Saturday, December 22, 2012

The 12 Beers of Christmas (part 2)

A Christmas Beer Buying Guide

With this being the second post titled "The Twelve Beers of Christmas," I suppose this is more accurately "The Twenty-Four Beers of Christmas." But after twelve Christmas beers, who's counting anyway?

Without much preamble, I'm going to launch right into the next twelve. Just as in part one, I've included a price guide (based upon a 12oz. beer):
$ = No more than $5
$$ = $6 - $10
$$$ = $10 and up
And while it probably goes without saying, these prices are based upon New England market price.

Mikkeller: Santa's Little Helper 2012 ($$$)

In an effort for symmetry, I decided to start this edition with another of Mikkeller's Christmas offerings. Santa's Little Helper is a Belgian Dark Strong Ale. Some sources list it as 9.1%, while others I've seen list it a 10%. Either way, it's a strong beer. (As I had this on tap, I wasn't privy to the bottle. If anyone has had it and can confirm the ABV, I'd be grateful!). The beer was boozy and warming, with robust flavors of chocolate, molasses, buttered rum, and fruitcake. A lovely beer that requires gentle sips.

Brauwerij St. Bernardus: Christmas Ale 2011 ($$)

This has long been one of my favorite Christmas beers. It was also one of the first I had ever had, several years ago. With flavors of rich fruitcake, cherries, almond, molasses, and minerals, it really is the perfect Christmas beer.

To drift into the land of pure subjectivity, in my opinion, I recommend reaching for the bottled version as opposed to the one on tap. While on tap, the beer can be a bit syrupy and sweet with a strong candied cherry flavor. In contrast, when in the bottle, the flavors balance, the sweetness subsides, and the rich darker flavors come to the fore. And if you have a place to cellar the beer, I strongly encourage aging a bottle for a year or two. It really does make a world's worth of difference (just be careful when you pour; this is a highly carbonated beer... as my picture shows!)

Brasserie Dubuisson: Bush de Noël (Scaldis Noël) ($$)

Depending where you are in the world, this beer has two different names. In the United States, it's labeled as "Scaldis Noël," whereas in most of Europe it is "Bush de Noël." There is also a "Premium" version, though I think the only difference is that it is packaged in a larger bottle with a much higher price tag. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, though, please let me know!

Scaldis Noël is a full bodied Belgian Dark Strong Ale (and it's strong, clocking in at 12%), with flavors of browned butter, fruits, dark sugars, and a warm booziness that reminds me of a hot buttered rum. This is a lovely beer to come back to after a night of caroling or tromping through the snow. It should mature very nicely with a few years of age.

Anchorage Brewing Company: Whiteout Wit Beer ($$$)

This beer is amazing, and one of my favorite beers this season. Completely unlike every other Christmas beer I've ever had, it is a wheat beer with brett, lending a bit of funkiness. Super high levels of carbonation, it is an effervescent drink that feels like champagne in the mouth. Lemon curd and tapioca flavors are present. If you can find this gem, splurge and buy one.

Southern Tier Brewing Company: 2XMAS ($)

Brewed in the spirit of a Swedish Glögg, this beer does suggest a mulled wine. Pouring a warm red, there are strong aromas of candied apple and cinnamon, with flavors of cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and mace. If you're looking for an unusual beer that borrows heavily from "Christmas flavors," this could be the beer for you.

Smuttynose Brewing Company: Winter Ale ($)

When I first began getting into craft beer, this was one of my favorite winter ales. For starters, it's very affordable and available at Trader Joes. A Belgian-style Dubbel, it has a richness that hides a relatively low ABV for the style (5.8%). Lots of banana up front with cloves, chocolate nibs, and a slight tartness in the mouth.

Penn Brewery: St. Nikolaus Doppelbock ($$)

Despite the fact that most of the Christmas-beer market is dominated by Belgian-style ales, I have a true soft spot for German-style Christmas beers. This particular doppelbock is surprisingly drinkable with a very light mouthfeel and mild, subdued flavors of chocolate and plums. It really hides the 9% ABV well.

Sierra Nevada: Celebration Ale 2012 ($)

This beer is truly an American classic. Unlike most other Christmas/Winter Ales, Celebration is a full bodied IPA. Notes of pine with a long, dry finish, this is a fresh-hopped ale that is thoroughly delightful. I have found myself reaching for this beer often as a hoppy alternative to the more common rich and malty Christmas beers.

Breckenridge Brewery: Christmas Ale ($)

I was surprised with the strong coffee aroma I got from Breckenridge's Christmas Ale. But those coffee scents were nicely blended with fragrances of orange peel. This 7.4% Winter Warmer has a silken mouth feel with lots of fruitcake flavors, leaving behind a lingering grassy hop finish. Not overly rich, it is pleasantly warming on the way down. A nice Christmas offering, especially considering the price point.

Watch City Brewing: Winter Ale ($$)

Tired of all the rich flavors, but you're still looking for the general flavors of a Christmas beer? Reach for Watch City's Winter Ale. It's smooth and drinkable with no in-your-face profile. Light flavors of clove, cinnamon, and candied fruits make up the body of the beer.

