Category Archives: Tasting Notes

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!

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.

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).

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.



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

Here Comes the Judge!

Part One
Put on your powdered wigs! You’re about to participate in a niche ritual, engaging your senses and translating them to the written word. Your wrist will be sore, your tongue deflated, your faith shaken. You are about to judge beer.

You don your clothes earlier than usual for a Saturday, eat a mild breakfast and consider not brushing your teeth. The recommended status of a “clean palate” conflicts with all morning rituals; do you choose coffee or toothpaste? Already, your brain is preparing for minutiae. Did you burn your tongue on pizza last night? What part? Can you still taste? Whew! Crisis averted. But please, revel in everything you do before you leave the house; it is the last bit of canny sanity you will encounter today.

“Just show up,” they said plaintively. “Free lunch, free beer.” This is community service. Your peers spent hours poring over the guidelines sipping on a glass of beer with pen in hand, trying to remain objective while deciding exactly how their malty offspring would be sacrificed. With only two gallons left in the keg, 36 ounces seems like a lot. But enter they must, whether gunning for ribbons or hoping for legible, coherent feedback. The dutiful entry process has stymied many, but not these stalwarts without whose gung-ho, go-gettem attitudes there would be no competition, no reason to get out of bed and join your fellow judges for a day of impeachment, veto, repeal, debate, gerrymandering, election, re-election, and insider trading.

The process takes place in a space in which you might not otherwise expect to drink. It is not a bar, a friend’s house, or a public park. You are removed from society and plunked down at a table, chatting with two other people in the same position, waiting to see what happens under your nose. Hastily, you fill out the basics on the scoresheets. Your name! You are now accountable for your words. Your BJCP judge ID number! Do you have one? Good! If not, expect to be the first to compromise. Your e-mail address! Dear god, are these people going to contact you? Will you receive beer judge-related spam? (“Spiral-bound 2015 BJCP Guidelines, with EZ-Grip Mechanical Pencil Embossed with Your Name, $17.95 + S&H”)

Engaging in this sort of sensory role play with other people is intimately platonic. All feelings are directed toward a beer; it is the collateral damage in a codependent relationship. It better behave, or else. The beer is treated as a child at cheap daycare, told when it is good but not receiving commensurate praise to scorn. A flawed beer hides its positive traits; a good judge teases them out for constructive criticism rather than putting it in time-out. A good beer is difficult to nitpick not because it is a good beer, but because it is a relief.

homebrew rainbow
This is what Best-of-Show looks like. From the 2018 KLCC Homebrew Competition.

Part Two: Nobody Ever Gets a 50
The best-of-show lineup at Saturday’s KLCC Homebrew Competition judging contained 24 different styles, including a mead and two ciders. How on earth–why on earth–should they be whittled away like contestants on The Weakest Link down to the best three? They should all have merit enough to stand on their own; every one is a winner! BOS judge panels are experienced and trusted. My first time, I recused myself from having any actual input until, during the same session, I timidly gave some input that was accepted by the majority. Later, I was put in my place: “Do you like soap?” Long story.

In my experience, the high score of 50 is like the amp that goes to 11. Why not just make 40 louder? Maybe it’s a localized phenomenon, but nobody ever gets a 50. Nobody ever totally wins the game. Really, that’s not fair to the brewer who may not understand that a 35 is a pretty good score, even though it’s an academic C-. Judges should reconsider this tactic. I should reconsider this tactic. A beer without fermentation flaws should be considered quite good, and not be lumped closer to beers that exhibit careless practice.

