Friday, September 5, 2008

The Session #19 -- Deutsches Beer

It's The Session, beer blogging on a common topic, and this month it's "German beer." See all the links soon here at lootcorp 3.0.

German beer. Deutsches Bier.

As I'm writing this, I'm trying a German beer that's new to me, courtesy of Horst Dornbusch's new importing effort: Meckatzer Gold, from the Meckatzer Löwenbräu brewery in Heimenkirch. Appropriate (and tasty, too: good malty body, dry bitterness), because there are more damned beers and breweries in Germany than you can shake a stick at.

I've learned that, in the course of five visits to Germany -- more than I've made to any other country than Canada -- and I've also learned that I love the German beer culture, German drinking culture more than any other I've experienced. Mind you, that's limited experience, and Belgium's close, but it beats the U.S. hands down, and even edges out the Czech Republic.

Why? Well, in the U.S., we often get too hung up on the drunk part of things. That's sad, and disturbing. Worse, too often the bars are dark, dingy, and infested with loud music that makes conversation impossible. In the Czech Republic, it's almost like they don't even notice the beer, it's more like breathing: natural, and easy, but...not much joy. Portugal, which may well surprise you with how much beer culture it manages to have, actually came closest to the German ideal (because of German tourists?), but the beer just wasn't good enough. In Scotland, it was quite reserved -- or madly Dionysian, which says a lot about you Scots, I'm thinking. Belgian beer culture is fun, and respectful of the beer, but...almost a little too respectful, over-the-top, too focused.

I think the Germans get beer culture right; at least, for me. Germans like people around when they drink. They like beers they can drink for long sessions, but not so low-alcohol that you don't get that "social lubrication" factor going. They like solid food with their beer; nothing fancy, nothing cheap, belly-mortar to assist in that all-important buzz maintenance. The Germans have a huge state fair-like festival that centers, unashamedly, on beer, a festival that has been going on for almost 200 years and is emulated -- but never matched -- around the world. They sit, and they dance, and they talk, and they sing...and they drink beer. They all drink beer, the family, the grandparents, and they go out in the beerhalls till late in the evening, and they drink, and talk, and play cards...and I miss it when I think about it.

Like my friend and colleague Steve Beaumont said earlier today in his contribution to The Session, I almost believe that this culture, the where and the what and the how and the who of German beer drinking, is more a part of it than the actual beer, or at least as great. I remember a discussion -- not to say 'argument' -- that went on some years ago in several beer-lover arenas about whether it was possible to know a beer without having enjoyed it where it was born, in situ.

At the time, I thought the very idea was bullshit. And I said so: this is just one more way for the beer elite, the malterati, to separate themselves from the common herd. Now that we had discovered the same beers they had, now that importers were bringing us rare beers, now that craft brewers were making beers we could taste and not them (because no one can be everywhere)...they had to come up with some new divider, some new badge of belonging. Bullshit, I said, and drank stale bottles of German lagers in loud, dark, tiny bars.

Then I went to Germany, to Bavaria and Franconia, and my eyes were opened. It was not the "Red Stripe" effect, in which everything is wonderful because you're not at home; to be honest, not everything was wonderful...except when I walked into a beerhall. When you sat down across a trestle table -- solid, wooden, old, clean enough to eat from -- from a German, he or she would lift their glass and drink with you, and once they realized that you were not German, all they wanted to do was help you enjoy your stay. I met very few exceptions to this; three in five visits, one of whom disapproved of me because she was a tee-totaler -- unglaublich!

Is it the beer? Or the Germans? To tell the truth, I don't know, because I've had very little discourse with Germans outside of brewery and beerhall; it's where I go, it's why I'm there. What I do know is that whatever it is, I like it.

I'd like to visit the Scandinavian countries and see what beer culture is like there. I urgently want to visit more eastern European countries and drink there: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Baltics. I need to visit England. But I know that I'll be back in Germany before long, because, well, because I need to breathe that air, enjoy the people, and drink the beer.

33 comments:

brad said...

"The Red Stripe Effect" -- very apt phrasing. I've been to Jamaica and by god, the beer is delicious!

Andy Crouch said...

Very well said and true to its core...

DLove said...