Baxter Brewing Company: Phantom Punch Winter Stout ($)

I'm not sure if Baxter really considers this a "Christmas beer," (the beer is named after a famous – and highly controversial – boxing match. Though ironically the character on the can also resembles the old "Phantom" cartoon strip), but the flavor and style certainly fits. And it's a winter seasonal that I tasted while compiling this list. And I loved it. Strong flavors of coffee grounds, cocoa nibs, and bourbon, with a complimenting vanilla flavor in the background, this 6.8% Foreign Extra Stout comes highly recommended!

Shipyard Brewing Company: Prelude Special Ale ($)
OK, in an effort for full disclosure, I have to admit that I wasn't super crazy about this beer, but it's not really the fault of the brewer. Shipyard brews with Ringwood yeast, which is a particular English yeast strain I am not terribly partial to (although I did brew Churchyard's Thanksgiving Ale with this yeast strain). It is a very polarizing yeast strain; some love it, others don't. Love it or hate it, this beer really displays the Ringwood well with strong flavors of overripe fruit and musky dirt. If you are a fan of Shipyard's beer, or you know that you like the flavor profile of the Ringwood strain, I can assure you that you will like this beer.



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The 12 Beers of Christmas (part 1)

A Christmas Beer Buying Guide

I love Christmas. I love the trees, the cookies, the music, the caroling. I love seeing family and friends and exchanging gifts. And I particularly love the beer.

I have to admit, I am sort of a sucker for Christmas beers. Smack a Santa Claus or a snowflake on your bottle, and I will be tempted to buy it. I probably spend way too much money, but I can't help it! Each year I am tempted to try every new Christmas beer I can find, not to mention revisit my old favorites. And they are so good!!

I often get asked just what exactly constitutes a Christmas beer, and it's the fact that there is no real answer to that question that makes them so exciting. There's no official characteristics that a Christmas beer must have; it's really just what the brewer deems most fitting to accompany the season.

Generally a Christmas beer is higher in alcohol, full flavored, and spiced with warming spices. Often they are darker colored. Popular base styles include Belgian Dark Ales, Belgian Quadruples, and Winter Warmers. Yet a brewer could reasonably decide to make a light colored, lower ABV wheat beer and call it "Christmas" (which is exactly what Sam Adams decided to do).

What follows are some of the Christmas beers I have enjoyed this holiday season. I currently live in Boston, so my list is generally limited to those beers I can find here in the city. I have also included a general price point for each 12 oz. beer:
$ = No more than $5
$$ = $6 - $10
$$$ = $10 and up 
And please! Leave your comments! Do you have a favorite Christmas beer? Let us know!

Mikkeller: Ris a la M'ale ($$$)

I decided to start the list with what might be my new favorite beer for the season. At 8% ABV, the beer is strong but drinkable, and without a hint of the alcohol, it goes down much too easily! Brewed with cherries and almonds, the cherry flavor takes center stage, but the almond flavor is there and compliments the cherry nicely. It's a little sour and tart, but not overly so. If you can get your hands on one, I would say that this beer is well worth the price.

Corsendonk: Christmas Ale ($$)

One of my favorite Christmas Ales, Corsendonk's offering is a Belgian Dark Strong Ale (8.5%) with flavors of mild chocolates, dried fruits, rum, and cherry cola. It is perfectly balanced and can be enjoyed all night.

De Dolle: Stille Nacht ($$)

This year was my first experience tasting this Belgian Golden Ale, and boy it packs a punch! The 12% ABV is felt right away, and it warms your insides the whole way down. With aromas of tropical fruit and cloves, there are flavors of rich brown sugar, toffee, allspice, banana, and cinnamon. This is a powerful and very full flavored beer; enjoyable, but sip it slowly. I could see this one responding nicely to some time in the cellar.

Avery: Old Jubilation ($)

Speaking of time in the cellar, I tasted a three year old "Old Jubilation" from my cellar this year. What a lovely beer it is, and time was really on its side. An 8.3% Winter Warmer, there are rich flavors of coffee and ripe fruit, with a faint tartness to it. The age helped to blend the flavors, but it didn't eliminate the booziness: unlike "Ris a la M'ale," this beer shows you every inch of it's 8.3%!

Southern Oregon Brewing (SOB): Old Humbug ($$)

I picked up this bottle in the fall of 2011 and pulled it out this year. Though described as an 8.2% Winter Warmer, it seemed to more closely resemble a mild barleywine. A fantastic nose of chocolate, wet dirt, raisins, and cherries gave way to a surprisingly thin mouth without a hint of a finish. A tad disappointing  especially after such an incredible nose.

Anchor: 2012 Our Special Christmas Ale ($)

Surprisingly low ABV for a Christmas beer, Anchor's 2012 Christmas offering is a 5.5% Winter Warmer. What it lacks in alcohol, though, it more than makes up in flavor and body. A huge up front candied cherry aroma mixes with scents of wintergreen and bubblegum. Almost tart in the mouth with an ashen finish, there are hints of pine resin and a dry-hopped earthiness. Their recipe for this beer changes every year, and I really found this year's version quite special.

Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams): White Christmas ($)

Probably one of the more unusual Christmas offerings I've had, "White Christmas" is a 5.8% witbier. A little imbalanced and heavily spiced, there are lots of up front spicy cinnamon and clove flavors that blend with a distinct wheat and banana yeast character. By no means a bad beer, though probably not among my favorite recipes for the season.

Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams): Merry Mischief ($$)

Another Sam's Christmas beer, this could hardly be more different from "White Christmas." Labeled as a "Gingerbread Stout," this 9% beer is intense with a ginger and molasses nose, and flavors of pecans, ginger, and blackstrap molasses. Nutty and sweet, the beer is over the top, but really fantastic. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but I was very, very pleasantly surprised. I don't know how long they are going to brew this beer, so if you can get your hands on it, give it a try.

21st Amendment: Fireside Chat ($)

A 7.9% Winter Warmer, "Fireside Chat" features rich malts, brown sugar, molasses, and a long hop finish that blends with a slight earthiness. A pleasant beer and very warming.

Anderson Valley: Winter Solstice ($)

My friends with whom I was drinking this 6.9% Winter Warmer really loved this beer, but I found it a tad too artificial for my own tastes. I honestly felt as though I was sipping a Yankee Candle. Candy cinnamon (like an Atomic Fire Bomb without the fire), strawberry, and kool aid fruit punch were the dominant flavors. Not my cup of tea.

Affligem Brauwerij: Affligem Noël (Christmas Ale) ($$$)

This 9% Belgian Strong Dark Ale was lovely from start to finish. Aromas of black pepper mixed with tons of bubblegum. The beer pours crazy clear with a mouth as smooth as silk. Flavors of cloves, fresh bread, and cinnamon round out this perfectly balanced beer.

Churchyard Brewery: Nativity Ale ($)

My first attempt at brewing a Christmas Ale, "Nativity Ale" is a 6.5% Belgian Pale Ale spiced with orange zest, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. The yeast took center stage with this beer, and I tasted dry biscuit and mild fruits. Very little orange aromas, unfortunately, though that might be my only real complaint. Quite drinkable, and one I shall continue to enjoy throughout this holiday season!

Next week: we continue the holiday guide with another set of twelve beers. Until then...



Friday, November 9, 2012

The Great Russian River

Wow. Where has the time gone? Not that I need further reminders just how busy life gets come Autumn, but the fact that I haven't contributed to the blog since September does just that! Many apologies to my regular readers!

Since the last posting I have been doing a lot of traveling. I've given concerts in California, Virginia, and North Dakota, and I had the opportunity to visit several nice local bars and taste some wonderful local brews. The highlights? Sipping beers at JL Beers in Grand Forks, North Dakota after a performance at the Digital Arts Festival, joining the Capital Ale House in Richmond, Virginia for their 10th anniversary party, and being introduced to Hardywood Park Craft Brewery (also in Richmond), from whom I got to enjoy their Singel: a lovely Belgian style pale beer with mild spice, pronounced biscuit flavors, and subtle hops.

But the absolute highlight of the trip? Visiting Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, California.

For those who don't know, Russian River is one of the most famous breweries amongst beer lovers. Their Double IPA Pliny the Younger is widely considered one of the best beers in the world (current BeerAdvocate ratings have it listed at #1), and Pliny the Elder, another DIPA, is always in the top ten. Famous not only for their American IPAs, but also their Belgian style beers, their three sours – Supplication, Consecration, and Temptation – are regarded as the best American Wild Ales that can also stand toe-to-toe with the greatest of the international sours.

Due to the fact that Russian River does not ship to Massachusetts, prior to my visit, I had a very limited history with Russian River. Several years ago, while living in Los Angeles, Lucky Baldwins Pub in Pasadena had a Russian River Tap Takeover. Though I had been familiar with their beer, this was my first personal introduction to their work. (As an aside: Pliny the Younger made an appearance at that event; according to the waiters that day, there was a line stretching around the block five hours before the bar opened! I got there right at opening, and when I asked for a pint of PtY, I only received raucous laughter...) I remember being blown away by everything I tasted, but I still had to wonder just how well they would live up to this tremendously high reputation.

I arrived at the brewery around 4pm. The brewpub is right in the middle of the downtown of Santa Rosa and from the outside is pretty unassuming. In fact, if I hadn't heard of the brewery previously, I very well may have driven right past.

The restaurant is fairly large with a long bar and lots of seating. There were plenty of open seats when I arrived, though the bar filled up quite a bit not long after I arrived. I took a table with a friend (positioned right in front of a large HDTV broadcasting the baseball playoffs), and we ordered the tasting flight.

For the most part, a brewery's tasting flight is usually a selection of four or five beers, 4oz each. In contrast, the flight at Russian River was a 4oz pour of each of their beers. Each of their 19 beers.

When the flight is delivered, the bartender explains how best to proceed: start with the lighter American beers, work through to the Porters and Stouts, move on to the big American hoppy beers, continue onto the Belgian style beers (going light to dark), and finishing with the sours.

Pliny the Younger was absent that evening as it is only released in February. However, I did get to try Aud Blonde, O.V.L. Stout, Russian River Porter, Happy Hops, Row2/Hill56, Bling Pig IPA, Pliny the Elder, It Takes A Lot of Great Beer to Make A Great Wine, Redemption, Little White Lie, Perdition, Damnation, Benediction, Sanctification, Temptation, Supplication, Consecration, Brux, and Framboise For A Cure.

