Monthly Archives: May 2018

Prague is, like, immortal

The writer’s notion of peeling away layers, looking for truth below the surface– that’s Prague. Its history is literally buried within itself, plastered over and adorned in progressing aesthetics, chronologically made over. Building facades in the Old Town may be scraped away to reveal the tastes of the wealthy and innovations of architects from hundreds of years ago. Down a flight of stairs, walls and doorways of different eras mingle in the hallway of a school, a library, a knight’s quarters.

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Looking through a Renaissance doorway to a Roman doorway. Notice the thickness of the walls.

Simultaneously, traumatic cultural memories are preserved. The Pinkas Synagogue is a memorial that depicts the names of all of the Czech Jewish holocaust victims, written on the walls, organized by town and family name. Upstairs is an exhibit of work done by children in the camps; the adults tried to form at least a shell of an educational system to keep the chaos from fully subsuming the youth, and art became a way for many children to process their experiences. Some of the drawings and paintings are very dark, and show more truth than a photograph ever could.

A sculpture installation on the way up the hill towards the Prague Castle, the Communism Victims Memorial, depicts duplicates of a tall, skinny man cast in bronze; as the statues recede they deteriorate, becoming stripped away of identifying features, of their humanity.

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Communism Victims Memorial in Prague

There are far fewer of these totems in the U.S. That’s a function, I think, of the country’s relatively short existence, and of its half-hearted acknowledgement of the damage it did through slavery and the displacement of the Native Americans, to really lean in and call it what it is, to give it a proper title. Maybe in time; maybe there will be memorials to the poor, too. Those are my thoughts about that; Prague provokes a lot of thought.

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Pilsner originated in Pilsen, and it is only beer from Pilsen that’s called Pilsner in the Czech Republic. That’s what it means: from Pilsen. Other pale lagers are Světlý Ležák, and the dark lager is Tmave, or Tmavy. There is not, as far as I’ve had, anything in the U.S. called a Czech pilsner that looks or tastes remotely like any of the local beers I tried in Prague. The exception would be Krusovice, which was okay but nothing to write home about. It was thin and lacking in flavor compared to the others.

It is an advantage to serve one’s beers mere feet away from the brew deck, and that’s not uncommon at breweries here. Some brew houses were literally just inside the front door, in full operation. Visual “wow” factor aside, the beer is served as fresh as can be for a lager, which has presumably sat for weeks or months before serving. Funny thing is, very few of the draught beers were crystal clear. Many had haze that ranged from slight to glowing; some were quite clear but not as brilliant as, say, a Kölsch. None were the bright pale gold that identifies a U.S.-brewed Czech pils. All had the same wonderful zing of Saaz hops.

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The brewery just inside from the beer garden at Pivovar Narodni

The wildest thing about these lagers was the texture, the way the maltiness, bitterness, and unfiltered bits played across my tongue. There was a suede grip that I attribute to decoction (boiling a portion of the mash) that mediated the sweetness-bitterness balance, negotiated a congenial division of lingual custody, all the while refreshing the palate, leaving only footprints.

The characteristic buttery/butterscotch/slick tonsil sensations of diacetyl were alarmingly absent from these beers, and I’m not sure if it was my own rapturous glee at drinking the beer from the place, or if the fermentation byproduct was so well masked by the bitterness and malt flavor, or if my low sensory threshold was also on vacation, or if the beer being alive and unfiltered had allowed for the reabsorption and dismantling of the molecule by yeast, which can happen. Either way, the normally offensive compound, (CH3CO)2, was a blurry bassist on the album cover of Czech lager.

Pub and bar culture in Prague is, to put it lightly, strong. And we didn’t even get into the mixology. Lokál Dlouhááá is one of a small chain of bar/restaurants located a hip section of Dlouhá Street. Getting to anywhere from anywhere in Prague is a data-suck for tourist phones, and Lokal proved no different. Our first attempt took over a half hour, twice as long as it should have from our Airbnb off Wenceslas Square. The place was jam packed, with at least an hour wait. We were hangry, gave up, and crammed down very salty burritos from next door. (Why burritos in Prague, you ask? Because they’re fucking comfort food and the easiest thing to order anywhere, except when the kid making them is a prick. See? Hangry memories.)

