Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Munich - Flying Visit

When I flew to central Europe back in October, I landed firstly in Frankfurt before heading on to Prague. For my flight back I had a choice, either fly from Hannover back to Frankfurt or to Munich and then on to Washington DC. The difference in price was negligible and the flight from Munich would actually get me back to Mrs V and my boys earlier than the Frankfurt flight....oh and Munich has its own brewpub, Airbräu, it seemed like a sign.

The day of my flights though Munich was fog bound and everything was delayed, so I got to spend an extra 45 minutes in Hannover airport. Because the boards at Munich said the flight to DC was on time I headed straight to the gate, through document check, into a barren wasteland where the "limited shopping and restaurant options" amounted to 3 vending machines with soda and snack foods. Bugger.

Eventually though came an announcement that there would be an announcement about how long the flight would be delayed and if people wanted to leave the secure area they could do so, on the understanding that returning would mean going through document check again. Very few people moved, but if Airbräu was close by then you bet your life I was going somewhere more comfortable and with something better than fizzy water to drink. Oh joy of joys, the restaurant was just a five minute walk and so I left the secure area with a decided spring in my step.


Other than a couple of ladies sitting at a table, the place was empty, perfect. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Fliegerquell helles, again relying on my dodgy German, which a few days of bumbling over like the perennial reserved Brit was actually improving again. The barman asked if I wanted a "kleines", "großes", or a "maß", yeah you know what I ordered...


Just what the doctor ordered, and as good a helles as I can remember having. Fresh, unfiltered, unpasteurised, groaning with bready malt flavour and a lemony tinge in the hops that made me think of Tettnang. I was a happy chap again, so the litre disappeared in about 6 mouthfuls, and the barman was shocked when he returned to find I had polished off the maß so quickly. Same again? I genuinely pondered it, but settled for a half litre of their 1918 märzen.


Again a perfectly good beer, but not up there in the same league as the helles, by this point the barman and I were talking about brewing and all that good stuff, and the prospect of a 9 hour flight didn't seem so terrible, I am not a fan of flying really. The märzen had more of a crusty bread thing going on that the helles did, a subtle honeyed sweetness that balanced nicely with the hops, it was just a bit flabby round the edges to warrant a second, so I did something I rarely do.


I ordered Kumulus, their hefeweizen, and it was as lovely an expression of hefeweizen as I have had in many a year, all those clove and banana aromas you expect from the style, but completely missing the bubble gum character that screams out bad fermentation control. As I say I rarely get a hefeweizen these days, admittedly it is not one of my favourite styles but done well, and presented properly as it was here, it can be a refreshing change of pace. There was just one more beer available that needed to be tried, the Jetstream Pilsner.


Sure the glass says Fliegerquell, but the liquid was the Jetstream, and again it was a solid, thoroughly to style, and thoroughly satisfying German pilsner, with all the wonderful hop bitterness and clean crackery lager bite that involves. German beer and me just seem to get along like a house on fire, and once again I thought to myself that it really is no surprise that the likes of Stone can't make a go of US style craft beer in Germany. When the native beers are so well made, so tasty, and are such perfect companions to the communion of the stammtisch why bother with the wacky stuff?

Having spent an hour sitting at the bar it was time to wander back to the secure area, where it had been announced that boarding was about to begin. And soon I was on a Lufthansa plane, speeding its way back across the Atlantic Ocean to Virginia, and I promised myself it will not be 11 years before I go to Germany again. Next time I hope I will have the family with me as places I love are just so much better with the people I love.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Hannover - Brauhaus Ernst August

I have probably mentioned this several times but I am a total Germanophile, much of which stems from having lived in ye Olde West Germany back before the Wall came down. My father was in the British Army and we were posted to the town of Celle a couple of times before my 10th birthday. I don't remember much of the first posting, I wasn't even a year old when we moved there, but the second time I was about 8 years old and so I have some recollections.

Another reason for my Germanophilia is that my great-great-great grandfather was German. Much beyond that fact we aren't 100% sure of, though there is a group of descendants from this guy who have claimed he was from Minden. My own great-uncle in his research had him coming from Hannover in Niedersachsen, just a few miles from Celle, and the birthplace of my little brother.