Homebrew is no longer its own bubble, as it was before 5,000 craft breweries opened in eight years (roughly). The transfer of knowledge from the home garage to the commercial garage–and to taps in our neighborhoods–has shown that good beer and bad beer can come from anywhere. At the Oregon Beer Awards judging (which has a radically different format from a BJCP competition), I tasted roughly 80 different beers in a range of styles. And though flaws were less pronounced, they were just as prevalent as in the KLCC comp. They were also different; fusel alcohol and strong esters were rarely an issue. Pro brewers typically have control over fermentation temperature and yeast health, whereas homebrewers are more likely to produce apple and banana bombs due to the lack thereof. The tiny scale of a batch of homebrew makes it comparatively harder to ferment well. Even doing cell counts and dosing by weight is less foolproof by the gram compared to the kilo (but props to the nerds that do this!).

If a judge is able to assert confidently that a homebrewed beer could be found on tap at a good beer bar (a metric I will add to my lexicon), it deserves a very high score. Suggestions to tweak the water profile or this-and-that malt or hop adjustment should be considered trivial compared to good fermentation, carbonation, and pH balance for the style. Very few beers will achieve this; reward those that do.

Part Three: Judging Judges
Don’t be the new guy who waltzes (because there’s 3-to-4 odds you’ll look like an idiot) into the judging chamber (judges suit up, beers are redressed) and thinks he knows everything (yup, you’re a guy). And don’t be the judge who doesn’t listen to the new guy. Remember, you are Lady Justice; Ego plays no part in this comedy.

A person, who shall remain nameless, made themselves a pariah at the judge table on Thursday (apologies for any grammatical confusion with genderless pronouns). They chatted loudly, texted, and showed extreme bias. They irritated their fellow judges. I heard about it a day later, and still wonder what my reaction would have been had they been at my table. This is an outlier situation. I’ve judged with brand new judges before (and I was one as well, starry-eyed in awe of the whole thing), and worked hard to help acclimate people to thinking and tasting as objectively as possible, while simultaneously accepting that everybody’s palate is valid. All this within a time crunch; it’s not easy. And yet there are experienced judges who refuse to give good feedback; two word reviews are a slap in the face to the antsy homebrewer awaiting results. No, you can’t print “shit sandwich.”

You, beer judge, are a hero. You step out of your comfort zone not knowing what is going to be in your mouth. You risk headache, palate fatigue, losing an argument, and being a guinea pig for some schmo’s carrot-ginger-raisin experiment in exchange for a sandwich, all from a sense of duty you can’t fully explain. You are a first world middle class homebrew hero. Act like one.

Tasting Notes – Sierra Nevada, Firestone Walker, Green’s (GF!)

In order to be a successful artist, one must [generally] study the Academy; it provides the foundation of history and technique from which one can draw inspiration, or then abandon in search of a new way.

Since we are living in the youth of a new wave of beer (the wave has not crested!), brewers are working in the shadow of the older “Renaissance” breweries: Anchor and Sierra Nevada. Countless brewers and beer lovers were converted in their teens from mass-market lagers by the Steam and Pale Ale, with totally different flavors and structures. Sierra Nevada was founded by Ken Grossman in 1980, and he is still the owner today. He has turned Sierra Nevada into a nearly zero-waste company that sends its beer all over the country. The brewery still adheres to its principle of using all whole leaf hops (as opposed to pellets, which most larger breweries use) and bottle conditioning its beer (as opposed to force carbonation in tanks prior to bottling, which most breweries do). It is an icon in the beer world.

Sometimes people forget (or don’t know) how solid Sierra Nevada’s beer is, or take it for granted (“I was raised on this stuff!”), but that should not be. The brewery continues to create new beers, and has even branched out into the Belgian styles with its Ovila line. Its latest is a seasonal called Flipside, a red IPA (“black, white, yellow, red / can I bring my friend to bed . . .” — The Beatles didn’t know they were naming all the colors of IPA!). Upon pouring, a waft of pine resin and bracing citrus peel escapes the glass, followed by a somewhat scratchy toast and cocoa note as it warms up.

