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



Sunday, August 19, 2012

2000 Beers on the Streets of Berlin

It was a cold and rainy Friday morning in Berlin. Reminiscent of an average day in Portland, Oregon, temperatures were in the low 50s, the skies were dark and gray, and a gentle sprinkle was falling from the sky. By noon it hadn't really cleared up, but it was of no matter: I grabbed my umbrella and coat and headed for the U-Bahn. It was time for the Berlin Beer Festival.

The Sixteenth Internationales Berliner Bierfestival was held during the first weekend of August. They boast being the largest beer garden in the world, and with over 2000 beers stretching 2.6 km through the heart of downtown Berlin, I would wager this isn't a ludicrous claim.

Unlike an American beer festival, the BBF is a pay-as-you-go event. Free to enter, participants are encouraged to buy the Festival Bierstein which reduces the price of each beer €1 – €1,50 (depending upon the brewery). Considering I ended up attending thirteen hours of the festival and drank ... well, a lot of different beers, it turned out to be a pretty solid purchase. It wasn't long before it was filled with a Störtebecker Schwarzbier, and I was sipping some great German beer.

Like many beer enthusiasts, one of my primary goals of attending a beer festival is to taste as many different beers as possible. It's a matter of pacing and moderation: one can't drink too much or too fast, or one quickly looses not only their sobriety, but also all ability to discern any real differences between the various beers. This is aided by the fact that an American beer festival is only allowed – by law – to pour the attendee one or two ounces (approx 0.06 litres) of beer at a time. This moderation proved to be an immense challenge at BBF: a pour wasn't two ounces, but rather two hundred millitres (6.75 oz). And with 2000 beers at the festival? It was simple math: I was going to have to be very selective.

I was able to eliminate about 33% of the beers right off the bat as dozens upon dozens of macrobreweries were present. Thus I avoided Hoegaarden, Heineken, Red Stripe, Tsingtao, Stiegel, Palm, Rosen, Spaten, Paulaner, Krombacher, Berliner Kindl... the list goes on and on.

Instead, I focussed on those breweries that I may never have the opportunity to try again, for example Radniční Pivovar Jihlava, Zwiesel Dampfbier, Merkendorfer Hummel-Bräu, and Hofbräuhaus Traunstein. Finding these breweries, however: this proved to be an immense challenge. Though a map – which divided the festival into regions – was published online, this in no way corresponded to the actual physical placement of the brewery. To add to the confusion, upon buying my Festival Stein, I was given a second – and contradictory – "map" which displayed numbers ranging from 53 to 143 (I'm still not clear what exactly these numbers represented) and provided a massive list of breweries, all the while neglecting to show their whereabouts. In this regard, the BBF could certainly stand for improvement!
Weiherer Kellerbier: Wonderful lemon/hop aroma, clean
and clear, excellend flavors of caramel and hay.

Schönram Pils: Crisp & dry, nutty with
tropical fruits, and a hint of minerals.
As for the beer itself: the absolute standout was Camba Bavaria's Pale Ale, a beer I will be discussing further in a future post. I tasted two wonderful Pilseners, one from Schönram (pictured right), the other from Störtebecker. Also fantastic were the Weiherer Kellerbier and the Kreuzenberger Klosterbier.

But as good as these beers were, one of the most surprising aspects of the festival were the beers missing: despite being held in Berlin, Berlin's only craft brewer – Brewbaker – was absent. So was Braufaktum, arguably the most important craft brewer in Germany. The festival was definitely geared towards larger breweries with a massive output, leaving out smaller brewers like Brau Kunst Keller, Freigeist Bierkultur, and Fritz.

And therein was the primary difference between the Berlin Beer Festival and just about any American beer festival. The American Beer Festival tends to be a tasting event for beer enthusiasts: usually held inside a convention center, it has a $50 admittance, lasts three hours, limits the pour size, serves sub-par food, and has a strict policy against drunkenness. And among its most important aspects is the opportunity for a small micro- or nanobrewery to advertise their product in an environment of potential customers.

By contrast, the Berlin Beer Festival is a family oriented event that celebrates a good time and uses beer as an excuse to come together and party or relax. This was an event for all ages: you don't want a beer? No problem! Have a soda, or a juice, or an ice cream. Hungry? Have a bratwurst, a cookie, or candy. Honestly, it reminded me much more of a county fair, complete with sixteen music-stages featuring local musical talent. People came and went as they chose, and everyone seemed to be having a pretty good time. The small microbrewer? There probably isn't any way they could have brewed enough beer to serve the sheer quantity of thirsty participants.

At the end of the festival, I was left pondering just how different these two festival styles are. In many ways, I envy the German mentality towards beer. I wish the cities of the United States were allowed to put on events like this: this was a social event and I had a blast from start to finish. I met amazing people, had great conversation, and can think of few better ways to spend a weekend (especially once the sun started to shine).

But I really don't think I would ever be willing to sacrifice the American beer festival experience. Though I tasted some wonderful beer at BBF, in contrast, at the last American festival I attended, I tasted some beer that simply blew my mind away. While there, I met brilliant brewers who were true artists, but I doubt that a single brewer bothered to show up at BBF.

Would I trade one for the other? Never. Is one experience better than the other? Not at all. If anything, this festival made me appreciate the immense diversity of cultures surrounding the enjoyment of beer, and it reminded me how lucky I am to have experienced so many of them.



