Category Archives: Fruit & Funky

Fomenting fermentation

It’s been a year of fermentation’s growing influence in my life. Not just beer, that’s been there throughout my adult years, but much wider, much deeper, more frequent. It’s the old ‘Law of Selective Attention’ I think, which says that once something has been pointed out to you, you notice it all the time, whereas prior to that, you didn’t notice at all (even though it was there all the same). And at the moment it’s fermentation.

First it was pickles. I’ve always loved them as tracklements; that particular blend of vinegar and mustard; the acid spiciness; that ability to cut through anything with a sharp tang, an oniony bite, yet not overwhelm. To coax flavours and enhance. To be a wingman perhaps, not over-shadowing the main event. It’s like piccalilli, named after the station in Manchester*, a beautiful yet under-rated condiment. After trying it for the first time, an old Dutch friend of mine once said, “Why is it the English love these strong flavours?”. It blew him away, yet, a few years later he told me that he was secretly taking home pots of Branston and Haywards piccalilli and, “eating them with everything”. It is, we deduced, that partial fermentation, that cold meat umami-ness that just works as a chaperone and proves to be irresistible.

Then it was horseradish. Here’s a root that we Brits have just plopped into a box marked, ‘Ready Made Sauce. Only Serve With Beef.’ which is missing the point entirely. Not so long ago, I was eating it with everything. Pork pie? Natch. Cheese sandwich. Why not? As a spread instead of mayo. Definitely. As a marinade on oily fish. Oh yes. Not convinced? Try it: in-cred-i-ble. Which reminded me that the Germans have got horseradish right. Travelling once across central Germany, my brother and I stayed in Würzburg and in the evening ate in the town’s main restaurant, below the Räthaus. We ate eel, in a creamy, sharp, tangy horseradish sauce and drank first a spicy, yeasty wheat beer and then a gently smoked lager. Both went well with the dish, but not as well as the horseradish went with the eel. Sublime. (My horseradish overdosing only stopped because I moved onto piccalilli)

And so it went on. Chutneys, (we are about to enter the chutney making season here in the Tinted house: the dog lives in fear after smelling of vinegar and vegetables for a week last year), spicy relishes, savoury jams. Mustards aplenty.

The re-emergence of fermentation spreads its wings further however. First was sourdough. There’s a tangy sharp starter in our fridge right now, provoked into creation from a godisgood story that a client told me about – how, like a Tamagotchi, your responsibility is to nurse and tend the starter, to pass it one and expect the recipient to do the same. Some starters are generations old, particularly in countries where baking is still revered – Germany again, Belgium to a degree and some Eastern European countries. That’s my aim – to pass on my starter to friends and family. To have Tinted bread being kneaded and baked 50 years from now. Maybe with a dash of brown ale in there for good measure.

Then there’s pickled veg. Chefs are serving them with everything, and you know it’s mainstreaming when you get them offered as an option in a lunchtime sandwich bar and you can buy different sorts of pickling vinegars (Mirin, balsamic based, red & white wine pickling vinegars) in your local Tesco. But why not? They bring the extra dimension: the lift, the breadth, the wafting of the flavours into new realms. They may be trendy but they’re not new. Foolishly we let our tastes and skills drift; now we’re learning them again.

And of course, there’s beer, where fermentation is assumed and the status of ‘natural bedfellow’ is assured. But what’s glorious about fermentation now is how we’re rolling back the boundaries again. Why ferment with saccharomyces cerevisae alone when you can ferment with brettanomyces for it’s earthy, musty qualities? And why ferment with brett when we can use bacteria from wood or air? Why do we need to use crazy amounts of hop when fermentation can push the boundaries wider (particularly as hop shortages threaten)?

What’s important as brewers and beer lovers is that we don’t lose sight of the scope of fermentation. It’s not just used in making alcohol and vinegar. Chefs and food companies are waking up to where fermentation can take flavour, where the experience of eating can be enhanced still more. If we keep our eyes open, the possibilities are endless.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

*True, that.

