Tankards Everywhere: Tempest’s Beerscapes of 2016

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Fermentation in progress, Weihenstephan

I was at Schloss Belvedere a few days back, the famous Viennese museum that houses the even more famous Kiss by Gustav Klimt. Alongside some of his other iconic works such as Judith und Holofernes hung several paintings dating from the year of Klimt’s death in 1918, all containing the word “unvollendet” (incomplete) somewhere in the title. Like Schubert’s 8th Symphony –– Die Unvollendete –– Klimt’s incomplete works gesture tantalizingly toward what would have been.

The same cannot be said for my growing stack of paper and metaphorically bulging computer file filled with work in various stages of incompletion: inchoate thoughts on everything from the German Purity Laws to the perennial debates about canning and canons of taste; travelogues that set out on a journey with no end; and the myriad attempts to turn aroma and flavour sensations into transcriptions of my imbibing pleasures.

One aspect of my attempts to put pen to paper on a regular basis has remained relatively constant since I arrived in Vienna: I get side-tracked too easily by all there is to see and do in Vienna, in Austria, in Central Europe, and elsewhere on this continent. The desire to post regularly has remained just that. I have to admit that I considered putting Tempest on ice on more than a few occasions, but the sheer enjoyment of writing about all things fermentable keeps drawing me back to the keyboard.

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The Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands.

Almost every one of my trips over the past three years has involved the cultural history and contemporary moment of drinking up. This year alone I walked 15 km from one distillery in Aberlour to another in Ballindalloch along Scotland’s Speyside Way.

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Kloster Andechs. I suspect that most of the visitors aren’t here to attend mass.

I followed in the footsteps of thirsty pilgrims in search of spiritual and corporeal solace at Kloster Andechs.

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A local beer from Carinthia’s Loncium at the Dolomitenhütte

I hiked up a mountain for a view of the Austrian Dolomites and a much-deserved local beer at the top, and cycled with friends along the Danube in Austria’s Wachau region during the height of the grape harvest.

And that’s not all. As I began to gather my thoughts for this piece on the occasion of Tempest’s third trip around the orange orb, I realized that it’s been quite the ride since this time last year. České Budějovice (Budweis), Plzeń (Pilsen).

Polished coppers at Pilsner Urquell

Polished coppers at Pilsner Urquell

Austria’s Innviertel.

Bogner, makers of some of the best Hefeweizen in Austria

Bogner, makers of some of the best Hefeweizen in Austria

Brussels and Flemish Brabant.

You really can't go wrong with a wheel of lambics.

You really can’t go wrong with a wheel of lambics.

Munich, with its expansive beer gardens and lively beer halls, and Ayinger a half hour away. img_8346

A top-notch hop museum in the Hallertau and several museum exhibitions in Munich commemorating the 500th anniversary of the German Purity Laws (Reinheitsgebot).

The German Hop Museum in Wolnzach (Hallertau)

The German Hop Museum in Wolnzach (Hallertau)

Oktoberfest in Munich, and a hop harvest festival in Freising, home of Germany’s oldest brewery.

You won't go hungry in Bavaria.

You won’t go hungry in Bavaria.

And Scotland! Edinburgh’s majestic pubs.img_0722

The search for a 60 Shilling ale which proved about as fruitless as trying to sight the Loch Ness Monster. And drams of whisky to chase whatever Scottish ale I did find.img_0902

So here we are. Some of the notes and fragments detailing my adventures will see the light of day in due time, but in the meantime I offer you a few words’ worth of images, a visual down payment on writing to come.

Cheers to you, my fellow imbiber, for accompanying me on my journey these past three years! It’s you who keeps me writing.

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Check back in a few days for my write-up about the outstanding beer I cracked to celebrate three years.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Tempest’s Beer and Travel Highlights from 2015-2016

So much to do, so little time. With all those beers I’m sure you’ve been searching out and drinking over the course of the year, one or two Tempest articles may have slipped you by. Not to worry! On the occasion of Tempest’s third year traveling to far-flung places to bring you the best beer experiences, here’s a short round-up of highlights.img_1258

(Click here for the updated version of my ongoing Index of articles and posts over the years.)

Occasionally I’d manage to find a small sliver of time between friends coming to visit and excursions to far-flung parts of Europe combining hiking, cycling, and the pursuit of all things zymurgical. The result? Much of what I wrote between November 2015 and now came out in bursts and took the form of series. I did set down a handful of stand-alone pieces, a few of which I’ll list before introducing the highlights of the serial articles I wrote:

A World of Stouts for Your Weekend is an exploration of stouts beyond the British Isles that’ll keep you warm on any non-summer night. Rich brews from Japan, Norway, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and Sri Lanka.

Beer Travel off the Beaten Track: Austria’s Innviertel. Few might think otherwise, but the Central European beer scene encompasses more than Bavaria and Bohemia.img_6917 For the intrepid beer traveler, the Innviertel of Upper Austria is a gem of bucolic scenery, colourful towns, and top-notch breweries that don’t see wide distribution.

Say No to Style Loyalty. We live in an era of unprecedented beer selection, yet a number of venerable styles currently on the books are on the verge of extinction. Mild Ale, anyone? Perhaps the most salient piece I wrote all year. Pour yourself a glass of a beer you’ve never had and give it a read.

Wild-Fermented Beer in Belgium

Of Coolships, Cobwebs, and Cantillon––Need I say more about this iconic brewery? Maybe just one thing: go there at least once in your life. This post was by far my most popular post of 2016, but be sure to check out all the other fermented delights that Belgium has to offer while you’re there. And the chocolate.

Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant––Rent a bike just outside of Brussels and follow along to breweries such as Drie Fonteinen, Oud Beersel, and Boon. “Where the Wild Beers Are” also has plenty of suggestions about where to get your sour funk in Brussels when you’re done with your ride.img_7928

The Oktoberfest Series

O’ zapft is! These may well be the only three words of German you need to know beyond bier and prost, but you might also be wondering about the rich history of the world’s largest beer festival. “O’ zapft is!” sets the stage.oktoberfest-hofbrautent-fdh

From Horse Races to Beer Steins: Oktoberfest Since 1810––Did you know that Oktoberfest started its two-hundred year history as a horse race in honour of a royal wedding? It wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that Oktoberfest started to resemble the festival we all know and love today. Learn more about how beer tents supplanted “beer castles,” and how the golden Festbier eventually replaced Märzen on the Theresienwiese in these two articles:

Where Did All the Märzen Go? Provisioning Oktoberfest Imbibers over the Centuries

Autumn in a Glass: Märzen, Oktoberfest Beer, and Vienna Lager

The Vienna Beer Garden Series

Exploring Vienna’s Beer Gardens––Vienna: city of classical music, café culture, and stunning architecture. Vienna is also home to a rich but understated beer garden scene. Learn about the history of Vienna’s beloved Prater before heading to the Schweizerhaus for a beer and roasted pork knuckle.

Vienna, City of Beer Gardens––When you’re done with all the museums and sights that Vienna has to offer, hop on Vienna’s superb public transportation network and head out in search of Vienna’s vibrant shades of green.

Up next: Tempest’s Beerscapes of 2016.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Autumn in a Glass: Märzen, Oktoberfest Beer, and Vienna Lager

As the leaves in the beer gardens begin to don their autumnal attire and the evenings hint of the harvest, my beer preferences turn to the kinds of beers whose colour reflects my surroundings. These gold, amber, and russet beers of autumn also have just enough added alcoholic warmth to stave off the evening chill –– the perfect transit point between the lighter beers of summer and the heftier beers of winter.img_0609

In Germany, autumn means amber Märzen and the deep gold Festbier served at Munich’s Oktoberfest. In North America, when it’s not a question of the ubiquitous love-it-or-loathe-it pumpkin beers, autumn beers conjure up images of pretzels, beer steins, lederhosen, bratwurst, beer tents, and oompah bands.

