Thursday, 08 May 2014 10:23

Ich bin ein Berliner Pilsner

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Berliner Kindl Weisse grunBeer Battered takes a trip round the bars and pubs of Berlin and finds out brewpubs are flavour of the month.

Beer is a serious business wherever you go in Germany.

Within an hour of arriving in Berlin, this much was made abundantly clear.

While checking in at our hotel, the obliging receptionist asked whether we'd done much research into potential activities for our time in the city.

"Well, he's memorised every bar where you can buy good beer," quipped my better half, quick as a flash.

But the sarcasm dripping from this statement appeared to pass the receptionist by. Instead, his face collapsed into a crumpled look of utter bemusement before a guttural chuckle escaped his mouth, equal parts mocking and pitying.

Eventually he composed himself enough to ask the all-important question. "Why would you need to search for good beer in Berlin? It's everywhere."

And he was right... to an extent.

Berlin doesn't have the same bacchanalian reputation or tradition as Munich, Cologne or Bamberg but the average quality of bog-standard beer is still markedly better than any city in Britain.

Germans tend to be conservative in their tastes but proud of what their country produces, so bars serving mass-market global brands are the exception rather the rule. That's not to say German beer is necessarily better than English ale, just that there are far fewer drinking dens serving nothing but swill.

That said, many of the most widely available beer brands in Berlin - Berliner Kindl, Schultheiss, Potsdamer, Radeberger, Schöfferhofer and Märkischer Landmann - are still owned by the huge Oetker Group, best known in this country for crap frozen pizza.

Prater Berlin exterior

Of those brands, Berliner Pilsner is ubiquitous but fairly palatable despite being a little too sweet for my own taste. It's an extremely pale yellow pils that's full of sweet malt and lemony hop up front, followed by more floral, grassy notes as it dries and an aftertaste loaded with cereal and biscuit.

Meanwhile, the Berliner Kindl Weisse bears little resemblance to the more recent 'craft' iterations of the style and is usually served as either rot (red) or grün (green), depending on the syrup you decide to mix it with.

It doesn't really matter which you choose because the end result is the same - a sickly sweet, luminous cocktail that masks much of the taste from the base beer. You're best having it without as far as I'm concerned.

Although Berlin lacks the diversity and innovation of the current British scene, there's a refreshing 'no bullshit' approach to beer and a relaxed attitude towards drinking and enjoying it. Whatever bar you visit, you'll never have to 'settle' for a watery pint of Foster's, as the base level is generally higher.

Equally, you won't have to endure any discussions about the definition of craft or the extent to which the postmodern pale ale has successfully subverted the traditional, linear beer narrative.

Marcus Brau pils

This attitude is epitomised by the old guard of established pubs and beer halls dotted around the city, targeted towards locals and tourists in equal measure.

Prater is one of the best in this category, a famed beer garden on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg that can trace its origins back to the mid-19th century.

Unfortunately, it being a late mid-April evening when we visited, the garden itself was reserved for only the most hardened revellers. A solitary table of lively locals did their best to stave off the night with glasses of pils and excited chatter, while the darkness slowly closed in around them.

We found refuge in the adjacent restaurant, which felt a little like the waiting room in a Victorian train station - all dark wood panelling, arched windows and wall lighting that glowed unnaturally without altering the state of perpetual twilight.

The wooden tables and chairs groaned incessantly about the problems of old age, each nick, scratch and scuff recounting a happy moment from a golden past that had long since escaped them. However, it's easy to imagine this is the kind of furniture that looked distressed the minute it left the workshop.

Families, friends and solitary souls chattered, chomped and chugged, lending a palpable buzz to the warm, friendly atmosphere.

We ordered a couple of plates of food - standard, hearty German fare that was grey but satisfying - and indulged in several of the house brews to slake a gargantuan thirst cultivated during a day walking Berlin's captivating streets.

Although not brewed on site - and, in fact, created by the aforementioned Berliner Kindl brewery - neither the pilsner nor the schwarz failed to hit the spot.