CORRECTION: It appears not all American beer festivals are the same, and though those I have attended limit the hours and the consumption, it would seem that all do not. The Oregon Brewers Festival was brought to my attention as a primary counter example, and upon reviewing the website, it is clear that it shares several similar characteristics to the Berlin Beer Festival: free admission, hours from noon to midnight, and pours ranging from three to fourteen ounces.

I also want to clarify my comment that "an American beer festival is only allowed – by law – to pour the attendee one to two ounces of beer." There is no national law dictating such measures, but it is rather determined by the individual states. Hence, in Massachusetts, state law limits the pour size for all public tastings to 2 oz. Oregon, in contrast, has no such law.

I apologize for the misinformation, and I thank my readers for the correction.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Beers of Darmstadt

Unless you're a WWII historian, a composer, or one of the 145,000 residents, chances are you haven't heard of this small German college-town. Roughly 30 km outside Frankfurt in Hessen, Darmstadt lacks many of the quaint characteristics of nearby Heidelburg due to the fact that it was destroyed during a British bombing raid in 1944. Like many German towns that shared a similar fate, when Darmstadt rebuilt after the war it opted for a relatively plain architecture that was efficient and practical.

Despite this, Darmstadt happens to be the home of one of the world's most important New Music festivals in the world. Founded in 1946 by Wolfgang Steincecke, the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt has been the summer home for many of the world's most important composers including Stockhausen, Boulez, Henze, Varèse, Xenakis, Ligeti, and others. These courses are so significant, that the "Darmstadt School" actually refers to a particular style of musical composition that is explored in every modern textbook on music history. Ironically, the young composers of the world probably know more about Darmstadt then most of the residents living there.

Like several other hundred composers, I too descended upon Darmstadt in mid-July to hear some amazing new compositions. This wasn't my first time in Darmstadt: my wife, due to uncanny coincidence, has been singing for the Darmstadt opera for the past couple years. As such, I've gotten to know both the city and its beers pretty well.

Darmstadt can boast three breweries: Darmstädter Privatbrauerei, Darmstädter Ratskeller Hausbrauerei, and Grohe Brauerei. Darmstädter Privatbrauereri (or just Darmstädter) is the town's requisite macro-brewery. It is everywhere in the city, and quite literally more easily available (and less expensive) than water. Darmstädter is served at nearly every bar and during intermission of every concert.
Photo by Sven Rumbler & Google Earth

Darmstädter brews fourteen different beers which include two different alcohol free beers, two Radlers (a "mixed drink" that is half lemonade and half Pilsener), a couple of seasonals, and then a smattering of different Pilseners and Wheat Beers. The most common of their beers are the two Pilseners (Braustüb'l Pilsner and Darmstädter), though their Weissbier is pretty commonly seen as well.

Generally speaking, Darmstädter beers are pretty dull, uninteresting, and lack any true character or identity. They are easy drinking and unoffensive which is exactly what the average German beer-consumer enjoys. It's beer for the masses.

Darmstädter Ratskeller Hausbrauerei (or just Ratskeller) is a lovely brewery in the Marktplatz right in the center of town. If Darmstadt were a tourist town, I'd say this was the town's tourist brewery. It's cute with exposed brew kettles, serves quality German food, and is always crowded. It's definitely best to visit in the summer when there is outdoor seating: inside can get a bit cramped and there is often no space at the tables.

Ratskeller has three year-round beers: a Hefeweizen, a Pilsener (pictured at right), and the "Spezial" Dunkler. And though I have never had it, I am told they also brew a Doppelbock that is available for about four weeks up to December 23rd.

The Dunkler is the least interesting of the three beers being generally refreshing with a slight hint of caramel. The Hefe is a lovely beer with a lot of lemon citrus and banana flavors and a nose that borders on a Belgian Wit. The Pilsener ranks, in my opinion, as the best Pilsener in town. Pouring beautifully with tremendous foamy head, it's crisp and clean with a good but mild noble hop presence, and a bit of a mineral bite. And on a hot summer day sitting on the outside terrace, it's tough to beat. Ratskeller's beer is only available at the brewery, and they do not bottle.

The Grohe Brauerei (not to be confused with the Grohe toilet company!) is easily the best overall brewery in town. It's a little off the main-path with a beer garden that is enclosed by a wall. In fact, if one doesn't know what to look for, it's pretty easy to pass. The food is excellent: traditional German fare, the wurst is among the best I've had and the flammkuchen is spectacular.

Like the Ratskeller, Grohe also serves three beers (a Hefe, a Pils, and a seasonal beer) and a lemon-lime soda. The seasonal is a Märzen and an excellent one at that: darker in color but crisp and clean, there is a slightly sour tinge to it that is wonderfully thirst-quenching. The Hefe is very similar to that at the Ratskeller, however it has a little more clove spiciness that gives it just that little extra bit of depth. However, as good as the other two beers are, the Pils is a huge disappointment: pouring with no head, it's unusually sweet and syrupy, nothing like what a Pils could and should be. It was so off, it left me wondering if there was something wrong with the tap lines. Grohe does bottle their beer, and these beers can be found in various liquor stores and gas stations in town. Their beer is also available at select restaurants in the area.

If you are going to be traveling to Germany, Darmstadt is not a town I would generally recommend going out of your way to visit. Though both Grohe and Ratskeller serve fantastic beers, while they are the best beer in the area, they certainly aren't among the best in the country. However, if you are nearby and travelling through – perhaps from Frankfurt to Heidelberg – I would encourage a short stop-over to taste some pretty good examples of German cuisine and beer styles. And if you stop by Grohe, tell Viktor that I say hello!