Back to the title for a moment: Aren’t Märzen and Oktoberfest beer the same thing? No. And yes. The difference between a Märzen and an Oktoberfest beer depends on where you are and when. Anyone familiar with the development of porter, stout, or IPA won’t be surprised to learn that Märzen and Oktoberfest beer, too, have undergone shifts not only in taste but in meaning over the decades.

The beer served on Munich’s Theresienwiese was, at one point, Märzen –– specifically, a kind of Märzen brewed in 1872 by Gabriel Sedlmayr of Spaten for Oktoberfest. The beer that Sedlmayr developed had much in common with the wildly popular Vienna Lager first brewed by Sedlmayr’s friend and colleague, Anton Dreher, in 1841. Sedlmayr’s new Oktoberfest beer –– a few shades lighter in hue than the brown beer hitherto served at the festival and less weighty –– swept the festival like a tsunami and soon became synonymous with Oktoberfest. But only until 1953, when Augustiner developed an even lighter Festbier, which every brewery soon offered alongside the more traditional Märzen all the way down through the late 1980s. From the early 1990s, Oktoberfest beer served on Munich’s Theresienwiese during Oktoberfest came to mean one thing: the burnished golden, malty Festbier first brewed by Augustiner.img_0631

But uncertainty in North America about what Oktoberfest beer is in Munich and other parts of Bavaria has not been aided by the Bavarian breweries themselves, many of whom export Märzen to our shores labeled as “Oktoberfest Märzen.” Beyond that, several North American breweries who brew a beer in honour of Oktoberfest brew a Märzen. (No complaints here –– I love the style!) As for the BJCP Style Guidelines, earlier versions were less than clear on the differences between the German beers of autumn. It wasn’t until they released their 2015 Style Guidelines that they introduced distinctions between Märzen and the Oktoberfestbier served during Oktoberfest. (The 2015 BJCP Guidelines label it simply “Festbier,” since the term Oktoberfest Bier has been trademarked. Curiously, this hasn’t stopped anyone in North America from calling their beers Kölsch, even though that, too, is a protected designation. But that’s another story.) On top of it all, Beeradvocate still has the following description on its site:

“The common Munich Oktoberfest beer served at Wies’n (the location at which Munich celebrates its Oktoberfest) contains roughly 5.0-6.0% alcohol by volume, is dark/copper in color, has a mild hop profile and is typically labeled as a Bavarian Märzenbier in style” (October 2016).

Confused? I was until relatively recently, too. Who’s to blame you if you haven’t been to Oktoberfest in Bavaria and have thought all along that today’s Oktoberfest beer is a Märzen? More to the point, why should you care? Well, if you’re really into the Oktoberfest Märzen beers that turn up in North America, I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed when you go to Munich for Oktoberfest and end up with a beer that isn’t a Märzen. But that’s not to say that Festbier isn’t any less worthy of your attention. It’s just a much different beast.

And so, to clear up any confusion for early twenty-first century fans of Germanic beer and folks judging these styles at homebrew competitions in North America, here’s a quick run-down of Germany’s beers of autumn, along with a few styles related either by taste and aroma profile (Vienna Lager), or by name (Austrian Märzen).

Click here for tasting notes

Oktoberfestbier (or, simply, Festbier): The golden-hued, malty, slightly honey-sweet, and dangerously quaffable beer served in Munich during the Oktoberfest. Other Bavarian breweries (Weihenstephaner, for example) may also brew a beer in the same style for sale in autumn, but since they aren’t part of the “Munich 6,” you won’t see their beers on the Theresienwiese during Oktoberfest.img_0314

Oktoberfest Märzen: Beer brewed by Bavarian breweries for export to North America during the autumn months. May also refer to any North American example of autumn amber lager brewed in the Märzen style that reigned supreme on the Theresienwiese between 1872 and 1953. The style is no longer served at Oktoberfest in Munich (though I wouldn’t complain if the Munich brewers were to bring the style back).

Märzen: Historically, a shape-shifter, ranging in colour from orange-hued amber to dark brown. In the days before refrigeration, various proclamations and decrees in the wake of the Reinheitsgebot (Beer Purity Laws) of 1516 prohibited brewing between the feasts of St. George on 23 April and St. Michael on 29 September as a means of preventing both fires and summer beer spoilage. So-called Sommerbier (summer beer, later rechristened Märzen) was brewed to a higher strength in March so that supplies of drinkable beer would last through the summer. Since the time of Sedlmayr’s release of a Märzen in 1872, the beer has become associated with autumn. (NB: I’m making the latter assumption in the absence of any evidence I have yet to turn up pointing to this semantic shift.)

Vienna Lager: Even though Märzen and Vienna Lager are fairly distinct at second glance, it’s easy enough to confuse the two styles, especially if the latter isn’t named Dos Equis Amber. Interestingly, the BJCP put the style on their watch list in 2015, suggesting that it might be time to rescue the classic style from its mass-produced pale reflection by moving it to the historical category.img_0460 Those worries may have been somewhat premature, for a key anniversary has spurred the re-emergence of Vienna Lager in its native land: the 175th anniversary of Dreher’s first batch brewed at the Schwechat brewery just outside Vienna. Today, Gusswerk in Salzburg, Loncium in the mountains of Carinthia, Ottakringer and Brew Age in Vienna, and even the granddaddy of them all, Schwechater, have released excellent Vienna Lagers in the past few years. Vive la Vienna Lager!

The takeaway: Sedlmayr’s Märzen brewed for the 1872 Oktoberfest may well have been identical to the Vienna Lager being brewed in the Habsburg Empire at the time, but the two styles diverged over the next century. Nowadays, Märzen is a delectably malty beer that showcases toasty aromatics and melanoidin richness. Vienna Lager is also malty, but it has more pronounced hop aromas, flavours, and bitterness. In many ways, you could consider it the hoppy cousin of the slightly sweeter contemporary Märzen.

Austrian Märzen: I will touch only briefly on the Austrian version of a Märzen here, a year-round beer that has little in common with the autumnal Märzens of Bavaria and North America. If anything, an Austrian Märzen is more like a cross between what, in Germany, goes by the name of Export Bier and a helles lager. The beer is yellow-gold and crystal-clear, with a clean malt expression and slightly more of a hop presence than a helles lager, but not approaching Pilsner territory.

Now all you need to do is go out and grab a few of these fine beers for those afternoons when it’s still just barely warm enough to sit on the front porch or for those smoky evenings when the wind is rustling the leaves still holding out against winter.

Click here for tasting notes

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Related Tempest Articles:

O’ zapft is! Oktoberfest 2016

The Colour of Fall Leaves: Tasting Notes on Märzen, Oktoberfestbier, and Vienna Lager

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

From Horse Races to Beer Steins: Oktoberfest Since 1810

Featured Beer: Klosterbrauerei Weissenohe “Bonator”

Where Did All the Märzen Go? Provisioning Oktoberfest Imbibers over the Centuries

Sources:

BJCP Style Guidelines, 2008 and 2015.

Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer, Brewing Classic Styles: 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 2007).

Beeradvocate, “Märzen/Oktoberfest,” https://www.beeradvocate.com/beer/style/29/ (accessed 11 October 2016).

Ursula Eymold (ed.), Bier.Macht.München: 500 Jahre Münchner Reinheitsgebot in Bayern, exhibition catalogue, Münchener Stadtmuseum, 2016.

1516 Ingolstadt: http://www.1516-ingolstadt.de/geschichte/geschichte-bier/

Horst Dornbusch, Prost! The Story of German Beer (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 1997).

Images: F.D. Hofer

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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The Colour of Fall Leaves: Tasting Notes on Märzen, Oktoberfestbier, and Vienna Lager

Wondering about the differences between Märzen, Oktoberfest Beer, and Vienna Lager? Check out “Autumn in a Glass: Märzen, Oktoberfest Beer, and Vienna Lager” before cracking open your first beer in this four-pack of Central European beers.img_0599

a) Märzen

Märzen is a malt-lover’s dream. Depending on the brewer, the malt character can run the gamut from toast and what I’d describe as a “Munich malt fruit” character (dark cherry-like) to dates, dried figs, autumn honey, malted milk, malt balls, and Swiss milk caramel.* My partner in crime nailed the style: It’s like a Rolo, she said.

