Taste the World – Part 5: Bock

With a swift kick from the billy-goat himself, my next dip into the menagerie of world beer styles is bock. Originally hailing from the town of Einbeck near Hanover, and apparently feted by Martin Luther as the ‘best beer known to man’, this clutch of beers, ranging from an comparatively paltry 6.5% to a boozy 12% abv were never going to disappoint in terms of character.

When a beer has been brewed with the sole intention of keeping people alive, you know it’s going to have a bit of body. In the seventeenth century the brothers of St Francis of Paula in Munich were granted papal dispensation to brew strong beer to sustain them during the fasting period of Lent. The result is the ‘liquid bread’ of doppelbock – a rich, caramel, malt-sweet beer made to satisfy the keenest of monkish appetites. And if you’re interested if it really is possible to survive on doppelbock alone, check out J. Wilson’s blog (now a book) ‘Diary of a Part-Time Monk‘.

Eisbock owes its existence to the fact that water freezes at 0ºC whereas alcohol does not solidify until -114ºC. As a result, removing the ice crystals from partially frozen beer (a process called freeze distillation or fractional freezing) leaves behind a concentrated and potentially very strong brew. Brewdog have used this technique a number of times in recent years to create beers such as Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32% abv),  Sink the Bismark (41% abv) and The End of History (55% abv). Compared to these beers, my 12% abv Schneider Weiss Aventinus Eisbock sounds positively mild but, despite some mince pie richness, the alcohol warmth dominates in a way you can feel to right down to your toes. Definitely the kind of beer to have curled up in front of fire as a storm rages outside. And who knew lager could be that?

The full list of beers tasted is:

Helles Bock – Hirschbrau Hellerbock

Dunkles Bock – Monschoff Bockbier & Mittenwalder Weihnachts Bock Dunkel

Doppelbock – Paulaner Salvator & Weihenstephaner Korbinian

Eisbock – Schneider Weiss Aventis Eisbock

 

 

 

 

Taste the World – Part 4: Dark Lager

My journey through the beer styles of the world takes a small detour through the dark side this session as I sample a range of dark lagers. I have to confess, dark lager always starts off on something of a back foot in its efforts to impress me. We taste beer not only with our tongues, but with all our sensory organs, including our eyes. Hailing from a beer culture in which the colour black is more likely to indicate the presence of rich roasted barley or a sweet chocolate hum, I’m often unprepared for the delicacy that a black lager can bring, and am left feeling it owes me something. Put simply, I’m stood there expecting a punch in the face and all I get is a tickle under the chin.

That said, this line-up definitely had something to say for itself in terms of some bready malt, light caramel and spicy herbal hop character. My favourite was the schwarzbier, a regional speciality from Thuringia in Saxony, Germany – this version from Kostritzer Brewery has been brewed since 1543.

And just a short time after this tasting, I stumbled across another great example of a schwarzbier – Crown Black by Privatbrauerei D. Oechsner – this time being served on draught at Brighton Bierhaus . And that’s quite wonderful because, in these difficult times, we could all do with just a bit more tickling.

The full list of beers tasted is:

International Dark Lager: Baltika 4

Czech Dark Lager: Primator Premium Dark

Munich Dunkel: Paulaner Munchner Dunkel & Hacker-Pschorr Munchner Dunkel

Schwarzbier: Kostritzer Schwarzbier

 

Taste the World – Part 3: Amber Lager

My adventure through the beer styles of the world continues apace. The fact that I’m three sessions in and still drinking lager demonstrates to me just how much of the world’s beer is bottom-fermented. But the beers in this session distanced themselves from the ubiquitous package holiday yellows by bringing together some hefty malty flavours that worked the whole range from the sweet butter toffee of Vienna Lager to the smoked barbeque bacon of Rauchbier.

 

There’s plenty to learn from just this handful of lagers. The Anchor Steam Beer – a recreation of the California Common that powered the gold rush of the late-nineteenth century – seduces ale drinkers into familiar territory, and represents a triumph of ingenuity over the challenges of fermentation in warmer climes. The tasty haze of the unfiltered amber kellerbier (cellar beer) provides a clear illustration of just how much filtration removes from a beer – a fact I remain happily ambivalent about, depending on the style of beer. And the Vienna lager – long fallen out of favour in its country of origin, but now brewed and widely enjoyed in Latin America – foreshadows the tales of migration that have accompanied the spread of beer – and the human beings that brew it and drink it – right across the world.

