Category Archives: The Style Section

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.

 

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.

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.

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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.

Got style?

craftbeer.com, the online wing of the Brewers Association, just published an article entitled: “Craft Beer Styles: Why They Matter & When They Don’t.” Part of the author’s argument for beer styles is a complaint that some menus read like fashion magazine ads with the made-up citation,  “Enjoy eating greatness? Then this super complex, one of a kind delicacy will indulge your deepest gustatory cravings.” This hyperbolic notion lasts for about half of the article before the author gets into the history and evolution of beer, which is the real reason there are beer styles (apart from the human obsession with categorization). Additionally, there is an ongoing debate about “what is craft beer?” and I would argue that saying “craft beer styles” is pretentious (Is lite American lager not a beer style because Coors Light is not craft beer?).

Beer styles, as we know them, evolved originally because of water, and brewers’ repeated attempts to create beer best suited to their water. Mineral content has a grand effect on the flavor of beer, and brewers have, over the centuries, adapted their brewing methods to the limits of their local water source. Entire books have been written on the subject. Styles have also developed through popular (and political) demand. If the Germans and Bohemians hadn’t enjoyed the paler lagers more than the variable-colored dark beers that existed before modern malting and yeast cultivation, Anheuser-Busch would be peddling a very different product with their Clydesdales.

Here we run into a (somewhat nonsensical) chicken-egg/Schroedinger’s Cat debate: Would there still be styles if Michael Jackson hadn’t gone about categorizing them in the 1970s? Would the Brewers Association and Beer Judge Certification Program have written their fairly strict definitions by which beers are to be judged, awarded medals and kudos? Style guidelines are basically a palate-training program with military instincts (disclosure: I’m a ranked BJCP judge, and enjoy judging beer and questioning authority.) . Beers that don’t fit neatly into a category may never receive the acclaim they deserve. One local example was brewed by Eugene’s Claim 52; Trevor’s War Steiner Weisse was a mishmash of styles and techniques: a high percentage wheat wort fermented with Kolsch yeast at Belgian temperatures (upwards of 75F, well over the yeast’s preferred range). Magically, the beer was excellent, with unusual fruit esters, smooth body, and a dually thirst quenching and inducing finish.

There’s a place you can go where the idea of style is turned on its head, where water (though obviously a factor) isn’t as important as yeast, and style isn’t as important as a brewery’s house flavor. That place is Belgium. Of course, there are classic styles like Dubbel and Tripel, and other brews from the monastic traditions that tend to conform to specific flavor profiles, but there are many, many more that do not. Even among the Trappist breweries there are beers that eschew moniker; Orval is a notable example, as are the Rochefort beers (6, 8, and 10 are available in the U.S.), which are much less estery than the average Belgian ale. A homebrewer friend who regularly makes Belgian-esque ales doesn’t often apply categories to his beers; he refers to them by brew number: “Oh, that’s #473, it’s pale, bottle conditioned with honey… try it!”

The whole idea of “style” kinda falls apart when beer is brewed with indigenous ingredients, spontaneously fermented, or otherwise given over to nature, so to speak. De Garde Brewing in Tillamook uses wild yeast and bacteria harvested from the air, much like Belgian Lambic breweries. Agrarian Ales uses river sage, a native artemesia, in some of its herbal beers. Propolis in Port Townsend, WA, uses wildcrafted herbs in all of its beers, which change month-to-month. Local flavors are slowly making  a comeback– after several centuries of legislated hop use, Old World brewing practices are making a small return to the collective brewing unconscious.

The canon of beer styles is an important learning tool and cultural artifact, and cannot be dismissed. At the same time, pigeonholing beer can be detrimental. Try to embrace the “?” beers, the Category 23 beers; those are often the hardest to create, the riskiest innovations, and the most challenging to the norm.