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Friday, October 26, 2012

Final Germany Thoughts

MUNICH-PILSEN. I'm about to board a train for Pilsen, and so my mind is turning to Bohemian rhapsodies. Before I completely forget everything about Germany, here's a grab bag of thoughts.

1. Cask Beer
I doubt very many Americans, even beer geeks, realize how often you can walk into a German pub and find a wooden cask sitting on the bar. Altbier, kolsch, ungespundet (unfiltered) lager, and rauchbier to name the examples I enjoyed. But is it cask beer ale?

Yes--but also no if you're judging from the British practice. In that system, the beer goes into the cask before it reaches terminal gravity and finishes fermenting there, naturally carbonating the beer. In the German practice, the beer is long done with primary fermentation and has been conditioning, usually for weeks. The wooden casks are lined with artificial pitch (the translation isn't totally clear--I have to do a bit of study to find out what it is) so the beer picks up no wood or oxygen. The casks are stored cold and when one blows, a new one goes up on the bar, gets tapped, and slowly warms.

At Schlenkerla, Matthias Trum described how they manage to keep fresh, cool beer on the bar: different cask sizes. If it's really busy, they use a big one; slow or near the end of the night, a little one. Once the cask is tapped, the beer has to be drunk in four hours or it will warm up too much--and beer left in casks at the end of the night can't be used the next day.

I would like to do side-by-side tastings of beer prepared in this method, on regular draft, and in a bottle to see how they differed. Anyone out there tried this?

2. Driving in Germany
We spent the first few days on the delightful Deutsche Bahn--the train--before picking up a car in Regensburg for speedier Franconia travel. And thus did I steer out onto the famous German freeways.

I have never seen a more elegant, intuitive roads system than the one they have here. There's almost always space to make turns, the signage and lights are clear and accessible, and the pavement is in fantastic shape (unless you bouncing along cobbles in an old part of town).

But it's on the freeways where the magic happens. It is an illustration that in order to make systems work, you need not only effective infrastructure, but public cooperation. These roads wouldn't work in the US because we don't drive like Germans.

Much of the freeways have no speed limits. There are several basic speed limits at ten kph intervals starting at 30 (19 mph). The top marked speed is 120 (75) and after that you can go as fast as you want. On the open road, I tended to keep the needle between 130 and 150 (81-93 mph), but cars would regularly blast by doing at least 200 (125).

So the question is, how do you negotiate an unmarked road where people are driving at very different speeds? Everyone has to follow the same (unwritten?) rules: you always stay in the lane furthest to the right and pass traffic going more slowly like you would on an American two-lane highway, zipping back into a slow lane as soon as you pass. Even the ultra speedsters do it, zig-zagging from the right or middle lane leftward around slower traffic This keeps the faster lanes free so the speedsters can get through. My observational sense is that the process results in way more efficient roads with far fewer snarls. I encountered none.

3. The German Pub
The habits of a pub vary from country to country, and I'm always fascinated to see how they change when I cross a border. In Germany, like the UK, lots of pubs are owned by breweries, so the distinction is often academic. It's clear from the signage out front which breweryH the pub is affiliated with--restaurants, too (I am amused to see signs outside Chinese restaurants proudly advertising, say, Paulaner beer.)

When you walk in, you're liable to find a scene of chaos--LOTS of people go to pubs, and they're usually humming with life. If you're greeted by a small room, don't assume that's all there is. Often pubs sprawl in a labyrinth over several cozy rooms. Finding a table is a negotiation with customers and the wait staff (don't stand at the door--no one will come to seat you). German pubs, especially in Bavaria, often have large tables. You may need to share. Consult with a waiter and the people in the room--there's always room for a couple more bodies.

There's nothing especially unorthodox about ordering food and drink, but you do need to request the bill. Until you do, the waiter will assume you're mid-session. Even if you've indicated you want nothing more, the waiter will let you sit and digest the experience until you're ready to go.

A final word about what pubs look like. Again, they have a similar feel to pubs in the UK, with dark wood and comfortingly shadowy niches. (The focal point is not the bar, though, and many places don't even have one.) in Bavaria, the tables are white wood (maple?) and there are lots of booths and often antlers on the wall. One distinctively German quality is an ecclesiastical aesthetic. I saw many crucifixes, and stained glass windows and ceilings are very common.

