Monday, July 16, 2012

Wo bist du, Berliner Weisse?

When I first told my beer-loving friends I was going to spend the summer in Berlin, if I didn't get a smirk and a lecture about how bad of a beer city Berlin is, I was generally greeted with this response:

          "Enjoy lots of Berliner Weisse!"

Berliner Weisse is the traditional beer of Berlin, having been brewed for hundreds of years. It is a low alcohol beer that is crisp and light, tart, and a bit sour. Napoleon described the beer as "effervescent" and "the Champagne of the north." A wheat beer that is traditionally not boiled and served very fresh, the sourness comes from lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus delbrückii) and occasionally traces of Brettanomyces. Perhaps the best description comes from Henry Vizetelly from his 1879 book Berlin Under the New Empire:

"In front of everyone stood a gigantic tumbler which could have been fitted with ease upon any ordinary head, and which contained a liquid pale and clear as Rhine wine, surmounted by a huge crown of froth not unlike a prize cauliflower. This was he famous 'weiss,' the mere mention of which suffices to send a Berliner into raptures and into the mysteries of which I was about to be initiated... [The beer] should be largely impregnated with carbonic acid gas and have acquired a peculiar sharp, dry, and by no means disagreeable flavor."
Like many other sour beers, Berliner Weisse is becoming increasingly popular in the United State. Most fans of the style have likely tried Dr. Fritz Briem's version, brewed at Weihenstephan in Germany and based off a traditional recipe from 1809. (This was, in fact, the beer that introduced me to the style.) But there are also dozens of American breweries trying their hands at the style, ranging from traditional versions like that found at Southampton Publick House to more experimental versions like the Somer Weisse from Night Shift. In fact, a glance at the list of the top Berliner Weisses at Beer Advocate reveals only 10% of the beers are made in Germany, while 82% come from the United States. Like many traditional German styles, the Germans just baren't brewing them anymore.

As of June 1st there was only one brewery in the city brewing a Berliner Weisse, this being the macrobrew Berliner Kindl Weisse. It is not a terribly difficult beer to find, though if you were to see it on the street, you'd likely have no idea you were looking at a beer.

In modern-day Berlin, the Berliner Weisse is served "rot oder grün." In other words, with red (raspberry) or green (woodruff) syrup. And it's served with a straw. In a bowl (or occasionally the goblet pictured right).

Since 2006, Berliner Kindl Weisse has been flash pasturized and is no longer bottle conditioned. The beer pours a pale, slightly cloudy gold and has a tart, lemony sourness to it. Very little finish, the beer is certainly refreshing, though honestly I wasn't terribly excited by it either.

But apparently I picked the right time to come to Berlin, because last week I had the opportunity to try two new additional Berliner Weisse's that are unique to Berlin. The first was from Brewbaker, the Berlin micro-brewery I wrote in great length about in my last post. Released on July 1st, the beer – which I tasted at the brewery – had a refreshing, almost musty character with lots of carbonation but a quickly fading head. Lots of lemon flavor, it was sour but not mouth-puckering and tremendously refreshing.

I was fairly certain that these would be the only two Weisses I would have the fortune to taste while in Berlin. But again, I was surprised when I walked into Das Meisterstück: Berlin's only Craft Beer Bar (more on this in an upcoming post). In their cooler was an unmarked bottle which was described to me as a Weisse brewed by a Mr. Marshall (an American) at Brauwesen – the local brewing school at the Berlin Technical Institute. And this beer might just be the best Weisse I've ever had.

Though tremendously sour (easily the most sour of the three), it was tremendously drinkable, light in body but in no way watery. There was a lemon character that was balanced with a light hops, as well as a hint of salt and a slight smokiness that lent it a depth the other beers just didn't have. This wasn't a far-fetched idea either: until 1860, the brewers of Berliner Weisse brewed the beer with smoked wheat malt. But unlike the Smoked Berliner Weisse from Freigeist Bier Kultur, the smokiness was very much in the background, and really just served to give the beer a little deeper dimension.

I am in Darmstadt for the next couple weeks, but when I return to berlin in August, I hope to learn more about Brauwesen and Mr. Marshall: though just a student, he might already be among Berlin's best brewers.

"Wo bist du, Berliner Weisse? Where have you gone?"