When I was in New Orleans for a conference last year it was mentioned that the next instance of the conference was to be in Hannover, and so I knew if possible I wanted to get there, and get there I did. As usual I did a bit of research into the breweries in the area, and discovered that Brauhaus Ernst August was just around the corner from my hotel, and so I knew where I would be going on the one night where I didn't have dinner plans with other attendees of the conference.


I actually went to "the Brauhaus", as the German conference hosts referred to it, a couple of times. The first time was after a dinner that included the most immense currywurst I have ever had, and then on the night before I was due to fly back to the US.

On both occasions they only had 2 beers on tap, Pilsener and Bernstein, a märzen. I have to admit that I was not particularly taken by the Bernstein, not that it was bad, it just didn't grab my attention, I found it just underwhelming, perhaps being a 12.5° beer with an ABV of 5.2% makes it too dry and lacking in body for my tastes. Using the old ABV times 2.5 to approximate the starting gravity, maybe the extra 0.5° to make it 13° would have made all the difference, especially as most märzens I have had have a fuller body.


Anyway, on my second trip I stuck to the Pilsener (their spelling), a 4.8%, 11.5°, pale lager hopped with Hallertauer Tradition and Smaragd. As I recall, again I wasn't taking notes, this was a solid, tasty German style pilsner, yes drier than you would get in the Czech Republic, but pretty close to something like Rothaus Pils or König Pils. With Tradition and Smaragd in the mix there was a lovely grassy and spicy hop character to the beer that offset the crackery malt nicely, making it a dangerously easy beer to just knock back several of, so I did.


Having polished off my currywurst dinner, I think I ate currywurst about 4 times in a week while I was in Germany, I decided to treat myself to a digestif and ordered a shot of Johann's Wilde Kräuter, which is made with 45 wild herbs and accompanied another glass of the Pilsener just about perfectly.

It might seem that a bar with just a couple of beers would be disappointing, but I actually loved my time at Brauhaus Ernst August for that very reason, when the beer is good, fresh, and clearly well made then I am happy to just sit, enjoy the beer and the atmosphere.


Talking about the atmosphere, for a Wednesday night the place was pretty busy, not entirely full but with enough people to generate a buzz of people out enjoying company with good beer, and really want else do you want from a brewpub. When I next get back to Hannover, hopefully not in 35 years, I look forward to going to Brauhaus Ernst August again.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Bamberg - Spezial, Swaying, and Stumbling

When I learnt that I was going to central Europe for a couple of conferences with a weekend between them, I knew I wanted to take the opportunity to visit somewhere new.

One of my great regrets from my decade in Prague was that I had never taken advantage of its proximity to Germany to take weekends drinking legendary beer. When there is so much great beer at home why bother?

My options were legion. I could go to Zoigl country, Munich, Regensburg, or Berlin and get my fill of great beer. Then there was Bamberg...

I well remember my first ever beer from Bamberg, and by extension my first ever rauchbier. It was the märzen from Schlenkerla. On one of my many forays into Pivovarský klub, then barman Ambroz told me that they had purloined 50 bottles of smoke beer from Germany, suitably intrigued I had one, and then another, and another. Of the 50 bottles it is entirely possible that my friends and I demolished about 40 of them, it became something of a go to beer for the few weeks it was available. Thus my love affair with rauchbier was born. And so with 24 hours to spare between leaving Prague and needing to be in Hannover, I went to Bamberg.

I say I had 24 hours to spare, in reality after travelling to Bamberg via Nuremburg I actually had only about 18, and given my train to Hannover was leaving at 11am the next morning, I really only had 6 or so for drinking. 6 hours in a city with probably more renowned breweries than any other in Germany? This time the decision was go broad and shallow or go narrow and deep? I went for the latter option and picked the two breweries I wanted to visit more than any of the others, Schlenkerla, naturally, and Brauerei Spezial, mainly at the recommendation of Evan.

