A Few Pints with Pandora
(Seems She's Not a Protestant)
Can you imagine a world in which all bread was white, sliced; all wine white, “dry” (and all people white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant?)? A monotonous place it would be.
When I first travelled, in the 1960s, it seemed that, in almost every country, almost every beer was a golden lager in the pilsener style. We easily forget that, in most of the world, that is still the case.
Back then, even in the handful of countries where there were exceptions (some available only seasonally), they tended to be dismissed as insignificant, or even as anomalies, by bartenders, publicans and brewers.
My first visit to the great brewing nation of Germany was in late September of 1966. I was working as a journalist on a newsmagazine, and keenly interested in beer, but not yet writing on the subject. I went to Munich with my girlfriend, arrivingjust before the Oktoberfest. We played tourist for a day or two. It was sunny enough to sit on terraces and in beer gardens. As I had expected, most people were drinking golden beers.
Most of the muscular women who served beer were in those days not especially helpful to tourists who did not speak German. Some of these ladies were of a generation that had not learned English at school, wartime memories were fresher, and tourism was less developed. Even today, service in Germany does not necessarily embrace any knowledge of what is being offered, or willingness to discuss it.
As the English and German words for beer sound much the same, that sufficed. It always resulted in a golden lager, though the sizes and shapes of glass seemed to vary.
Asking about this, and occasionally finding a helpful server, I began to gain some sense that there were different styles of golden lager. As far as I can recall, the word “helles” was most often mentioned. Export and pils were less popular in Munich at that time.
The more obvious distinction was color. I kept seeing the odd drinker with a beer of a full amber or copper-red color. By pointing to a customer who had such a brew, I engineered my first encounter with what I subsequently learned was a Marzen-Oktoberfest beer. It was memorably malty in both aroma and palate, and clearly had a touch more alcohol. At the Oktoberfest itself, each brewery was offering a beer of this style.
Elsewhere in the course of that visit, I saw people, usually elderly ladies, drinking what seemed to be beer from vase-shaped glasses. Their drinks always had a slice of lemon floating in the top. When I asked about this, I was told that it was weissbier. In those days, the filtered type was usual. It seemed very different from most other styles of beer I had tasted: very fruity and sharp.
At the time, I was living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where a diet of pils was relieved each October by the Dutch version of a bo(c)k beer. In search of greater variety, I had crossed the border and discovered Iambics, Belgian ales, Trappists and the local version of Scotch ales. I had also lived in Scotland, where I had become familiar with terms like wee heavy. In my native England, I had grown up with sweet stouts, milds, bitters, pale ales, IPAs, barley wines, and one dry stout (As a teenager in Yorkshire, I sometimes drank Guinness, imported from Ireland).
Guinness was the first brewery in which I had a formal tour. That had been some years earlier. In Dublin with another journalist, and our girlfriends, I had called the brewery’s public relations department and asked if it were possible to have a press tour. We were on vacation, but we implied that we were in town to research a feature about the Irish economy, and that Guinness would feature strongly. As we had hoped, we were plied with free beer.
I was somewhat embarrassed when, a few weeks later, my editor told me he was sending me on a Press trip sponsored by the Irish Government, to study the economy of the Republic. He handed me a schedule that included a tour of Guinness. The same Public Relations Director greeted me with a whispered: ”Back for your monthly top up?”
It was one thing knowing all of these products, and having some unschooled idea of their colors, aromas and flavors, quite another developing a real understanding of them.
When I moved to that phase, in the early to mid 1970s, brewers were not accustomed to being asked questions. Nor could even the friendly ones necessarily offer useful answers. A brewer would tell me that one of his beers was “full-bodied,” but it would scarcely seem so to me. When he said “full-bodied” he was comparing it with his very light everyday beer. The same difficulty applied to bitterness and color. Most brewers would tell me that they wanted their beers to be well balanced, drinkable and consistent. If I wrote that about every beer, I would be telling my readers nothing. Nor would I be doing much to generate interest in beer. Not that any reader would have read beyond the first three or four beers. I began to understand why so little had been written about the aromas and flavours of beer, and their origins.
Many brewers still have scant knowledge of beers outside their region. Many in Bavaria know nothing of the beers produced on the Rhineland or in the far north.
Germany had the most clear-cut styles, but even they were defined largely by proportions of grain, bands of original gravity (degrees Plato) and alcohol content. Perhaps because varieties of barley and hop change over the years, they are rarely carved in stone. Such taste descriptions as I could find were cursory.
Styles have evolved, too. In Bavaria, wheat beer has become far more popular than it was in those days-and the unfiltered version the predominant choice. In the last few years, the style has also become blander and less spicy. Dark lagers have become paler over the years, but the ground that they ceded has been occupied by schwarzbier, mentioned as an East German speciality in the first edition of my World Guide to Beer. Maibocks, often pale in color, have become more common. Dortmunder exports are lighter-bodied, paler-and less numerous-than they once were. Pilseners are more numerous, but also more uniform. The odd style has been revived, notably Leipziger gose, and Germany has regained the odd porter.
Styles were much less defined, if at all, in Belgium and the British Isles. In groping my way through those territories, I developed a great strength of feeling about beer-styles. This led to the publication in 1977 of my World Guide to Beer, in its first edition.
At the same time, the micro-brewery movement began. New brewers began to ask me about old styles. In the United States’ “white, sliced” days, I never dreamed of a time when there would be a Great American Beer Festival with 50-odd styles.
I was delighted to see my strength of feeling echoed by my colleagues in the last edition of All About Beer. Is it the proverbial Pandora’s Box that has been opened? No, it’s her refrigerator. Or perhaps her cellar, with a couple of mixed cases to sample.
Michael Jackson is an internationally acclaimed author and expert on drinks and fine food.