A Rolling Beer Lover's Odyssey in 15 Parts

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 27, Issue 2
May 1, 2006 By

(Editor. December 2005: While most of us are busy preparing for the holidays, a band of hearty brew-loving souls is packing its bags and preparing for a journey. The mission: to rediscover one of beer culture’s most cherished places. This Bavarian expedition is being undertaken by 15 noted figures from the world of beer, including brewery owners, beer journalists and All About Beer Magazine Publisher, Daniel Bradford. We persuaded each of them to share their impressions of Bavaria and the nine days they enjoyed there, touring the countryside, visiting breweries and beer halls, and savoring some of the best beer to be made anywhere in the world.

They told us about a special place—a land of lager and lederhosen, where the Dunkel flows like the Danube. Of Munich and monasteries. Of Rauchbiers made of smoke and gardens filled with beer. This is Bavaria—the alpine home of Bock and Beethoven. Of hops and Hallertau. Of killer Kellerbier, shnappes and Stammtisch….and so much more.

Our correspondents have all filed their reports. So, if you’re ready, the bus is now boarding…)

In Quest of Beer Paradise

by Horst Dornbusch

Every religion and mythology seems to have a place in which everything is in a state of perfection…call it paradise, nirvana, Mount Olympus, Valhalla, utopia, or the Holy Grail. For beer lovers, no doubt, this place is Bavaria!

No other area has spawned a greater variety of beer styles. Where else could you get an authentic taste of a potent but gentle doppelbock, a turbid and rich kellerbier, a velvet hammer called an eisbock, a smoke bomb called a rauchbier, a black and alluring schwarzbier, a malty and satisfying dunkel, a complex and spicy-spritzy weissbier (hefeweizen) and a dainty, delicate helles—all within easy walking distance? The Bavarians even distill a clear, easy drinking schnapps from beer.

Other brewing superlatives in Bavaria include the oldest and most famous brew university (Weihenstephen, near Munich), which also happens to be the oldest continuously operating brewery in the world. It has been making beer since 1040. A decade later, the Benedictine friars at Weltenburg got their brewing license, making this cloister the oldest still-operating monastery brewery. The world’s oldest malting plant (built in 180 A.D.) is in Regensburg along the Danube. Franconia in northern Bavaria has the greatest density of breweries anywhere—some 100 of them within a 50-mile radius around Bamberg. Kulmbach has the world’s longest uninterrupted brewing tradition, as evidenced by a 2,800-year old Celtic beer fermenter found nearby. And, of course, there is always the Oktoberfest, the largest beer party in the world, and the Hofbräuhaus, the Mecca of all beer halls, smack in downtown Munich. Bavaria is the ultimate beer reality show!

So, when the Bavarian Brewers Federation and the Bavarian Department of Agriculture beckoned about a dozen leading North American beer journalists coming over for a look-see, everyone heeded the call. It was my privilege to take them around, and here are some of their impressions…

Giving the Lager its Due

by Steve Beaumont

I remember several years ago discussing with a fellow beer aficionado the wares of a particular American brewpub we had each previously, though separately, visited. As it was my opinion that the brewery’s stand-out beer was its pilsner, I asked my acquaintance if he had tried it. “No,” he replied, “I sampled the Vienna, the bock and the schwartzbier, but I couldn’t be bothered with the pils.”

And so it goes. All too frequently in the American beer world, lagers (in general) and pilsners (in particular) are shunned by the supposed cognoscenti. The sins of these beers? Being pale, for one, and stylistically linked, however distantly, to the big, mainstream commercial brands. To many a beer geek, lagers are felt to lack character and complexity, and are therefore summarily dismissed.

But as we found while touring Bavaria’s breweries, there’s a lot more to a lager than is normally assumed. Take, for example, the Schlenkerla Helles Lager, a magnificent, unsmoked beer that had eyes metaphorically popping when a few bottles were casually, almost absent-mindedly, popped at the back of the bus. Or the spicy and faintly herbal, yeast-enriched St. Georgen Brau Kellerbier. Or the malty complexity that is Augustiner Edelstoff, the tasting of which requires a trip to Munich. All are golden, just as all are lagers, but each one is also a masterpiece of the brewing arts, well worth anyone’s attention.

And that’s not even mentioning the more unusual bottom-fermented gems we encountered, such as the toasty, rye-accented spiciness of the Paulaner Roggen, the off-dry floral notes of the Weltenburger Kloster Winter-Traum, described as a festbier, or of course, the intensely smoky wares of Bamburg’s Schlenkerla. Turn your back on these lagers and you do a disservice to them, and your palate.