If I were to write on each of the beers, I'd have to write a book. But a few of the beers really stood out and deserve an extra-honorable mention:

Great Beer/Great Wine was a phenomenal American Pale Ale. At 4.7%, it had a bit of a pine aroma and tons of citrus flavors. Russian River describes the beer as "a toast to our winemaking friends who work around the clock during harvest to make world-class wine right here in our own back yard." I know I would eagerly reach for this beer while harvesting grapes!

Framboise For A Cure (7.5%) is an A+ sour ale, aged in Chardonnay barrels with brettanomyces, lactobacillus and pediococcus with 100 pounds (per barrel) of raspberries added. And how those raspberries shine! Wonderful fruity aromas with a mouth like tart raspberry purée. And 100% of the proceeds are used to aid in the fight against breast cancer!

Salvation (9.0%) is a phenomenal Belgian style Strong Dark Ale. Full flavored, fruity, with lots of chocolate (dare I say tootsie roll?) flavor. A warm boozy finish, it stands out as among the best American interpretations of this style.

After tasting all 19 beers, I had to conclude my evening with a pint of my two favorites. To accompany my meal, I first ordered Pliny the Elder. At 8%, it is one of the most balanced beers I've ever tasted. No hint of alcohol, just a rounded fruitiness: nothing pokes you in this beer. It absolutely lives up to its reputation.

And following that (good thing I wasn't the one driving home!), I chose to finish my night with Consecration (10%): a massive Sour Dark Ale aged with black currants in Cabernet Sauvignon Barrels for 8 months. Caramel and rich fruits, hints of Cab mingling with flavors of sherry and port, everything is beautifully balanced. It is heaven in the mouth!

Five hours later we were ready to head home. Very happy and a tad tipsy, I revelled in the magnificent experience I just had. And I could safely say: Russian River is, in fact, one of the greatest breweries in the world.



Thursday, September 20, 2012

Needmore Beer

After a lovely summer in Berlin, it was time to return to the United States. My first stop was Paoli, Indiana, home of my wife's sister's family and their two children. Though I was hoping to taste some good local beer, I didn't have any high expectations for visiting any interesting breweries; Paoli is a small farming town (3700 people) with a strong Amish population. It just didn't strike me as fertile ground for a brewery.

And yet, as so often happens, I was wrong.

Shortly after arriving, my sister-in-law showed me an article in the local paper featuring a new brewery in the neighboring unincorporated town of Needmore. The brewery, which was housed in a converted autobody shop, seemed to be a fairly controversial little watering hole. Positioned on a former-country-highway-now-dead-end-street, it sits across the street from a Baptist Church and down the road from an Evangelical Megachurch. And the parishioners of these churches were none too pleased over this new brewery.

"Do the owners [of this brewery] care about the community?" complained one neighbor. "Do they realize how adversely alcohol affects relationships, families, homes? Do they realize they could be contributing to drinking and driving by offering beer to go?... Many who consume alcoholic beverages are experts at hiding the effects. Do they have a breathalyzer? Maybe police patrolling the area should have one handy. In my opinion, Lawrence County is further putting itself in Satan's grasp with the operation of this establishment. I will be praying (and I ask others to) that the doors of this establishment close." [1]


Salt Creek Brewery is owned by Brad Hawkins and Darby Jordan, and arguably has the most unique atmosphere of any brewery I have previously visited. The autobody vibe still hovers, as the building looks more like a gas station than a brewery. Inside, tom-toms and cymbals are used as light fixtures, and the brew kettles sit behind the bar in the former alignment pit.

Though open to people of all ages, the brewery definitely caters to an over-21 crowd. The brewery has two sections: the main brewery with a stage, long bar, and the brew kettles, and a smaller adjacent room with little character. People order food from a window in the smaller room, and if one is over 21, they can take it into the main brewery. Everyone else gets to sit at picnic tables in the rather sterile garage extension.

The food was decent, though unremarkable. I ate a pulled pork sandwich which had far too little pork and was served on a store bought hamburger bun. My sister-in-law had a ruben sandwich which was fairly mediocre with very mild flavors and not much sauce. My nephew had a chili dog which, in a unanimous decision, was the best dinner ordered (and neither my sister-in-law nor I are hot dog fans). The hot dog was a high quality all beef dog, and the chili had a pretty full flavor with hints of cinnamon.

When I visited, the brewery had eight different beers on tap. All of the beers were well made, and, in my opinion, catered to an audience that was unfamiliar with craft beer. Thus, the majority of the beers were fairly conservative examples of their respective styles, but all very drinkable and well made.

My personal favorite of the eight was the Colonel Klink Alt, a 5.1% German Alt with a full nutty/caramel flavor and a mild hop backdrop. Also quite good was their Black Dog Scottish Ale, a low carbonated 4.8% inky black ale, with bits of coffee and a silken mouthfeel. The Out of Order IPA was incredibly mild with, according to the brewer, just barely enough Cascade hops to qualify as an IPA under the BJCP guidelines.

It will be interesting to see how well Salt Creek Brewery does, nestled in the outskirts of Needmore. It's certainly not your typical Southern Indiana pub, but Brad Hawkins doesn't want it to be. "If you come in drunk, or you're looking to get drunk, then you're in the wrong place," Hawkins said. "We're not in the business of competing with our friends who own bars. We want people to come in because they want a beer you've brewed yourself – those who see it as the art form that it is... We want this to become a nice tourist attraction and destination in Lawrence County. My goal is to make this a place that benefits the community." [2]

There's no doubt that Hawkins and Jordan have the chops and the creativity to be successful brewers. All they need now are a few disciples.