*Swiss milk caramel is a descriptor I use often for beers like this, and requires some explanation. When I was a kid, my grandma used to send us a parcel at Christmas that had all kinds of chocolates and sweets that we never saw in Canada. She always sent along a box of caramels that were quite a bit different than the ones we used to get while out trick-or-treating at Halloween. They were much lighter in colour and had a pronounced creamy taste that brought the caramel flavour down a notch. So when I mention Swiss milk caramel, think of a very light caramel aroma and flavour with fresh cream.

Weissenoher Monk’s Fest Traditional Märzen, Klosterbrauerei Weissenohe (5.4%)

Weissenohe’s Märzen is unfiltered and gloriously caramel-amber, with all the fresh milk, bread, toast, and Swiss milk caramel a malt lover could want.Monks Fest USAnew A touch of floral hops and a suggestion of green apple from the yeast only adds to the complexity. The beer is lightly sweet, with plenty of malted milk, toffee, dates, and dried figs swirled together with Munich “malt fruit” (dark fruit/black cherry). A slate-like fermentation character keeps this filling beer on the refreshing side. This one’s almost in Bock territory in terms of hearty richness. A monument to decoction mashing. And just what the doctor ordered for the maltheads in the crowd. Three Tankards

b) Oktoberfestbier

Burnished gold in colour, Oktoberfestbier boasts exquisite honeyed malt and fresh country bread with a touch of light toast, a dash of herbal or spicy hop aroma sometimes reminiscent of lemon tea or cinnamon, and a crisp mineral fermentation character. On the palate, these medium-bodied beers are round, unctuous, and clean. A hint of residual (white nougat) sweetness mingles with just a trace of hop bitterness accented by honey, toast, and even roasted nuts. Drinkability is a hallmark of the style –– dangerously so.

Löwenbräu Oktoberfestbier (6.1%)

But for its lingering cap of pearl-hued foam, Löwenbräu’s Oktoberfestbier looks like effervescent golden apple juice bubbling away contentedly in its Maß (1-liter stein).loewenbraeu-oktoberfestbier-flasche An intriguing slate-mineral medley opens the show, joined quickly by a chorus of fruit suggestive of golden apples sprinkled with cinnamon, green grapes with a dash of cardamom, and white peach. Acacia honey, marzipan, and a dusting of light brown sugar sweetness rounds out the ensemble. None of these aromas overpowers the other in this oh-so-slightly malt-forward beer: subtle complexity’s the word. With its moderate but tingly carbonation, Löwenbräu’s Oktoberfestbier is a playful beer that seemingly floats on the palate. Spicy and elegant hop leaf with a touch of musk come together with intriguing flavours of white grape, white peach, and fresh-cut artisanal bread with honey drizzled over it. An unassuming bitter note in the background ensures that this slightly off-dry beer finishes crisply before its lingering aftertaste of white peach and baking spice takes over. Complex enough to contemplate; balanced and refreshing enough to drink for hours. (And yes, Löwenbräu is owned by AB-InBev. But rest assured, Munich breweries like Spaten and Löwenbräu don’t mess around with their Oktoberfest Bier, lest they get laughed off the Weisn.) One Tankard

c) Vienna Lager

Expect a solid bedrock of toast, melanoidin, a touch of bread crust, and light Swiss milk caramel malt supporting spicy hop aromas and flavours heading in the direction of Bohemia.

Ottakringer Wiener Original, Vienna, Austria (5.3%)

Luminescent light amber with orange hues, Ottakringer’s crystal-clear Vienna Lager is a fine-looking beer. Aroma-wise, the Ottakringer is not quite as intense as some of the other Vienna Lagers that have appeared in the past few years, but it delivers complexity to spare. ottakringer_wiener_original_flascheHerbal-pepper-floral hop notes open out onto subtle toast and caramel, and the yeast/fermentation character imparts a note of mineral-peach that gives the beer a certain levity. Ottakringer is slightly fruity on the palate, combining peach, marzipan, toast, and a hint of light caramel. A lighter body compared with many other contemporary Vienna Lagers adds to the perception of bitterness, and the beer finishes slightly drier and more austere than many of its compatriots. But Ottakringer’s offering is still Vienna Lager through and through, and not only because it’s brewed in the heart of Vienna’s sixteenth district. It’s also classically Central European, with a profile melding leafy hops, a hint of pepper, a whisper of sulfur, and a touch of what I’d describe as an earthy cellar note.

d) Austrian Märzen

Austrian Märzen has almost nothing in common with its Bavarian namesake. Occupying the territory between an Export Bier and a Bavarian helles lager, Austrian Märzen is yellow-gold and crystal-clear, with a clean malt expression and slightly more of a hop presence than a helles lager.

Gösser Märzen, Styria, Austria (5.2%)

Gösser’s Märzen looks like a Tuscan countryside in summer. Fruity-floral hop notes and a hint of mineral and stone fruit preside over a bed of white nougat-like bready malt.goesser_sorten_maerzen_6er Pleasant but not intense, Gösser tips the scale in the direction of hops, with a yeasty bread dough note leavened by freshly crushed grains and a touch of grassiness. Gösser starts off on the palate like artisanal white raisin bread, with herbal-fruity hops lending a touch of spice. Light brown sugar mingles with stone fruit and an interesting noble hop spiciness mid-palate (the combination of which is reminiscent of spiced white raisins or spiced peach), and a firm bitterness ensures that the beer finishes crisply and refreshingly. Fairly high levels of carbonation cut through the honeyed malt, which also makes for a slightly prickly and zingy mouthfeel. Not nearly as complex the Budweiser Budvar and Stiegl Pils that share shelf space with Gösser at my local Billa supermarket, it’s still a bracingly refreshing beer that doesn’t require loads of concentration while drinking.

Related Tempest Articles:

O’ zapft is! Oktoberfest 2016

From Horse Races to Beer Steins: Oktoberfest Since 1810

Where Did All the Märzen Go? Provisioning Oktoberfest Imbibers over the Centuries

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Where Did All the Märzen Go? Provisioning Oktoberfest Imbibers over the Centuries

Nearly 40,000 people headed out to the horse race just beyond the Munich gates on that first Oktoberfest day in 1810. Families and groups of friends staked out places to sit on the meadowland heights surrounding the track and began tucking into their bread, sausage, and beer as the races began. The mood was festive at this Olympic-style race, and the event was a resounding success. After all, Munich at the time numbered 40,638 souls, and most of them came out to enjoy the race (Eymold, 327). It wasn’t long before plans were laid to repeat the event annually on what soon became known as the Theresienwiese (Therese’s meadow), named in honour of Crown Prince Ludwig’s bride, Therese Charlotte Louise von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Try saying that even once after you’ve had a few Maß of beer on today’s Theresienwiese.

From Modest Beer Stall to Opulent Beer Castle to Massive Beer Tent –– Or, How to Keep Tens of Thousands from Going Thirsty

If the horse race was the main attraction during the early years of the festival, the merriment soon spread out along the margins of the track. Bowling was popular, as were wheelbarrow races, swings, shooting galleries, and the first carousel that graced the Wiesn in 1818. Looking back briefly to 1814, the German poet, Achim von Arnim, noted that thirsty travelers could find ample Bretterbuden (simply appointed wooden stalls) in which Munich’s tavern keepers slung beer in half-liter tin-lidded tankards (Dornbusch, 49). At first, the guests sat on benches at tables under the open air. Soon, though, the Bretterbuden expanded to offer indoor seating.oktoberfest-postcard-munchenkindlstein As the festival began to extend over several days, provisioning all the attendees became a necessity, in particular since Oktoberfest had begun attracting festival-goers from all over Bavaria. The Bretterbuden proliferated.