The Fifth Element

It is best described as a dream? Perhaps it is, perhaps it’s just an idyll. But anyway, in this dream, I am the owner of a small, rural brewery. If it helps to picture it, it’s down a long country lane, one of those beautiful shire lanes in England with grass growing down the spine and the tarmac flaking and giving way at the sides. The vistas are long, across the water meadow (yes, they do still exist) and towards distant dark hills. There are some passing places on the road, but they’re informal: one in a field entrance where the gate hangs off its hinges; another where the gravel path to the ford scrunches down to the river, lazily. The building housing the brewery is round a sharp left hand bend. They’re farm outhouses, with ruddy-cheeked bricks, sharply mortared, with blue brick edges, smoothly curved. Roofs are clad in steep pitched Staffordshire grey tiles, bedecked in moss and chipped like a boxer’s teeth. The water for the beer bubbles up from a spring just where the hill line breaks and a copse of old mixed trees starts, some beech, some oak, hedge elm and the stickleback flashes of silver birches too.

Why a farmhouse brewery? Why artisan? I have no particular farming connection and I live in the country so there’s no pent up rural frustration, no unmet need to be ‘closer to nature’. But there is the connection of beer to its origins: being closer to the earth, the water, the fields where the crops are grown. Somehow, when the brewery is under a railway arch, or a steel clad industrial unit the connection is weakened, or worse, when it’s some industrial edifice on the outskirts of say, Manchester, that connection is lost. Here, it’s industry. Here, it’s 7 day a week brewing. Here, it’s ‘sales and operational planning’. Even the ingredients are tamed; modified malt; hops pounded and pelleted so there’s no goodness left; adjuncts for consistency and efficiency.

But the idyll is not some fantasy, not, well… idyllistic. It’s happening. As my writings have taken me further afield so my desire to reopen old, closed doors has intensified; and my willingness to experiment with wildness; with inconsistency; with tastes that make you squint has strengthened in turn.

A few years ago, I travelled through Payottenland, visited Boon, on my way in fact to Rodenbach. That was the extent of my primary research into spontaneously fermented, or oak-aged beers. I am the beginning of my new journey, of personal pioneering. Early discoveries this time round have startled me. That of Elgood’s of Wisbech, as old fashioned as they come, who have re-commissioned an old coolship so they can spontaneously ferment, installing wooden beams above it to capture microbes and build a circle of wild fermentation. This is surprising. That beers with a sour, wild, uncontained character are becoming the ‘in thing’ with urbanites is startling. And the closest thing I have found so far to my idyll, are the beers from Wild Beer Co in Somerset. They are on a farm, down a country lane. It may not be the centre of human population, but it’s Wild Yeast Central. Ironically though, I found their beers in Sourced Market at St Pancras, on a railway concourse at the heart of our most congested metropolis. Wild Beer Co talk about adding an extra element: the first water; the second, hops, the third, grains, the fourth, yeast. The fifth is wildness.

IMG_3936By this point, I was already lumping around a full satchel, so only bought a couple of their brews, but what brews they turned out to be. The first was a one of their everyday drinkers, their ‘everyday sours’, to use their language. Wild Goose Chase is a ‘farmhouse pale’, brewed with their wild yeast culture and gooseberries. Gooseberries: an utterly underrated fruit anyway and yet perfect for beer; the tartness complementing the malty sweetness, the aroma incisive, cutting. It promised much and delivered – a gently ‘sour acid’ aroma (if you can have such a thing… prickly somehow); to look at, a milky gold, lively with a gentle, natural carbonation. I expected no head and it poured with none, but was not the worse for it: it was delicious, fruit, tartly quenching beer. The other was a Saison – the boldly entitled Epic Saison. Unusual for a beer that is fermented partly with bacteria, this was generously hopped (the traditional role of hops was to impede bacteria – more a problem when you are designing the bacteria in) with a dry slice of melony, passionfruity U.S. grown Sorachi Ace hops but still with that loamy European earthiness more associated with a tart beer. It would be tempting and stereotypical to describe such a beer as a ‘fusion’ – in fact, it seems quite naturally ‘of here’, like a fruit pie baked on a tin plate, plump, sharp and sweet but with that doughy, buttery taste of the fields, of dairy, of the land. My note taken at the time simply said, “Well brewed, drinkable and edgy. An irresistible combination.”