Wow, nice description of what I've always imagined the 'German beer drinking experience' to be. Definitely putting this on my list of places to go. Keep up the great writing LEw.

-DAryl

Steven said...

"When you sat down across a trestle table -- solid, wooden, old, clean enough to eat from -- from a German, he or she would lift their glass and drink with you, and once they realized that you were not German, all they wanted to do was help you enjoy your stay."

Zum wohl!

JP said...

Agree with all but your ranking. I lived in Germany and the Czech Republic for about 4 years each (Prague and Frankfurt) would have to say an average Ceska Hospodarka has a LOT more gemuedlikeit than any your typical Deutsche Lokale hands down. Beer is competitive in both however

Lew Bryson said...

JP,
The immediate -- snotty -- answer from most Bavarians (and Bavarophiles) would be that you were living in Frankfurt: what would you expect? But I've had some nice times in Frankfurt, so that's not it. Obviously -- and I love it when this is the case -- more research is needed! (I swear, that should be my motto.)

JP said...

Well I guess the repsonse from somebody who actually lived and worked in Germany, speaks German and was not just visitng as tourist would be that I have been all over Franconia and Bayern and would generally say they are as uptight as the Hessens with the exception of Bamberg (but that is a uni town so it is not a fair comparison). Secondly Koeln's lokales have a much better atmosphere than either region And Third do not under estimate Hesse's "ebblewoi" culture. But on the whoele, southern Bohemian pub culture is the standard by which I conmpare all beer sessions just my opinion

Lew Bryson said...

It's all just opinion, JP: that's what makes it interesting. Yours is probably worth more than mine, given the time spent. I would like to dive into ebblewoi, too: people make it sound like fun.

Right now, if Cathy said "Let's go to Europe next month: do you want to go to Germany or the Republic?"... I'd have a hard time making a choice. Can we agree on that?

JP said...

Oh no doubt Lew. Pose a question back to you. Please List the pubs/establishments in the states that best replicate that atmosphere. Does not mean the ones with the best beer necessarily just the kind of place that brings you that kind of joy here in the states

Lew Bryson said...

JP,

That's a good one. So good, I think I'll make a post out of it, since I missed my first Saturday Top Ten list over the weekend. That's what I'll do. Thanks!

JP said...

One last thing before I get back to work true story: back in 2000 a buddy of mine from Central Pa came to visit me in Frankfurt and being a good friend he brought some beer from back home. Well we got an idea on doing some blind taste tests between PA offerings and locale german brews so I went down to the local Trinkhalle and picked a couple bottles ( i do not recall excatly but I imagine it was Henniger Kaiser Pils, Binding Romer Pils, Pfungstadter, Schmucker Pils, Eichbaum,) pretty much all regional Hesse beers and had them set me up up some blind tasters. The ultimate first place winner of the evning (by my pallet) was a German beer no doubt, but not one that you would expect. The Lion's Liebotschaner Cream Ale came out on top! From then on to its recent demise Liebotschaner was known to us as the "Cream Ale tha beats the German Imports"

Lew Bryson said...

You're killing me, JP! I don't know what pisses me off more: The Lion terminating Liebotschaner, or Pennsylvanians not drinking enough of it to keep it alive.

Sigh.

Lee Botschaner said...

I confirm JP's story. I had the pleasure of administering to him that blind taste test. He was genuinely bowled over by the "love of beauty." It was quite a victory for Wilkes-Barre that day. We also had Old German (Pittsburgh, not Yuengling) and lets just say that did not fare as well as even the St. Louis Rams did.

Maybe if we all petition the Lion they will bring it back, even as a special release. 3 Gold medals at GABF I do believe. Still savoring the last of my Liebs.

OH I think it was "the PA cream ale that beats the german imports on it's home territory!" Go Lion!

Steven said...

"would generally say they are as uptight as the Hessens."

Man -- are you sure that was Bavaria, Germany? Because I think I may have run into 2 "uptight" people in Bavaria (Würzburg am Main -- if that's truly Bayern) out of the 100 or so I met and enjoyed (beer) time with.

And I have two old friends from Frankfurt who are far from uptight and love their beer culture.

JP said...