Salt Creek Brewery
466 Old State Rd. 37
Bedford, Indiana 47421
812-277-taps (8277)

Next Issue: Hop Scotch



[1] Times-Mail: Letter to the Editor. May 23, 2012

[2] Times-Mail, May 22, 2012. Article by Krystal Shelter.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Berlin Craft Beer Guide

As I mentioned in an earlier post, when I announced to my beer0loving friends that I was spending a summer in Berlin, most lamented that I was visiting Germany's least interesting beer-city. I made posts on both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer looking for suggestions of breweries or bars, and though I got a couple of helpful suggestions that got me started on the right foot, most commentators echoed the sentiments of my other friends: good luck finding any good beer. At The Festival, I spoke to two different German brewers who repeated the now common refrain: there is no good beer in Berlin.

But I am stubborn. I simply couldn't believe that a city as significant as Berlin would be such a lame duck in terms of beer. Berlin has everthing, why wouldn't it also have great beer?

Thankfully, my stubbornness won out, and I discovered that there is a Berlin craft beer scene. Though it is small and in its infancy, there is a growing population of local beer enthusiast that are convinced that there is more to beer than watered down macro-brew. They are excited, passionate, and can talk beer for hours. And most of them seemed pretty willing to chat with an American who was just as passionate as they!

This is quite an underground scene and a tad difficult for an outsider to discover: ask 100 random Berliners, and chances are pretty high none of them will know of any craft beer in Berlin. (Or for that matter, chances are high they won't even know what craft beer is!) Hell, even my American beer0crazed friends knew nothing of it. Yet after spending two months in Berlin, I came away with the opinion that there is at least one brewery, one bar, and one store that are of a high enough caliber to sugest a slightly different future for Berlin: a future where craft beer isn't such an esoteric oddity, but rather something served (and drunk!) at every bar and restaurant in the city.

OK, I exaggerate: that's probably not going to happen in our lifetime. But, maybe in five or ten years, at least two out of a hundred Berliners would know just what craft beer is.


Though Berlin boasts a little over twenty breweries, very few of them branch beyond traditional German beer styles. By now, I have mentioned Brewbaker beers in several previous blog posts, mainly in regards to their IPA and their Weisse. They brew several different beers, and in addition to the obligatory Pilsener (unfortunately the only Brewbaker beer I was unable to try), they also brew several other American, English, and German styles, all of which were at the very least well done, and at the best, pretty specatular. With the slogan "Nicht für Weicheier!" (Not for wimps), there's no doubt this is Berlin's most unique brewer... by far.

The brewery is well outside the tourist parts of town, nestled in the back of the Arminius Marthalle: an indoor market full of butchers, fish, and fruit stands. The brewery's "bar" (they supply the quotes) is a single L-shaped bar with three stools and a few tables. There's a chalkboard listing the beer available and also a small refrigerator holding bottles for sale. Sadly on the ay I visiting the brewery, the brewer himself was ill. In his place was a surly young bartender who didn't' care much for either the beer he was pouring or conversation of any kind. Brewery tours and Beer Seminars are sporadically available, but none ever aligned themselves with my schedule and was thus never able to attend.

Just around the corner from the Markthalle is Zunftwirtschaft: a quaint little German restaurant that serves many of Brewbaker's beers. The wait staff is quite friendly and knowledgable, and the night I was there featured an outdoor grill with fresh sausages and chicken. The chef boasted that all of his ingredients are local, seasonal, and fresh, and it certainly tasted that way. This restaurant is well worth visiting, and actually provides a better opportunity to sample Brewbaker beer than the brewery itself.

The most surprising aspect to Brewbaker was how little one actually finds their beer in Berlin.  In fact, it would be tremendously easy for one to spend several months in Berlin and never learn of its existence. The website lists only fifteen restaurants that sever the beer, and at least one of those (Cafe Einstein) certainly didn't have any available when I was there. (Keep in mind: Berlin is home to thousands of restaurants.) Buying bottles to take home isn't necessarily easier: besides the brewery itself, only nine stores sell the beer, one of which appears to be purely online sales. This would be unheard of in most cities in the US, where the local microbreweries are proudly poured in dozens of different restaurants around town.

Of course, the easiest explanation is that the beer is "too sophisticated" or "too bitter" for the average Berliner. And while it may be true that the average Berliner has no interest in their Elder Blossom Ale or their Double IPA, I find it hard to believe that the same average Berliner wouldn't enjoy Brewbaker's Pilsener or Weisse.

Of the several beers I tried, my favorite is likely the Berliner Nacht. A dark Russian Imperial Stout of 9% abv, it is tremendously complex with notes of licorice, caramel, coffee grounds, bitter chocolate, and roasted malts. A great accompaniment with a square of bittersweet chocolate, this makes an excellent after-dinner beer.

Arminiusstraße 204

10551 Berlin
U-Bahn Turmstraße


Beer is easy to find in Berlin. Like just about every German twon, it is as ubiquitous as water. Thirsty? Walk no more than a block in any direction and you are bound to a find a local watering hole. But for those who are interested in more than Berliner Kindl or Schöfferhofer, there are very, very few options available.