4. Alkoholfrei
The biggest trend in brewing is non-alcoholic. Every production brewery seems to do it, and the segment is growing quickly. The explanation I heard--it's because beer is thought of as unhealthy. Breweries regularly use two methods--distillation (using expensive equipment many breweries have purchased) or brewing low gravity beers and stopping just after fermentation starts. The former is mainly used for lagers, the latter for weizens (in breweries making both). In the distillation method, at least some of the machines use pressure and keep the beer well below boiling (60 C, I think). A departure from imperial IPAs, no?

And finally:
Germans really seem to be into 80s era American and British pop music. I hear it everywhere.

Duvets suck.

On to Czech Republic


  1. My understanding, which is limited is that "ungespundet", to steal from Jackson, means "unbunged," indicating that the maturation was in a vessel open to the atmosphere (ie not controlled by a pressure valve) making it have softer carbonation. And which makes the process of handling the stuff even more tricky I suppose.

  2. The term for the barrel tapping is "Bayrischer Anstich" - very simply translated, "Bavarian tapping." Direct, gravity-pour, no additional CO2. "Ungespundet" means "unbunged" (a Spunde is a bung), allowing some CO2 to escape. The result is, in the majority of cases, perilously drinkable. It's hard to do the s-x-s comparison though. If you go to the Schalander pub in Düsseldorf, you can taste four different Alts poured conventionally with CO2 back pressure; then, go back to the individual places in the Altstadt and get them directly from the barrel. There is most certainly a difference. Ditto with gas-poured Schlenkerla vs Bayrischer Anstich at the original pub.

  3. Regarding driving, the discipline you see exhibited by German drivers is not anything like an informal arrangement. The requirements, expense, and training to obtain a German driving license are far stricter than anything Americans experience. One of the key concepts taught and enforced on freeway driving is "lane discipline," which is what you saw in practice on the Autobahn. It is not unique to Germany, but the practice there is an excellent example. You will see it on freeways and tollways in neighboring countries, too. Unfortunately, the lack of traffic problems you experienced is not always the case; the legendary "Autobahnstau" (freeway traffic jam) is no joke, and there are nationwide traffic reports regularly broadcast on the radio to alert drivers where the traffic is stacked up, and how long the jams are in km. I saw one myself, fortunately going the opposite way, on a recent drive eastbound on the A3 from Frankfurt.

  4. Alan and Don, thanks for the clarifiers. Although I want to Mahr's for the legendary ungespundent, I didn't get to visit them, so that all remains a bit murky. As for driving, thank god I missed the snarls that make national news. (I did wonder what happens when a BMW going 200 failed to get left in time...

  5. I only know that factoid because I really like saying "ungespundent" when having lots of it.

  6. I've never done it side-by-side, but I was amazed at how much better Früh Kölsch is from the cask compared to bottled. It's a completely different experience.

  7. Alan, the first chance I had, I rolled it out there--and I was pretty close. (I asked the waiter at Mahr's to say it.)

    Beer Nut, I'm not a bit surprised. Fruh is so delicate that I imagine a lot is lost on the way through the bottling line.

    Oh, and if you're reading, Mike, I went to five Kolsch breweries or pubs. My faves we Gaffel for the hops and Fruh for the overall complexity. (Fruh by a nose if I had to choose.) Gilden was easily the worst and Pfaffen and Reissdorf were tasty but a tier below.

  8. I've had several Franconian beers bottled, top pressured dispensed and Bayrischer Anstich (not side by side, though). The latter has always tasted better, though this could be also because you drink it fresher and usually on site. The experience also makes the beer.

  9. It's been nice following your impressions and seeing how common some of them are to my reactions on first visiting this country a decade ago. I've become jaded from living here since then though. I hope you don't mind this rather wordy reply. (Nick B from the Brewcrew list in case this isn't clear.)

