I have mentioned from time to time the moribund state of German brewing. I think probably the first time was in 2008 in this article, where the author I quote scathingly remarked that most German brewers can't even identify their own pils in a blind tasting, so alike have they become.
So what would it be like with dozens to hundreds of German brewers all in a row? The Berlin Bier Festivalgave me a chance to find out. Would they rise to the occasion or would we sink in sea of samey beer? I think you can guess the result. What we used to get is the unholy trinity of pils or (helles), dunkel beer and a wheat beer. Now we have added to that miserable mix, a special. This special will nearly always be called "zwickel" and will often be the pils, but unfiltered, while purporting to be a keller bier. Well it might be, but it will likely be even less hoppy than the pils, whatever it is and you will never find out for sure, but they'll tell you anything. Sometimes the dunkel will be replaced by a blacker beer - schwarzbier - and these can be quite good. There might even be a stronger beer too, but you will have to ask for it. Franconian breweries will likely offer a kellerbier, but these will be a shadow of the wonderful country beers that you may be thinking of.
Of course, this being an international festival, you could avoid the native beer altogether. There was beer from Williams Bros served by handpump, but re-racked. There was Belgian, though mostly mainstream, but you could get La Trappe and Chimay. You could also get Leffe and Hoegaarden. Guinness too and Smithwicks, Fullers, Greene King, beers from Poland, the Czech Republic, the Caribbean, South East Asia, Africa and more. There was in fact something for everyone, though some of the foreign stuff was a lot more pricey. All in all though you would be pretty fussy not to find something. Unless you are a fan of the hop of course. Then you'd be in deep shit. Humulus Lupulus was hiding its light well under a bushel. In fact it had pulled another bushel onto the one that it was hiding its light under and burrowed deeply underneath.
We stuck to German stuff mostly as we wanted to do some direct comparing. First of all there is glassware and we tried to find decent glasses to drink out of. Pils just doesn't taste as good in a thick walled glass, so we chose some stands on the quality of their glassware. It does help. Now you can roughly chop it up as follows: Pils and Helles will be often be sweet, under hopped and underwhelming, though there will be exceptions of enjoyable poise and balance. Dunkel will be sweet, under hopped and underwhelmimg. You may just get one that has something about it, but it will be a long search. Schwarzbier at its best will be like a really good dark mild. Or it will be like the dunkel. Weizenbier will be competent, tick most of the relevant wheat beer boxes and will be cool and refreshing. If you like that sort of thing, you rarely get a bad one. Frankly, choosing a stand by its seating, people watching potential and standard of glassware is as good a plan as any. Unless you are some kind of demented ticker of course. Then you have hit the mother lode.
But we weren't here for the beer as such. It was the atmosphere, the people watching and the sense of gemutlichkeit and that was there in abundance. The sun shone like a shiny thing and we divided our time between stalls with a decent view and a stage with Deutsche Blasmusik - that folksy and innocent stuff you hear in the background a lot in Germany - for which we are both suckers and just wandering around doing more of the same. We joined in the singing later on, watched the dancing, scoffed bratties, talked to Dutch people, fought our way into the Baltika Stand where there was a huge throng intent on cheap and strong beer, fought our way out and back in again for the deposit - no mean feat I assure you - drank loads of pils, wheat, schwarz and dunkel beer, seeking out some old favourites from our many German holidays.We also drank Muhlen and Reissedorf Koelsch and some awful Czech beer - but the guy from the brewery was really nice so we didn't tell him. We queued for toilets, hopping from one leg to the other and I got misunderstood at the Schneider stall, not once, but twice, by the same guy. Both times ending up with an extra beer. Avoiding him, I did manage to finish unwisely with a Schneider Hopfen Weisse, which wasn't visibly on display, but a bottle of which was produced with a flourish by the dirndled barmaid and drank far too quickly by me. Thus hoppily satisfied, we staggered off to a taxi. Neither of us fancied walking. We'd stayed far longer than intended, drank far more than intended and sat in the sun longer than advisable too. We'd had a great time, great beer or not.
I felt a bit rough next day, but we did go back. Much more modestly. Well it started out that way. It's the atmosphere you know - it gets to you. Don't worry about the beer - just have a good time. The next night was less of the same, punctuated by a leisurely Greek meal. The place was jumping and again the sun beat down. Some events may have taken place that night. It's hard to recall exactly which was which.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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