The Bavarian Travel Experience

by Lew Bryson

One of the best things about Germany is how normal the wonderful aspects of it are. There was wonderful beer…everywhere. There was delicious and different food…everywhere. There was delightful scenery…everywhere. And there were McDonald’s and Appleby’s and Shoney’s…nowhere.

Germany has largely resisted the lure of monoculture domination. As a result, every town looks different, with different beers, different sausages, different takes on the staple soft pretzels, even different mustard (which got hotter as we traveled north). This is not a country that needs a craft beer and food revival. There are small producers all over the place, each putting a different touch on things.

So we ate leberkäse, roast pork and trout. We enjoyed crispy and doughy soft pretzels. We drank dunkel, hell, weizen, bock and pils. We had three different types of hops schnapps, pear schnapps that made me moan with delight, and beer schnapps in tiny mugs. We stayed in smart city hotels, as well as large, rambling guesthouses, and clean, efficient sleeping rooms. We reveled in the difference every day brought (except those days that brought potato dumplings; that was one difference I’d have been happy without).

But perhaps the best difference was the drinking culture. There are no lonely drunks in Germany. Everyone goes to the beer halls and gardens together, and they talk, and laugh, and dance. It’s okay to be out drinking, it’s not looked down upon. That was the most refreshing difference of all.

Zwickel Beer: Zee Best?

by Lauren Clark

One of the great pleasures of touring a Bavarian brewery is the opportunity to sample zwickel bier—unfiltered lager taken straight from the conditioning tank. The name of the beer comes from “zwickel,” a special drill that, in the days before stainless-steel tanks with built-in sample cocks, was used to tap wooden casks for test draughts of maturing beer. In short, zwickel beer is as brewery fresh as you can get.

Drinking zwickel beer is special enough, but drinking it in a lagering cave is something else entirely: one of those primordial taste experiences, like eating oysters right off a shellfishing boat. On our Bavarian tour, we visited the world’s oldest monastery brewery, Kloster Weltenburg, situated on the banks of the Danube. Our host, Father Leopold, led us into the lagering caves, where beer has been cold-aged for centuries. We congregated in the narrow aisle between rows of white conditioning tanks as Weltenburg’s brewmaster poured generous mugs of dark, cloudy doppelbock. Its strong malt flavors subdued by the cold, the beer had a just-ripened quality, with a head as soft as peach fuzz. Getting a sneak peak at this beer before it went out into the world as Weltenburger Kloster Asam Bock made me feel like I was getting away with something.

Some breweries package and sell zwickel beer. In this form, it is generally lumped into the same category as another old, unfiltered style—kellerbier—though the latter traditionally has more hop bitterness. If you want to try zwickel beer and you’re not expecting to visit Bavaria anytime soon, see if you can track down a bottle of Mahr’s Ungespundet-hefetrüb or Wolnzacher Hell Naturtrüb. Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing Co. has also been known to produce a zwickel from time to time.

The Joy of Schnappes

by Anne Cortissoz

During our trip through the breweries of Bavaria, I found a new love. It wasn’t a weizen or a black lager or even an eisbock. The object of my affection—my traveling companions saw it as an obsession—was schnapps. I’m not talking about the nasty, syrupy peppermint liqueur that finds its way into mugs of hot chocolate. The classic German schnapps is distilled from fermented corn mash, but can also be distilled from fermented fruit and from beer. Definitions vary, with some sources asserting that the drink shouldn’t contain any added sugar, and others counting sweet fruit liqueur as schnapps, too.

The schnapps that turned my head is a strong drink full of flavor but not in the least bit sweet, with a clean character and alcohol bite, and a finish that leaves your palate ready for more. I had my first taste of this amazing liquid at the Ayinger brewery, where they produce a pear schnapps that tastes like cool, fragrant, ripe fruit, but without the sugar. At the Schlenkerla brewery in Bamberg, we were served a really lovely example of beer schnapps, made from fermented rauchbier wort. This had a delicate smokiness, not unlike a single malt Scotch.

I was hooked, and I bought schnapps at just about every stop we made; my suitcase was rattling with bottles on the trip back. There were some disappointments, including a sickly sweet Quitten Likor (though the name alone made it worth bringing home). And though I tossed the Quitten Likor immediately, the Ayinger pear schnapps and the Schlenkerla beer schnapps will be much harder to quit.

Bavaria’s Brewing Monks

by Tom Dalldorf

Many of our brewing traditions are derived from the women, nuns and monks of the Middle Ages, whose daily chores included making beer. Indeed, it was our early ecclesiastical zymurgists who, when confronted with extended periods of fasting, came up with richly flavorful and nutritious high-gravity bocks and doppelbocks. Paulaner’s Salvator survives as the prime example.

