By noon the early October drizzle had turned into a downpour. Several hours lay between the Alpine peaks and meadows of Chur, where I was visiting my grandmother, and the drab Saarbrücken way-station where the train traveling between Mannheim and Paris had just deposited me. Not unlike many German towns and cities, Saarbrücken’s dominant architectural hue is brown. But under this leaden-gray vault of my very first day in Germany, Saarbrücken exuded none of the Romantic charm of a city like Heidelberg. Instead, the brown buildings – streaked all the darker by the relentless rain – seemed to bear witness to Saarbrücken’s heritage as the capital of a once hotly-contested coal-producing region situated on the historically-shifting frontier between France and Germany. The City of Light this was not.
The Saarland has been the site of many significant events marking Franco-German relations up to the mid-twentieth century. Occupied by France and Britain in the aftermath of the First World War, the region functioned as a tool of reparations. A little over a decade later, the Saarland served as the staging ground of a plebiscite that intersected with Hitler’s rise to power. (Saarländers voted to annul the Saarland’s status as a mandate of the League of Nations and rejoin Germany.) In the immediate post-WWII period, the Saarland was a key component of the Allied policy of industrial disarmament, and was administered by the French as a protectorate until 1957.
The Saarland is also of import as the site of another profoundly significant event: my discovery of a beer that was far superior to Molson Canadian, Labatt’s Blue, and – my personal fave circa 1991 – Kokanee.
After gathering my backpack and duffel bag from the train station platform, I made my way out of the station and braved the driving rain, arriving soaked and bedraggled at what would be home for most of the coming year: a concrete pre-fabricated student residence bearing a quaint name that was, at least, in keeping with its forested surroundings, Plattenbau aesthetics notwithstanding. I got into the elevator, pushed the button for the tenth floor, and cursed my fate – to which the other occupant of the elevator responded, “Oh! You speak English!” The dapper chap who had responded so drily yet bemusedly to my imprecations had also arrived in Saarbrücken a mere few days previously. A law student from Bristol who was part of a contingent of exchange students from Exeter, A. and his crew had already been introduced to one of the joys of German student life: the Heimbar. (Lit: “home bar.”)
Each student residence of the Universität des Saarlandes came equipped with a small bar that opened for business on rotating nights so that no evening would be without a Heimbar happening at one of the residences. Our particular residence didn’t have a Heimbar scheduled until two nights hence.
But perhaps, inquired A., you’d like to accompany me to one of the Heimbars on campus where I and my cohort will be gathering for the evening? A splendid idea! I said in my best British accent.
The steel sky turned purple, and a darkness descended upon the surrounding forest. At the appointed time I met my newfound friend in the lobby of the residence, and headed out into the chill evening. The walk from Waldhausweg, our student residence, to the less evocatively-named Heim E was a short fifteen minutes through dripping woods. Once on campus, we traversed the anodyne entrance hall of Heim E and descended the stairs into the epitome of that German word, “Gemütlichkeit,” where A.’s fellow law students from Exeter welcomed us cordially into the cozy and dimly lit surroundings of Heim E’s Heimbar.
What shall it be? asked one of A.’s trimly attired friends who was about to rustle up the first round.
I thought for a moment. Germany. Any self-respecting university student with an inclination toward the bottle knew what that entailed: good beer. I savoured the envy of friends back at home. You’ll get to try some great beers while you’re there! Hmmm. Maybe a Beck’s? I was familiar enough with the phrase, “Gebraut nach dem Reinheitsgebot von 1516,” inscribed on its label. Two years of college-level German (and a Swiss dad) helped with that particular translation task. And at any rate I was beginning to develop an appreciation for that vaguely skunky je ne sais quoi that I had come to associate with all those premium exotic imported beers in green bottles.
While ruminating over whether or not to order a Beck’s, I had one of those flashes of illumination that strikes a person all too rarely. It was said that H., the trimly attired one, knew a thing or two about wine. If he knew about something as cryptic as wine was to me at the time, surely he could be relied upon to order a decent beer.
I’ll leave it up to you, I replied.
A few minutes later he came back not with a beer but with a ritual that would mark many a drinking occasion henceforth. Along with a bottle slightly larger than the ones to which I was accustomed back at home he brought a glass of beguiling form: tall, slender at the bottom, opening out like a flower vase at the top, and set atop a round and elegant pedestal.
H. started to pour out the contents of the bottle, at first slowly down the side of the glass and then more vigourously down the center, but stopped short as the beer started to foam up precipitously. He then proceeded to swirl what was left of the contents and roll the bottle on the table. With a last flourish, into the glass he poured what to me looked like sludge.
H. handed me the glass, which was by now crowned with an impressive cap of foam. Down in one!
But something …
… caught my attention.
What’s this? Bananas?! Clove?! The banana was easy enough. And with oh-so-hip, clove cigarette-smoking friends, I was able to pick up on the latter.
Clove and banana. Not something I would ever have expected in a beer. And then came the rich, creamy, brown sugar-like flavours cutting through with just a hint of citrus. The refreshing zing recalled summer, but the fruitiness and spicy malt richness were the perfect riposte to the coming of autumn.
Wow! I’ll have another! And another before heading back into the dripping woods. I’ve had many Hefeweizens since, but that first glass of Maisel’s Hefeweizen will always be tinted pink with nostalgia.
*If you’re reading this, chance are you’ve had some sort of “craft beer conversion experience.” What was yours like? Do you remember which beer you drank that wrenched your attention away from mass-produced fizzy yellow swill? Or were you a born aficionado of fine beer? Maybe you’ve had a similar experience with wine, cider, or spirits. Were you with friends, or did you decide, on a whim, to pick up a different bottle at your local liquor store? Whatever the case may be, consider clicking on the “Leave a Reply” button above.
*I’m not the most “fact-driven” person in the world, but in the course of searching for an image of a Beck’s label for this article, I couldn’t find one with the phrase, “Gebraut nach dem Reinheitsgebot von 1516.” This could have something to do with its 2002 sale to Interbrew/In-Bev. I haven’t had a Beck’s since the early 90s.
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Saarland Map: Wiki English
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