Enter Das Maisterstück: Berlin's only craft beer bar. Situated only 500 meters outside of Schloßplatz and right next to the Hausvogeiplatz U-Bah, Das Maisterstück is a haven for any beer enthusiast. A relatively new establishment – they opened only five or six months ago – the restaurant/bar features high-end German cuisine in a low lit, homey, environment. When walking in, I was immediately greeted by a large open gril featuring an array of gourment sausages. With the grill lending a slight smoky haze to the room, there was a certain rustic quality to the entire place: it was immediately inviting, and I was immediately excited.

The restuarant has two beer refrigerators, the first featuring exlusively BrafactuM beers, the other shelving various German and international craft beers. On the walls are dozens of cukkoo clocks as well as pictures of Mark Rauschmann (head brewer of BraufactuM) and Garrett Oliver (head brewer of Brooklyn Brewery). While looking at the beer collection, I saw many beers with which I was unfamiliar, and a lovely server immediately came over and went through a thorough explanaion of every beer in the case. This was woman who knew her beer!

The evening was wonderful, and I tasted several fantastic beers, among them a Berliner Weisse brewed at the local brewing school, and Kroko: an exclusive Pilsener brewed by the restaurant's owner. The beer was slightly herbal, not overly minerally, and had flavors of hemp, noble hops, anise, and lavender. This was among the better Pilseners I had on my entire trip. [Apparently, though, our server didn't get a rather important memo: that particular beer wasn't supposed to be given to customers as it was the very last in existence. Yikes! Though I felt a little guilty, I have to admit, I'm happy the mistake was made; it was a really good beer!]

We were treated extremely well by our various servers, particularly Chris Shock. Chris was relatively new to craft beer and was anxious to try new styles and new varieties. And he was more than happy to sit and talk beer; in fact, the first night I visited, he probably spent just as much time sitting at our table as he spent working in the restaurant! Not that I minded in the slightest, of course; he was fantastic company, and his excitement over beer was palatable. He was also extremely generous, pouring us a couple different beers on the house.

One thing that particularly struck me about Das Maisterstück – and this is something that I have begun to notice about the German craft beer market in general (most notably BraufactuM): they seem to earnestly market craft beer as a gourmet experience. To illustrate: when entering, I was first given a taste of the featured high-end beer (this particular occasion was Darkon from BraufactuM). I was then given a beer list that reminded me – both in layout and price – of a French restaurant's wine list. While there were a handful of beers at relatively reasonable prices (including all consumed by my party that evening), many of the beers listed sported price tags far above market value. A couple beers were listed at around €60 a bottle, and even De Molen's Amarillo IPA, which I had seen at Maruhn's in Darmstadt for only €7 just the week before, was listed at €32. (Oof-dah.)

When a beer is ordered, the waiter brought over high-stemmed glasses for everyone at the table. The glasses, which are designed by BraufactuM, are beautiful and cover the nose perfectly as you sip, allowing just the right combination of flavor and aroma. A small amount of beer was then poured into the glass – the glass is never more than 1/4 full – and, depending upon the style, the bottle was then put into an ice bucket.

Is this a bad thing? With the exception of the prices, certainly not. The stemware is beautifully designed, my beer is served at the right temperature, and I'm having a great time and feeling like royalty. But it does strike me as unique, and a little unusual, that they would market their beer to such audiences. Perhaps because the average German has so little interest in anything other than macro-Pils, the craft beer scene determined that the gourmand, foodie, and wine connoisseur were the best target markets. Granted, if there's ever going to a possibility of sipping a great craft beer while watching a football game at a local pub, the German craft market will eventually have to target a different clientele.

Admittedly I haven't been to many German craft beer bars, and the extreme majority of German craft beers I try are bought at the store and taken home. Maybe the reader has had different experiences in German craft bars, and if so, I would genuinely like to hear your opinion (and for that matter, I would like to learn where these places are, in Berlin or otherwise). And I should also mention that having a gourmet-food/craft beer bar is in no way in-and-of-itself odd; it is rather the fact that this beer is only available at high-end locations that strikes me as curious.

In any event – whether this is the norm or the aberration – I sincerely hope restaurants like Das Maisterstück survive. The two times I visted the restaurant, there were many seats available, and though the place was never empty, it also was certainly not bustling. One this is certain: regardless of to whom they are marketing, bars like Das Maisterstück have a pretty fierce uphill battle to wage in order to flourish in Germany. But if the United States can be transformed from the land of piss-beer to one of the greatest beer countries in the world, it's not impossible for the German market to grow and allow bars like this to flourish.

Das Maisterstück
Hausvogteiplatz 3
10117 Berlin
U-Bahn Hausvogteiplatz


With boxes and mislabeled cases piled everywhere, one really doesn't know what to expect when first walking into the Berlin Bier Shop. On this particular visit, I was looking for German IPAs. The previous day, I had visited the store's blog online and saw that an IPA tasting had taken place roughly a week early. I assumed, then, that if I were to find a collection of German IPAs in Berlin, this was my most likely bet.

As I walked in, I started aimlessly wandering around. There was little discernible organization to the store: I found a bookshelf dedicated to (mostly) Belgian beers, a couple of shelves in the adjoining room (which is predominantly wine) dedicated to (mostly) English beer, and then a whole lot of chaos. But I only had to wander with visible puzzlement for a couple of minutes before store owner Rainer Wallisser came out of the back office (which at a glance looked equally as disheveled) and quickly came to my aid.

