So here we are again. One more turn around this mortal coil, drinking to forget the follies of an old year and toasting the auspiciousness of the new. For me 2017 has been extremely enjoyable, uncanny parallels between the 1930s and the present notwithstanding. I hope it has been the same for you.
Enjoyable but busy — which is why you haven’t heard too much from me in 2017. Fortunately, life hasn’t been all work and no play. And you’ll hear more about all of the play in 2018. See under: Resolutions (below).
For now, I’m going to do something rather out of character as we sail into the sunset of 2017. Any long-time reader of Tempest knows that I’m not a fan of “best-of” lists, but since I’m already hearing the siren call of New Year’s Eve festivities, I’ll make an exception of sorts. Following is a list (in no particular order) of five beers I drank for the first time this year and found particularly impressive. I’m picking more or less at random here, but they’re all beers worth searching out. Three Tankards, if you will. Along with these five beers, I’m including a list of five stellar beer-related places I visited for the first time this year. All are places that you’ll want to put on your travel bucket list for 2018 or further in the future.
Reflections I: Beers
Birra Baladin, Elixir. My first beer of 2017, Baladin’s Elixir set quite the tone for the year. This beer is a malthead’s dream: honeyed malt sweetness to spare, rum-soaked dark cherries, lush caramel, and Calimynra figs mingling with vanilla and toasted coconut. Demarara sugar and high-end milk chocolate (Italian or Belgian, take your pick) follow the initial crescendo of aromas and flavours, all accented by a “Belgian” yeast character that’ll bring plum, baking spice, and overripe banana to mind. If you’ve ever eaten Spanish fig chocolate cake, you’ll love this beer.
Brouwerij ’t Verzet, Oud Bruin. I had visited Cantillon for my second time in as many years the day before, and I could just as easily have listed their superb 2013 Lou Pépé Framboise or their 2016 Saint Lamvinus Grand Cru (featuring Merlot grapes) here. But fortunately we took the word of a woman who has been leading tours of a famous brewery in nearby Bruges for years now. When she’s not regaling beer tourists with stories of her well-respected brewery, she’s singing the praises of up-and-coming younger brewers in the region. And the folks at ’t Verzet are on to something. This copper-garnet beer offers up aromas and flavours you’d usually expect to find in an Oud Bruin, but with a twist: liquid caramel with a dusting of sea salt, chocolate reminiscent of the filling in a Belgian truffle, and a bright balsamic character that heads in the direction of cherry-like Chianti wine. The beer is sour but full-flavoured — a difficult feat to pull off. A green apple/apple cider-like acidity rounds out a subtle earthiness that shades into Amontillado sherry and aged saké.
pFriem Family Brewers, Frambozen. You know what, I didn’t take any notes on this beer. But it has stuck with me. A wonderful mix of fresh raspberry and wild-fermentation funk reminiscent of horse blanket, elegant Band-aid (if ever there were an elegant Band-aid … ), and fresh-cut meadows. North America doesn’t get much closer to Belgium than this.
Fremont Brewing, 2017 B-Bomb (Coconut Edition). I’m a huge fan of just about any imperial stout but tend to gravitate, firstly, toward barrel-aged versions, and, secondly, toward less austere and more rounded expressions of the style. Freemont’s 2017 version starts out as a fine example of blending virtuosity: a mix of their 9-, 12-, and 24-month Winter Ale aged in 12-year-old American Oak bourbon barrels. Add in some toasted coconut and you end up with an exquisite blend of milk chocolate, vanilla, cacao, dates, toasty malt, mocha, and, yes, a clearly present but well integrated aroma and taste of toasted coconut guaranteed to make you bolt in the opposite direction from that next “coconut stout/porter” spiked with extract you’ll probably encounter this year.
U Trí Růží, Tmavý Speciál. Czech dark lager doesn’t get much press back at home, but it has, at least, achieved minor fame as a BJCP beer style in the 2015 guidelines. And long overdue at that, considering the pedigree of a place like U Fleků, that Prague institution that brews and serves one beer and one beer only. And do make the trek to U Fleků for a night on the town singing Czech folk songs with suitably inebriated patrons, one and all quaffing the urban brewery’s signature dark lager. Assuming you likely will (or have) visited U Fleků, here’s another spot that lies a mere hundred meters from the hustle and bustle of Charles Bridge and all the congested pubs in the vicinity. This is the beer that inspired me to take a crack at brewing the style a month back. Needless to say, mine’s but a pale reflection of this stellar beer that features rich cocoa, dark chocolate, freshly ground coffee, and just a touch of dark cherry. Wondering what the difference is between a Czech dark lager and a Munich dunkles Bier? All I can say without getting into too much detail is that they’re similar but o-so-different: like twin cousins.
Reflections II: Places
I don’t want to spoil anything for 2018 (see under: Resolutions), so I’ll operate here under the assumption that a photo is worth a cliché’s worth of words.
Kloster Weltenburg, eastern Bavaria. Serves up one of Germany’s best Doppelbocks named after two of Bavaria’s best Baroque architects, the Assam brothers. Should you tire of the beer on offer (heaven forfend!), you can admire the surrounding monastic architecture to which the aforementioned Doppelbock pays tribute. I’m leaving out a whole lotta Bavaria here, including Nürnberger Bratwurst Glöckl am Dom, a Munich gem hidden in plain sight serving up superb Bratwurst accompanied by Augustiner Helles fresh from the barrel. But that’s fine. The beer, the architecture, and the scenic voyage through the stunning Donaudurchbruch (Danube Gorge) is worth the trip from Kehlheim of Schneider Weisse fame. Make it a two-for-one.
Zum Uerige, Düsseldorf. All the trappings of a classic Altbier tavern and then some. It’s everything you’ve heard about the place. Some claim that the Altbier is better in other taverns. It may well be. And I could certainly give you recommendations for more “off the beaten track” Altbier breweries. But this warren of dark rooms, dimly lit Ausschank areas (where they roll out the barrels), and convivial spaces where the whole family gathers after church in the half-light of stained-glass windows is one of those iconic Euro beer spots that every beer enthusiast should visit at least once.
Päffgen, Cologne. You’ve stepped out of the train station and stood in awe of the cathedral. As a beer drinker, you’ve probably already realized that it’s about a 30-second walk from the train station to the Gaffel shrine to Kölsch. Maybe you have decided to see another 5-minutes’ worth of the town before succumbing to the temptation of checking out what the Köbes (Cologne’s famous Kölsch servers) are up to at Früh. No one will judge you for either of these choices, least of all me. But if you spend a few more days and peel back the proverbial layers, you might find yourself in the Friesenviertel. Some say Päffgen’s is the best Kölsch in town. Whatever the case may be, it is, without doubt, one of the most traditional places to find a Kölsch. (I could have put “traditional” in scare quotes, but I’ll save that for another year. Hint: Kölsch ain’t all that old as a style. Suffice it to day, though, this place has all the requisite “X-factor” stuff going on when compared to the other places.)
Letná beer garden, Prague. Pilsener Urquell and Kozel Černý in plastic cups. Forget everything I’ve ever written about proper glassware and just enjoy the stellar view.
Write more in 2018.
All the best for 2018, everyone!
Further Tempest reading:
All images by F.D. Hofer
© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.