I don't want to make an assumption about the entire country based on one brewery, but man, Lambrate was sweet. Brewery sprawls across several buildings in charming Milano, and the pubs had that extraordinary energy that makes you want to be in them. But I was corrected when I complimented Milan. "It's Lambrate, not Milano," they said. (Lambrate, like St Johns, is a neighborhood.)
The Czech Republic, not for reasons strictly of geography, is far, far from the American consciousness. Don't talk polotmave, don't mention ales. All we know is pilsner (only a part of the landscape), and we don't really even understand that. It has been one of my great pleasures to experience the beer here--in some ways it is closely related to Oregon beer. For one thing, a good lot of the lagers here are unfiltered. They're hazy like Oregon skies (and beers). Of course, they're also hoppy (though not always bitter). Even more, it's like Oregon in the sense that it's this huge, rich scene no one knows that much about.
As I alluded to yesterday, one of the key things is malt. Moravian and Bohemian malt is particular. The grains are smaller, and the malting--often floor-malted--is rougher, less efficient. In the US, base malts are essentially sugar. If you want color or flavor, add specialty malt as needed. In Czech, the base malts are full of color and character. To get a splash of color, you may not need Munich. These "pilsner" malts are twice as dark as what Americans think of. The beers here are deeper colored, and--as with English floor malts--softer, richer, grainier.
Another thing that's key to understanding beer here: it's not all pale lager. Amber (polotmave) and dark lagers (tmave) are common, and they're not exactly like marzens and schwarzbiers. They bear the stamp of Czechness--those round malts, the spicy hops, and a few of the tmaves I've tried were flat-out roasty and stout-like. Czech beers also run the range of strengths, not only colors, so you might have a light pale, a medium dark, and a strong pale. Beers are identified by both color and strength--the shorthand is to use the beer's original gravity, as expressed in Plato, 10, 12, 16, etc.
And those are the standards. As everywhere, the Czech Republic is not immune to the influence of the craft beer movement, so breweries are also dabbling in ales, including American style eepahs (IPAs), imperial stouts, and so on.
And here we come to the place where the very remote places travel through space to meet--and blow my mind. Max Brahnson, the great chronicler of Czech beers, has generously given
me two days of his time in an intensive tutorial of the country's beer. Today, as we toured Břevnovský, a new
Brewery in an old Prague monastery (though not a project of the monastery), something remarkable happened. I was slowly ambling by the conditioning tanks when I came across one called "Pelican Ale." curious, I asked about it. By chance, a coupe had come in with empty bottles and were setting up a hand-fill line. Max explained that the tank was actually theirs--they were gypsy brewers using the new monastery brewery's excess capacity. Max relayed, off-handedly, that the Pelican was some beer they'd made with an American brewer. "Really!" I said. A few back-and-firths confirmed: the brewer was Darron Welch, from Oregon's own Pelican, who was in that very building two weeks ago. The beer was a hoppy pale made with Czech malt and Czech and American hops. (It was totally Oregonian--saturated late-addition hopping--and made me nostalgic.)
Earlier in the day, Max took me to Únětický Pivovar (pivovar means brewery and may be the only Czech ive been able to master). It's a new brewery established on the site of one from the 18th century. The beer is that wonderful unfiltered stuff which here flows hazy straight from conditioning tanks. You hold up a glass and it looks like Double Mountain's Vaporizer and smells maybe not a lot less hoppy. I told Max: "I wish I could take a keg of this back with me just to show Americans what Czech beer can be." the irony is that, despite Bohemia's immense contribution to the beer wod, we don't really understand Bohemian beer. Even more strange: based on what I've seen here in Prague, Czechs may actually have a better sense of our beer.
I've visited three Czech breweries now, and in each case, the emphasis has been on malt. Think Britain. Not only is barley grown locally, but it's floor-malted (the base malts, anyway), and those malts are a big part of the beer's character. Leave aside the lagering, and what distinguishes Czech beer? No, not those delicate, spicy hops: malt. In exactly the way British malts do.