Flipside is brewed with pale, wheat, caramel, and chocolate malts; bittered with Magnum, and finished with Citra, Simcoe, and Centennial hops. Citra and Centennial are fairly stable in their flavor profiles – Citra has a distinct tropical (mango, papaya) note, and Centennial is very lemony. Simcoe can (in my own homebrewing experience, and with commercial examples) undergo a fairly drastic change over time, from “catty” (yep) when fresh to a more resinous citrus note after it settles in– it’s often better in combination with other hop varieties. The hop character of Flipside is somewhat at odds with the maltiness, but I find that’s often my own experience with other hoppy red ales; there are a lot of flavors floating around there, and it finishes off with a clean, smooth bitterness (thanks Magnum!), lingering pithy hop, and light toasted cocoa flavor. One of the great things about Sierra Nevada is that they don’t lie about what’s in the bottle.

Perhaps reviewing Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merlin is unnecessary. It’s an oatmeal stout to which most other oatmeal stouts should aspire (Samuel Smith’s and Anderson Valley being notable exceptions). I drank one yesterday and tried really hard to find a flaw. It is extremely smooth, and has a party of all the right malts goin’ on– lots of dark chocolate, some burnt toffee, a touch of caramel, and a tempered coal of roasted barley. I don’t know how much oat they use, but it gives the beer a silky texture without being sweet or slick. The hop factor is low to none, and the bitterness is thankfully low, letting the roasted barley bear that brunt.

Until last week, I’d never had a commercially brewed “gluten free beer.” Travesty? I think not. Sorghum, the main GF grain used in these beverages, puts out a somewhat metallic bitterness that isn’t easily hidden by hops or yeast character; like many flavors in beer, it’s an acquired taste. I applaud the GF community that supports these beers (although I assume that many opt for cider, mead, wine, and liquor), and am impressed that the craft sector is catching on. Deschutes has long produced a highly-desired GF beer at its Bend pub, and now we have Harvester Brewing in Portland that puts out a stable of entirely GF beers brewed with sorghum, certified GF oats, and other ingredients.

I had the opportunity to have the first taste of Green’s Dry-Hopped Lager in Eugene at our Merchant du Vin tasting a week ago. The beer is brewed with sorghum, millet, buckwheat, hops, and brown rice. I sniffed my sample warily, and was surprised to receive a blast of grapefruit from the dry hopping. A soft, lager-like grain character came through on top of the sorghum’s signature twang. The beer is very dry, not uncommon for GF beers, but not as bitter or strange as other examples I’ve tasted since. The smooth lager character definitely helps even things out, and the dose of hops would definitely quench an American drinker’s hop thirst. The GF beers I’ve tried have all benefited from a few minutes to warm up and release some carbonation, which allows the sweetness from the grains to come out.IMG_0497

Green’s is located in Stockport, England, just outside of Manchester (that’s in central England, toward the west side of the island. They make nine different GF beers, four of which we carry here at The Bier Stein. The other three are Belgian-style Dubbel, Amber, and Tripel, which will certainly offer more to think about than their gluten-freeness.

Anatomy of a Beer Dinner

beer pig

On September 10, The Bier Stein hosted its third beer pairing dinner with Oakshire Brewing, five courses and six beers. It was a great time, well organized, and overall quite tasty. I figured it was about time to talk about beer and food pairings, perhaps to de- and re-mythologize (or elitify, if you will) the process, execution, and enjoyment of this experience, both here and at home.

Pairing beer and food as a conscious ritual has not been around for very long. I have been drinking and brewing beer for nigh on a decade, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I heard about this method of gustatory enhancement; I attended two sessions of pairing at Oakshire, one with beer and chocolate, one with beer and charcuterie. (Overall, a wider variety of beers pair better with cured meats than with chocolate, in my experience.) I had first experienced this sort of synergetic joy with wine– a German Riesling worked wonders with the combination of spices, dried apricots, and splash of balsamic in an Ethiopian lentil stew.