Though the Berlin Bier Shop doesn't have an enormous selection, there is no lack of quality beers. It was obvious within seconds of our conversation that Rainer knew his beer, and that he had designed this store to be a place Berliners could visit to become better acquainted with the great beers of the world – and the great beer within their own country.

As we talked, I began to let my eyes wander around the store. He had quite a collection of both full and empty bottles of high quality American micro brews including Russian River's Pliny the Elder (NOT for sale: I asked), as well as selections from Hair of the Dog, Avery, and others. He also proudly showed me his rare Russian nano-brewed beer that was brewed without water (using pine sap instead).

We talked for probably thirty minutes, during which he introduced me to Brau Kunst Keller – an experimental brewery out of Odenwald that produces beer in 50 liter batches. He encouraged me to take home Brau Kunst Keller's Black Chocolate Stout, and I'm glad he did: the beer was probably the biggest surprise on my entire trip. Despite clocking in at a very drinkable 3.3% abv, it had an excellent silken mouthfeel without a hint of wateriness. The brewer used bittersweet chocolate syrup, which lent a lovely chocolaty aroma, but actually factored very little in the taste. There was a tremendous balance between the bitter flavors (from both the chocolate and the hops) and the roasted malts. It really was an excellent beer The brewer (who is the head brewer at Michelstadt) is hoping to create enough excitement for his beer to enable him to expand into a full-sized brewery. With beer like the Black Chocolate Stout, there is no doubt he has the chops for it. I only he finds enough people willing to give it a try!

[As an aside: two years ago, I visited the Michelstadt brewery. It's nestled in a pretty small, cute, quaint, and touristy town. At the time, they had three beers on tap: a Pils, a seasonal, and a Schwarzbier. As I was in a hurry to catch a train, I only had time to taste their Schwarzbier, but I was immediately impressed. To this day it is still among the best Schwarzbier's I've ever tasted.]

I ended up buying several bottles of various IPAs and just about every Brau Kunst beer there. The prices seemed pretty reasonable: the Brau Kunst beers were on average €4 or €5 each which seemed plenty reasonable considering the low production. It occurred to me when I left, however, how the store had two unusual omissions: Brewbaker and BraufactuM were no where to be seen. Of course, I should add that just because I didn't see them doesn't mean they weren't there; the store was pretty hard to navigate. But all the same, the omission (or lack of visibility) was curious.

Overall, if you are in Berlin for an extended period of time, the Berlin Bier Shop is a must visit. It's well worth the time.

Berlin Bier Shop
Kirchstraße 23
10557 Berlin
S-Bahn Sellevue


So what are your favorite Berlin beer establishments? Feel free to share them below! And while you're at it, consider following me on Twitter. I do short reviews on various beers and share other beer-related info. It's also a great way to stay informed on upcoming Churchyard tasting events!

Next issue: From Berlin to Needmore



Sunday, August 26, 2012

The German IPA

I'd like to play a short word association game.

If I say "IPA," what immediately comes to mind?

Perhaps your mind first went to England: the birthplace of the IPA. Maybe you thought of the Greene King IPA or Bitter and Twisted by Harviestoun. Maybe your mind went to an excellent cask ale and that exceptionally smooth mouthfeel.

Or maybe your mind drifted to the United States and a full bouquet of citrus hops. Did your mind go to the West Coast? Maybe Lagunitas or Stone popped to mind, or perhaps one of my personal favorites, the Balast Point Sculpin' IPA or Maine Beer Company's Lunch. Maybe you thought of the bigger IPAs: Pliny the Elder or Dogfish Head 90.

Whatever you may have called to mind, I would wager you didn't first think of Germany.

Despite being a one-time beer powerhouse, Germany is rather new to the craft beer market. Though exceptions abound, the palate of the average German beer consumer tends towards mild Pilseners as opposed to a hoppy, bitter ale.

This largely explains why Germany has a very limited selection of imported IPAs. Flying Dog, Brooklyn Brewery, and Anderson Valley are the most easily available American IPAs, but these tend to be quite expensive and not always fresh. And considering how few American IPAs actually sell, there isn't much incentive for either the country to import or the brewer to export any more.

And yet, there is a growing population of German beer enthusiasts who are starting to find the beauty of a hoppy American-style ale. Though the numbers are far too small to largely influence the macrobrew market, these groups are beginning to shape the German craft beer market into an exciting new direction, and several German brewers have begun to interpret this classic style.

With the IPA being so new to Germany, I was very curious to see how these brewers would reinvent the style. However, unlike the Belgians who combined the citrus/bitterness of American hops with their unique fruity yeast strains to invent the tremendously popular Belgian IPA style, the bulk of German brewers I encountered didn't create a new style at all, but rather tended towards cloning the American IPA, most often using American hops and traditional ale yeasts, and dry hopping with Cascade.

Yet while the final result seems less original on paper, the flavors of these beers are anything but. Despite being heavily modeled on the American version, with few exceptions, these beers would never be mistaken for an American or English IPA as each beer boasted some unique combination of flavors – albeit with varying success. Additionally, there seemed to be a preponderance of imbalanced flavors, with the majority of beers heavily over-emphasizing the bitterness of the hops.

