glow of many elaborate jack-o-lanterns in the Barrowboy and Banker in Borough.   I’ve only had this on tap once before, and feel slightly negligent that I’d been to this club at this grand Fuller’s pub many times and never ordered it before.  It’s intense and only slightly demanding in its heaviness, with dominant bitter chocolate as the primary front, and then lovely dried fruits round it out.  It’s not easy to drink pints of this stuff, and yet I did, even when I would have preferred to drink halves.  Why?

Glassware.  I don’t need a stemmed glass but why must halves be served in a collins glass?  This is what they put a half of London Porter in at the Barrowboy and Banker.  Perhaps I’m being too fussy and precious here but it’s as if they had given me a highball glass filled with Veno Chesty Cough. The straight-sided, thin glass didn’t permit the beer to breathe; it warmed unpleasantly in my hand and was awkward to hold.  It is the same glass they serve coke or lemonade in– it’s as if the half is just an afterthought.  Even the bar man kept insisting I really wanted a pint, didn’t I?  Perhaps due to his charm, I relented.  The pint was served in a beautiful, rounded goblet– the nose greeted you with every sip and drinking it from this bowl shape was a completely different experience.  But, size does matter, especially when it comes to something that’s 6%.  I’d just rather stick to halves, but not if I have to drink it out of a cocktail glass.

I don’t care if a glass is stemmed, though some beers are just nicer to drink from a stemmed glass. I don’t mind halves served in the mini Nonik (or bulged tube style glass), though as Zythophile points out, it isn’t the prettiest thing.  He also mentions in this fascinating post that the authentic ale mug up until WWI was a pink china pot with a white strap. (Surely Hello Kitty can pick up the patent on this and reintroduce it?  Or maybe I’m just dreaming).  I love that in Belgium every beer has a specific style of glass in which it should be served.  What would it take for UK pubs to pay more attention to how they are serving their beers?

Some pubs get it right consistently– the Old Dairy being one of them.  They serve their cask ales in the dimpled handle style.  Recently The Beer Nut sang the praises of the dimpled mug.  If I can’t drink my halves out of something like the antique children’s mug (featuring a tipsy monk) pictured above, or a Sanrio re-issue china pot, then the mini-dimple will do.  At they Old Dairy they even give you a choice.  Last night the chipper bar man asked if I wanted my (perfectly kept and delish) Exmoor Gold in a thick, fluted glass or…he paused for theatricality here before bringing out the little dimpled mug.  “It is the most feminine in glassware, I’m sure you’ll agree.  You can even hold it like this,” he suggested as he raised the glass with his little finger extended. Deportment aside, it is my glass of choice.