The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

I'd like to say that my subtle palate discerns thyme, oak, honey and the whisper of ants on a meadow when I quaff a tankard of ale. But I would be lying. My palate has all the sensitivity of a chainsaw. Honestly, I can barely tell the difference between a chardonnay and a riesling, and I drink way more wine than beer. In fact, I barely touch the stuff. Still, I have to try the tipple when I am in Germany, haven't I? After all, it is the Holy Land for hop-lovers, and the Nord Rhine region is home to subtle local traditions that imbue its beers with flavours not found elsewhere.

I explored some of this variety at Cologne and Dortmund. The local beers of the former, known collectively (and as a protected name along the lines of Champagne) as Kölsch, are served in small glasses called Kölsch-Stanges that are quite distinctive from the enormous steins of Bavaria. They look a bit like Pils, light yellow in colour, but are much less bitter. Some are even a bit sweet.

In Cologne, brusque blue-apron-clad beer waiters called Köbes serve the local tipple. I didn't realise that a tip was to be given directly to them, rather than leaving it on the table, but the Köbe I spoke to was cheerful nonetheless. He told me in somewhat broken English that only about twenty-odd Kölsches remained in Cologne, and many of their breweries had been acquired by bigger concerns. The migration of a beer from one brewery to another inevitably results in a loss of flavour and character, and, for all I know, these twenty beers possibly are not as distinctive as they once were.

At one time, the beer was brewed in the cellars of the brew-houses (which still stand), but these days are produced a few kilometres outside the city. Good thing, that. Don't want a malty explosion in the basement, do we? Especially when thirsty hordes are hanging about with their tongues hanging out?

The Köbes added that they couldn't export Kölsch because they didn't add chemicals in it, which - according to him - was a prerequisite in the US and Asia. Perhaps I missed something in the translation.

I took notes of my Kölsch binge. As each glass contained only about 200 ml and I left quite a bit on the table at each little beer-house I visited, the quantities absorbed into my bloodstream were well within my tolerance. Still, as you can see, I was notably verbose with my commentary:

Mühlenkölsch - malty
Früh Kölsch - malty(ish), sweet(ish).
Dom Kölsch - not bitter.

Nope, I couldn't really tell them apart. The locals, however, swear by them. It's the drink of choice in Cologne, and anyone drinking any other beer is probably a visitor. Both the young and the old love Kölsch. (I didn't ask the middle-aged.) It epitomises their hometown for them.

Dortmund is another brewery heaven, although its original canvas of about 94 varieties has collapsed to a rather more manageable six. The Dortmund Actien Brauerei (DAB for short) has one nice little lager-style beer, which I tried ('not bitter' I distinctly remember saying to myself). The Dortmund beers are exported, of course, and therefore probably better known outside the region than the Colonial ones. I managed to try out a Hövels Hausbrauerei bitterbier, which I hasten to add wasn't very bitter either. On the other hand, I did discern a smoky texture, and the beer itself, dark honey-red, looked and smelled delightful.

When you think of the antiquity of Belgian beers (Stella Artois, they insist, is several centuries old), the Rhinish offerings are mere striplings. DAB dated from about 1900. The Hövels was only seven years older.

Beer snobs (such as this fellow) try to sing its praises in much the same vein as wine snobs. I'm nowhere near that level of sophistication, but even if I were, I don't think I'd ever be able to say things like this with a straight face
Swooning from the intense flavors even more than the alcohol, I tried to catalog the tastes: caramel, acacia and notes of smoked meats ranging from ham to Alaskan salmon and sweet unagi, Japanese eel. It was liquid bacon, sure, but it was also as peaty as a fine single malt - Ardbeg came to mind.
What a pompous boob.

Sigh. It no doubt explains why Evan Rail writes for the New York Times, and I remain a Jost-a-mon.

* PS: Please don't jeer. It is good beer.
* PPS: Why did I say 'jeer'? I'm now saying 'cheer.'


mathew said...

Nice to see a post on the german beer..though am more of a budweiser fan and I do love krombacher too!!;-D

Fëanor said...

Mathew: thanks for stopping by. When you say 'Budweiser', I sincerely hope you mean the Czech variety?

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