Nowadays, many beer connoisseurs are on the hunt for the next thing; the rare, fleeting beers that get stowed away (perhaps forever) and shown to friends like a trophy, and shared if you’re really lucky. Trust me, this happens. New flavors are exciting (until they’re not). Probably the best way to create new flavors also happens to be the best way to interact with your friends and family: food! There are myriad blogs, charts, articles, and guides that suggest viable, tried and true pairings, either by beer style or food type. My favorite way is to pick one or the other, pick apart flavors and sensations, and figure out what I want out of its partner. This is a great way to get to know your palate and grow your knowledge. Sounds like a lot of pressure and work, eh?

grilled Pacific prawns with chili/lime glaze, Oakshire Watershed IPA
grilled Pacific prawns with chili/lime glaze, Oakshire Watershed IPA

The dish above is a great example of an easy pairing. “Heat and hops,” are a favorite pairing of Dave Stockhausen, the beer buyer here. It’s his go-to at home because it can be quick, easy, and cheap. In this case, from our beer dinner, “the citrus notes from the marinated shrimp went perfectly with the IPA.” Often times, IPAs can be overwhelming with bitterness and huge flavors; drinking it alongside a dish with equally intense flavors actually makes the IPA seem lighter and more refreshing, but no less flavorful. Another opportunity to make a great pair is dessert. Dark beer and chocolate is often the first pairing for most people; it’s like “Smoke on the Water” for beginner guitarists, something everybody has to go through to get to the next level.

If you’re an experimental home cook, you might want to incorporate beer into your food beyond “Beer Can Chicken.” Dessert is also a great place to start, and there are no shortage of stout cupcake recipes out there. Then you’re pretty much sure to have a great pairing with whatever beer you put into the food.

As we at The Bier Stein have started doing bi-monthly pairing dinners, we’ve encountered many challenges (remember collaboration and timing?), successes, and a couple falters. I asked several coworkers for some feedback on their experiences “behind-the-scenes.”

Our process starts with a meeting with chefs Richie and Andrew, Dave the buyer, owners Chip and Kristina, the brewer(s), and myself (as interloper and brainstormer). We discuss the brewer’s upcoming beer and ask them for some tasting notes; if we’re lucky, we get to taste beer on the spot. Since we’re starting with the beer, the challenge is to design food to match. We think about both complementary and contrasting flavors, depending on how we want to approach the pairing, and how it fits into the menu as a whole. I’m a fresh-and-local junkie and a gardener, so I try to think about what’s going to be in season and how it can be used. I also draw on my memories of specific ingredients or dishes. The brewers are great at this brainstorming process, and it can become a really long conversation that leaves mouths thirsty and watering at the same time.

Chef Andrew makes clean slices of cheesecake with a clean, cold knife
Chef Andrew makes clean slices of pumpkin cheesecake with a clean, cold knife.

“My favorite part is the challenge,” says chef Andrew, who has executed the desserts (among other dishes) for all three dinners. He had never heard of “Beeramisu” before the Pelican Brewery rep suggested it, but his final product bordered on the divine. For Richie, the kitchen manager, the challenge is complex. “Our customers are knowledgeable, so it’s different than just cooking dinner; they’re looking at all aspects, so I have to think  a couple steps ahead.” At the same time, he gets some relief from the fact that “people are happy with the beer to begin with.”

During the dinners, we are lucky to have brewers on hand to explain their beer and illustrate the way in which it interacts with its paired dish. This is added value, as you get an insider’s look to the way a brewer approaches his/her ingredients and brewing process, and how a specific hop, for example, tastes in a beer and with food.

Putting together the beer dinners is a team effort. As leader of the team, Chip, one of the owners, is always on, even when sitting to eat. He makes sure the kitchen is ready with tested recipes, and heads up meetings both before and after the dinners to discuss any issues and to affirm successes. He pays close attention to timing; dinner guests should never be kept waiting, nor should courses be served too soon.

Our expert staff keeps the flow smooth.
Our expert staff keeps the flow smooth.