What follows is a short list of some of the most notable German IPAs I tasted this past summer. Keep in mind that this list is far from conclusive, but is rather a basic introduction to this young style.

Highly Recommended:

Camba Bavaria Pale Ale (5.1%): OK, technically not an IPA, but the flavors of this beer far more resemble an IPA than a Pale Ale. I am assuming they dry-hopped this beer a lot, because immediately upon popping the top off this bottle, the room was filled with an incredible citrus hop aroma. Not overly bitter, this beer is beautifully balanced in the mouth with lots of orange juice, orange zest, and a little bit of spice. If I were blindfolded, I would swear this beer was brewed in the West Coast of the United States. Easily the best German IPA I have had.

BrauKunst Keller Maya IPA (6.4%): Among the more interesting breweries I have encountered in Germany, BrauKunst Keller is a German nanobrewery that brews 50 litre (13 gallon) batches of experimental beers. Maya's nose is full of pine, citrus, and resin and immediately calls to mind the Pacific Northwest. Not quite as well balanced as the Camba Bavaria offering, Maya IPA is front-loaded with bitter hops and has a nice caramel/toffee malt finish. Though a tad one-dimensional, it is a very well made IPA.

Fritz Belgian-Style IPA (7.5%): This probably gets my award for most unusual German IPA. For as uncommon as American or English styles are amongst German brewers, Belgian styles seem to be even less common. Thus, a German brewer releasing a Belgian IPA immediately caught my eye. Lots of orange candy in the nose, this beer has a most bizarre combination of flavors: a unique blend of sweet (honey) and sour (sour cherries), the beer also has a strong grapefruit/Tang flavor. The grapefruit and sour cherries seem to clash with each other more than they work in harmony, but the sour kick gives it a tremendously refreshing bite.


BraufactuM Progusta (6.8%): Aromas of sunny hops, freshly cut grass, bits of fruit, and spruce. Lots of fruit flavors with orange, grapefruit, and banana. A tad sweet, syrupy, and expensive (€4+ for 11 oz).

BrauKunst Keller Maracuja IPA (5.9%): With aromas of spruce and bubblegum and a slight rose hip flavor, Maracuja is a mild and very drinkable IPA that blends Dr. Rudi, pacific Jade, Motueka, Nelson Sauvin, and Cascade hops. An unusual – but tasty – combination.

BrauKunst Keller Polaris IPA (6.2%): Is this an IPA? Though it is brewed with the "new and exclusive hop" Polaris, one has to wonder as it pours a very dark and muddy black and lacks any real hop aromas or strong hop flavors. Despite the surprising color, this is one beautiful pour with a luscious head that lingers to the last sip. An excellent roasted barley flavor blends beautifully with a chocolate nose. Perhaps it would be better labeled as a hoppy Porter, but regardless, this is one fine beer.

Fritz Summer IPA (5.3%): A fruity a bubblegumy nose with hints of pine resin, there is a nice up-front sweetness in the mouth. A bitingly bitter finish with lots of pine and malt, it is a little harsh, but very pleasant.

Brewbaker Berliner Art Double IPA (9%): A solid and well balanced DIPA, there is a full aroma of raspberry, honey, syrup, and subtle citrus. Despite the 120 IBUs, the beer is not overly bitter, and the hops lend an almost sweet character.

Recommended with Reservations:

Camba Bavaria Eric's IPA (8%): Strong grapefruit aromas and flavors of pine and fruit, the beer is smooth bat a bit syrupy. It seems mislabeled and drinks much more like a double IPA.

Häffner Bräu Hopfenstopfer Incredible Pale Ale (5.4%): With sweet, candy-like aromas of artificial citrus, the mouth is drier than expected. A tad imbalanced with a harsh hop bitterness that mellows as it sits, there's also subtle notes of caramel malts in the background.

Brewbaker Berlin IPA (5.5%): Slightly watery with absolutely no head and a slight soapy character, Berlin IPA has mild citrus aromas and a very under spoken bitterness. Very drinkable, and a unique find for Berlin.

Schönramer Bavaria's Best IPA (8.2%): Syrupy and medicinal, this is a very mild IPA with a subtle flavor of citrus hops.


Propeller Aufwind Double IPA (6.5%): Almost no hoppiness to speak of, the beer is overly sweet with strong bubblegum and tropical jugyfruit flavor. Blech.

Schoppe Bräu XPA (6.2%): Disgusting and awful, it has aromas of pickles, artificial chocolate, vinegar, and sour orange juice. Pouring with a tan head, the beer is pungent and sharp. Nearly undrinkable.

Häffner Bräu Hopfenstopfer Citra Ale (5.6%): Though it scores a 91 on RateBeer, I tend to agree with one reviewer from the site when he equates it to "drinking lemonade from a urinal." Enough said.


There's no doubt that Germany is a great destination for the beer tourist. And while I would hope the tourist tastes many Weizens, Pilseners, and Bocks, I would encourage the tourist to branch out and taste some of these great new examples of the German craft beer market. It's still young and in its infancy, but the notion that the Germans are incapable of brewing a good IPA is just plain wrong.

If you have tasted these beers or know of any other great German IPAs, let me know! You are welcome to add your tasting notes to the comments below; I'd be curious to learn what beers I may have missed.

Next week: Craft Beer in Berlin