The illustrious Pivní Philosof took me oto Ferdinand brewery (pivovar) today, and we got to see the traditional method of preparing malt. Once, Ferdinand made 200,000 hectos of beer and now they make 25--but still they make enough malt to supply Weyermann and others. But the malting/brewery is still seriously old school. Have a look.
(Sorry, my Bligger app again puts them out of order).
1. (a). Farmers deliver raw barley to the brewery.
2. (c). Malters turn the wetted barley so it doesn't rot.
3 (f). Primary fermentation in open vessels.
4 (b). Malters spread out the freshly-soaked barley.
Too tired to do anything but post some pics of my trip up the hill to see Prague Castle. I was actually looking for St. George's Basilica, but following my two axioms (1. always ascend, and 2. aim for the spires), I eventually found the St Vitus Cathedral--certainly better than the average consolation prize. No beer here, just touristy stuff.
So there are a few things you should know about Czech beer. It's not all golden. It's not all lager. They don't call their Moravian malt "pilsner" malt--it's just pale. And at the original Budweiser, from Budweis (which only later became Ceske Budejovice), they don't call their beer a pilsner. That appellation is reserved for the big brewery to the northwest. But more on styles in a while.
We'll get back to that in a moment, but let me step back and mention that I just spent the day at Budvar--and on the first snowy day of the year (!). It was sadly not warm inside because I visited not only on one of the only days of the year the brewery's not in motion, but on a day when the electricity was off for maintenance. So head brewer Adam Broz and communications chief Petr Samec (the man who graciously set up my visit) and I charged around the brewery with a flashlight for a most rare tour. You have to work pretty hard to find the brewery in this state, but I'm just lucky. (In Czech they don't celebrate Halloween, but walking around a silent, dark 1.3 million hectoliter brewery reminded me of the spooky season. It was especially atmospheric to roam the cellars in complete darkness zwickeling beer into an old-timey copper mug.)
Budvar is a big brewery, but it has done an impressive job of holding onto old traditions. The brewhouse is a typical four-vessel system (mash tun, mash cooker, lauter, kettle), and they do a double decoction. Interestingly, while most of the beautiful copper equipment is lined with stainless, a bit is not. Similarly, Budvar uses a grant during lauter--that's theregulator you see in some old systems where a bank of small spigots pour into an open trough before heading to the kettle. To adjust flow out of the lauter, brewers turn the spigots off or on. (Budvar's is computerized.)
This interested me because 1) copper can introduce chemical reactions leading to staling, and 2) any time wort is exposed to air, especially when it splashes, it can pick up staling oxygen. Of course, Budvar knows about this, and Broz has had the system tested--the copper content is too low and the grant not splashy enough to appreciably affect the beer. (Pilsner Urquell's system--just five years old--also uses a grant. Seems to be the Bohemian way.)
Budvar gets its water from a well 300 meters down and they use the water untreated. They use only Moravian malt and whole flower Saaz hops. Interestingly, they let primary fermentation go on for a day for every point of Plato--so 12 days for their standard beer. (That's twice as long as many other lager breweries.) They really lager the beer, two--three months for the regular beer and six (!) for their special strong beer (16 Plato, about 7%). They lager the beer in horizontal tanks rather than cylindroconicals because the pressure is less--and therefore better for the beer. I noticed that 5-month-old strong beer was still bubbling away with healthy yeast activity.
I got to zwickel all three of their beers, and that was a treat. I've long been a Budvar partisan, and especially a day after having the vaunted Pilsner Urquell from the wood, it was a revelatory experience. Budvar is considered less hoppy because, at 22 BUs, it's less bitter than Urquell. But it has tons of flavor and aroma and to me this makes it hoppier overall--if less bitter. From the tank, those qualities were accentuated and it was a wonderfully spicy beer. The "16" (as they call the strong) was also amazing. Alcohol pops more in slender lagers, and it was boozy--but also delicate from both the soft malt and peppery hops. The final beer, a tmave (dark) was surprising roasty and Broz agreed that it bore some resemblance to an Irish stout.