Beer pairings come in many forms, and some can be quite surprising; imagine Firestone Walker’s Pale 31 and some dark chocolate with ginger. The smooth, cereal malt character and light orange and spice hop notes are accented by the ginger, while the chocolate fills out the light body and turns malty Total into Coco Puffs. Crazy.

You should consider the “mouthfeel” when looking to pair. Often, contrast works best, especially with cheese. You probably wouldn’t want to pair a thick, sweet ale with Brie, as the fatty cheese and high residual sugar could fill your mouth and be overwhelming. Rather, try a drier, more tart beer that will cut through some of the fat, but keep the luscious buttery flavor of the cheese– Biere de Garde (like La Choulette Ambree) comes to mind because it is dry and somewhat fruity, but has enough malt character that you might not even need a cracker under your cheese.

Stay tuned for more of this discussion– clearly (as I’ve gone far too long here) there’s a lot to talk about.

The menu from our dinner with Oakshire Brewing.
The menu from our dinner with Oakshire Brewing.

Tasting Notes – 8.2.13 – Dupont, Halve Maan, Upright

The best beer pairing is friends (not to eat, of course), and I relish* the opportunity to go all beer-geeky with another willing participant (as opposed to this scenario, which hits close to home). My friend Matt is a homebrewer, soon to be head brewer at a new local brewery, and our past beer explorations have proved delightful.

This time, we went Belgian, and consumed three tasty morsels that have been staring at me from the shelf for a couple weeks now. First up was Brasserie Dupont’s Cuvee Dry-Hopping 2013, which is their regular Saison with a hefty dose of Trasker hops (bred from French Strisselspalt). It poured a cloudy straw gold with a tousle of big champagney bubbles, and smelled of mint and sage. In comparison to it’s mother beer, the herbal factor is tweaked from the dank, spicy-fruity side to the traditional French herb garden of thyme, sage, oregano, etc. More peachy character emerges as it warms up, and the carbonation keeps your palate practically itching for more.

dupont, halve maan, upright
Happy flavor bombs!

Next up, we popped a Straffe Hendrik Quad from Halve Maan (Half Moon), a “home brewery” in the center of Bruges, Belgium. As soon as the cap came off, a spring of tan foam burbled forth, and I quickly moved my glass under the stream (if only beer came out of a mountainside…). My first thought was “oh dear, a gusher,” as I’ve judged enough homebrew competitions to know that this is generally not a good sign. But leave it to a small Belgian brewery to prove me happily wrong! Though highly carbonated, that was perhaps the most notable feature of this beer. The flavor and aroma was dominated at first by dark things: prunes, leather, even a hint of smoke (in the good way). If not for the cola-like effervescence, that beer would have clung to the inside of our cheeks; instead, it sliced through the sweetness (which was not cloying, just lots of big flavors), leaving a wake of light clove phenol. So complicated, so carbonated– so good (and thanks to Rob for the recommentation!)

A picnic table came available outside, and so we moved into the sun for our last number: Upright Flora, the soured, barrel-aged version of Flora Rustica, a “botanical saison” with calendula and chamomile flowers. The original, as I recall, is quite floral. This reincarnation is different. Sometimes a brewery will barrel up a batch and it will be a Jesus story; it goes in a beer, comes out a deity. In the case of Flora, it went in a nymph and came out a satyr. Aging in “multiple use” barrels produced a beer that smells like (and I am not kidding) dill pickles. But really good fermented dill pickles! (*now you know why I asterisked “relish.”) It kinda tastes like pickles, but without the salt, and with a hint of the flowers, a hint of woody tannin, and a soft lactic sourness rather than bracing tartness. It took a good bit of snuffling, snorting, re-sniffing, swishing, sloshing, and swirling to come up with dill pickles as a descriptor, but everybody agreed. Don’t let that dissuade you from trying the beer. In fact, I can see all sorts of great pairing opportunities: Italian sausages, prosciutto, other pickles, and Emmentaler and Edam cheeses would be the perfect small plates to share with a big bottle of Flora.