With the enormous rise in prestige of the Munich breweries from the 1880s, their presence at the festival began to grow as well. In 1895, the now-defunct Thomasbrauerei built the first Bierburg (“beer castle”), a hall large enough to accommodate 800 thirsty patrons. A 1907 decision to do away with the Wirtsbudenring (a ring of 18 tavern stalls) fundamentally altered the complexion of the Wiesn, opening the door for other breweries to compete with the splendour of Thomasbrauerei’s beer castle. By 1910, all of Munich’s largest breweries had commissioned leading architects to design impressive festival halls that cited decorative elements from the Baroque and Biedermeier eras.

But even those structures weren’t large enough to accommodate the droves of imbibers who descended upon Munich each year. Breweries soon turned to massive tents to simplify the challenge of seating increasingly large numbers of patrons. In 1913, the last year before the First World War broke out, the Pschorr Brewery erected a tent so large that it could hold 12,000 stein-hoisters –– the largest beer structure that has ever stood on the Oktoberfest grounds. It wasn’t long before the beer tent replaced the beer castle, transforming the physical appearance of the Theresienwiese and shaping our contemporary imagination of Oktoberfest in the process. As of 2005, the entire festival grounds offered seating for 100,000 festival-goers; the largest fest hall is the Hofbräu tent and garden, with 10,000 seats.oktoberfest-hofbrautent-fdh

Roll Out the Barrels! The Changing Fortunes of Oktoberfest Beer Styles

Ever headed to Munich during Oktoberfest and been surprised to see that they serve one beer only –– a burnished golden beer at that? Isn’t Oktoberfest beer supposed to be an amber-coloured and richly malt Märzen beer, you might be thinking? If you’re Central European, you’ve probably never been caught up in this confusion. To many Canadian and American beer enthusiasts, though, Oktoberfest remains synonymous with Märzen.

In case you’re wondering where all the Märzen went, here’s a short explanation.

During the first several decades of the Oktoberfest, breweries brought whatever they had on hand to the festival –– usually some sort of forerunner of today’s Munich Dunkel. It wasn’t until 1872 that Spaten’s Gabriel Sedlmayr began brewing a beer specially for Oktoberfest –– a Märzen beer based loosely on the Vienna Lager first brewed by Sedlmayr’s colleague, Anton Dreher, in 1841. This amber beer was a shade or two lighter than the dark beer typically available in the Bretterbuden, and that much easier to knock back. Märzenbier soon conquered the festival.

Fun facts:

Dial “M” for Märzen: After Sedlmayr introduced the drinking world to his particular brand of Märzen in 1872, the barrels that arrived at Oktoberfest bore an “M” insignia. Each cask –– known as a “Hirsch,” or stag –– contained 200 liters and weighed around 300 kilos (Eymold, 328).

Horses and wagons: Breweries used horse-drawn carts to deliver their casks of beer not only to Oktoberfest, but to the inns and taverns of Munich right down into the 1950s (Eymold, 328).

Parades! The first parade was held in 1835 on the occasion of the silver anniversary of King Ludwig I’s marriage to Queen Therese. The parade was a spectacle of decorated wagons and inhabitants from across Bavaria decked out in the Tracht (lederhosen and dirndl) of their respective regions –– the origins of today’s Trachten- und Schützenzug procession that takes place on the second day of Oktoberfest. Back in the day, the festival parade was meant as an impressive demonstration of Bavaria’s “national” character. Festive parades were also held on the occasion of the 100th and 125th anniversary of Oktoberfest. Since 1949, the festival parade starting in Munich’s center and winding its way through the city to the Theresienwiese has been an annual opening-day tradition.

But even the reign of Märzen would prove to be temporary. In 1953, an even lighter Festbier –– Augustiner’s Wiesnedelstoff –– entered the festival ring. Soon all the major breweries had followed Augustiner’s lead, and began serving this eminently quaffable Wiesn beer alongside their Märzen. Wiesnbier displaced Märzen entirely by the late 1980s, becoming simply Oktoberfestbier.

Nowadays, Oktoberfest is about one beer, and one beer only. And only by the Maß. Which is just fine –– it eliminates the need for ordering so you can concentrate on the festivities.oktoberfest-postcard-augustiner-wiesnedelstoff The servers bring armfulls of 1-liter tankards right to your table. Take one, pay up, and Bob’s your uncle.

Here’s what you can expect:

Brewed to 13.5-14 degrees Plato and lagered for eight weeks at minus one degree Celsius, Oktoberfestbier is now a protected trademark of the Munich breweries. The result is a beer somewhere between a helles Bock and a helles Lager that clocks in somewhere between 6% and 6.3% ABV. Burnished gold in colour, the beer exudes aromas of fresh bread, honeyed malt with a touch of light toast, and a mild herbal or spicy hop fragrance depending on the brewer. Medium- to full-bodied on the palate, Oktoberfestbier has a mild residual (honey nougat) sweetness, flavours of lightly toasted bread, and just a hint of hop bitterness. The beer is reminiscent of Alpine meadows, with a refreshing mineral character. Round, supple, and clean. And the epitome of what German speakers call süffig (quaffable).

Darauf ein Oktoberfestbier!

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Related Tempest Articles:

O’ zapft is! Oktoberfest 2016

From Horse Races to Beer Steins: Oktoberfest Since 1810

The MaltHead Manifesto

In the Cool Shade of the Beer Garden

Sources:

Ursula Eymold (ed.), Bier.Macht.München: 500 Jahre Münchner Reinheitsgebot in Bayern, exhibition catalogue, Münchener Stadtmuseum, 2016.

Bier- und Oktoberfest Museum, Munich (visited 17 September 2016).

Astrid Assél and Christian Huber, München und das Bier: Auf großer Biertour durch 850 Jahre Braugeschichte (München: Volk Verlag, 2009).

Horst Dornbusch, Prost! The Story of German Beer (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 1997).

Image Credits:

“Münchner Kindl mit Bierkrug,” Paul Otto Engelhard/München, 1913 (postcard image).

“Augustiner Edelstoff,” Holzfurtner, Plakat, Offsetdruck, 1976 (postcard image).

Hofbräuhaus tent, Theresienwiese, Munich (F.D. Hofer).

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

From Horse Races to Beer Steins: Oktoberfest Since 1810

On 17 October 1810, 40,000 people converged on a field beyond Munich’s Sedlinger Gate to watch a horse race staged by the Citizens’ Militia (Bürgermilitär) in honour of Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The numbers were impressive, given that the population of Munich at the time was only 40,338 inhabitants. It seems no one complained when the next edition of the festival rolled around the following year on the Theresienwiese, ushering in what rapidly became a hallowed annual autumn tradition.

Watching horse races was a leisure pursuit much enjoyed by Bavarians in the nineteenth century. Any person who owned a horse could enter the annual race. From 1810 to 1913, the horse race was the main attraction at Oktoberfest, but other forms of entertainment soon put their stamp on the festival.oktoberfest-1810-peter-hess The Munich Rifle Association (Münchener Schützengesellschaft) organized a prize shoot in 1810 that has remained part of Oktoberfest to this day. From 1811, organizers of the agricultural fair aimed to spur peasants and farmers within the kingdom of Bavaria to ever higher quality and efficiency. Makeshift bowling alleys vied with wheel barrow races, and savvy innkeepers began to cater to the culinary needs of festival-goers.

With each passing year, more and more simply-appointed stalls popped up along the race track, provisioning hungry and thirsty guests with beer and food. At first, the guests sat on benches and tables under the sheltering blue sky, but during the 1820s stalls began offering indoor seating for those days when the sky was not so blue.