"Ich bin hier, Keith! In Berlin! Right where I should be!"



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Beers of Berlin (Weekly Roundup 1)

It has been a week since I first arrived in Berlin, and I am thoroughly taken with the city. I have taken in two concerts (including a wonderful performance of Wolfgang Rihm's new opera, Dionysus), visited the Surrealist museum, edited and mastered two recordings for an upcoming album release, and, of course, drank a lot of beer.

Since my last post, I have visited three of Berlin's many breweries. First, I visited Brauhaus Lemke, a pleasant little brewpub outside of the Charlottenburg Palace (there is also a location right outside Alexanderplatz). With lovely outdoor patio seating, the menu featured typical German fare and four housemade beers: Lemke "Original," a Pilsener, a Hefe, and a Maibock – the last two of which I sampled.
Lemke Weizen

The Maibock was the less remarkable of the two. A very subtle nose with faintly sweet aromas of raspberry and honey, it had an under-spoken mouth that was lightly fruity with a full caramel malt flavor and faint hops.

The Weizen was tremendously light in the mouth, springy with flavors of lemon meringue, banana candy, bubblegum, and a deep bready finish. It wasn't terribly spicy with the cloves taking a definite backseat, and though it wasn't a standout Hefe, it was very enjoyable and accompanied my meal perfectly.

The second brewery I visited was the Microbrauerei Marcus Bräu. I tasted two of their three offerings: a Pilsener and a Hefe. The Pilsener was a "C+" at best, pouring a very cloudy gold with no distinctive character or flavor. The Hefe was unquestionably among the worst Weizens I've ever tasted, bringing in flavors of dirty laundry and bleach. If this were the standard for the Berlin Brewery, the city would be in great trouble!

But wait! There is an interesting brewery in Berlin who brews beer well outside the national norm. Their name is Brewbaker, and they are but a mere 4km (or three train stops) from my apartment. Charming atmosphere, excellent fresh food, and a most pleasant wait-staff, my wife and I enjoyed an IPA and an Oatmeal Stout.

Yes, that's an IPA and Oatmeal Stout being brewed in Berlin, by Berliners, for Berliners. I don't really know much about their history or their customer base, but it is encouraging to find some creative brewers within the city limits.

Both beers were served out of 22oz bottles in wine glasses. The IPA was an English-style IPA and is only the second German IPA I've had (the other being an American-style from BrauFactum in Frankfurt). The beer had a mildly citrus nose, was lightly hoppy with very little carbonation. The Stout – easily the better of the two – had a strong coffee aroma with a nice roasted chocolate malt flavor and a slight hint of bitter chocolate. Both beers were well made, and though not extraordinary when compared to their brethren from other countries, easily ranked as the best beers of Berlin.

So far.

Later this week I hope to visit some of the city's other breweries, as well as a little Craft Beer Bar I may have discovered. Stay tuned...



Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Perfect Pils, Part 2

I arrived in Germany on the 2nd of July. Berlin has been remarkably temperate, featuring temperatures around 72° - 76° F (22° - 25° C). My apartment is in a wonderful part of town which straddles the Charlottenburg and West Berlin line, and there is a very fine coffee roaster right next door (which I visited for the first time yesterday and was surprised to see a 25 page menu featuring all their different roasts and brewing methods). But as this isn't a coffee blog, allow me to continue onto the beer.

I had been warned by several people in-the-know that Berlin isn't a great beer town. Not to be deterred, I assembled a map of every brewery and bottle store, and, naturally, hit up one of these bottle stores on my first day.

I picked up several interesting looking beers, including one curious looking Pilsener which I tasted yesterday afternoon.

I am a sucker for good labeling, and this label was among the most unique I've seen: a solid black label with small white lettering, I had to read it several times before I could figure out who the brewer was. The answer? "Premium-Bier." Talk direct and to the point!

There is no entry for them on either Beer Advocate or Rate Beer, and their website doesn't reveal as much as I would have hoped (and my German is not terribly great to begin with). But from what I can gather, they are a tiny 100% organic soda and beer brewery based in Hamburg. All of their ingredients are hyper-local (the hops are grown 3km away). A humorous and honest moment on their website: they apologize for not being 100% vegan because they need to use glue for their labels, explaining that they are simply too small to be able to afford vegan labeling.

