I am strolling through the hop fields of Tettnang, in southern Bavaria, near Lake Bodensee (Lake Constance), one of the major hop growing regions of Germany, which itself is the largest hop producer in the world. I am looking forward to visiting a local brewpub (Brauereigasthof Schöre) to enjoy a Sunday luncheon that will no doubt contain some form of pork, spaetzle and of course, beer.
Bavarians and their beer! People here drink beer as I would drink water or diet Coke–and it’s comparable in price to either. It’s a part of everyday life. For lunch…for dinner… as a late night snack in hotel vending machines, at almost every fast food counter. They even drink beer for breakfast! (I was told this by a number of non-Bavarians, but I don’t believe it since they didn’t serve beer at our hotel breakfast buffet) But it does reinforce Bavaria’s reputation as being the center of brewing in Central Europe, and the place where beer began.
Bavaria was the starting point for our beer tour this summer, and the focus was lagers. Up until now I have not cared for the lagers that I’ve tasted in the US, most of which were brewed by large breweries for mass-market tastes. I am a hop-hear. But I went into this trip with an open mind, hoping to learn about and appreciate European lagers.
Bavaria didn’t actually invent beer, but from my perspective it invented breweries. Though beer has been brewed since prehistoric times, large-scale brewing for distribution beyond the kitchen most certainly began with religious institutions. After all, beer is a gift from the gods, isn’t it? Monasteries had large cultivated fields and a ready supply of labor with little to do except pray. The oldest continuously operating breweries in the world began in monasteries, which were also responsible for the implementation of hops as an essential component of beer.
Our beer tour began in Munich, following a few delightful days in the Rhine River valley of Alsace drinking French wines. We drove the 220 miles from Strasbourg to Munich in our rented BMW on the autobahn, reaching speeds up to 200 km/hour (122 MPH)– except when traffic slowed to a crawl due to roadwork, which was about three-quarters of the time. Fortunately there were rest stops along the autobahn with restrooms, refreshments, and of course beer. After a week in the French countryside, Munich seemed crowded, busy, and a manufacturing center–obviously a successful economy, but not much fun for tourists. So we made a beeline to the biggest tourist attraction in town, the old town center (the Marienplatz) with its medieval buildings, its spectacular Glockenspiel, shops, restaurants, beer halls, and… the world famous HofBräuhaus, ground zero for Oktoberfest.
Yes, it’s a tourist attraction and we were treated like tourists–long waits and poor service. But if you are a local, and a regular (i.e. “Stammtisch”) your experience is different. Stammtisch have reserved tables, familiar waiters, and good service. So I quickly made friends with a nearby table of Stammtish, who have been coming to the beer hall, and sitting at the same table for 35 years. Pretty soon we were at their table, having a great time, exchanging stories, and raising our steins with “Prost!”
My first sip of HofBräuhaus Helles was wonderful! The brew contained only 5% alcohol, but there was a lot of body and a long-lasting head; hops were present but barely discernible. A helles is the traditional Munich blond lager, closely related to the Czech Pils, but a bit more subdued and in balance with malts. “Helles” is German for “bright.” And it was. I could drink it all night, especially with food. This beer was so much tastier than American light lagers that I was left wondering how a lager made by a huge, mass-market brewery could taste so good. I hoped to find out at the end of my beer trip.
A word about German beer styles. Forget everything you ever learned in American Craft Beer School; you will need to consult the German Beer Institute.
Drinking HofBräuhaus Helles like a local
Compared to American craft beers, the beers in Central Europe are primarily lager-based, that is, brewed at lower temperature with lager, bottom-fermenting yeast. The flavor profile relies more heavily on malt than on hops, including body as well as taste, and the brews tend to be lower in alcohol than American crafts. There are hundreds of beer styles in German-speaking Europe, and many are regional. It would take me months of touring and tasting to get a handle on all the beer styles. (It is very tempting to try!). With its 620 working breweries and over 4000 beer labels, Bavaria is the center, brewing about half the beer in Germany. There are about 40 Bavarian beer styles, from Alts to Zwickelbier, but some are more common than others. In most of the country, at any restaurant, or food concession, you will always have your choice of a helles or dunkel (light or dark), and frequently a Weiss bier as well. A dunkel a dark lager, very malty with only a gentle hop bitterness and almost no nose. Extremely easy to drink, I found it to be rather undistinguished and low in alcohol– certainly the best choice for breakfast.