Today, Oktoberfest and beer tents go together like beer and Weisswurst, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that the current Oktoberfest landscape of architectural structures dedicated to drinking beer began to take shape. With the enormous rise in prestige of the Munich breweries from the 1880s, their presence at the festival began to grow as well. In 1895, the first “beer castle” (Bierburg) was built by the now-defunct Thomasbrauerei. Other breweries followed suit. The Thomasbrauerei’s beer castle was large enough to accommodate 800 thirsty patrons, but even that was not large enough. On the eve of the First World War, the Pschorr Brauerei turned to a simplified tent design to pack in an astounding 12,000 stein hoisters –– a capacity that has not been exceeded since.

Within the space of a mere eighty years in the nineteenth century, Oktoberfest transformed itself from a spectacular Bavarian folk festival into a festival that celebrated beer. Between 1910 and 2010, beer consumption rose from 1.2 million liters to 7.1 million liters.img_0277

Even if the Oktoberfest’s last horse race was held in 1913, the initial festival attraction lives on in Munich’s topography. We may now think of Oktoberfest as massive beer tents given over to the blissful enjoyment of Maß upon Maß of Festbier, but to this day the outlines of the Theresienwiese on city maps recall the oval of the horse-racing track.

Here’s a stein to the horses, folks.

Related Tempest Articles

O’ zapft is! Oktoberfest 2016

Pinning Down Place

In the Cool Shade of the Beer Garden

Sources

Ursula Eymold (ed.), Bier.Macht.München: 500 Jahre Münchner Reinheitsgebot in Bayern, exhibition catalogue, Münchener Stadtmuseum, 2016.

Bier- und Oktoberfest Museum, Munich (visited 17 September 2016).img_0155

Astrid Assél and Christian Huber, München und das Bier: Auf großer Biertour durch 850 Jahre Braugeschichte (München: Volk Verlag, 2009).

Images

Peter Heß, “Das Pferderennen bey der Vermählungs Feyer Seiner Königlichen Hoheit des Kronprinzen von Bayern, veranstaltet am 17ten Octr 1810 auf der Theresens-Wiese bey München von der Cavallerie der National-Garde 34 Klaße. Ihren Königlichen Majestäten von Bayern Maximilian Joseph und Karoline in tiefster Ehrfurcht gewidmet von den Theilnehmern an den October-Festen,” kolorierter Konturenstich, 1810 (Münchner Stadtmuseum, G-IIIc/8).

Spaten beer tent and Münchener Stadtmuseum: F.D. Hofer.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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O’ zafpt is! Oktoberfest 2016

Most every beer enthusiast I know has his or her mythical geography of the beer world, a mental landscape dotted with legendary breweries and drink-before-you-die beers. This topography might also consist of wild yeasts residing in the rafters of old farmhouses, or historic hop kilns concealed along country back roads. Cities themselves stand out like beacons: Munich, Portland, Bamberg, Brussels. A large part of what sustains this mental geography is the excitement of the quest. Sometimes we manage to satisfy of our desires relatively quickly; sometimes the quest may take years.

For me, lover of German beer that I am, it took twenty-five years to make it to Oktoberfest.

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I’ve written about my conversion to good beer elsewhere, and I’ve also written about my first visit to a beer garden and my first winter Glühwein. All of these happened way back during my first study year abroad. But why was it so difficult to get myself to Oktoberfest? Well, you see, I thought that Oktoberfest happened in October.

It was the autumn of 1991. I had my bags packed and ready to go. The kindly woman who tended to international exchange students asked what my plans were for that particular weekend, the second in October. “Oktoberfest!” I responded. She slowly shook her head. “Oktoberfest ended last weekend.”

If you, too, happen to be traveling around Europe and are blithely planning a trip to Oktoberfest in mid-October, keep in mind that it ends on 3 October this year.

Which brings us to about ten days ago. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of my disappointment, I headed out not just for Oktoberfest, but for the opening ceremony itself.

The morning dawned gray and wet. Over coffee I read yet another newspaper article about how heightened precautions such as a perimeter fence and security check had all but overshadowed the perennial talk of increasing prices for a Maß (1 liter) of beer.img_0258 But the sheer crush of lederhosen and dirndls on my train from Freising to Munich spoke volumes against the anxiety expressed in certain quarters. Neither the vague threat of terrorism nor the minor deluge seemed capable of holding back the throngs of people streaming from all sides toward the Theresienwiese.

I threaded my way through the crowd and asked a few folks where the opening ceremony would take place. By 11:00 am I had found my way to the Spaten Schottenhamel Festhalle beer tent.

Anticipation grew as the clock approached noon. Screens around the edge of the tent flashed images of the horse-drawn wagons decked out for the occasion and laden with this year’s beer. The procession drew nearer. And then the grand entrance! A marching band, the Münchener Kindl, symbol of the city dressed in traditional brown and yellow-gold, the Bavarian state premier, and the mayor of Munich. The crowd surged forward as the entourage made its way to where the ceremonial wooden kegs had been set up.

Even if you don’t know much German beyond lager and bier, chances are you’ve heard or read the phrase that marks the official beginning of Oktoberfest.img_0244 After the mayor exchanged a few words with the MC, it was game on. Two, maybe three blows with the wooden mallet, and the words everyone had been waiting for: O’ zapft is!

And so, I raise my stein: Ein Prosit, not only to Gemütlichkeit, but also to another place in my beer geography that has gotten that much less mythical, even if Oktoberfest itself remains legendary.

***

From now until the end of Oktoberfest, I’ll be posting a series of short pieces that paints a picture of the history and culture of Oktoberfest. Some questions I’ll seek to answer for you include:

  • How did an annual horse race that first took place in 1810 become the largest beer festival in the world? And why the heck is Oktoberfest celebrated mainly in September?
  • When did all the huge beer tents appear, and what did they replace? (Hint: beer castles!)
  • When did the annual tradition of tapping the keg begin? Where did all the Märzen go?
  • How does Oktoberfest fit into Munich’s rich calendar of beer festivals? How many people show up in any given year, and just how much Festbier do they drink?

Related Tempest Articles

A Coal Town and a Cold One: My Hefeweizen Craft Beer Conversion

Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant

Hefeweizen: A Beer for All Seasons

In the Cool Shade of the Beer Garden

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Eat Drink Finger Lakes: A Late Summer Smorgasbord of Food and Beer

It’s that time of year. Thousands of you have just moved halfway across the continent and are settling in at one of the universities or colleges in the Finger Lakes region. Even more of you live in one of the large urban areas within three or four hours of the Finger Lakes. Perhaps you’re thinking of getting out to enjoy the setting summer, or maybe you’re just passing through the region. Whatever the case, you might find yourself in need of a drink at some point. And probably some food too.IMG_3586

Shifting gears for a moment: It’s been a busy summer hiking, cycling, and riding trains around Austria. No complaints, but no matter how hard I try, I rarely manage to write posts while on the road. I’m on the road again –– this time in rural Pennsylvania after a conference in Philadelphia and a short visit to Pittsburgh. Since I’m only a few mountains and rivers from the Finger Lakes, why not finish up something I was working on last summer before I head back to Vienna? The piece below complements the various articles I have written about the region over the years. Taken together, they give you a comprehensive introduction to craft beverages and good eats in the Finger Lakes.

New York’s Finger Lakes Region: A Back-Road Craft Beer Tour

Serving Up a New Tradition at the Finger Lakes Cider House

Gorges and Good Beer in Ithaca, NY: Vol.1

Ithaca is Craft Beer

The Barn and the Brewery: A Touch of Tradition and a Dash of Creativity at Abandon

Cultural Archeology, Hopshire Style: The Revival of Hop Cultivation in New York

If you’re looking for something to do during those late summer and early autumn weekends before the frosts hit, read on! And since it’s an ongoing story, let us know in the comments about some of your favourite places that I haven’t written about here.

Skaneateles

Wine has long been a Finger Lakes staple, and the notion of good beer no longer raises eyebrows at the communal table. Add cider and the occasional artisanal distillery, and your glass will never be half empty.IMG_3499 You won’t go hungry either with the abundance of local fruit, bread, meat, and cheese.