These beers fuelled my desire to learn more, to taste more. To find the beers of New Belgium, Allagash or the Jolly Pumpkin; to try a ‘kettle soured’ beer, like those from The Commons. This sounds like a journey down a long, interesting country path, one with some grass growing down the middle, a farmhouse outbuilding holding a rustic brewery and wild yeasts floating through the breeze.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

Ullage

The back streets of Smethwick are Cash and Carry land. Long horizontals of white mortar shine out from glossy deep red brick terraces, whilst large shop signs of every hue and a hotchpotch of shapes scream out onto the streets. Behind though is the beating heart of Birmingham past and present: small industrial units on streets that hark back to smoky, metal-beating times: Suffrage Street; James Watt Industrial Park, Kelvin Way. Today the heart of another industry beats, that of independent retail, of Asian and African trade and neighbourhoods. True enough, Cash & Carrys’ may not be that inspiring an association with an area, but let’s face it, depending on your interpretation of the reality of those parts, it could be much worse.

In my early years in beer, I worked in the off license sector (or off trade) – the independent retail of alcohol sales. Last week, CGA Strategy, who measure this sort of thing, reported that off trade sales overtook on trade sales for the first time. Still someway off the global norm of 70-80% of the beer market being consumed at home, but getting there slowly. Only twenty years ago though, off trade sales were much smaller, the market immature. The supermarkets sold very little and their range was poor; in fact supply wasn’t brilliant – mostly keg brands canned. It seems incredible today to think that most sales went through the off licenses – either the big ‘specialists’, Thresher, Victoria Wine, Augustus Barnett (all of whom had been the off trade arms of big brewers at some point) – or through independent corner stores. These were supplied by the Cash & Carrys – again, either the big chains like Booker or Nurdin & Peacock, Makro, to independent, more local, operators at the other. The West Midlands had a thriving Cash and Carry trade and the west side of Birmingham: Cape Hill, Winson Green, Smethwick had a profusion of the independents.

They were notorious: scale operators, run like fiefdoms, focused on volume, big deals, trunker* loads of beer coming in and out. And they performed the necessary evil of ‘clearing’ – taking the close to best before stock and shipping it through their network of retailers in double quick time at half the profit.

Given the sheer volume of beery traffic passing in and out of the loading doors, damages were inevitable. Typically, the offending cans or bottles would be removed and the remaining stock repackaged out back to be sold on, sometimes at a discount, often not. Damages – or to give it its butterily correct name – ullage – was a ludicrously lucrative business. The hope was that the brewer would credit them for the whole case, when in reality only one or two cans were damaged; they would then repack and resell the whole lot and effectively, double their money**. Usually, the Cash and Carrys gave the ullage a dedicated area; close to an unused loading bay or tucked out of the way of the key sales area. As you approached, there was the lactic smell of super strength lager turning to vinegar, oil-like spills on the floor, gel like in their viscosity, and beer flies (drosophila melanogaster, or the more common name bugus cerevesiae), who would drift and plummet in acrobatic displays then diving to feast on the sugars which the yeast were planning to consume in turn. It’s the same smell you get in a cellar where less than meticulous handling & cleaning practices are maintained.

Lindemans Framboise

The one that got away.

The back street Cash & Carry images came flashing back to me in an instant the other week, like rapid slide transitions in Powerpoint. We live in an old place, which has a small vault-like brick cellar below the room the dog sleeps in. You may justifiably ask what a bottle of Lindemans Framboise was doing in a fridge at all then, but let’s not get hung up here on the political correctness of beer storage. The point is that, made worse by a cold snap, the fridge temperature dropped and the beer made an escape for freedom. With surreptitious impact: what I found was a bottle essentially in tact: the cork still in; the crown in place, the foil seemingly undisturbed, but a huge plug of ice in the bottle and a spray of pinky-brown aging beery gloop covering the contents and inner sanctum of the fridge.