    On cask beer. Not sure why you say that the German wood cask beer is "cask ale", by which I assume you mean "cask-conditioned". As you point out, the beer is already conditioned and lagered in the tank before being filled into the casks. So I say it's more like US-style keg beer, just served under gravity, and hopefully neither filtered, nor gassed up with extra CO2 during filling. Some breweries do that, some don't.

    At any rate, cask-conditioning is a different process.

    Some less scrupulous places will indeed serve a half-used "belly-barrel" ("Bauchfass", as the gravity-pour barrels are called) the day after tapping. This is normally disappointing at best, but sometimes it actually provides an interesting comparison to what the beer is usually like. Schlenkerla can certainly afford to throw away the remains of a 15 liter Fass every day if they need to.

    I'm not sure if you noted this, but of the various brewery taps in Bamberg, Schlenkerla and Mahr's are the only ones that serve in this traditional, gravity-pour "bayerischen Anstich" (n.b. state/country names are not capitalized when used as adjectives, but city/town/village names are) method, and the latter only some of the time. As far as I know, anyway...anyone know anything different?

    Your impression that German pubs remind you of English ones is interesting, because I see it differently. To me, German ones are nearly as different from English ones as English ones are from Oregon ones. Ditto for Belgian ones. I'm curious - do you have some English ones in mind?

    Did you learn about how to pay and tip?

  10. On driving. I never drove over here when we came as tourists, but only after we moved here. And I had the same reaction as you at first: driving the Autobahn is like a dance. And Don is spot-on in pointing out that these people do a *lot* more to *earn* their drivers license than we do. My neighbor's daughter paid over €2,400 to get hers, the going rate today. Most of that goes to hours and hours and hours of behind-the-wheel lessons: 45 or 48 hours in total. Legally required, they are.

    Me, I just had to take a written test, based on the reciprocity between Oregon and Germany. The strenuousness of the OR licence test apparently precludes the need for the driving test here. People with, say, Chinese or Brazilian licenses need to take not only the driving test, but also hours and hours of behind the wheel and classroom training in order to get a German one. OTOH, there are some US driving licenses that can simply be exchanged for a German one, without even having to take the written test.

    In the end though, I wish the Mrs. and I would've been required to take the driving test as well, because as we learned through experience, there are some small, subtle differences in driving between here and in the US, and it would be better to have these trained over through practical experience. But that's just me.

    W.r.t. the Autobahn, there is a legal limit of insurance liability of 130 KPH (80 MPH). This means, if you are in an accident --regardless of fault-- while driving faster than 130, your insurance has no obligation to cover your damages, as you have assumed the responsibility for driving less safely than you otherwise could have.

    And although I loved driving it at first, I quickly found driving on the Autobahn tiring. It's more stressful than driving the US freeways, precisely because you have to be constantly on the lookout for massive differences in speeds. And there are bad drivers, believe me, I've encountered more than enough. I find myself most comfortable driving about as fast as I did on open stretches of I-5 or I-84, or maybe a bit faster. Very rarely over 160 (100 MPH), mostly under that, even though my car's high-pressure turbo is perfect for Autobahn speeds.

    These people are *used* to driving that fast, they get trained to do it, whereas we might tend to see it as a game or sport, the thought of which makes me a bit queasy.

  11. Road construction here is indeed a class above the US average, but this corresponds to construction quality in other regards as well, most notibly housing construction. It would be very difficult for Mrs. and me to go back to an American house if we were to move back. But I digress.

    Another thing to consider when thinking about driving Over Here is the population density. This country is about the size of Montana, but contains the population equivalent of the entire west coast, Texas, Florida, and NY state. 83 million people. Not all of them drive, of course, but still. They *have* to build the roads better, and they *have* to be better drivers.

    On signage. The Germans have the most heavily signed roads in the world, and there has been discussion of reducing this to make the roads less confusing. People driving over here should understand a couple of odd ones for sure, like
    (and the latter's opposite, which is more important!)

    Am looking forward a great deal to your experiences in the Czech Republic, where I've yet to travel, despite having lived a very few hours' drive or train ride away for 8 years. The smoking puts us off the idea of visiting; we're spoilt now by the new, strict Bavarian smoking ban.