And fish ’n chips –– or, as they call it in the region, fish fry. The most famous of them all is Doug’s Fish Fry, a local pilgrimage site and seafood shrine in Skaneateles. With its stately boulevard and lakeside mansions, Skaneateles is also one of the most beautiful of the Finger Lakes towns. Finger Lakes on Tap hadn’t yet opened when I was in Skaneateles in 2015, but now you can find roughly 60 breweries represented, ranging from Southern Tier in the west and Ommegang in the east to help you digest your visit to Doug’s Fish Fry.

Auburn

Travel fifteen minutes west along U.S. Route 20 and the undulating green farmland gives way to the shady lanes of Auburn, home of famed abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, and William H. Seward of Alaska Purchase fame. Like many towns in Upstate New York, Auburn was once home to several breweries before the combined blight of consolidation and Prohibition knocked the total to zero. But the aroma of mashed grain and hopped wort is in the air once again. Tucked away at the back of a small commercial building, Garrett of The Good Shepherds brews his beer on a nano setup about the size of a large homebrewing rig. Open since 2014, his rotating roster of brews was heading in the right direction when we visited in the summer of 2015, especially his Raz Brown and Sour Irish Red.IMG_3546 Check the website to see what’s on tap now.

Auburn is not just home to famous historical personages. It’s also the site of the maximum-security Auburn Correctional Facility. The latter inspires the jail-themed beers at Prison City Pub and Brewery, with names like Escape from Alca’razz. The impressive Blaubeere, an “American Sour Berliner Weisse aged with wild Maine blueberries and all-Brett yeast” makes up for an ambitious if slightly uneven food menu. Beers change regularly, so you might have an entirely different gustatory experience.

Rochester

If you’re a photography or film buff, Rochester’s Eastman Museum is well worth a detour from your craft beer itinerary. Time was short after the museum visit, so we opted for one of the newer breweries generating plenty of buzz in the Rochester area: Swiftwater Brewing Company. Located in the gentrifying South Wedge area of Rochester, Swiftwater is attracting a young and stylish set in droves. The beers: Belgian? American? German? Experimental?IMG_3702 All of the above, and none of the above at this urban farmhouse brewery.

Then there’s the venerable Genesee. Founded in 1878, Genesee is one of the oldest continually running breweries in the U.S. Recently they began to brew sound but cautious Scotch ales, black IPAs, and English-style brown ales under the Genesee name. At $3 for a flight of 4, it’s probably one of the best deals around. Skip the rather pedestrian tour of their 7-barrel pilot system and spend your time in their well-appointed gift shop/museum learning about the history of brewing in Rochester.

Ithaca Area

Perched on a ridge overlooking the western shores of Cayuga Lake outside of Ithaca, Bellwether has been producing hard ciders among the wineries for well over a decade. Bellwether has since been joined by a growing chorus of cider producers, including Eve’s Cidery, Black Diamond Cidery, Redbyrd Orchard Cider, Good Life Cider, and South Hill Cider. The latter five cideries peddle their wares at the Finger Lakes Cider House at Good Life Farm in Interlaken, NY, a farmhouse surrounded by bucolic meadows. Ciders range from still to sparkling, and bone-dry to lusciously sweet, with the occasional fortified cider and ice cider thrown in.

IMG_3559

Hopshire, built to resemble a historic hop kiln.

Heading out of Ithaca in the other direction, Dryden’s Hopshire Farm and Brewery continues to pump out a range of solid beers emphasizing local ingredients. Among the additions to their lineup when I last visited are Dragon Ash, a rich porter with fruit and chocolate notes, and Abbey Normale, a majestic Belgian dark strong ale with a spicy caramel-plum-raisin character. If these beers aren’t on tap when you visit, chances are you’ll see them when the season’s right.

Last but least, the old standby: Ithaca Beer Company. The burgers have inched up in price, and they’ve switched up the selection, but the quality is as high as ever. That’s not surprising, given that they source their meat from Autumn’s Harvest Farms in nearby Romulus, NY. (If you’re in the area long enough, give them a call and head out for a tour of their farm.IMG_3563 Their pork products are superb.) Over a few sessions with friends, I had the Cheddar Burger and the Smokehouse Burger, both accompanied by fries with homemade ketchup and herbed mayonnaise dipping sauces. The great food and solid beer isn’t the only reason to stop by for lunch or dinner; the brewery and restaurant setting is stunning at all times of the day –– a bit like Switzerland minus the snow-capped peaks. Try the perennial favourite, Flower Power IPA, or opt for a one-off in the taproom. (I had a compelling golden amber-coloured coffee beer during my last visit.) It seems like just yesterday that the Ithaca Beer Company opened up their new brewery and restaurant amid the rolling hills and verdant pastures, but even that space wasn’t large enough to meet the double-digit increase in demand. When you visit, lift a glass of one of their experimental Excelsior series ales to celebrate all that the Finger Lakes has to offer.

Postscript: Madison County Hop Fest

Before plant diseases began the job of devastating Central New York’s hop crop and Prohibition finished it, Madison County was the center of hop production in North America. Just a few steps beyond the Finger Lakes proper, the region merits a visit both for its beer history and its contemporary embrace of hop production and local malting. With a bit of luck and the help of a local, the intrepid hop head can find nineteenth-century hop kilns tucked away in hollows or hidden in the shadows of hillocks and knolls along sleepy back roads. Though some structures have succumbed to the ravages of time in the decade since this map was produced, you can still use it to put together a fascinating day trip. For those who don’t want to venture out into the back of beyond, twenty-first century hop yards have sprung up in conspicuous locations along well-traveled country thoroughfares within the past several years. (See my Cultural Archeology, Hopshire Style: The Revival of Hop Cultivation in New York if you want to read more about why that’s the case today.)

For over two decades now, the Madison County Historical Society has been helping locals and visitors celebrate all things lupulin at the Madison County Hop Fest. Mark your calendars: this year’s edition takes place between 16 September and 18 September.

While you’re in the region, be sure to check out Good Nature Brewing in Hamilton and Henneberg Brewing Company in Cazenovia. And for a quick sip of the cultural history of hop production in the region, check out my oh-so creatively titled Madison County Hop Fest.

Ithaca Brewing Company

Ithaca Brewing Company

All images: F.D. Hofer

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Of Coolships, Cobwebs, and Cantillon

Cantillon needs no introduction. Even if you’re not yet a convinced imbiber of wild-fermented beers, chances are you’ve at least heard of Cantillon, that legendary Brussels brewery of mythic proportions and mystical imaginings. If lambic and gueuze producers in Flemish Brabant merit pilgrimages, Cantillon is the holy grail.IMG_7968Cantillon’s sterling reputation rests on its charm, and has as much to do with its defense of tradition as it does with what’s in the bottle. Pulley-and-gear-driven mash tuns, shallow cool ships in the attic with louvers to control the airflow and temperature, a hop-aging room smelling of old hay and cheese, cobwebs stretched between the rafters, a barrel fermentation room with its characteristic musty-woody smell, and row upon row of aging racks downstairs: The brewery stands as a testament to how beer was brewed at a time when Paul Cantillon set up shop in the Anderlecht district of Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century.IMG_7904 Unlike many other lambic and gueuze producers that have updated their facilities, the dark, timbered, and cobwebbed Cantillon brewery is like a trip back in time.

In Defense of Tradition

Back when Cantillon started slaking the thirst of Anderlecht’s workers, Brussels was home to over a hundred breweries. Today, only two remain: Bellevue, an InBev entity that caters to mass tastes with its sweetened gueuze-like and kriek-like beers, and Cantillon. As the Cantillon brochure pointedly puts it, nowadays “the world of Lambic is dominated by big business and its centuries-old name has been tarnished by large-scale industrial production.”

Up early, we hit the bikes and headed in the direction of Anderlecht, arriving at Cantillon well before noon. Wary of leaving our bikes on the street, we asked the elderly woman selling tickets in the brewery if we could bring our bikes inside. As it turns out, she’s the last living Cantillon, wife of Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the gent who took up the reins of the brewery in the 1960s. And there she was, working in the family business on a Saturday morning, selling 7-euro tickets for the self-guided tour and tasting to follow.