The full list of beers of beers tasted is:

International Amber Lager – Brooklyn Lager

Czech Amber Lager – Primator Polotmavy 13

Marzen – Weltenburger Kloster Anno 1050

Rauchbier – Schlenkerla Rauchbier

Vienna Lager – Negra Modelo

Amber Kellerbier – Monschof Kellerbier

California Common – Anchor Steam Beer

Taste the World – Part Two: Pilsner

My exploration of the world’s beer styles continued last night with a batch of Czech, German and American pilsners. Yet again the German styles kicked the others out of the park for me with their lingering hop flavour and sand dry finish. The Czech pilsners in particular tasted almost buttery sweet in comparison.

But again, the stories behind these beers threaten to overshadow an assessment of their flavour. It’s hard to imagine the excitement of the people of Plzen in 1842 when they tasted Josef Groll’s Pilsner Urquell – made possible by new yeast and novel malting techniques – for the very first time. And it’s equally difficult to place oneself in post-WW1 America, when German immigrant brewers were forced to put aside their brewing for the duration of Prohibition – a situation that had such an impact that Pre-Prohibition Lager is now classified as an ‘historical style’ with very few commercial examples.

My stand-out beer of the night was the Konig Pilsener, brewed in Duisburg-Beeck in Germany in accordance, of course, with the Rheinheitsgebot (German purity law). It’s clean and crisp with a wonderfully lingering herbal hop bitterness, and a refreshingly dry finish. I was driven to finish the whole bottle…

The full list of beers tasted is:

Czech Premium Pale Lager – Pilsner Urquell & Budweiser Budvar

German Pils – Konig Pilsener & Jever Pilsener

Pre-Prohibition Lager – Anchor California Lager

Taste the World – Part One: Pale Lager

So, my exploration of the beer styles of the world began last night with pale lager. It didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts – after all, how many wonderful evenings begin with a bottle of Coors Light (well – given it’s one of the most popular beers in the world – hopefully quite a few!), but things picked up as we shot through the American styles and got stuck into the German.

Like all other interactions with beer, it can be seen through powerful lenses of gender and class. From the snobbishness around the use of rice and corn as adjuncts in some parts of the world, to the ‘lawnmower beer’ tag applied to some of biggest-selling beers on the planet; from the mineral-laden Helles Exportbier, now somewhat neglected like much of western European industry that attended its birth, to the American light lagers, originally marketed at women as ‘diet’ beers and now pushed to every red-blooded sports fan to quaff on match day. However bland some of the beer may seem to our lupulin-shifted tastes, there is always a tasty tale behind it.

The full list of beers tasted is:

American Light Lager – Coors Light

American Lager – Pabst Blue Ribbon & Budweiser

International Pale Lager – Red Stripe & Asahi Super Dry

Munich Helles – Augustinerbrau Munchen Lagerbier Hell & Hacker Pschorr Munich Gold

Festbier – Eku Festbier & Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier

German Leichtbier – Tergernseer Leicht

Helles Exportbier/Dortmunder – Flensburger Gold & 5,0 Original

Pale Kellerbier – Hohenthanner Schlossbrauerie Kellerbier Hell & Hacker Pschorr Kellerbier

 

Not tasting but drinking…

I drink a lot of beer. Or rather I ‘taste’ a lot of beer – or that’s what I like to say when I’m trying to portray a professional image. But really it amounts to the same thing. Unlike wine sampling, beer tasting does not involve swilling the liquid around the mouth and then spitting it out before you get a chance to fully benefit from it. No – with beer tasting you get the full experience, from the sweetness on the lips, right through to the bitter backwash on your tongue, and the warming alcohol glow as it slips down your throat. Or just a fruity hop-fuelled punch in the face, of course, depending on what you’re quaffing.

However, like many contemporary beer drinkers, I spend a lot of my time drinking new beers. The quest for the novel, the experimental, the undiscovered, is ever present, and the fear of missing out on that new collaboration, that new small-batch, barrel-aged, wild yeast fermented concoction is as overwhelming for me as for all the other beer-chasers, marking our cards, rating our beers, and Instagramming our discoveries.

