Deutsches Bier

2015-08-21 16.21.31

To you, six quid the lot

Just got back from a holiday in Germany. It was a two-centre holiday of sorts – we had a week in Wiek, a fairly remote Baltic coast resort, and three days in Berlin. The bottles in the picture above were bought in Wiek, at the local supermarket; one of them cost €1.45, but the remainder were between 88c and €1.15 including bottle deposit.

So that’s one of my impressions of Germany: good beer, and local beer – and if you’re lucky good local beer – is readily available in supermarkets & the like. (Above: seven beers from three nationally-distributed breweries and three locals – Rostock, Störtebeker, Vielanker. I could have bought fifteen or twenty different beers at that supermarket, about half of them brewed relatively locally. The rough British equivalent would be a Mace in the depths of Pembrokeshire or Cornwall.) Also, it’s insanely cheap. The strength of the £ helped – we bought our euros at €1.40 – but even at euro/pound parity this stuff would be… well, insanely cheap. Bar and restaurant prices, interestingly enough, were much closer to the British norm – usually €3 or above for half a litre of anything decent.

What else did I have? The rest of my beer drinking was done in cafes and restaurants: this was very much a family holiday with no bar-crawling element. On the plus side, this didn’t hold me back. “I can’t get over how you can drink, like, everywhere,” I overhead an American saying to another at Mauerpark (a park on land formerly occupied by the Berlin Wall, where a huge antiques fair/fleamarket/craft fair/mini-festival takes place every Sunday) – and you could certainly get decent beer pretty much everywhere, whether you were getting pizzas in a tourist restaurant, taking the weight off your feet at a beach-front cafe or getting a sandwich at the zoo. In ten days, in two different regions, I think we only went into one cafe that wasn’t serving beer – and not once was I reduced to ordering Carlsberg or Heineken, or even Beck’s. As well as the obligatory Berliner Weiss (brewery not specified), I had Bitburger, Lübzer and Berliner Pilsner, Köstritzer Kellerbier and Dunkel, Hefeweizen from Erdinger, Schöfferhofer and Memminger, a Memminger Kellerbier and a few others whose names I’ve forgotten. I also ordered something called Alsterwasser, which turns out to be what you or I would call a lager shandy, and tried to order a Fassbrause, which is an apple-flavoured lemonade (the barmaid kindly warned me off). (NB a Diesel is beer and coke, and a Potsdamer is beer and Fassbrause… we think.)

What was it like? Here’s where the good news gets a bit more qualified. With hardly any exceptions – one, to be precise – these beers were fine; clean-tasting, well-balanced, seemed like good examples of their style, etc, etc. The dud was the Störtebeker “Hanse-Porter”: sweet, heavy and strongly reminiscent of Coca-Cola; it got a bit better when I told myself to think of it as a Dunkelweizen rather than a porter, but only a bit. (The same brewery’s (helles) Hefeweizen was… well, fine.) And with only a handful of exceptions, they were no more than fine: 3s or 3.5s on a 5-point scale. The good ones were the Jever (natürlich); the Rostock Bock Dunkel, which (uniquely out of the beers I drank on the trip) was over 6%, and had the big, enveloping quality of a dark old ale; and a Memminger Kellerbier that I had on tap at a restaurant in Berlin. This was a fresh, aromatic, hoppy number that caught my attention straight away; it was the only beer I had in Germany that made me feel I was drinking something interesting.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t come across German craft beer – I wasn’t exactly seeking it out. (Family holiday, etc.) What is surprising is quite what a broad range of good, locally-produced beer I did find. My ideal for beer in England – the goal that I think CAMRA should work towards above all others – is a situation where locally-produced beer produced using traditional methods is available in every pub you walk into; whether any of those pubs would be serving beer in a multitude of different styles, or even beer from very far away, is secondary. In Berlin and on the Baltic coast, at least, it looks as if this ideal was realised long ago – if anything, it’s been realised in bars and then rolled out to cafes, petrol stations, roadside sausage vendors etc. And all this without blowing anybody’s tastebuds off or turning bars into multi-coloured beer style swap shops.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed that Memminger Kellerbier – and, after ten days of beer that was fine, but rarely any more than fine, I did start to hanker for a hoppy taste-bomb or two. I guess I’m living with the curse of sophistication.

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5 Comments

  1. metatone
    Posted 2 September, 2015 at 8:55 am | Permalink | Reply

    FWIW, from my years living in Germany, I’d say that the North & Berlin is pretty much the weakest beer area.
    If the locals have levered quality up towards 3, then I think if you went to the Kölsch area or (cliche alert) down South towards Bavaria, you’d be pretty happy. I hear some good things about Leipzig too from friends…

  2. metatone
    Posted 2 September, 2015 at 8:56 am | Permalink | Reply

    Gah – forgot to mention Dusseldorf and Altbier…

  3. pubcurmudgeon
    Posted 2 September, 2015 at 9:57 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’m a great fan of German beer, but ultimately I’d say the German beer scene is different from the UK rather than objectively better. Yes, the standard of the average beer in the average bar is a lot better than Carling and John Smith’s. However, nationally-distributed beers like Warsteiner and Bitburger do have a high level of penetration, and ultimately the choice between different bars can become samey, just variations on a theme.

    There’s a lot less innovation than there is in British brewing and, as you say, there are a lot of clean, well-made beers that may score a reliable 3½ but don’t really scale the heights. Jever does stand out amongst the North German beers, though. Overall I would say there is considerably less variation amongst German pale lagers than amongst British bitters.

  4. Posted 2 September, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Agree with the comments and most of your points. Come to Franconia next time, especially Bamberg. There’s so much more here than the famous Rauchbier, specifically Kellerbier the likes of what you had from Memmingen but better. So many traditional old breweries still brewing Like they did 3 generations ago.

    And then also the not-too-rare “bayerisch Anstich”, Bavarian trapping, gravity pour barrels with no CO2 added, or tankova-style serving like at the countryside Biergarten where I’m going to be headed to presently…for €3.80 a litre. And loaded with “rustic character”.

    Right, better get moving then. But I would say that much or most German brewing ain’t really all that traditional any more with things like hop pellets & extracts helping to keep those costs so low.

    • Phil
      Posted 2 September, 2015 at 3:47 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Yes, I should have mentioned that – I think it was when I was drinking the Flensburger that I noticed the label actually referred to hop extract. But I’d rather be drinking slightly toned-down & corporate-ised German beer than English (Shep’s, GK).

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