A brewery dominated by the dictates of big business Cantillon is not. The spiders in the rafters upstairs bear witness to the fact. (More on those spiders later.)

Turning Wheat and Barley into Lambic and Gueuze

Cantillon does things in a manner reminiscent of days when artisans were aided by the labour-saving devices of early industrialism. Cranks and pulleys drive a mash tun that looks like a museum piece, and wood’s the word when it comes to fermentation.IMG_7913

Once the wort has finished its boil, it spends the night cooling in a shallow copper vessel tucked among the rafters of the attic. This vessel, known as a coolship, is designed to expose as much of the wort as possible to the evening breezes regulated by wooden louvers that open out into the cool night. Microorganisms resident in the attic and evening air inoculate the wort during this early stage of the fermentation process. An ambient temperature between 3 and 8 degrees Celsius is crucial; too warm, and undesirable yeast and bacteria gain the upper hand. This is why the brewing season typically lasts from October through April only, although recent global warming trends may eventually spell an even shorter brewing season.IMG_7920Bright and early the next morning the brewers set to work transferring the wort into oak or chestnut barrels, where fermentation can take up to three years. During this time, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight, together with the organisms that inhabit the barrel, produce the astounding array of aromas characteristic of lambic.

Now it’s just a matter of patience. Here’s where the spiders and cobwebs come in. Insects just can’t seem to resist the fermenting beer and the summer deliveries of fresh fruit that Cantillon uses to make its kriek and other fruit beers. Cantillon uses 150 kg of fruit for every 500 liters of two-year-old lambic, so it’s no wonder that the insects are drawn to the brewery. Rather than risk having insecticides seep into the casks, the brewers leave the job of insect control to the spiders.

A word on the barrels: the type of wood used to make the barrels is not as important for lambic makers as it is for winemakers. Rather, lambic brewers prefer barrels already used by winemakers and, to a lesser extent, Cognac producers.IMG_7933 New barrels impart too much tannin and oak character, while used barrels lend that beguiling suggestion of wine. Over repeated use, each barrel develops a character unto itself as the diverse microflora take up residence.

Patience Rewarded

After the lambic reaches a certain point in the fermentation and maturation process, it’s ready to drink straight from the barrel. More often than not, though, the lambics are blended to make gueuze. Gueuze is made from a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics originating, in Cantillon’s case, from as many as eight barrels. The oldest portion of the blend provides the character, and the youngest portion of the blend initiates a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The result: a dry and tart ale with a dense and frothy foam cap.

Lambics and gueuzes are sometimes described as vinous or cidery, and have a distinctive sour quality. Aromas and flavours range from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla. And then there’s all that funk: horse blanket, barnyard, cheese, hay.

Not your father’s BudMillerCoors.

***

Now that we’ve spent the past half hour or so wandering through the brewery on our self-guided tour, it’s time to put those tasting tokens to work.

The lambic exhibits a solidly tannic note from the wood, some fresh meadow scent, and a slight tartness. As for the gueuze? Scents of tropical fruit, aged hops with a distinctive cheese quality, pungent flowers, barnyard, ghee, and green apple. On the palate it was creamy, tannic, and with a pleasant lemon-funk rounded out by green apple and a touch of slate-like minerality.

*Of note: The Cantillon lambics and gueuzes that I tasted at the brewery and elsewhere in the Brussels region in May 2016 had an interesting cheese-like pungency on the nose when young –– not overpowering, but clearly present. Later, in June 2016, I tasted a gueuze that was bottled in June 2014. The aged version had developed plenty of additional complexity, and the “cheese” character had aged out into hay, horse/horse blanket, pineapple brett, and gooseberry.IMG_7944

Rosé de Gambrinus is made in the same way as kriek, but with raspberries instead of cherries. Thanks to the skills of the good brewers of Cantillon, the raspberry shines through bright and fresh, as if it has just been picked. The star of the show, though, was a bottle of Foufoune (apricot gueuze-lambic). The subtle yet intense apricot aromas and flavours were exquisite.

Alas, much as we would have liked to taste our way through all of Cantillon’s intriguing offerings, we had made previous arrangements to take a bicycle tour of Brussels. Needless to say, it’s just a matter of time before I head back to Cantillon.

If you’ve had a chance to try the Vigneronne, the Cuvée Saint-Gilloise, the Saint-Lamvinus, the Iris, or any of the Lou Pépé bottlings, let us know how they tasted.

Related Tempest Articles

For more on the differences between lambic, gueuze, and kriek, and for tips on where you can find all the Belgian beer you’d ever want to drink, see my Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant.

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

On the technical and aesthetic aspects of lambic brewing, including turbid mashes, hop aging, and characteristic ester and phenolic profiles of various yeast and bacteria strains, see Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

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All images by F.D. Hofer

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant

Skimming place names on a map of Belgium is like going into a prodigiously stocked bottle shop. Where do you start in a country with a beer heritage as rich as it is in Belgium? Trappist beers, witbier, saison, Flanders red, oud bruin? What about all those famous towns like Chimay, Roeselare, Poperinge, and Westvleteren –– to say nothing of urban beer havens such as Antwerp and Leuven?

For me, the choice was relatively easy: I had never had the opportunity to taste lambic, those Belgian ales discussed in hushed and reverent tones among adepts of the zymurgical arts, beers that rarely make it beyond the immediate vicinity of Brussels.IMG_7820

Lambic had become something of a holy grail for me.

So when I found out that an old friend had moved to Brussels for work, it was only a matter of time before I made the pilgrimage. My friend got things off the ground the right way, greeting me upon my arrival from the airport with gueuze and kriek from Oude Beersel. Things only got better from there.

Scratching the Surface of Brussels’ Beerscape

Before venturing out into the countryside around Brussels, why not an evening of aperitifs to set the stage? Brussels –– capital of one of the most fascinating beer countries in the world –– doesn’t disappoint on this score.

Our first stop was À la Mort Subite, a classic Belgian beer café dating from the prime of the post-Great War years before the Depression. Cream-coloured walls, wooden brasserie-style tables and chairs, small globe lights casting a soft light over the cafe, brown bench seating built in along the periphery walls, rows of painted metal art-nouveau columns, an arched threshold with wood-framed doors, and a floor-to-ceiling showcase window perfect for watching the world drift by. Blink and you might think you’d been transported back to the 1920s.IMG_7798 I ordered up a Mort Subite Witte Lambic, which sounded interesting on the surface of things. It turned out to be a sweet and apricot-fruity beer –– refreshing and approachable, but with little in the way acidity and no wild-fermented complexity. Fortunately, though, this mild ordering fail did nothing to detract from the atmosphere of the place. And besides, there’s plenty more on the menu.

From there, we made our way to Moeder Lambic via the Galeries Royales St-Hubert and the Grand Place, which was actually quite grand. Tastefully lit at night, it’s the kind of place that has the power to stop even seasoned Euro travelers in their tracks. If you’re there during the day, check out the brewing museum in the Brewers’ Guildhall (L’Arbre d’Or).IMG_7808

Moeder Lambic on Place Fontainas serves up lambic, gueuze, and other styles aplenty. Their expansive menu makes for some interesting reading. Cantillon’s wares feature prominently, and rare bottlings from other lambic/gueuze producers abound as well –– some selling for as high as 200 euros per bottle. If you want to keep it simple but still be able to try something you won’t find far beyond the Brussels region, opt for a Gueuze Tilquin on draft.

Lambic, Gueuze, and Kriek in Flemish Brabant

The next day dawned all golden sunshine, auguring well for our planned cycling tour of the fabled valley where the wild-fermented beers are.