First though I took a wander around the centre of the city, discovered that Hegel had lived for a year in Bamberg, and it was on these wanders that I noticed brass plaques embedded in the pavements. Finding Schlenkerla was pretty easy, yay Google Maps, and there were crowds of folks outside downing their beers. Now, this may come as something of a surprise, but I am a raging introvert, and painfully shy, particularly when it comes to going into pubs, cafes, and restaurants that I have never been into before and I am by myself. I walked past the front door two or three times before actually entering the building. Thankfully there was an empty table in the Dominikerklause and so I parked my self conscious arse down and revelled in the vaulted ceiling of this most beautiful of rooms dedicated to beer drinking.

A menu came and I soon realised that while my reading comprehension of German is still pretty good, my listening and speaking skills have gone somewhat awry, but stammer on I did - pet hate is people that assume everyone speaks English and doesn't at least even try the basics of "ein märzen bitte", at this point I was actively worrying about what I would have for dinner. Anyway, the märzen.


Now, I drink this beer in bottles regularly, as in at least a couple of litres a month regularly, but on tap at the brewery it shattered my every preconception of rauchbier. The only way I can think to describe it is fuller, deeper, rounder, perhaps there is less carbonation, less prickliness to highlight the smoke? Whatever was going on, that first half litre of Schlenkerla märzen in the brewery itself was almost a religious experience, communion with a beech smoked, dark, divine, and it wasn't cold, being just slightly cooler than a well kept real ale in the UK. It was over far too quickly, thankfully being in the brewery itself, I had another, though I drank the second somewhat more circumspectly, savouring the nuances and interplay of the malt and hops, yes there were actually hop things happening that were noticeable, but guess what, no notes.


Also on tap that day was the Ur-bock, only available on draft in autumn, and absolutely necessary drinking. Everything I just said about the märzen applies here as well. I drink Ur-bock pretty often, though not as often as the märzen, but on tap it was a much fuller experience. At only €3.50ish a half litre I could have happily sat here all afternoon and evening getting merrily preserved by the smoke to then crawl back to my hotel, but Evan's praise of Spezial Brauerei had been effusive, so I took myself off for another decent length, head clearing, walk.

As I walked I came back to the main street leading to and from the railway station. This time there were riot police walking down the street, and again I spied the brass plaques, but it was the police that had my attention. A protest was in full swing, the local Kurdish community was out in force protesting the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. I stood and watched the procession wend its way to the river and looked down at my feet, I was almost right on top of a clutch of brass plaques, so I took a moment to read, and then photographed them.


They were Stolpersteine, "stumbling blocks", memorials to victims of the Holocaust, placed, as I would later learn, at the last known willing address of the people they memorialise. In this case the memorial was to the Walter family, who were deported the nearly 1600 miles to Riga in Latvia, to be murdered for the crime of not being Aryan. Having never heard of the Stolpersteine project before, I was taken aback by the stark, even callous, beauty of these memorials. If I'd have had a stone handy I would have laid it on the Stolpersteine as my own personal mitzvah to victims of fascism. Never again, for in forgetting we deny.

Sobered, emotionally if not necessarily physically, I wandered with my thoughts to the Brauerei Spezial, again taking a few reccies of the space before walking in, found myself a seat at an empty table, in the corner of a side room, and made myself comfortable. On my stroll I had identified the place I would be going to have my dinner, but there was beer to drink first, and first up was their ungespundetes lager as recommended by Evan. Ungespundetes is basically an unfiltered beer that is served from a wooden barrel by gravity, sound a lot like some kinds of real ale really.


One thing that I had definitely not been expecting in Bamberg was for Schlenkerla to be usurped as my preferred Bamberg brewery, but here I was revelling in the ungespendetes lager and feeling distinctly conflicted about my loyalties. So I ordered the regular lagerbier.


Yeah done deal, I was very much in the Spezial camp my the end of my first half litre of this sublime beer, and still not taking notes, but every mouthful was relished, especially as the clean lager bite that I love so much was in full attendance. At this point I was wondering if I could persuade Mrs V that we needed to move to Germany and make Spezial our new local. Following the lagerbier with their märzen I thought I was about to break into song at the glories of the beer I was drinking, thank goodness for my innate British reserve that had me merely smiling broadly in my corner, as I engaged in a little people watching to pass the time.