As for the beer? It certainly delivered.

Pouring a crystal clear gold with a fat but fast-receding head, the nose is full of mineral aromas; it smells fresh, and vaguely reminiscent of the hard well water I grew up with. (They use untreated spring water.) Tremendously dry in the mouth, I was first struck by a dark roast, almost burnt coffee flavor. This shocked me! I took another sip. Again! There is no hint of darkness in the pour or nose, but a roasted malt backbone in the mouth gives it a dimension quite unlike any other pils I've had. Added to that is a dark caramel flavor, a sizable dose of upfront hops, and very little finish. I was tremendously impressed with this, and wonder if this comes from the water or a special method of roasting their barley. (They do malt their own barley, though I am unsure if it is actually roasted or not.)

As it sits and as I eat my lunch, the darker side of the pils falls away as it is accompanied by food, and I get an easy drinking, very smooth Pilsener.

In all, a mighty fine Pilsener that is arguably the best pils I've had on German soil.

Great, now the bar has been set really high...

*********             *********             *********             *********            *********    
Also worth quickly mentioning are a couple of Pilseners I had prior to leaving the States: EKU (Kulmbacher Brauerei, Germany) and Heater Allen (McMinnville, Oregon).

A solid German pils, crystal clear,
a bit fruity, a tad herbal, goes down easy.
A small Oregon brewery that only brews
German-style beers. Lemon, hops, honey,
and floral up front, morphs into a dry
crisp finish. Excellent.

This afternoon, it's off to Brauhäuser Lemke. Stay tuned.



Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Curiosity of Competition

As a young pianist growing up in Minnesota, I entered a lot of competitions. Whether local, state, national, or international, I participated in just about every competition I could. I won several, lost several, placed second or third, and received honorable mentions.

When one enters copious numbers of competitions, one begins to see that they are – to a large extent – rather absurd and completely subjective. I recall one of the last competitions I entered back in '06: In the first round, I played absolutely terribly yet managed to get selected for the next round. This despite the fact that there were many, many other musicians who played (in my opinion) far better. However, in the next round, I nailed the pieces spot-on and the crowd loved it; I couldn't have played better! But what do you know? I didn't advance.

Competitions are a healthy means of preparing and challenging oneself, and I'd be lying if I said that winning wasn't fun. But I learned that it was very important to take the results (whether winning or losing) with a generous helping of salt, and furthermore that it was vitally important to always enter with the goal of simply playing the best I could, never expecting a victory – regardless of how well I had prepared.

Now why do I bring this up on a beer blog? Because I just received the results of the Merrimack Valley Homebrew Competition, and I was immediately reminded of my past competition experiences.

I entered my beer "Sludge" into the competition. Sludge was an accident beer of sorts: I simply threw all of my leftover ingredients into a kettle, added some chipotle chiles and cinnamon, tossed in an Irish Stout yeast strain, and waited to see what would happen. The result was actually a lovely session smoked Porter that impressed me and most who drank it.

I certainly didn't expect to win the competition with Sludge, but I did hope to get some good and interesting feedback from the judges.

But the commentary could not have been more contradictory. Said Judge #1, Rob North:

"Very well made Porter, but lacks smoke character to score well as a [specialty porter]. Up the smoke malt % or change source. Would likely score top ten in Porter category."

Said Judge #2, Chris Killinger:

"Not much here other than smoke, significantly increase the malt flavors to increase the balance. Getting a bit ashy, this makes it linger unpleasantly in the finish."

So what can one take from this? Unfortunately, absolutely nothing.  Except the very helpful reminder that beer – like music (or any other art, for that matter) – is a completely subjective experience. What I want to taste in a Porter may or may not be what you want to taste in a Porter. Even something which seems to be fairly easily measured, ie the smokiness of a beer, is an individual experience that is based entirely on opinion.

But there is one other important lesson to be learned: I need to brew exactly what I want to brew and to the standards I set, creating a beer that I think is a best in class. After all, I have to drink it.



Rhönring Hefeweizen batch 3. Finally nailed the color
and the head retention lingered like marshmallow
fluff, but I overcompensated with my fermentation
temperature and lost too much of the banana flavors.
Next batch to be brewed in September.