We returned the next night and followed some other guys in, past the front bar that had some craft beers on tap but was too packed to read, into another large room full of tables and maybe another bar, and finally into a third room (about 1/4 mile from the door) with a long copper bar atop glass cases containing large stainless steel tanks of Pilsner Urquell. We got the attention of a server, who, despite the din and ruckus of the place, kindly acknowledged our presence and said we would probably get a seat in 20 minutes. So we stood near the bar for a while trying to suss out the situation, then elbowed up and ordered beers from the busy bartender. The Urquell here was served three different ways: regular pour, “slice” (half foam), and some other word, which was pretty much a glass full of foam. Why foam, you ask? Well, it’s sort of a gimmick and sort of a beer geek thing. When a beer is poured like that (I ordered a “slice” first), it breaks out all this CO2 that evacuates the glass, and the beer, as the foam settles. What’s left, after you’ve coated your upper lip and the tip of your nose trying to get some beer, has the equivalent of cask conditioning and is very smooth. The whole balance of the beer is different with lower carbonation. But I do prefer a full mug of beer.

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The scene at Lokál Dlouhááá

We walked about 10 miles a day, each day wandering in a different direction, finding museums and cool buildings and pubs. In a riverfront park with a playground close to our hotel, a handful of wooden booths were being built. One of them served beer, sodas, and snacks. Beer. Served at a playground. These people know what’s important. Incidentally, the playgrounds we saw in Europe were amazing; they still design play structures that kids can injure themselves on, not these static plastic things with rubber floors you see around the States. I would go back just for the playgrounds with beer.

 

Bamberg: It’s a German Spargle Party!

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This is what all of Bamberg looks like.

The European rail system takes a couple tries to grok–grok, that old hippy term for “I get it, but deeper”–and so we missed our train a second time. Remarkably, another train was leaving shortly. It whisked us at speeds up to 304 km/h (that’s about 180 mph) from Cologne to Bamberg. The agrarian landscape, spiked with windmills and scabby with solar arrays, whizzed by as I stood in the breezeway between cars. We did not make a reservation, and there was a small fracas involving a group of old women and a younger woman and who should sit where, so I relieved a seat of my bum to keep the peace.

Cologne, a city that runs in no small part on commercialism and one style of beer, is nearly the opposite of Bamberg, which wasn’t bombed during World War II and is well-kept, quaint the way a snow globe is quaint, and runs on several styles of beer.

We met our Airbnb host, Behn, a tall, jovial Canadian. His right arm was fully bandaged, and he had scabs on his forehead. With his smoky, confident voice he told us about the fight he’d been in the night before. A refugee, as he said, was harassing some women and he stepped in. Imposing as he is, the assailant brandished a broken bottle and got the better of him until the police came. Behn had gotten out of the hospital in time to meet us, and was probably on a fresh regimen of painkiller in addition to the can of Bacardi rum ‘n coke that occupied his left hand. We fist-bumped hello.

Our apartment was in the center of town, across the cobbled street from Mulligan’s on Obere Sandstrasse, where Behn worked part time, and just a minute’s walk from Schlenkerla, the historic rauchbier brewery. To get there from the Hauptbahnhof, we walked south through the market square, where veggie vendors were piled high with white asparagus. It was Sparglezeit! It was a German Spargle Party!

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Bamberg from above, a short walk from Spezial-Keller

The sun was shining and I was thirsty, so we set a-walkin’. Up the hill to the southeast to Spezial-Keller we strode, confident that Behn’s promise that “you will get lost” would come to pass. Indeed. But once we arrived, the gates were shut; we were early! After a brief nature walk and pleasant sit on a bench overlooking the city, we returned. An old man was leaning against an old car on the side of the road, and he said something as we approached. All I heard was “bier,” and he gestured in a different direction than we were walking. So we turned.

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Spezial-Keller

OK, the beer. Our first order was, naturally, the rauchbier. It is a deep amber lager with subdued smoke character from a portion of beechwood-smoked malt. It came to us in stoneware; thick, rustic, grey ceramic steins, and topped with a seafoamy froth that completely hid the beer beneath.

Needless to say (but I have to)– sitting under huge maples just leafing out at an old table along the fence of the vast biergarten, feeling the cool breeze and dapple while listening to the foam on my beer abate and children laughing in the field nearby, and being with my favorite person on our best honeymoon ever– needless to say, I was happy.

The rest of that day turned into a beer tour. We were invited by our friend Don, who was passing through Bamberg on his own European tour, to Cafe Abseits, which has another fantastic biergarten in the courtyard behind the pub and features a handful of beers on tap and lots of bottles. I enjoyed two on tap, a Monchsambacher Maibock (my first of the season!) and Huppendorfer Vollbier.