Okay, the style question. It seems Budvar eschews the "pilsner" name out of deference, but that's not all. Broz quickly described the ways in which the beers differed. To international tastes, this may be hair-splitting, but I think it reveals something deeper about Czech brewing. This is the land pilsners were born, the place, thanks to the water, malt, and hops, where their spirit resides. It's no wonder breweries notice the differences. The rest of the world is probably justified In collapsing them into one group--but we should also appreciate why the Czechs resist following suit.
When you're standing anywhere near the center of Pilsen (Plzeň), you can see the slender tips of two buildings. The first, St Bartholomew Cathedral, is smack-dab in the center square and was the first place I visited: closed except for a small vestibule. Today I tried again and it was still closed; instead, I went toward the other, rounder landmark. The old smokestack is still the tallest part of Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj), and you can navigate to it by site. By contrast, it was humming with constant large tours in Czech, German, and English. Make your own joke about the town's religion here.
One could say a lot about the modern, pasteurized beer made in that building, and a lot of it would be bittersweet. Indeed, even here at the source, the beer is fairly characterless. (That goes for the unfiltered pour we got from the wood in the cellar.) But as a place to visit, it was extraordinary. By miles the best public tour I've ever taken (I couldn't swing a private one.)
I would write some details, but I woke up with a scratchy throat this morning and it has developed into a head cold. My brain is mush, so I'll show you instead.
I'm sorry these aren't in order, my little blogger app scrambles them.
1. The new brewery
2. The magnetic bottle cap conveyor belt that lifts the crowns up a vertical climb.
3. Some of the barrels where the age unfiltered beer--a product they don't sell.
4. The old brewery buildings
5. The snazzy panoramic vid they show you
6. The sole piece of equipment from 1842--buried so it wouldn't be discovered in WWII.
7. The old brewery (which is right next to the new one).
8. There are nine kilometers of lager cellars below the brewery--some are lighted for the tour.
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.
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?
Germans really seem to be into 80s era American and British pop music. I hear it everywhere.
MUNICH. Germany has more intact regional brewing than any country I know, but Munich over-punches for its weight: dunkel and helles are de rigeur, oktoberfestbier the most famous, but weizens are in the ascendancy. Yesterday I visited Weihenstephan and Ayinger and for different reasons, the story was the same (I'm down to singular pronouns now--Sally flew home in the morning from an airport conveniently close to Weihenstephan.)
Weihenstephan is of course synonymous with banana and clove. The brewery is located on a hill and the university part of things is most dominant. That part of Weihenstephan includes food degrees and has continued to grow long past the parking needs, and I spent a half hour trawling the lots for a sliver of space. The campus is draped over a hill and the brewery is at the top: of course. Since it dates back nearly a millennium, brewers used cellars beneath the brewery to age their beer. A student of the school led our tour and it was the best by far I have ever heard given to the public--brewing arcana reduced to pithy, comprehensible descriptions. Every time I asked a question, the guide nodded and told me to wait--he was getting to that.
(There are two degrees available. The first is the brewmaster's, a three-year program. You can stay and get your brewing engineer degree--like a masters--in one more. By law, a brewery must employ a credentialed brewer, and Weihenstephan is the most famous of the several German schools. Whether the best is a matter I'll leave to others.)
Weihenstephan is a super-modern brewery and as you might expect, sort of the model for current practices. They do a double decoction mash, which is still common if not standard, and ferment all their beers in cylindriconicals. It is, in this way, a bit of a boring tour. (In other ways, like its university location and the fact that it's one of only three (I think) state-owned breweries, it is more so.)
What I found interesting was how quickly the brewery is growing even in the face of overall declining sales. We watched a brand-new video that mentioned 300,000 hectos of annual production; our guide said the earlier, 5-year-old video, quoted 230,000. And this is fueled by weizen--80% of production.
Weihenstephan is located just north of Munich in Freising; after my tour I zipped down to Aying, just a bit south of Munich. It's a very charming little town, and the old brewery is located just across the road from the iconic onion-domed church they put on their labels. It's a family-owned brewery and beginning about 20 years ago, the owners were deliberating about whether to call it a day or expand. They expanded, a few turns down the road, and built a brand-new brewery in 1999.