On the second evening we visited another beer hall in the Marienplatz, Schneider’s Weisse Brauhaus, to sample Weissebeirs (wheat beer). Less well-known to tourists than its famous neighbor, we found that this brauhaus had much better food and service. There was an extensive selection of beers, all of which were wheat-based ales. I was pleasantly surprised by these brews, as I generally don’t care for American wheat beer with its citrus and spice flavorings added. These were thirst-quenching drinks, with a higher alcohol content and more hop flavor than most American wheats. While some varieties had subtle hints of clove and fruit that is characterized as either “banana” or “bubblegum,” these flavors are created by the yeast, rather added condiments. As a matter of fact, the German beer purity laws forbid addition of flavorings to beer. And heaven forbid, never drink this with a lemon slice! It will mark you as a tourist for sure.
German Weissbier is usually cloudy, due to unfiltered yeast and wheat malt proteins in suspension, though a few are filtered to produce a sparkling, effervescent “kristal,”such as the Schneider’s Mein Kristal which I tasted. I liked this one; it’s bland and effervescent, goes extremely well with food, and probably a good pick for an American beer drinker who might otherwise be put off by the cloudiness of weissebier. I tasted the Hopfenweisse, which is closer to an American IPA in terms of hop bitterness and its high ABV of 8.5%. It didn’t quite suit my tastes, as I didn’t care for the hop-malt balance. The Unser Aventinus Tap-6, on the other hand, was excellent, at 8.2% alcohol, with mild hop flavor and strong, well-balanced malt. It was a wheat doppelbock, a style we don’t find at home. This one is a keeper. And I guess I am not alone, because it is the oldest of its style in Bavaria. It has some availability in the US, so I’d look for it if I could.
Don’t get the impression that all we did in Munich was drink beer. There are many other sites to see. I would highly recommend a trip to BMW Welt (BMW World), and take the hard-hat tour if you can spare the 3 1/2 hours. It is definitely a unique and fun experience. If you are a beer geek there is a good chance you are also a car geek.
View from Our Hotel
Leaving Munich, we drove through the stunningly beautiful Alps of southern Bavaria, stopping for a night in Oberammergau, a boisterous spot during the ski season, but a sleepy town in the summer. We were hard pressed to find an open bar after 10 pm, though our hotel conveniently had a vending machine that dispensed beer and cocktails. We finally managed to locate one of Rick’s specials — a bar that is open late, where the bartenders from other establishment go after closing time. These are generally a good spots for beer, camaraderie, and conversation (albeit in German).
Continuing toward Lake Constance, we came across the small town of Ettal, which boasts a beautiful 500-year-old monastery (rebuilt in 1744), the Kloster Ettal. It is very baroque, and elaborately painted inside. Monastery = Brewery, correct? The gift shop sold bottles of the monks’ beer, and even the nuns from the tour buses couldn’t resist. We bought a couple of bottles of the Benediktiner Dunkel and we found it to be a very, very good, traditional lager. Too bad you can’t find any of this Klosterbier (Cloister-brewed beer) in your local beer shop.
The Kloster Ettal gift shop, waiting for divine inspiration to select a beer
Our last beer tour stop in Bavaria was the Hop Museum in Tettnang. Tetthang is the second largest hop-growing region of Germany, producing the highly-prized Tetthanger hopfen (hops), also known as “Green Gold.” These are premium noble hops, prized for their floral aroma and mild bitterness, which are used to finish off premium beers and to flavor the spicier lagers, such as Pils. Most German beers are flavored with Hallertau, but my American palate cannot tell them from Tettnang, attuned as it is to hoppy, floral, citrusy American hops. For that matter, most Germans can’t distinguish American hop varieties, either.
Restaurants open on Sunday are hard to find in rural areas, but the museum gift shop attendant recommended one in a nearby town, Schöne Braueriegasthof (brewery + restaurant + hotel), where “everybody goes for Sunday luncheon.” She was right. Everybody and his family was there, probably because the food was quite good; I had pork schnitzel and Rick had a pot roast of beef with a heavy sauce. And spaetzle on the side, of course. The beer was brewed on site, fresh out of the keg and unfiltered, with your choice of helles or dunkel, (light or dark), and brewed with Tettnang hops. Though a bit rough, this beer is the closest thing that I found to a German craft microbrew.
Finally it was time to leave Bavaria. I am leaving a new-found appreciation and love of lagers. Next, on to to Vienna, craft beer, and the beautiful blue Danube. We will try to answer the question posed above: “How can a lager made by a huge, mass-market brewery taste so good?”