The pale golden pils cut across the palate with a fresh lemony bitterness and crisp carbonation, leading to a dry finish draped with lingering cereal sweetness.

In comparison to that quick blast of refreshment, the schwarz offered warm comfort, easing me further into my battered old chair until my slouched shoulders reached the bottom of the back support.

Rye bread, treacle and liquorice welcome you in and a dash of lemon perks up the senses before molasses and brown toast settle on the back of the tongue, the robust body providing a reassuring, lasting weight in the mouth.

Zum Nussbaum Berlin exterior

Another must-visit is the unassuming Sophie'n Eck, which wraps itself around the corner of the junction between Grosse Hamburger Strasse and Sophienstrasse near Hackescher Markt.

It appears more Parisian bistro from the outside, with ample outdoor seating for the warmer months, but is very much German watering hole on the inside, the walls adorned with old beer enamels and the small bar decked in wood and brass.

Open until 1am Sunday to Thursday and 2am on Fridays and Saturdays, it's the perfect place for a quiet, late-night drink, particularly given the warm welcome that awaits.

The atmosphere is amicable and cozy, the staff genuine and obliging. One wag behind the bar even watched us play a variety of games with the two sad-looking beermats on our table before wandering over with a huge grin on his face to slap down a further 30.

I enjoyed a decent pint of Schlösser Alt and a couple of refreshing glasses of Jever, which always slips down far too easily, while bottles of Störtebeker were also on offer.

You can enjoy your beer with a slice of history at Zum Nußbaum in the Nikolaiviertel (pictured above left), a recreation of what was once one of Berlin's oldest pubs.

Marcus Brau BerlinPreviously located in Fischerinsel, it was destroyed during the Second World War before being rebuilt, complete with the walnut tree it was named after (Nußbaum meaning walnut in German), by the GDR in 1987.

Consequently, it feels a bit like stepping onto a film set where nothing is quite real but it's a quaint old school German tavern serving hearty food alongside a solid, yet limited, beer selection.

My sausage, mash and sauerkraut was washed down with a Märkischer Landmann Schwarz that proved surprisingly enjoyable given its mixed reputation - dry and ashy, offering caramel, nut and a light fruitiness up front, followed by brown toast, mild roast and a sweet aftertaste of biscuit and bread.

However, moving beyond the tourist traps and more typical drinking dens, what is most interesting about Berin's beer scene is the sudden proliferation of brewpubs.

A number have popped up all over the city, providing an alternative to the typical mainstream offerings, although they do tend to play it safe by sticking to traditional styles.

The majority produce a house pils, a dunkel or schwarz and a weizen if you're lucky but slightly limited choice doesn't detract from appreciation of the quality on offer.

Hops & Barley was a nightmare to find but worth the effort, tucked away behind a fairly plain, grey shop front in Friedrichshain with its small brew kit sat proudly alongside the bar inside.

The pilsner was the pick of the bunch here, smooth in the mouth, cereal malt puncuated by a squeeze of lemon and a pithy bitterness.

Heidenpeters Thirsty Lady

Clean esters of spice, bubblegum and banana shine in the weizen and there is even a cider on offer - an oddity in Germany - tart, sweet and crisp, like a fresh Granny Smith straight from the fridge.

Similarly small and humble was Marcus Bräu, sandwiched between Alexanderplatz and Hackescher Markt in a very convenient central location.

This place won the prize for tiniest kit (pictured above right), the brewer's version of Where's Wally only being solved when I peered over the bar on my way out to see a mash tun and boiler built into the counter on the back wall.

Just two beers were on offer here, a pilsener and a dunkel - and the dunkel was off.

Still, the hazy, unfiltered pils was superb, its initial wash of tart, lemony sweetness wiped clear by a crisp, dry finish permeated with herbal bitterness. The food on offer was decent too, a huge pork knuckle served with bread, sauerkraut and a beer coming in at just over a tenner.