It's always interesting to see what a traditional brewery does during expansions. In Ayinger's case, they went the Adnam's route--super state-of-the-art and ecological. With one big exception: open fermenters for the weizen. (They scrapped decoction as well, calling it unnecessary, old-fashioned, expensive, and energy-intensive. Again, take any debate on that point in comments.)
The primary fermenters are encased in a glass cube to prevent--or forestall--microbiological mischief, but Ayinger thinks its an important part of building flavor, so this tradition they preserved. (Again, on the subject of open fermentation, debate among yourselves--I'll try to remain journalistically neutral here.)
Ayinger makes about a third as much as Weiheinstephan, but weizen's proportion has gone from the single digits to almost 30%. (Americans like me know the brewery for its legendary Celebrator Doppelbock.)
Fascinating stuff. Yesterday I mentioned how much I like the scarce-America helleses and dunkels. I wonder, will they one day be scarce in Munich?
Errata: I totally spaced taking iPhone photos at Weihenstephan--these are Ayinger.
MUNICH. Sally and I hit Munich yesterday afternoon and somehow found ourselves inside the cathedral. (No matter what town we visit, we seem to gravitate toward the spires.) Then to Augustiner for some food and beer.
Although Augustiner is a huge Munich institution, I've never had their beer. As always, I started with the dunkel, Sally the helles. We get so few of either in our parts that I never want to miss the opportunity. Generally speaking, these are beers marked by characteristic yeastiness. Not in the exotic sense, but as Sally said, "this is exactly what a brewery smells like." (Breweries, full of fermenting beer, are scented with raw yeast.) The helles (called Hell) is a bit mild on the hops side, but the yeast is sharp and tangy and the beer tasted a bit like kolsch. The dunkel is inspired. Frothy and creamy but light- bodied and very crisp, it has a richly nutty malt flavor but is far from heavy. My best dunkel thus far. The pils was rich and lightly hopped (with a pils, you want a bit of zip). After a liter, I'm usually ready to call the session quits, so we strolled around the city snacking on a digestif of roasted chestnuts.
I will say I'm getting tired of the cuisine (keeping in mind that I eat nearly every meal at a brauerei or pub). Intensely meaty dishes with very little in the way of green vegetables. I doubt anyone was supposed to live on these meals every day--my kingdom for a caesar salad.
I'm actually a day behind on blogging because of a wi-fi blunder. Weiheinstephan and Ayinger today, with reports tomorrow. Here's a couple from Augustiner.
FRANCONIA. Apparently lacking enough ecclesiastical immersion here in Bamberg (kidding--there are churches and cloisters galore) we decided to drive up to Kloster Kreuzberg. The monks there have beer, giving them te advantage over beer-free Bambergian clergy.
We also dropped into Brauerei Hartmann in Wurgau (I have a good friend with the same surname)--fantastic marzen and nice bock*, and stopped off for a nightcap at Spezial, which inexplicably closes at 2pm on Saturdays. A big day, and all I have the energy for are the following pictures.
*It's bock season here, so many breweries have hefty beers waiting for you--just what you want when you're drinking by the half-liter.
BAMBERG. We arrived in Bamberg yesterday, zipping immediately to Schlenkerla to meet with Matthias Trum. He's a youthful 37, but Trums have been running the brewery for five generations before him.
Probably a lot of people are familiar with Schlenkerla, the most well-known of the rauchbier producers. Trum brews on a "new" system (1930s) from barley he malts himself in a smoky beechwood kiln--from which comes the characteristic smoky flavor. The pub is an extraordinary 600-year-old place and the site of the original brewery. Now Trum brews at a location a few blocks away that sits atop a warren of old cellars; that's where the beer is lagered now.
As I have discovered time and again on this trip, freshness is key. Schlenkerla is great in the bottle, but I have never apprciated the nutty, plummy nuances of the malt until having a fresh-from-the-cask "seidla" half liter.
More Bamberg today, with stops at Spezial and Mahr's in the offing. (Next to Schlenkerla, incidentally, is Bamberg'a newest brewery, Ambräusianum, which has an excellent helles.)