And my! The smell. Here was a characterful, already complex, heady beer, but given the chance to mature rapidly in contact with a room full of oxygen all for itself and probably some wild cellar yeasts snaffled up for good measure too. Vinegar, champagne, paint thinners or new emulsion perhaps, and fermenting raspberries – lots of fermenting raspberries in an advanced stage, über fruity yet sour and winey too. The memory, in short, of a potential great beer with a dash of Smethwick Cash & Carry.

 

*The term for a full 38 ton lorry of beer

** On one occasion, being full of youthful integrity, I refused to play ball and had to transport 20 cases of damaged Tennent’s Super cans, some of which were still spraying like a territorial cat through pinhead cracks, back to our depot. My Scirocco may have become The Zone Of The Piss Smelling Fly, but the Principle was worth upholding.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

A Belgian Tart

The question I pondered on while walking between the vast, oak maturation vats of Rodenbach was, ‘why here?’. The sour beers of west Flanders are another of the golden strands of uniqueness in the richly weft tapestry of Belgian brewing. But how? How did these insanely complex beers to brew, confrontationally surprising beers to drink, develop and thrive in this rather forlorn, horizonless town in the western reaches of Belgium?

This particular journey was something of an odyssey. In two days I had experienced breweries and brewers of Belgian special ale, lambic, white beers and now the sour beers. The connection was Palm, who had purchased the shares from the remaining members of the Rodenbach family in 1998 and were giving their time in order to strike a potential distribution deal. Rodenbach wasn’t on that agenda, but you could tell they were itching to show me the brewery when they learnt that beyond commercial considerations, I was also interested in their brewing heritage. We galloped across Flanders from north of Brussels to the east, past Oudenaarde, Bruges to Roselaere. I hadn’t quite appreciated what I was about to see.

Roselaere itself is industrial, located on a major canal that opened up the industry in the area, and played its part in later years in cementing Flemish identity. The landscape was lumpily flat; an occasional berg standing out afar; raised pavements curving sinuously over canal bridges, small copses of trees, the lower branches removed to give them an almost abstract, perfectly round-back Mister Men form. The buildings typically sported Dutch gables and the characteristic thumb high brown bricks that add extra emphasis to their mortar and horizontal plane. The influences on the beers of Roselaere were from all sides; from Flanders to the east, from the Netherlands to the north, France to the south and from England a short paddle over the water westwards, where at the time ageing beers in wood was most advanced and widely practised.

Portugal and others 2006 031_fotorIn comparison to the earthy plainness of the town and surrounding countryside, the brewery is arresting. I have visited brewing sites in the Czech Republic and Bavaria and stood in awe at cathedrals to brewing. The lager tanks below the Smíchov brewery in Prague; the billowing beer tents of Munich’s Oktoberfest or the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart; the medieval fairytale dreamland of Bamberg’s breweries; or the intimacy of drinking fresh Kölsch next to their maturation tanks in a bar in Cologne. This was something else though; a brewery of complexity and astounding, industrial design it left me dumbstruck.  I padded round, head straining back and forth, I struggling to compute the intricate details of ingredients, fermentation regimes and processes, the effects of aging, the alchemies of blending. Yet the impact of the brewery hit home immediately; the idiosyncratically beautiful malt drying house and in particular, the halls of foeders, their huge oak maturation barrels. Thick vertical staves reach 15 feet up, more for some; with a burnished nutty complexion and stand-out grain more like chestnut or pitch pine and a sheen as if massaged with the natural oil from workers’ hands over countless years. Multiple bands of iron hold the pressured tanks together, picked out in letter-box red, whilst resting on small stone feet, picked out in whitewash, which allow air to circulate and tapping or moving the beer. Each was numbered with a wrought iron plaque like those on the side of a steam engine.

Portugal and others 2006 032_fotorLater I attempted to decipher my mental notes: it is a mixed fermentation; the young beer is first fermented in stainless steel tanks with a mixed culture: a magical soupy catalyst developed from when Rodenbach cooled their beers in the large, shallow, open top coolships once used widely in Belgian breweries, less so today. The mix is a typically hungry strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae and bacteria which produce lactic acid. They ferment in that order too, the first producing the fruitiness, the second the more complex tangy, tart characters. But as if this wasn’t enough, most of the beer is then transferred to the foeders, where it matures for a further three years picking up the oaky tannins and retro confectionery tastes (Pear drops, Sherbet Lemons, and I even got a whiff of ‘Toxic Waste’ in there too (that’s sourness… if not that retro)).