Really really last post for the day, but somebody told me that there was a tavern in Historic Williamsburg Va that used to get the lion to rack Liebotschaner for tavern use becuase they liked it so much can anybody confirm or deny this?

JP said...

Sheesh, so much for work.
I love Germany, have many spent years there working and living have spent years learning the language and culture.I have also spent years in the Czech and Sovak republics working and learning the culture and language as well. I do not want to overdo cultural generalizations as they can be BS but on the whole, I would say Germans tend to be more tightly wrapped than any other nation in Europe. No doubt Hessians love their beer and apple wine culture its amazing. But in my experience I would rank the sessions I had in CR and SR as much more enjoyable. Now, I lived in the CR from when I was 21-25 yrs old and lived in Germany form when I was 30 until 35 working in a much more stressful job, so that might account for it. But that is what I think.

Lee Botschaner said...

JP-- ACH DU LIBER!

http://www.colonialwilliamsburg.com/visit/diningExperience/chownings/images/Gambols_Light_Fare.pdf

Lee Botschaner said...

JP-- ACH DU LIBER!


http://www.colonialwilliamsburg.com/visit/diningExperience/chownings/images/Gambols_Light_Fare.pdf

Kelly said...

Man I could go on for hours with this subject. As always I agree with Herr Bryson, we must have the same hymnal. Some additional thoughts.

I hold the pub culture of Britain, and to a much lesser degree Ireland (the beer for the most part just isn't there yer), up to the bierhall/biergarten culture of Germany, specifically Bayern, as my ideal for a place to imbibe at. While they are markedly different in physical appearance, native culture, beverage on offer, and some other factors, there is a spiritual sameness of mission between the two. A good, emphasis on good, Public House and Kneipe/Lokal serve a social and community function that goes well beyond slinging beverage for cash. In the best mighty beverage is served as a cornerstone of purpose that doesn't require much thought, much as the solid foundation, walls, and roof of a house don't often need to be commented on.

I will note that I often thought after visiting places like Andechser am Dom or the Bow Bar that Europe, specifically Britain, Germany, and Belgium, just had us beat hands down, but in each of the great beer countries they have crap bars too. I think our particular avocation leads most of us to do a bit of research before going out and about so we tend to seek out and find the places that are a cut above and would have one wax philosophic on tavern life.

While I often tend to look over the Pond and pine for a saloon culture we don't have, there are some things that recommend some, few though they may be, good old fashioned (in some case good new fashioned) American bars. A certain worn in homeyness, lack of pretense, and simple comfort. Chaninifcation, stripmallism, economic, and (un)civil planning all make these venues hard to come by.

BTW is not the very concept of Stamtisch excellent beyond reckoning?

K.

sam k said...

Around 1991 my wife and I made it to Williamsburg and had lunch in one of the historic taverns there (don't remember which one, though). I was thrilled to have a draught Liebotschaner in a giant period pottery mug. It was so good I had two, and bought an identical mug as a souvenir. The Lion confirmed years later that they racked Lieb specifically for that establishment, and claimed that it was the number one seller there.

Also, there were actually TWO Liebotschaners made by the Lion. The product in the 16 oz. returnable was a completely different product from the more expensive version sold only in 12 oz. NRs, which was the beer that won the GABF awards. Not sure what the difference was, though.

Lew Bryson said...

Two Liebotschaners? Actually...that makes sense. Well, in past reference. I don't know how it makes sense in a brewing/marketing way.

Anonymous said...

Lew and Kelly, You guys are my heroes. I'd rank England and Germany about the same though they are different. The pleasure that I experience at merely landing in the airport when I visit each country is intense with anticipation. I've enjoyed brews in most of the countries mentioned but will always lust for fresh beer in either Germany or the U.K. Stateside, I'm certain PA has many more gemutli establishments then in my own neck of the woods but still I'll grab the chance to go to the beer Mecca's that are Britain and Germany as often as possible. Though I do make my excursions to PA fairly often for beer. Right now I’ve such a hankering for fest brews or rauchs that I can hardly stand it. Fall is the absolute best time of year to drink beer and Bavaria or Franconia beckon like sirens. That first chill of autumn is Pavlovian. Man! Am I getting thirsty.

Chuck Triplett

Lew Bryson said...

Stand back, folks, let's give Chuck some air.