The couple in that picture below sat for about an hour, hardly speaking yet perfectly content in each other's company, a state where noise would ruin the perfection. I hope one day to sit like this with Mrs V in whenever our local pub at the time is, happy in the security of being with my best friend, confidant, and completer of my world.


I had another morning train, and so again I didn't want to get myself blootered on superb beer. I paid my bill, and allowed my legs to carry me to a snackbar where the promise of a doppel currywurst awaited, just what the doctor ordered.


I loved my time in Bamberg and hope one day to go back with Mrs V and the boys to enjoy more of the many delights the city has to offer.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Prague - The New

There are few people in the world I enjoy a pint or two with than Evan Rail.

When he came into Pivovarský klub on my first day back in Prague it was such an unexpected pleasure that it literally made my day, even though it was a fleeting moment that didn't involve us having a beer together, but we agreed to meet later in the week.

In those brief moments Evan mentioned his local pub had some of the best beer in the Czech Republic and we agreed that we would meet there. "There" was a place called Hostomická nalévárna, a hole in the wall taphouse with beer from Pivovar Hostomice, one of the many breweries to have sprung up in the decade since Mrs V and I left the Czech Republic.

Having spent the morning wandering around the Old Town, taking photos, and buying Krtek souvenirs for the twins (they love Krtek so much it does my heart good), I arrived at the pub about 10 minutes early, so naturally got a half litre of Fabián 10°.


Oh my goodness, what nectar is this? Prior to polishing off my first half litre in literally four mouthfuls I would have sworn that Albrecht 10° was my favourite Czech pale lager but this blew it out of the water. The interplay of malt and hop was delightful, neither truly dominating but both clearly evident and expressing themselves fully. Ok, so where I had thought to have a half litre while waiting for Evan, I may have had a couple, I was enthralled, it was like that first taste of Kout na Šumavě 10° way back when.

The pub itself was a throwback as well, it is a proper urban Czech boozer. I could probably, if I were vaguely handy at these sorts of things, recreate it in one half of my garage. The bar is right next to the door, the space around the bar clearly set up for standing around drinking beer. There is a space further back which has four tables, all of which had reservation notices on them, letting us know that we could sit there until 7pm, well past our window of time to hang out, drink, and discuss the state of craft beer.


With a few desítky polished off, I decided to try the 14° tmavé and it was just as lovely. Being thoroughly biased it reminded me a lot of the Morana that I designed and brew occasionally with Devils Backbone. Again notes were not being taken, come on people, who takes beer notes when you are shooting the shit with a friend you haven't seen in years? Then I did something technically illegal under Czech beer law...I asked for a řezané pivo, or black and tan.


According to Czech law, at least if I understand it correctly and I am sure folks will correct me if I am wrong, a řezané must be poured with beers of the same gravity, and there was no 14° pale lager with which to mix with the dark, so we used the 12°. It was delish. Yeah I was getting merry, and that was before the 15° březnový, that's märzen to you, turned up, another magnificent brew. I am not going to go into the details of Evan and I's conversation, which wandered down many a beery lane with a common theme about how US craft breweries simply get "Bohemian pilsner" wrong, and after a few days having my palate reset by the real thing I still haven't had a Czech style lager since I got back, I am afraid of the disappointment.

Eventually Evan needed to head home, and so I picked his brain about where to find beer by the one Czech brewery I had probably heard more about than any other...Únětický pivovar.


Cafe Frida was just round the corner from my hotel. I eschewed the tram for a head clearing half hour walk to discover the place was practically empty, so I took a seat at the bar and ordered a desítka, yep another lovely beer. Perhaps my tastebuds were just plain busted at this point, but while it was clearly a lovely beer, and one I would happily drink all day long, it didn't match up to the Hostomická desítka, though it was more my thing than Albrecht 10°. The 12° was likewise excellent, a superb demonstration of why I think Czechs make the best lagers on the planet bar none, sorry you innovative craft folks, you don't compare to the level of craftmanship on show in the Czech Republic lager world.

Gently pickled and with a bus to Germany to catch in the morning I headed back to Florenc and my shoebox sized hotel room...

Monday, November 4, 2019

Prague - The Old

So much seems to have happened in Prague's brewing scene in the ten years since I left that I had a dilemma given my limited time in the city recently, whether to visit my old haunts or try some of the new places I had heard so much about?

