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Don't fight: Just choose ten great beers from Germany

Standing up to be counted

The night the United States went into Iraq, I was at the headquarters of National Geographic Society, in Washington, D.C., having a slightly nervous beer with Dr. Michael Heinrich, Director of International Marketing for the Radeberger Group. Michael was representing his country in an unusual coalition: a wholly peaceful Anglo-German incursion into the American speciality beer market.

Leading the devotions again... Michael Jackson, with Radebarger's top man in the U.S, Dilip Mehta (far left), international marketing director Michael Heinrich (far right) and Rock Wheeler, of National Geographic. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Hale)
Despite weeks of tension, no one had known exactly when the war would start. It turned out to be the evening on which I had planned my annual tutored tasting for 350-400 people at the National Geographic. This event is part of a lecture series in which the other speakers are explorers, oceanographers, mountaineers, anthropologists and the like. I explore the geography, history and sociology of beer. My theme this year was "The Great Beers of Germany."

This event always sells out within hours, but this year's circumstances were unique. Washington is a "company town." The "company" is the Government of the United States. Many of the people who had spent $32 a head for tickets to our beer tasting worked for the Federal Government or related institutions. How many would have to work late? How many others would prefer to go straight home, fearing terrorist attacks?

Understandably, we had a call from the German Embassy apologising for their likely absence, but no one else was prepared to be deflected from a beer tasting of such quality.

Michael Heinrich was there to offer moral support and, I hope, to report back to colleagues in Germany on the knowledge and enthusiasm of the specialty beer consumer in the U.S.

Michael Jackson speaks
'Hands together, grip tightly'... Michael Jackson holds the audience. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Hale)
Each year, I present ten or a dozen beers to represent a country or a theme. I speak from a podium, and the audience are seated about five to a table, as though they were in a restaurant. I taste each beer along with the audience, discussing its aromas and flavours, their origins, the history of the style and the brewery. Between my reminiscences, anecdotes and jokes, I include plenty of information for the serious beer-lover.

I take my audience through seven or eight beers, and they get a further three or four to take home. Each beer is in a different style, unless there is a special case for comparing two similar products.

A tasting of German beers should obviously include a Pilsener, but it would need to be a reasonably hoppy example ("mainstream" or "dumbed down" can be withering criticisms from my audiences). Was there a hoppy, renowned, German Pils that might be unfamiliar to most of the audience? With its proximity to Bohemia, its claims to have pioneered the style in Germany, and its years half-obscured by the Wall, Radeberger Pils fitted the bill perfectly. I had already featured it in two of my books, Ultimate Beer and The Great Beer Guide.

I would really have liked Radeberger's unfiltered beer, which my assistant, Owen Barstow, had greatly enjoyed on a visit to Dresden. The brewers were not prepared to take the risk, despite some special pleading on my behalf from the ever-helpful Erich Dederichs, of the Deutscher Brauer-Bund. I was disappointed, but ten cases of the Pils were very welcome.

On the night, the aromatic, flavoursome, Radeberger Pils was every bit as well received as I hoped it would be, despite its being less hoppy than some of its local counterparts. The Radeberger Group also supplied Kindl Weisse and DAB Export as take-home beers. I first wrote about both in my 1977 World Guide to Beer. The breweries of Dortmund, and the style, have greatly attenuated since then, but American beer-lovers remain keen to sample classic styles, however vestigial.

Cologne has tried harder to cherish its local style, and I have diligently covered its beers in my writing. It is difficult to explain such a subtle brew, and its producers have not always been very helpful. Which Kölsch for Washington? Among those I have praised in print is Reissdorf, with its spiciness and hop character. It is one of several distinctive German specialities handled by the enterprising Matthias Neidhart, who was of great help in sourcing beers for the tasting. When he started his business as an importer, Matthias based his portfolio on brews to which I had awarded high scores in my Pocket Guide to Beer, so our ideas are rarely far apart.

An early favourite to which I have remained steadfastly in my writing is Zum Uerige Altbier. I feel that this is the most robust example of the style, though I also greatly enjoy the beer at Im Füchschen. Whenever I have wished to write about the Düsseldorf Altbiers, I have received help and encouragement from the Schnitzler family, owners of Zum Uerige. I have always dreamed of being able to present their beer in the U.S., but have understood that this would be doubly difficult for a brewpub. I was astonished when they finally agreed, and thrilled at how well the beer stood up to the journey. It was even more full in flavour than I remembered, and that teasing interplay between malt and hop an utter delight. As a bonus, there was Zum Uerige Weizen as a take-home beer.

My own personal pleasure in the diversity of beer styles is what led me to write about them. Before the Wall came down, I worked hard to obtain information about Köstritzer Schwarzbier. The moment Bitburger acquired the brewery, and before they started to restore it, they kindlly arranaged for me to see it. Again, I have been something of a cheerleader for the style. In Washington, it was represented by Einbecker Schwarzbier, which gave me a chance also to talk about the history of Bock beer.

Another brew that I have written about since the 1970s is Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Most of my readers know this beer by now, and many have been to Bamberg to taste it alongside its competitors. Nowhere in Germany are there such individualistic beers as in and around Bamberg.

For my television series The Beer Hunter, I spent a long midsummer day being filmed drinking in Bamberg. The director wanted to film in a beer garden just before dusk. "I cannot face another beer," I protested. "Just pretend to drink it," he suggested. I raised the Stein and was engulfed in hop aroma. Suddenly, I could indeed face another beer. I think I drank it in one. Kellerbier was not a new style to me, but I had not realized how powerful was the magic of St Georgen.

When I do discover a style with which I am unfamiliar, I am childishly ambivalent. Half of me is triumphant at he discovery. The other half is annoyed that I did not already know about it. How dare a beer escape my attention? I felt this way when I was introduced to Leipziger Gose, at Hans Hennebach's Gasthaus Ohne Bedencken. I wrote a long piece about this, and subsequently about the Original Leipziger Gose made at the Bayrischer Bahnhof. To have this beer outside Leipzig is unusual. Outside Saxony, Germany or Europe ... in the Americas. That had to be the coup of the evening, and the audience loved it. This beer has excited such interest that a home-brewed tribute called Leipzig's Ghost was served at a recent dinner I hosted in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

"What is your favourite beer?" people ask. I explain that it depends upon mood and moment. They persist: A favourite style, then? Same answer, but I do regard a dark wheat Doppelbock as something special. The lusciousness of dark malts and the spiciness from a wheat beer yeast enwrap and conceal the warming alcohol. Supposing the forbidden fruit were a toffee apple in the beer-garden of Eden? It would taste like Schneider Aventinus, wouldn't it? Yet it would not have made the tasting if I had thought in time about Aventinus Eisbock, which I recently featured in a tasting in Brooklyn, New York.

A tasting with so many great beers that I would have thrown out a world classic? I don't suppose you would have chosen the same beers. You would at least have added one of your own.

Next year at the National Geographic, we hope to taste Single Malt Scotches.

Published: MAY 12, 2003
In: Beer Hunter Online

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