It was only a matter of time until a new generation of German brewers started heeding the siren call of hops, spice, and everything nice, even as they continue to craft their beers within the relative confines of the 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot (Beer Purity Laws).
David Hertl is one such representative of this new wave of brewers leavening tradition with innovation. The resident beer sommelier at Bamberg’s main craft beer emporium, Hertl also happens to be a young brewer who hails from a family of Franconian winemakers.Setting the stage: Bamberg is hilly medieval city in Franconia, famous as much for its Altes Rathaus straddling the River Regnitz as it is for its smoky Rauchbier. Franconia is part of Bavaria, and Bavarian beer is synonymous with the Reinheitsgebot.
As I made my way back to my hotel after a satisfying evening of Bamberg-style imbibing at Mahr’s, Aecht Schlenkerla, and Fässla, something caught my eye: a tastefully decorated storefront in a stone building with rounded arches. Bierothek.
Bierothek is where I made David Hertl’s acquaintance the following day after a long hike toward a mirage-like castle that kept receding beyond the southern horizon. Hertl was about to close up shop for the night, but let me in to browse Bierothek’s 300-strong selection in search of beers to bring back to Vienna.
We got to talking about the Reinheitsgebot, and the difficulties inherent in translating not so much the word “craft beer” into German as introducing it as a concept to German beer drinkers. Consolidation may well have left its mark on the German brewing industry in recent decades, but much of what Germans drink still fits the Brewers’ Association’s definition of craft beer, disputed and relatively elastic as this term may: “small, independent, traditional.”
When concepts take flight, though, the act of translation is never merely a one-to-one exchange, but rather an exercise in interpretation. As Hertl points out, for many German beer drinkers, “craft beer” has become virtually synonymous with American-style pale ales, IPAs, and imperial stouts. Hertl faces the occasional challenge in convincing German consumers that German beer actually is craft beer avant la lettre –– and that the novel tidal wave of American beer, exciting as it may be, isn’t necessarily better, just different from typically streamlined German beers.
This tension between tradition and innovation is one that I find fascinating, especially as it is currently playing itself out in Germany. Hertl and I return to the topic of the Reinheitsgebot in relation to a North American approach more influenced by Belgium than by Germany, and talk at length about the discipline imposed by German tradition. At this point in the conversation, Hertl waxes poetic about the sublimity of a well-crafted helles lager. Lover of lagers that I am, I cannot help but agree, even if I’m no stranger to homebrewing and drinking well beyond the Reinheitsgebot.
As I’m topping up my basket of beer, I notice a foil-wrapped stoneware bottle of Doppelbock aged six months in Islay whisky barrels. And a fortuitous coincidence at that. Up to that point, I hadn’t yet asked Hertl his name, but when I picked up the bottle, he proudly proclaimed that he had brewed it.
The details: Hertl Braumanufaktur, *Torfig Rauchiger Whiskydoppelbock (Aged 6 months in Scottish Islay whisky casks). 11.3%. 9.60 Euros (~$11 USD). *Torfig means peated.
The first thing that strikes me about this beer is that it isn’t quite what I was expecting of a Doppelbock. Suffice it to say, this is a beer that defies stylistic preconceptions, starting from the moment you pour it into the glass. “Hazy orange-amber hued and the colour of light caramel” isn’t exactly the classic description of a Doppelbock. But that’s fine. We’re talking innovation meets tradition here.
And one more thing: It’s a beer to which you’ll want to give some breathing space, not only because it chocks up a hefty 11.3% ABV. This is a unique Doppelbock that expresses different moods over the time it takes to enjoy it.
Curtain call. A heady mix of fruit and caramel hints at things to come. Classic Doppelbock-like melanoidin notes brood like Fafner in the depths of his cave. The fruit is berry-like, expressing itself in brightly acidic flavours that blend tart cherries and cranberries.
Not to be outdone, stone fruit contributes a brightness to the aroma and palate as well. Like a Wagnerian motif, this hint of peach sour carries through to the end. A bit of a social butterfly, the peach sour note pairs, by turns, with suggestions of orange zest-spiked shortbread and the occasional trill of yellow plum. Later, the stone fruit strikes up a harmony with a kaleidoscope of darker-toned notes reminiscent of Oloroso sherry before shifting key into a perfumed almond-like character more reminiscent of Amaretto. Hops even make a cameo appearance in this opera of aromas and flavours, giving voice to the kind of spicy mandarin orange peel fragrance that blends citrus and fir needles.
As for the peat? It’s the viola of the orchestra –– rather surprising, considering the beer is brewed with peated malt and then rested in whisky barrels.
What makes the beer unique, though, is the slightly tart-acidic contribution of the Islay whisky casks. This is both a blessing and a slight distraction. On the one hand, the Scotch weaving its melodies in the background contributes the stone fruit complexity and honeyed nuttiness that separates this Doppelbock from its peers. On the other, this diamond-like acidic note cuts through the richness of the Doppelbock’s maltiness a little too zealously, leaving the autumn honey and fruit cake malt duo cowering in the corner. That said, this zingy-tart Doppelbock is nothing if not fruity, and this saves the beer. Fir needle-scented brown sugar and candied orange peel appear as the curtain falls on the performance, leaving behind dried apricot in the tart-dry and fruity finish.
All in all, like many a whisky barrel-aged beer I’ve had of late that isn’t of the bourbon barrel-aged variety, I find myself craving a bit more body and residual sweetness to counter the fruity tartness. A barrel thing that underscores the nature of different spirits? I don’t have enough homebrewing experience to say one way or the other, aside from what I’ve read about the subject. But here’s a closing thought. Perhaps Hertl could propel future iterations of this beer from the terrestrial realm of “unique and compelling experiment” into an other-worldly Valhalla by blending a barrel-aged batch of his Doppelbock with a fresh batch of Doppelbock. I’m not sure if this is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Reinheitsgebot, but the practice seems to help the folks in Flanders introduce a bit more body and sweetness back into their Oud Bruins and Flemish reds.
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David Hertl raising a glass (Hertl Braumanufaktur Facebook page)
All other images by F.D. Hofer
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