The heart of the poet in me celebrated this wonderful beer shrine with its wonderful, distinctive beers; the hard commercial head fretted over how long it would last in the cut throat world of globalising brewing, where enzymes and ‘essences’ are used to mimic the complex flavours of genuine craft.

IMG_2028_fotorPerhaps though, the trenches of defence lie in the beers themselves. These are not easily attainable beers, not instant crowd pleasers. They all need a rite of passage; multiple attempts; repeated sipping through quizzical looks, gurning faces and sharp intakes of breath on encountering the sourness. They display layers of complexity which anyone with a normal food vocabulary would be unable to compute – ‘what was that?’. Biscuity malty notes; fruity spiciness; oaky tannins; cidery appley bite; the sour aromas of wine vinegars with the sharp tanginess of wild bacteria. Rodenbach is a reasonably sizeable brewery but their products are niche. Many brewers, trained in industrial scale lager and ale brewing dismiss them as undrinkable (undrinkable classics, perhaps). The beer writer Michael Jackson felt somewhat exploited when he was quoted ad nauseum by the brewery after describing Rodenbach’s beer (the Grand Cru) as ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’. Yet you can see where he was coming from; the complex fruitiness on first sip gives a layers of flavour reward whilst the tartness gives a pleasing sour pinch in the aftertaste. A virtuous circle of quenching drinkability and savouring reflection? In recent times, I read that the blend of Rodenbach original had been amended to make it slightly sweeter, less sour – a larger proportion of young to old beer and on drinking a bottle recently I would concur. The lines of defensibility though lie in remaining highly different, a difference which Rodenbach should both emphasise and treasure.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Where the wild things are

The first time I went to New York everything was so familiar I managed to convince myself that I must have been here before. I hadn’t. Years of episodes of Taxi, Friends, big budget movies, low rent movies and the persistent ability to be at the centre of global news makes it so familiar. From the ridiculous to the sublime perhaps, but I feel the same way about Brussels and the Payottenland, the low, hedge lined, deep ditched farmlands out to the west of the Belgian capital. I’ve been only twice, both fleetingly.  The first time was a road trip, passing through whilst heading elsewhere and pausing only on the outskirts of the capital. The second was a business trip, where any memory was wiped clean by one too many devilish beers in La Mort Subite.  

Yet it all seemed so familiar. And again, this was the case when I received some Cantillon lambic beers from Beer Hawk last week: the Gueuze, the Kriek and the Rosé de Gambrinus framboise. I’ve not been to Cantillon yet, but ex-colleague, friend and Edinburgh brewer Bob Knops has – some of his photos appear below. The product shots are mine: strange how even the packaging can link you to a place. These are the bottles of gourmands. Of people who care for tradition and taste above function and form. Thick, heavy weight bottles, fortified bases to withstand the pressure of refermentation in the bottle; wide brimmed crowns, levered off to reveal a cork seal below. Unnecessary? Antiquated? Yes to both if you wanted to argue it that way, which underlines how important these beers are.

Cantillon brews in a very traditional way, even for lambic beers; making a gloopy, turbid mash of malted barley and unmalted wheat; a prolonged and vigourous boil with the addition of aged, cheesy hops, required not for their aroma but their antiseptic band-aid protection. And then inoculation of the wild yeasts begins, as the wort is put in a broad and shallow coolship, under the roof beams of the brewery, to let nature’s playthings have their saucy way with the wort’s sugars.  For the base lambic, the beer is moved into oak barrels, where it goes through a journey of staged fermentations, not just with brewing yeasts, but wild yeasts and bacterias that produce a wild array of different flavours & aromas. These fermentations are only complete two years later (and potentially longer).