  12. Nick, I've corrected the text--obviously it should be cask BEER, not ale. I'm writing these posts on an iPhone, often in less-than-ideal circumstances. I'm error-prone to begin with, but with auto-correct and a brain left unclear by beer or fatigue, it's worse now. I figire that, on balance, real time, sloppy blogging is better than post-facto recollections. I hope!

  13. Jeff, need to apologize for anything! Though, I would have to ask what the difference between cask ale and cask beer would be.

    You will write up something about Kloster Kreuzberg, won't you? We've been once, a few years ago, and you can see how well I liked it in my aborted "blog".

  14. Thanks for the update, Jeff. Sorry to read that you missed what is probably the best of the Cologne pubs: Malzmühle. And I'm not the only one who thinks that:

    BTW, you also haven't yet answered my question about how beer prices in Germany (and/or Czech Republic) compare to back home.

  15. Great post, even for a weary blogger, Jeff.

    You brought up a number of interesting things regarding wood (and pitch).

    The use of wood in brewing in Germany is very different from English, Belgian or even current American use. Before the advent of steel, aluminum, or stainless steel tanks, almost all of those hollowed out cellars were filled with barrels lined with tree pitch. Tree pitch is basically heated up to boiling or near boiling then poured into a barrel which is turned quickly to line the entire barrel with the pitch. This old-school style of storing beer in barrels rendered them nearly impenetrable for oxygen ingress and kept the microflora that inhabits the wood surfaces to a minimum. The barrels would scraped clean and then repitched when needed. I know an older brewmaster in Berlin who was diminutive in size and thus had to enter all of these and scrape them by hand back in the day. Modern tanks have rendered this practice antiquated. And since most breweries weren't making Belgian sours, they didn't want either the bugs or the oxygen to enter their product.

    At the Gasthausbrauerei I managed in Berlin (as well as at the Gordon-Biersch Brewery-Restaurant in San Jose), we also used a non-pitched small barrel with the "bayerischer Anstich" for tapping new seasonal products. The barrel would be filled with sterile water at least overnight to ensure that the wood would not allow the beer to leak, then filled with beer under counterpressure. The beer was basically "keg" beer until it was tapped. At that point the lucky brewer or dignitary (Buergermeister of Spandau in Berlin) would slam the brass tap into the lower part of the keg and then a small relief valve in the top. After bleeding off the excess pressure, the beer would basically flow out without any pressure until empty (usually under 30 minutes in our case). It wasn't conditioned in the barrel, nor were there any fish bladders added (illegal there) for fining, nor was the beer warm and flat, although it wasn't ice-cold or fully at 2.6 CO2 volumes by the end of the pouring. All the brewers I know in Germany do it pretty much that way. Big caveat: I don't know all the brewers in Germany! So you should expect a difference between bottle, keg and "cask", although a fresh keg and cask would probably taste pretty similar as long as you aren't too far back in line getting a fresh pour.

    The pubs you noted with the crucifixes were primarily in the South, by the way. Their is a greater proclivity to display religious ornaments there than you would find in the Protestant North.

    Erlangernick brought back memories of the costs of getting my license in Germany. Although raised in Oregon, I had been working in California before moving with my wife-to-be to Germany. As he said, an Oregon license has a higher value than other states, notably California! I had to take the written and driving tests to own my very own thousands of dollars down the drain driving license. There was one thing I read and had to check on, since it wasn't the case when I was living there. It was regarding driving in excess of the suggested speed of 130 kmh on the Autobahn. That doesn't release the insurance companies from covering the driver in case of an accident, whether caused by the driver or not. It does, however, give the insurer some rights to raise the equivalent of a deductible in either case:

    I enjoyed driving the Berlin to Hamburg stretch many, many times to get from home to my wife's parent's house. 180 was a comfortable cruising speed for us on that open stretch with very few population centers between the two cities.

    I'm glad you had the chance to see so many great breweries and taste so many good beers while you were there.

  16. I should've said that there was no release from the insurer's liability to cover your damages to others in the case of driving >130, but had only been told that the insurer's comprehensive coverage would be at risk. But I never looked into it, as I don't drive "much" over 130 anyway.