The end of the night found us outside of Schlenkerla brewery drinking uber-rauchy rauchbier on the street, admiring a group of sketchy dudes being loud and macho in another language, and possibly making public displays of affection. Honeymoon! Actually, we bore witness to numerous acts of PDA; public snogging and butt grabbing on both sides of the binary gender fence became familiar sights everywhere, to our pleasure and amusement.

The next day, I went and took a tour at the Weyermann Malting Company’s headquarters and specialty maltings. Weyermann was started in 1879 as a coffee and malt roaster, and gradually grew, with a big expansion in 1904. Its famous ketchup/mustard red and yellow theme colors represent the bricks of the buildings and the barley grain.

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The two smokestacks are from the building where Rauchmalz is made at Weyermann Malting

Thankfully, there was an English tour that day. Our group was led through the entire process, starting at the lab where every truckload (Weyermann works with 500 farms in Germany, Czech Republic, and Italy) is analyzed for bugs, plumpness, protein, and moisture. Trucks deposit the barley into underground storage. It is then piped up to a machine that tumbles and shakes to separate pieces of straw and small grains. Then, the grain is steeped in water and moved to a germination room, similar to an oast but without heat, in very large beds around 140cm deep. A machine with sprayers and augurs moves up and down the bed, keeping the grains moist and loose as they germinate.

Because the germination process doesn’t stop, chemical analysis is not really an option to determine whether or not the process is done, so the maltster comes and looks and feels and tastes the grain, and can tell by sheer practice when the green malt is ready to go. This job, this dude, is responsible for quite a bit of the flavor and effectiveness of malt that is distributed all around the world. He is deep in it.

At the Bamberg plant, which is the original location of the maltings and a historic site that cannot be expanded or torn down for modern facilities, only specialty malts are produced, including the Rauchmalz. So the green malt is either sent to the roasted directly to be caramelized (before drying, so the long-chain sugars in the grain cook inside), or kilned and then roasted in one of 6-ish large drum roasters.

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A sample of Pilsner at the Weyermann Malting taproom

There is a pilot brewery, I think 5 hectoliters, that produces a bunch of different beers that are sold in the shop there. We saw that, then went to the warehouse. There are four bays, including one for local breweries to pick up their own orders. Inside, it is modern and streamlined for efficient and accurate movement of orders; much like a big beer distribution warehouse, workers on forklifts and electric-motor pallet jacks whiz around wrapping and moving pallets. The bags of malt are dated using a code; T is 2018, and the number following is the Julian date (this meant something to me, as lots of breweries use the Julian date coding for their bottles; it helps to know if your malt is fresh too!).

The tour finished in the newly built tasting room, a large space with a very nice bar and glassware, and about a dozen Weyermann beers on tap. I tried a pilsner, a roggenbier, and a rauchbier, all fantastic, and took a bottle of a Bohemian pils for the walk back.

Later, we visited the breweries Fässla, Mahr’s, and Keesman for more mind-blowing lagers. I’d give the run down, but really… just go.

If you want to read about Bamberg twice, click here.

Why Kölsch Works

If you’ve known me around beer, you probably know about my relationship with Kölsch. I’ve got a reputation, actually, for my obsession, analysis, and excitement, be it fit or fantasy, over this beer style. I may or may not have tasted Reissdorf, the most common example available in Oregon, before I brewed my first batch around 2011; mine came out well enough that I continued. Then Dave at Flat Tail began producing one, and Trevor while at Claim 52. At that point, Kölsch started to be a thing, and I started getting annoyed.

Yesterday, I saw a photo that included a can of something called “Ballast Point Tart Peach Kölsch,” and retched. This is a criminal example of what I call, “not a fucking Kölsch!” Many others are not so blatant in their total disregard for taste (and flavor and appearance), and produce beer that visually resembles Kölsch and contains the same simple ingredients as Kölsch, but that misses the flavor, aroma, and texture that defines the style; these should be called American Blond Ales. You see how goddamn obsessed I am?

Well folks, I finally visited the Mothership. Cologne*, Germany is the birthplace and stronghold of Kölsch; it is kept in its own Rapunzel’s tower by the Kölsch Konvention, which dictates that no beer brewed outside the city walls can be called Kölsch. (That obviously doesn’t apply in the U.S..)