KELHEIM. We made our way south last night and found ourselves in Kelheim this morning. Weizen aficionados may recognize that as the home of Schneider and Sohn, the fiercely independent family-owned brewery. I selected Schneider because I knew they continued to use open-fermentation and bottle conditioning.
All true. But Schneider also has a forward-looking brewer who is experimenting with techniques and ingredients that shocked me. We began our tour in the cellar where the brewery ages bottles of Aventinus for three years (by coincidence, Schneider is hosting a gathering of importers. From around the world). Then we did a tasting of some of the more recent additions to the line: a strong wheat made with Nelson Sauvin hops (and, remarkably, bittered with Cascade from Hallertau), a barrel-aged eisbock, and, most amazingly, a cuvée made with barrel-aged eisbock and Aventinus (weizen bock). That last beer rocked my world. It was aged in French Pinot and Merlot barrels, and one of them had brettanomyces. The resulting beer was amazing to behold: lots of dark berry, sherry, and a light drying from the brett. Sally exclaimed (audibly): "I didn't know you could brew beer like this in Germany."
You can, and Hans-Peter Drexler is. He's expanding the barrel-aging program, and the old cellars in which Schneider now ages the Aventinus is the brewery's old ice cellar. Five years ago he pioneered hoppy weisses with Garrett Oliver, and his interest in hops continues. (I gave him a Double Mountain Killer Green, and he was familiar with--and possibly interested in trying--fresh hop beers.) Of course, the traditional weizen (65% of the brewery's output) continues along, traditionally.
A very fine day indeed.
(Pics: open fermentation, the cellars, and "downtown" Kelheim at dusk.)
I had meant to comment more longingly about my time in Cologne, perhaps embroidering my narrative with the meaning of the amazing cathedral. Instead, running low on time and internet, this small observation.
The kolsches of Cologne are noted for their balance, but nowhere is this virtue so evident as when put next to a plate of food. The balance is actually tripartite: soft, lightly sweet malt and delicate (or sometimes, as with Gaffel, obvious), herbal hopping on the first two hands. On the third, a lively crispness that comes from the mineral water, dry finish, effervescence, and piquant yeast character. With vinaigrette, the malt comes forward sweetly. Bratwurst, heavy and spicy, relies on invigorating freshness while sweeter pork finds spice in the hops.
You could do worse for an all-purpose food-beer than Kolsch.
COLOGNE. Superficially, the idea that in Düsseldorf they drink alt and kolsch in Cologne seems like a reasonable one. (And never the twain shall meet. Turns out there's a HUGE--albeit good-natured--rivalry between the cities. In Düsseldorf, you don't mention kolsch; at Reissdorf Brauerei in Cologne they wouldn't mention Düsseldorf. Each city has its fiefdom, and the breweries guard the boarderlands like vigilant soldiers.) But if you think about it longer than three minutes, the concept is insane. We live in a market economy; new is exalted, variety demanded. Yet walk into one of the atmospheric pubs here, and you have a binary choice: yes or no. The drink is kolsch and your communication to the waiter only involves a welcoming or abjuring cock of the head.
This is remarkable. I visited Reissdorf today, and was staggered to consider that not only does the brewery sell nearly its entire production to people living within 50 kilometers of the brewery, but it has to--outside Cologne, people don't drink it. The beers actually vary noticeably brewery to brewery, but there's no local rivalries, no tub thumping for the "true" or "original" kolsch. You walk in, pay your euros 1.80, get your elegant little stange glass of kolsch, and the waiter keeps a tick-mark tally on your beer mat. Breweries make one beer, and customers drink one beer--but only here. How is it that no brewery has tried to sell imperial kolsch or Westphalian Dark Ale or ... anything? (Leave aside the politics of kolsch and the konvention for just a moment.) Anywhere else, and that would be a given.
Instead, there is a virtuous symbiosis. The little glasses come, the gently malty, crisp, and delicately spicy/floral hopping--absolutely ideal with bratwurst--continues to enliven the palate. The glasses hold only .2 liters (less than 7 ounces), and the beer less than 5% alcohol, so you never think one more is too dangerous. The trouble is ever leaving the pub.