Some decisions, like going to Pivovarský klub, were so ridiculously simple as to be barely worth thinking about. Almost as easy a decision was revisiting U Slovanské lipy, at one time my second choice to PK as my favourite place in the city to drink, back when they were basically the only place in Prague that sold Kout na Šumavě's range of magnificent lagers.

U Slovanské lipy is no longer the dingy boozer it once was, though it does maintain the feel of a proper Czech pub rather than some craft beer emporium. It has a rotating selection of beers, has been renovated in a more Art Deco style, and is now part of a group of businesses including Černokostelecký pivovár.

In an effort to see as many folks as possible while I was in the city, I arranged a get together at U Slovanské lipy, and naturally got there a little early to check things out for myself, and perhaps revel in a little nostalgia...


In many ways despite the renovation and changes, it was still the U Slovanské lipy I had loved in the noughties, no airs and graces, no pointless fripperies, and the majority of patrons were locals rather than tourists, perfect. The big thing that had changed though was the prices. Where I had been used to paying only 20kč for a half litre of Kout's magisterial 10° pale lager, the nearest equivalent available, Albrecht 10° from Zámecký pivovar Frýdlant, was about double that. Yeah, it was odd having sticker shock in a Czech pub, but a quick conversion in my brain telling me the beer was $2 a pop for superb lager soon put that into context.


Albrecht 10° has an ABV of 4% and is simply a dream of a beer. I didn't take any notes as that really wasn't the point of the evening, but I think I drank at least 8 or 9 half litres of the stuff, it was lovely, in many ways the perfect session beer. Admittedly I initially chose the beer not for it's sessionability but for the name, Albrecht being one of the many nicknames I give my younger son, Albert.

As I sat waiting for my friends, I delighted in some people watching and was reminded of one of the things I love about beer culture in Central Europe, it's inclusiveness. Beer, and going to the pub, is simply intrinsic to life, and so there was a group of women at one table, all drinking Albrecht, and having a grand old time, because that is what Czechs do, drink beer.

We had a great night, and after U Slovanské lipy my friend, and amazing barmaid, Klara took me to another couple of places on the other side of the tunnel, in Karlín, and we finished up drinking some kind almond spirit thing. Contented I wandered back to my hotel, glad for not having to bother with a car and the attendant considerations that brings, and looking forward to some new things in that most wonderful city.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Oktoberfest Crown Challengers - Saranac and Victory

Back before I went to Central Europe for ten days I was wrapping up my Oktoberfest lager challenge. As things stood, the reigning champion was Jospehsbrau Oktoberfest from Trader Joe's, contract brewed by Gordon Biersch. I had two remaining beers in the fridge to pit against our champion, and so the other night having put the twins to bed, I cracked them open, with a bottle of Josephsbrau to compare alongside.


I started off with Saranac's 1888 Oktoberfest, a brewery that for some reason very rarely seems to make it into my fridge. Anyway, on to the Cyclops notes...
  • Sight - crystal clear copper, thin loose head, off white, dissipates very quickly
  • Smell - crackers, very light toffee, very little of anything really
  • Taste - lightly toasty, some grassy hops, some toffee sweetness
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Other than looking the part, this beer was a distinct let down. Everything seemed so restrained as to be almost bland and barely worth the effort of finishing the 12oz bottle. It wasn't that it was a technically bad beer, there was little to pick at from a quality control standpoint, it was just plain boring.

Josephsbrau retains its crown...

On then to Victory Brewing and their Festbier.

  • Sight - dark copper, beautifully clear, very little head initially but swirling the glass revives it
  • Smell - sweet toasted grains, caramel, bready, syrup, light lemon note
  • Taste - quite syrupy, sweetness dominates to the exclusion of all else
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Far too sweet for my tastes, really seems to lack the clean crisp bite of a well lagered beer. I had high hopes for this given Victory's lovely Prima Pils, but those hopes were dashed by the overwhelming sweetness of the beer.

Again Josephsbrau sees off the contender, mainly due to its superior balance and drinkability.