But the pick of the bunch was Heidenpeters Brewpub (pictured below right), situated a brisk 20-minute walk from the East Side Gallery in artsy Kreuzberg.

Continuing the theme of diminutive, almost deliberately difficult-to-find bars, this place was obscured in a dark corner of Markt Halle Neun, an über-trendy foodies' market that was proudly advertising an upcoming visit from everyone's favourite culinary campaigner Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

Heidenpeters stands out in Berlin as one of the few microbreweries prepared to think outside the box and the brewery's beer range seems more closely aligned with the UK craft scene than home traditions.

Three beers were on offer during my visit, the best being Thirsty Lady, a refreshing 4.9% ABV pale ale that bathes the palate in juicy grapefruit, peach and faint tropical fruit before the cutting, dry finish leaves a tingling, zesty bitterness.

This was accompanied by a slice of delicious spinach and ricotta quiche from one of the neighbouring food stalls, each run by local, independent producers, in an unexpected lunchtime treat.

The Brown Ale was excellent too, its initial resinous hop bite rounded off by smooth dark chocolate with burnt toffee and toast running throughout. The perfect beverage to wash down a chunky slice of chocolate ginger cake.

My whirlwind Berlin beer tour ended with a trip to Brauhaus Mitte, with its gaudy copper taking pride of place in the middle of the large bar.

Heidenpeters Brewpub

Unfortunately, the beers weren't quite as impressive as the kit and this centrally-located bar felt like it was catering more for tourists than for beer lovers, inhabiting the more commercial end of the scale.

There will undoubtedly be many more like this as tourism - and brewing - continue to flourish in Berlin but there is a sense they will be seriously outweighed by the number of exciting new brewpubs and watering holes.

Although the city lacks the track record of others, it shows a willingness - through bars like the excellent Meisterstück with its range that encompasses the best of Germany, America and Belgium - to embrace the cutting edge.

Quality and variety can only improve further in the years to come.

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 12:43

Augustiner Edelstoff

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Augustiner EdelstoffAugustiner Edelstoff

Bottle from the Beer Hawk, 5.6% ABV

I'm not a big lager drinker. Never have been. More of a skinny stout drinker if you must insist on assigning labels.

It's not that I actively dislike lager, more that I never bother to seek it out and very rarely choose it over other styles.

All of this can probably be traced back to my first proper drinking experience. Having purchased an incredibly unconvincing fake ID from a company advertising in the back pages of FHM, I headed down to my local offy and bought 24 cans of Stella - that being the obvious choice for an uninitiated drinker to ease themselves into a whole new world of wonders.

Splitting these with two friends, I proceeded to drink my entire share and spent the following day throwing up gallons of malty bile.

Consequently, that sparked my move to bitter and mild, although I dressed this up as the choice of a mature drinker rather than a fool who had scared himself off drinking anything higher than 4.5% ABV.

Given that history, it's perhaps unsurprising I developed a slight aversion to lager but there are certain forces in this world powerful enough to break even the most deep-set prejudice. For me, that force was Augustiner Edelstoff.

Given a bottle of this by a friend many years ago, it became the first lager I could stomach more than one pint of after my earlier 'experience'.

The aroma's not much to get excited about - musty grain, sweet malt and a light grassiness doing little to properly arouse the senses - but it's just so damn drinkable.

Sweeter, stronger and fruitier than Augustiner's standard Helles, it is also prettier to look at, sparkly clear golden liquid topped by a tight, frothy white head.
It is clean, sharp and dry, an initial strong, biscuity malt mellowing to leave behind a lasting breadiness. There's a lovely splash of citrus and just enough grassy hop, contributing to a bittersweet finish.

Malt dominates the aftertaste, filling the mouth with a pleasant bready flavour, but it's also clean enough to be seriously refreshing.

The kind of beer you'd be happy to knock back after a hard day at work and one that should soften the heart of even the most devoted anti-lager activist.