You know, it's funny you mention the airport thing. I'm headed to Kentucky for the Bourbon Festival next week, and that's exactly the feeling I get landing at Louisville. It's Bourbon Country, and from the time I see the Woodford Reserve bar in the airport till when I finally roll into Bardstown and smell the roasty-corn smell of the dryhouse at Beam, and the rich red-likker smell rolling off the warehouses at Heaven Hill...man, I am just in Heaven. Landing at Munich, rolling into Köln Hauptbahnhof, or walking up to the door at Spezial -- anticipation is part of the prize.

But you know, there's also something to be said for that fifth or sixth day in-country when you lazily saunter down the strasse and think to yourself, do I want Uerige, or Schlüssel? Do I want the calm crowds at the Augustinerkeller, or do I just want to dive into the Hofbräuhaus? Calm is good, too.

Dammit, I'm looking at the calendar tonight.

---Guy said...

Sam & Lew:

I can state with 100% certainty that at least when I worked at the Lion, there was only one Lieb.

Not sure what/if anything happened after I left, but I'd be surprised if they changed it.

---Guy

---Guy said...

...and yes, we filled kegs for Williamsburg. They had their own special kegs that they could tap in series.

They sold a lot of it.

Kelly said...

I forgot to note that Lew is a bastard. Harsh? Maybe, but what else can I say about someone that would post a picture of the holy beers of Andechs, in the middle of the work week no less, when there is no way for us wage slaves to acquire said nectar. Ok, there's the flight to Munich but some of us are a bit skint at the moment. Lew you will pay for your sins. I guess it's your round then?

K.

sam k said...

I was just relating what I was told by my connection at the Lion a number of years ago. I always thought that it was a weird possibility, but certainly bought the bill of goods!

Anonymous said...

Guy, Can you explain what you mean by their own special kegs and tapping in series?

Makes no sense to have 2 different liebs. Sounds like a wives tale to me. I always liked the 16oz because they were a better bargain. What a great beer, hope they bring that back.

Professor Bartels said...

Hey Sam, just to fill you in, bock isn't made from the stuff they scrape off the walls of the vats once a year, either.

Lew Bryson said...

Ouch, Prof! Gotta admit, though, Sam, you had that one coming...

Kelly, thank you. I take that in the spirit of the obligatory "You suck" we used to respond to posts of glorious beer experiences back in the USENET newsgroup days. Of course, it would be better if I myself had any hope of getting me some Andechs sometime soon, but...ain't happening. Dammit.

Steven said...

"...bock isn't made from the stuff they scrape off the walls of the vats once a year, either."

It's not? When did they stop that practice? I've been hearing that for years... did they come up with some sort of extract replacement for the grungy stuff at the bottom of the barrel?

;-)

JP said...

Yeah Andechs is pretty good stuff. Back in Bankfurt during the Schweizer Strassenfest the Andechs people set up their booth next to my aprtment building three years in a row. I had never heard of it before coming to germany , but man I grew to like it. The girls running the booth used to fill up my apple wine bembel #4 with Spezial Hell and I would basically loaf the whole weekend working down that pitcher eating pickled herring filets. Ah good times good times. But beer does not have to be stellar like a kloster brau to make it a great time. One of my fondest memories of four years in Germany is hanging out on a freezing December night in Hamburg's fischmarkt quaffing Astra(which is by no means a superior beer) eating smoked eel sandwhiches or even hanging at the christmas markt in Frnakfurt knocking back henniger export eating potato pancakes or Flammkuchen. Do you see the trend here? it was no surprise that after 4 years there my gallbladder conked out.

Lew Bryson said...

But beer does not have to be stellar like a kloster brau to make it a great time.

Very true. First time I went to Germany as a writer (as opposed to a beer-ignorant tourist), the first beer I had -- Fässla pils, at their gasthaus in Bamberg -- turned out to be the least of all the beers I had that trip...and I wish I was back in their bierstube now, drinking it and enjoying the life.

Smoked eel... One of the funniest things my wife and I ever saw was about 18 years ago, a sign in a gas station window in Port Jervis, NY: "NO, we do not have SMOKED EEL. Please -- DO NOT ASK!" By God, I wanted to ask so bad!