But beer is about so much more than that. The world’s most popular alcoholic drink, brewed in almost every part of the world for thousands of years, comes in many more guises than an artist-inspired can. There are many more beers than there are wines in the world. Some are ubiquitous, like the cold, pale, golden fizz that appears in some form in almost every continent of the globe. Some are less well-known, at this point in geography and time like Zoigl (a beer brewed in just one small area of north eastern Bavaria), or even almost extinct, like the Kentucky Common (a dark beer that used to be very popular around the town of Louisville). But in a world of craft beer, in which the new brewers stand squarely on the shoulders of those giants who brewed before them, these kinds of brews inform the present, and write the recipe we’ll all be drinking tomorrow.

Which is why I’m going back. Over the next few weeks I intend to sample around 150 distinct types of beer in a series of tasting sessions that will showcase some of the finest examples of each style. I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s all going to be plain sailing. Some sessions will be simply wonderful, of course – I can’t wait to taste a full-house of stouts – but others I know will challenge my palate in a variety of ways . Stepping briefly outside of the ‘craft’ bubble could expose me to the kinds of terrors I thought I’d put behind me – but I know I’ll come out the other end with a renewed understanding of what makes this drink so versatile, so vital, and so loved.

Organising such a vast tasting project is quite overwhelming. Obtaining some sort of an inventory of all the available beer styles is essential, as is grouping them together with beers alongside which they make sense. After all, there’s only so much beer a person can drink and sensibly taste in one sitting, and tasting a light lager alongside a Baltic porter may not provide me with the subtlety of education my palate demands. But, as in so many other regards nowadays, there is a mine of information and resources out there if you just know where to look.

Firstly, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) – the body that certifies and ranks judges for homebrew competitions – produces its own style guidelinesthe most recent version of which was published in 2015. Although this is primarily intended as a guide to aid the judging of homebrew, it can provide a useful framework on which to begin planning which beers to taste, and identifying good examples of these. Although beer styles change over time, and not every beer fits into these guidelines, the suggested categories, and list of commercial examples under each heading are invaluable when planning a project such as this. And it’s even available as free app for iTunes or Android for constant handy reference.

Secondly, there are some excellent books around that fully dissect the process of beer tasting, and provide thoroughly readable and accessible guides to the beers of the world. The classic text often mentioned in this regard is Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer – An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink, published in 2009, which explains how to deconstruct a beer in terms of the flavour wheel, and how to record tasting notes in a useful manner.

tasting-beer

Another book that covers some of the same ground in an equally appealing way is Joshua Bernstein’s The Complete Beer Course – Boot Camp for Beer Geeks, which consists of twelve ‘lessons’ that promise to turn the reader ‘from novice to expert’. I particularly like the ‘two to try’ feature included throughout this book which suggests two beers of the same style – often one classic and one contemporary – to sample side-by-side.

beer-course

Unfortunately, the BJCP guidelines and both of these books are written from a North American perspective, at times to the neglect of the British beer scene. It is rare to find a suggested example from a UK brewery, although Harvey’s, Thornbridge and Kernel are all mentioned in the BJCP guidelines.

Of course, a lot of the beer styles originate from mainland Europe or the USA so some dedicated sourcing of brews is in order. A number of beers can be found in local supermarkets – after all, at some point I’ll need to revisit the likes of Miller Lite and Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire. The range of international beers on offer in Marks & Spencer seems to be growing all the time so there are rich pickings to be had there. There are also some excellent websites that can assist in this regard including Beers of Europe and Beer Hawk (as long as you’re happy to put aside any qualms you may have with the latter’s association with AB InBev in the name of research).

And, of course, if like me you’re lucky enough to live in Brighton, we are rather spoiled in terms of access to good, unusual and challenging beer, particularly with shops like Bison Beer on East Street, and the Aladdin’s cave of Trafalgar Wines half-way up Trafalgar Street. 

So, if you want to join me on my mission to rediscover the multitude of beers this planet has to offer, you have no excuse. The rough order I will be tasting in is this:

  1. Pale Lagers
  2. Pilsners
  3. Amber Lagers
  4. Dark Lagers
  5. Bocks
  6. Pale Ales
  7. IPAs
  8. Amber Ales
  9. Brown Ales
  10. Porters
  11. Stouts
  12. Strong Ales
  13. Wheat Beers
  14. Sour Ales
  15. Speciality Beers & Everything Else 

I’ll be certain to see you on the other side with more of an understanding of the range of magic that a handful of rather special ingredients can conjure up. I’ll provide regular updates on my progress – and I’ll be not tasting, but drinking.