My hajj took place on my honeymoon (as will have the next few posts); Liz graciously consented to this first leg of the trip, on a fast train from Berlin to the Rhineland, and we met up with Michael and Brendan, old friends from the Stein now living in Freiburg to the south, and their friend Joey. We disembarked at the Hauptbahnhof (main station), checked into our hotel, and went immediately to Gaffel am Dom, the Gaffel brewery right next to the Kölner Dom cathedral, which, Brendan pointed out, looks photoshopped.

The place was packed, but we got a table quickly. The waiter came by hurriedly, and we ordered Kölsch all around. I tried to keep my cool. When the dude carrying the beer (called a Kobe), brought around the tray (Kranze), deposited five beer mats and five small rod-shaped glasses (Stanges), struck five hash marks on a beer mat, and walked away, I about had an aneurysm. It finally happened!

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On our second or third round at Gaffel, but not even a pint in!

The first sip, after the sacred ritual of Prost!, was… I can’t say the earth shook, but it jiggled a bit.

Part of my personal Kölsch mythology includes a German asking a beer nerd why he was sticking his nose in the glass. You really can’t stick your nose far into a Stange, it’s just not wide enough. And by the time you’ve taken three legitimate sips, it’s gone and about to be replaced by another. And so it goes.

Kölsch is an odd commodity. The indigenous ritual of drinking it is perpetuated by its appellation and by the breweries, which take full advantage of the lack of tied house laws to create anti-competitive relationships with bars and restaurants. Only one brand of Kölsch is served at any particular place, as far as I saw. Signs above the door and branded umbrellas outside indicate which Kölsch you’ll be drinking there. Other beers, like Paulaner, may be served as well. Some of the Kölsch breweries also produce different styles like Weizen or Bock, but I didn’t try them.

That’s how Kölsch works in Cologne, and is likely the reason there is so little craft beer there. I’m certainly not complaining; I didn’t go to Germany to drink American style beers, and only one Kölsch, Sion, is a subsidiary of a large brewing conglomerate (and easily the worst Kölsch I tried). So the scene is still “indie.” It has, in a way, protected its interests by setting up an economic wall around the city. Old school.

The Gaffel Kölsch was very clean and crisp, like a Helles or German Pils. Next we went to Früh (where we earned a moderate 18 hash marks on our coaster) and sat in the lower level of the ancient building. The beer was lighter and softer, with a very light fruitiness. Following that, we trundled over to Päffgen and were seated in a cozy, semi-indoor courtyard with a retractable roof.

This was fantastic beer. It felt dryer than the others due to a distinct mineral texture (Cologne water is pretty hard and tastes bad), and had a dash of noble hop character. I think it would be the best for pairing with food because of this extra, though still slight, nuance.

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Though one drinker succumbed to tea (due to a slight cold), much Päffgen was enjoyed.

The service of Kölsch in .2L glasses (~6.75 oz) means that a lot more glassware must be cleaned, filled, transported, and removed from tables. The bars often had one, maybe two guys hustling their asses off washing and filling hundreds of these delicate glasses. Though it doesn’t seem the most efficient, the beer never gets warm. The shape of the glass is a pleasure to drink from, and emphasizes the paleness and brilliant clarity of the beer (a suggestion of quality).

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Still jet-lagged but thrilled to be with friends drinking fresh Früh!

Since we’d had a few…dozen… Stanges of Kölsch by now, we set to walk a bit and wound up having one unfortunate glass at a Sion pub. It was full of bros, which should have been a tip-off. It had a green apple yeast flavor and was generally unpleasant to drink; by comparison, the others seemed all the better!

The next day I learned about walking on the street with beer, and how having to pee really bad can lead to drinking more beer because the bar you chose to sneak into was empty and you got questioned by the server. After our friends departed, Liz and I tried Reissdorf (super clean, tastes the same as in the U.S. but fresher) and Mühlen, which was excellent with the best presentation of yeast character– white wine and pear, beautiful counterpoint to the hops and malt. So delicate.

Kölsch is a drinking beer, not a thinking beer. If you (and by you I mean you, not me) have to fuss over it, it may not be a Kölsch.

*The city is called Cologne by everybody in Germany, not Köln (pronounced koeln). This is a sort of colloquialism not uncommon in Europe, which translates city names from their original/native language to a more phonetic pronunciation. Bad example: Baile Ath Cliath is Dublin. Good example: München is Munich. There you have it.

 

 

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One of these things is not like the other. Counterpoint of the Kölner Dom and modern buildings.