The Gueuze is a blend of young (roughly two year old lambic) and older, 3+ years,  lambic. The older lambic is reinvigorated by the sugars remaining in its younger sibling and refermentation begins anew. The result is a sparkling beer (unlike lambic, which like traditional cider is all bit still).  Immediately on prising out the cork the wild aromas fly out: winey, ascetic, and vaguely pooey, a mucky straw smell like a remember from the floor around Reynolds farm when I was younger. Unattractive? The description sounds it I’m sure, but the words do not do justice to the aroma which is endearingly attractive – surprising, and complex.  To the eye, it was a hazy yet vivid gold, with a profuse head that quickly dissipated to a thin velvety sheet atop the beer.  Carbonation was visible and audible, and felt too, with a tingly sizzle in the mouth. The taste is led by a coating dryness, quite sour but appetising and finished with a surprising touch of lemon peel.

The Kriek lambic was a delight too: building on the flavours and aromas of the Gueuze but overlain of course with the marzipan nuttiness of cherry stones and the plump berry fruitiness of the cherry flesh. The beer was burgundy red in colour, with a pink, sustained, head that formed energetically. This was a refined beer: which in a ironic twist tasted fresh and young despite its ageing. The playfully named Rosé de Gambrinus is the real jewel.  Whole raspberries are steeped in two year old lambic only. Compared with the other two, at first I thought this beer was thinner, less complex – but on continued drink, so I realised what an elegant, refined beer it is – more a champagne than a Rosé. To smell, there’s plenty of delicate berry fruit, yet it’s not over sweet and has a clear, corky sourness too. The beer had taken the ruddy hue of the raspberries with a lighter, pink head than the Kriek and a strong, excitable, effervescent carbonation. To taste, the beer was neither as dry nor as punchily sour as the other two, but it was sour all the same – drinkably so. The raspberry sweetness – the little there is surprisingly – is superbly balanced, just sweet enough to pull you back for the next sip yet with a complementing, ascetic bite to complete the circle and quench. It’s nothing like sweetened beers that are increasingly popular where the sugar has been used in the fermentation. In fact it’s nothing other than an excellent framboise; an excellent beer.

I must go there, to this rural brewery in the the city. But when I do, it’ll feel like an old friend I’m sure.

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© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014
First three photos,Bob Knops. http://www.knopsbeer.co.uk

Tinted Shorts: Mort Subite, original Gueuze, 4.5%

"there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present."

“there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present.”

Lowlander Grande Café, London, June 2014

I’m fascinated by spontaneous fermentation. Can there be a stronger link in any food or drink we consume today with the beginnings of civilization; the beginnings of domestication and agriculture? I also find it fascinating that as a brewing method it has only survived in Payottenland in Belgium (at least until recently). Is it because allowing the wort to cool in the attic space, open to the elements is a mucky and time consuming way of doing things? Is it the simple hit-and-miss nature of it all?   Is it the end result – uncarbonated lambics – that are too limited in appeal and there variants, Gueuze, Kriek, Frambozen, Faro too time consuming, too tricky to master?

I thought about these questions as I sipped my Mort Subite Original Gueuze in Lowlander this week. It came in a natty little 25cl bottle which, at 4.5% ABV, was just right for the time. On pouring it was a burnished Chesterfield brown with visible strings of carbonation firing up form around the base of the glass. The head was open and fine, leaving lacing diaphanous and sheer, not the clumpy lines of mixed gas draught beer. There’s a marked (appley?) fruitiness in this gueuze and to sip, a gentle sweet wineyness too (hints of orange muscat dessert wine?); there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics – perhaps not enough in fact – but sufficient farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts have been working their magic. It’s not a classic Gueuze by any means; but for the time and place it was smooth, approachable and sufficiently interesting.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Lager, Part 8: Frankenbier

In Western Europe and North America breweries are opening again at a tremendous rate.  There are more breweries now in the U.S. than there were before Prohibition in 1919; there are more breweries in the U.K now since about the same.  Countries traditionally more focused on the vine than the bine are now tooling up and building breweries, with craft beer in healthy growth in countries such as France, Spain and Italy.