Given that Oktoberfest lagers have basically disappeared from the shops, the 2019 Fuggled Oktoberfest of the Year is Josephsbrau Oktoberfest, a victory for contract brewing and traditional German brewing practices!!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Prague - Back to the Beginning

Some dates are seared into memory. For me one such date is October 14th 2005.

It was a Friday and I was meeting up with some friends to go drinking, as one did of a Friday evening as a late 20 something single bloke living in Prague. The pub we were going to was Pivovarský klub, which had only just opened in the district of Karlín. Back then Karlín was one of the less salubrious neighbourhoods in the city and was still recovering from the the 2002 flood that decimated the area. Not only would this night be the night I found my local for the next four years of my life in the city, it was the night I met Mrs V, and we've been together every since.

Another date seared into memory is October 16th 2017, the day Mrs V and I welcomed our twin sons into the world, and now on their second birthday I was landing in Prague on my way to speak at a conference. With their birthday being on a week day this year, we had already had their party, but still I felt bad about not being at home on the day itself.

Having discovered that my Czech was not as atrocious as I had worried, successfully purchasing a short term pass for the city's magnificent public transport system, and carrying on a decent length conversation with the hotel receptionist, I needed a beer. My hotel was just two doors down from my old local, some might say I planned it that way, some might known me well, and so with a flutter of excitement I wandered a few hundred feet and back more than 10 years...

Walking through the door it felt as though literally nothing had changed. The signs on the walls were the same, the tables and chairs exactly where we left then in the Noughties, had I not known that Klara now works for a another pub, I would have not been surprised to see her behind the bar. So I took my seat.


My seat. On the left hand corner of the bar, first chair on the side. This seat allows you to watch the bar and the wider room at the same time, it is a seat for people watching, it is the seat that I always chose if it was available, and as I was often in before the crowds it usually was. I also had a regular seat in the basement bar, but it was sunny out so I wanted to sit in the light of the upstairs bar.

One thing that had changed was the absence of Štěpán, Pivovarský klub's světlý ležák that was a reliable go to beer for many nights out when I didn't fancy anything new or different. In it's place was Břevnovský Benedict, a 12.5° pale lager from Břevnovský Klášterní Pivovar, and from what I understand basically the only near permanent tap at PK. It just seemed right that my first beer back in Prague was a pale lager in Pivovarský klub.


What a delightful beer, brimming with everything you expect from a Czech lager, a lovely subtle sweet graininess, a firm bitterness that while evident isn't harsh, light lime citrus notes from the hops, along with just a trace of white pepper, and that hay and floral aroma that always makes me think of freshly mown meadows in the mountains. Served at the right temperature, around 8°C/46°F, it was conditioned without being fizzy, the fuller body so classic of lower attenuated Czech lagers smoothing out the drinking...god this was good.

I had made a conscious decision that I would stick to local beer styles while in Prague rather than chasing after IPA, whether hazy or otherwise, when in Rome and all that jazz - plus I love Czech lager styles and they are so painfully rare here in Virginia. With that in mind, next up was the 14° Tmavý speciál from Pivovar Falkenštejn.


Tmavé is one of those beer styles that almost defy definition as even in the Czech Republic vastly different beers bear the moniker "tmavé" and couldn't be more different. As you can see from the picture, this one was very much on the inky blackness end of the colour spectrum. In terms of drinking, it was deliciously complex, layers of caramel, chocolate, and espresso swirling around in the glass, both as flavours and aromas. When I was about half way through the glass, the door opened and in walked Evan Rail.

Evan and I enjoyed many a session when Prague was definitively home for Mrs V and I, he was not expecting to see me, and I was thrilled to see him, even if only for a few moments as he was guiding a photographer around for a story on Karlín. We made arrangements to meet later in the week to catch up properly.

Sat at my usual corner of the bar, and Evan's too as it turned out, everything felt instinctively as it should do. I was in the city I will always regard as home, in the pub which for years was basically my living room, drinking beer styles I never tire of. All that was missing was Mrs V and the boys, but one day we'll all go to Prague as a family.

Munich - Flying Visit

When I flew to central Europe back in October, I landed firstly in Frankfurt before heading on to Prague. For my flight back I had a choice,...