The Senne/Zenne rises north of Brussels and once flowed through the city before it was covered over in the nineteenth century as part of an ambitious urban works project that dramatically reshaped city. Today, the river reemerges to the southwest and continues on its gentle way through the rolling hills of the Payottenland.IMG_7856 As late as the turn of the twentieth century, some three hundred lambic brewers lined the Senne and spread out into the surrounding hills and farmland. Now the region is home to just over a dozen lambic brewers and blenders, with only one –– perhaps the most famous one –– located within the Brussels city limits.

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After a walk through the monumental and rather monolithic Parc du Cinquantenaire, we boarded a train from Gare Bruxelles-Schuman to Hal/Halle. The short train ride leaves just the right amount of time to talk about those enchanting and enigmatic ales that brought me here. I realize that unless you’re an avowed beer enthusiast or “beer geek,” you might not know what a lambic is –– and that’s just fine. It took me some time as well to disentangle lambics from gueuzes and krieks, and Flemish red ales from oud bruins.

A lambic is a spontaneously fermented ale made from Pilsener malt and anywhere between thirty to forty percent unmalted wheat. This sets lambic apart from German or American wheat beers, which use malted wheat. Lambic gets its minimal hop charge from Belgian or Central European varieties that have been aged for up to three years.IMG_7919 Process-wise, the wort is set out to cool overnight in a large shallow vessel called a coolship often located in the attic of the brewery before being transferred to barrels for fermentation. During the months and years the beer spends in the barrel, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight join forces with the organisms that inhabit the barrel to work their magic. The resulting array of aromas and flavours might, at first blush, strike anyone unfamiliar with spontaneously fermented beers as downright odd, if not repulsive. Sometimes described as vinous or cidery, lambics typically exhibit lactic, citric, or malic (apple) sourness, and they can be tart and tannic when young. Notably, lambic brewers aim for a level of acidity similar to that of a zippy white wine. Balance is key. More does not necessarily mean better.

The same goes for the “funk” level in the aromatics and flavours. Sure, the Saccharomyces, Pediococcus, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and other organisms combine to impart aromas at times reminiscent of barnyard, hay, horse, horse blanket, and washed rind cheese. But the concentrations should be “pleasant.” Admittedly, like durian or pungent cheese, it’s an acquired taste, but worth the effort.

Sound appetizing so far? Depending on the various yeast and bacteria strains, lambics may also recall pineapple, tart cherry, oak, and even honey as the beer ages. Whether you’re a fan of sour/wild-fermented beers or not, what might strike you most about lambics is the (virtual) absence of carbonation. Like most wines, lambics are still. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any trace of a head on your beer. That’s entirely normal.IMG_7864

Comprised of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics, gueuze showcases the skills of the seasoned blender. Highly effervescent, gueuze is to Champagne what lambic is to wine. Under optimal cellaring conditions a gueuze will continue to evolve for years. Dry, tart, and with a dense and frothy foam cap, gueuzes run the gamut from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla, and from fresh-cut hay to barnyard and horse blanket.

IMG_7872Kriek is a younger lambic to which cherries have been added. But don’t expect a well-brewed traditional kriek to be sweet. Wild yeasts thrive on the sugars present in the fruit, leaving behind an intense fruit character with no residual sweetness. If you have a kriek that tastes sweet and syrupy, it has been back-sweetened. Best bet: look for a bottle that has “oude” in front of the word kriek. Cantillon adds 150 kg of Schaerbeek sour cherries per 500 liters of two-year-old lambic and leaves the cherries to macerate for five to six months before adding a quantity of young lambic –– one third of the volume of the kriek for anyone who wants to try this at home –– to kickstart secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Biking for Beer in Lambic Land

Chances are, you didn’t bring a bike with you to Belgium. No worries. You can rent a passable bicycle for 10 euros per day near the Halle train station. Exit on the east side and return along the tracks in the direction of Brussels and you’ll find the rental place. Before venturing out for that ride through the countryside, keep in mind that Flemish Brabant is not flat. In exchange for a few hills, though, you get pastoral scenery that inspired the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and some room in your belly for beer.IMG_7825

We jumped on our bikes, took a slightly round-about route through farmers’ fields and small villages to Beersel via Huizingen and Lot, stopped briefly at the Kasteel Beersel to learn about the lambic and gueuze possibilities in the area from one of the castle attendants, and then braced ourselves for the hill to Drie Fonteinen.

After talking with one of the brewers who works on the barrels, we made our way to to Drie Foneinen’s restaurant for –– finally!! –– my first-ever sip of lambic.IMG_7823 Wonderful stuff! Worth the journey to Brussels, the train ride to Halle, and the ride up the steep hill to the Beersel town square. Absolutely still with a few errant bubbles skirting the surface of the beer, darker than I expected (amber-hued, an indicator of some barrel age), and slightly hazy. Refined, with a subdued tartness and a meadow-like scent of hay. The Oude Gueuze was lively, with plenty of juicy lemon and green apple along with an oak/tart cherry character from the wood. Hungry after all that riding around, we tucked into a generous portion of Stoofkarbonaden, a rich rabbit stew that was an ideal foil for the Oude Gueuze’s acidity.

Slightly down the other side of the hillock you’ll find Oude Beersel. Everything was locked up tight when we arrived, but I rang the bell anyway. Just as we were about to give up and move on, the door swung open and one of the brewers invited us in for more lambic and an animated conversation about larger versus smaller lambic producers. If you show up on a Saturday between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm, you won’t have to ring the bell. Oude Beersel runs English-language tours at 12:30 on the first and third Saturday of the month.IMG_7892

Then down the hill we went, and back up a hill, and back down, till finally we landed back in Halle, where we returned the bikes and took a bus to Lembeek in search of Boon. Just our luck. It, too, was closed. So I rang the bell again and waited until someone poked his head out of a second-story window and arranged a fabulous personalized tour for us with one of the brewers.IMG_7853

Frank Boon, a driving force behind the gueuze and lambic revival, opened his brewery on a site that was once a seventeenth-century farmhouse brewery and distillery. Boon’s brewers still brew on their old system, but they have also installed a shiny new brewery around and adjacent to the old one. Though some of the initial fermentation now takes place in stainless steel tanks, Boon still maintains a large cellar stacked with barrels for aging.

Not far from the gates of the brewery and just off Lembeek’s small town square you’ll find De Kring, a cozy café with an excellent selection of Boon beverages. We rewarded ourselves for a day well spent –– there’s something wholesome about biking for your beer –– with bottles of Oude Gueuze Boon and Kriek Mariage Parfait, which was stunning it its crystalline expression of cherry flavour. De Kring evokes a bygone era when locals of all ages gathered in the local tavern for a drink, sometimes with the kids in tow. With its wood paneling and diffused light, this classic café feels like a trip back in time.IMG_7862 Go there before time catches up to it.

Brussels Reprised

What better way to cap a day of riding around the Payottenland countryside in search of lambic and gueuze than to head out for the exact same thing in the big city?

With a pleasant glow, we stepped into the evening sunshine and made our way back to Brussels for dinner at Bier Circus Bruxelles, another renowned Brussels watering hole, for a Girardin lambic and Gueuze Girardin 1882, both of which exhibited a distinctively round, mildly lactic buttery note. Pair them with the Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty made from fish, chicken, or veal. I had the fish version, an excellent fit with the beers we had.

Coffees done, we headed over to L’Ultime Atome, a cool bar in the Ixelles neighbourhood with funky Japanese-influenced lighting fixtures, floor-to-ceiling windows, and plenty of hazelnut-coloured wood for one last round before calling it a night.

Tomorrow, Cantillon.

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Odds and Ends

I didn’t get around to visiting the Bezoekercentrum De Lambiek (Lambic Visitor Center) in Alsemberg near Beersel. Simply too much to do and see. By all accounts, this museum and tasting facility provides a prime opportunity to sample most of the region’s gueuzes, lambics, and krieks in one place. Next time.

Related Tempest Articles

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

Gregg Glaser, “In Search of Lambic,” All About Beer Magazine (July 1, 2001).

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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