Yet until recently, over half of the World’s breweries – the World’s breweries – were in one country. You don’t need me to tell you which, I’m sure.  Not only was Germany easily the most breweried nation, over 50% of those breweries were in just one State, Bavaria.  And whilst we tend to associate Bavaria with Munich, the most heavily breweried part is further north, a band of rolling, rich agricultural land called Franconia. Indeed, it is said (although not officially measure or recorded) that it isn’t the Czechs who drink the most beer per head, but the Franks. It’s probably true. The region is peppered with breweries, from Nurenburg in the east to the traditional wine lands of Wurzburg in the west. From large, industrial breweries now part of national or multinational chains, to farmhouse breweries operated as co-operatives by village residents.  It is a beer dreamland; the royal palace of beer. And the crown jewel is Bamberg.

I have written of Bamberg before. Go there. Even long suffering partners will not complain when they see this medieval peach of a town. If needs must, passing off visiting the numerous beer halls as essential cultural, tourist-trail immersions should be a relatively straightforward strategy.  But for wine lovers, one brewery in particular may be a step too far. For Bamberg is known in particular for brewing one speciality, one style of beer utterly uncompromising in flavour. Like Lambics in Belgium, it is a style of beer that will transport you back to a distant past; of primitive brewing technologies, an age of agriculture and beer as subsistence not savouring.

The beer is rauchbier. Smoke beer. Open a bottle of rauchbier and you don’t get the aromas of malt or hops – well, not initially at least. Rather, these are the aromas of smoked meat or smoked salmon. A campfire, with damp kindling is brought to mind, woodsmoke drifting lazily through the sluggish early Autumn air.  The aromas come from smoked malt, kilned most typically over beechwood, the benefit, it is generally believed, was to enhance the keeping qualities of the beer but more likely, it was a taste acquired when many foods were preserved with smoke. A natural partner: spicy, smoked German sausage, or deliciously oily smoked eel perhaps, washed down with a rauchbier.

These are not beers for the faint-hearted. Once, in a bar in Leith – the Pond – I spotted a bottle of Bamberg’s most famous rauchbier from the Heller brewery in the fridge. I ordered a bottle and let an inquisitive colleague stick his nose in. He recoiled, aghast: “Peperami!” he spat. “You can’t drink that!”.

IMG_1316IMG_1317That was the beer I first encountered in Bamberg many years ago. It wasn’t a chance encounter – we, my brother and I, went in search of it. The Heller Brewery is tiny in global terms, but big in the town. It’s the bar against which other rauchbiers are measured and their bar serves rauchbier in large measures.  The brewery itself has a wonderful tap & restaurant, with dishes paired to go with their beer. And that beer is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Genuine Schlenkerla smoke beer. It is baroque. No, medieval is better – even the bottle label seems smoked stained. The typography is illegibly Germanic. The bottle shape, chunky, straightforward, utilitarian.  Everything about it says ‘what is inside is important’. Yet there are surprises. For such a full-on flavour fest, this is a lagered beer. Not, obviously in the Bavarian helles style, this is a dunkel lager – a stronger Märzen in fact. And as it proclaims on the label: “Dem Bayerische Reinheitsgebot entsprechend gebrautes” This is a beer authentically brewed according to the Bavarian Purity Law – no funny business to deliver that smoky flavour; just malt, hops and water.  And all this makes sense. Because Schlenkerla drinks counter-intuitively. Everything about the bottle says heavy, intense, challenging. The aroma on opening the bottle and pouring the beer strengthens this views; the first sip taking it further.

Yet wait. Go beyond what your mind is telling you and drink. Breathe. For a powerful beer, this isn’t overpowering. The smoke is mainly in the head, captured in the cells between the bubbles. The liquid is softer; a digestive-like maltiness is there, some gentle warming alcohol esters and most surprisingly, little bitterness. The flavour in fact fades quite quickly. It is a remarkably drinkable beer.  More than that, it is an evocative beer. A beer that takes you back to a place. Even if you haven’t been to Bamberg, Schlenkerla takes you back in time. To steep gabled, half timbered, medieval streets maybe. And certainly, to a taste of how beer once was that we have now almost forgotten.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014