Brewing monks and nuns continue to engage in commercial brewing today in parts of Europe, including Germany’s most famous brewing region of Bavaria. Our group visited two such religious breweries near Munich. Both required a bit of expended physical excursion to reach the prized brewing sites.

Andechs Benedictine monastery brewery is situated on a “holy mountain” with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside and the alps. One of the brothers (dressed in medieval robes but sporting a very contemporary “soul patch” below his lip) greeted us and gave us a short history of the brewery, which dates from 1455. After a tour of its ancient church, we were treated to a complete taster set of beers currently on offer, including the heavenly Andechser Dunkel.

When Benedictine monks established the Weltenburger Kloster on the banks of the beautiful Danube River nearly a thousand years ago, they failed to foresee the need for tour bus access to the brewery. Our hearty band of beer journalists walked the several kilometers necessary to reach the cluster of buildings including the brewery and its adjacent church (its superb acoustics amply demonstrated by our singing tour-guide padre). The beers of Weltenburg were excellent, but most memorable was the Barock Dunkel served from cask in the caves where it matured.

Hallertau Heaven

by Tony Forder

In amongst the literature thrust upon us at the new German Hop Museum in Wolznach, Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Co. stared out from the cover of one of the hop growers’ bulletins. Jim’s a popular guy in the Hallertau hop-growing region. Last year he received an award (Chevalier of the Order of the Hop) for his help in perpetuating the fabled Hallertau Mittelfruher hop. In the mid-1990s, Koch bucked conventional wisdom that claimed the variety was doomed. He convinced a handful of farmers that by changing growing patterns and sanitation practices, the “Mittlefruher” was still viable.

The said hop is one of 16 varieties cultivated in the Hallertauer region, mostly in small, family-run plots which are sometimes referred to as hop gardens. Hallertauer will never be a player in the global market of commodity hops, where price is determined by alpha content; its future hangs on the demand for high-quality aromatic hops. With the revival of specialty brewing, it’s a future that looks a little brighter than it did 20 yeas ago.

Still, like the German brewing industry, the hop growers have also seen consolidation and the number of farms dwindle. But now the Hallertauer region has another booming business piggybacking on the efforts of the hop growers—tourism. You can bike, hike or ride through the rolling Hallertauer hills during the Bavarian summer (the air heavy with the scent of hops), visit spas, stay in boarding houses or hotels and, of course, slake your thirst to your heart’s content with fresh Bavarian lager.

Research is a big part of the German hop industry. Recently, a variety of health benefits were linked to the tannin xanthohumol, found solely in the lupulin glands of hops. So positive was the news that the brewers at Bavaria’s university brewery (Weihenstephan) produced a beer called Xan. Professors there even told us that, “A day without beer is a health risk.” (For more information on Bavarian hops, visit www.hopfenland-hallertau.de

and www.hopfenmuseum.de.)

The Big Bavarian Dig

by Ron Givens

Note to archaeologists: just because the dirt doesn’t have a head on it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test for beer content.

If scientists excavating in a suburb of Regensburg back in 1978 had only analyzed the soil coming out of their second century A.D. dig, they might have proven that malting (as modern brewers know it) began well before monks made it fashionable in the Dark Ages.

Instead, experts can only speculate that this tidy arrangement of three holes in the ground and one basin—neatly preserved in its own shed by the Roman museum in Regensburg—served some higher purpose.

A deep hole (a well, for example) would have provided water for soaking grain in the basin. A second hole would have been used for building a fire. And a third hole, connected to the second, would have collected heat underneath a surface that would have held the germinated grain until it dried.

Mashing might have taken place in a space just right for a kettle, and perhaps fermentation close by. But no one really knows for sure.

No such doubts exist for the amphora on display at the exquisite beer museum in Kulmbach. The crock, which was unearthed within an eighth century B.C. gravesite near the city in 1934, contained a residue that proved to be dark wheat beer, produced from a loaf of dark, flavorful bread.

Food for thought, as well as world-class suds to wash it down—an unbeatable Bavarian combination.


by Gregg Glaser

“Right, that’s the meat beer category, isn’t it?” asked my vegetarian friend, Gerry.

“No,” I patiently explained, “It’s not ‘meat beer.’ It’s smoked beer, and you can’t have any.” My refusal to share the four hand-carried bottles of German rauchbier (smoke beer) with Gerry or anyone else on the tasting panel didn’t matter. None of them wanted even a sip. Wussies.

In the area of Germany known as Franconia (the northern part of Bavaria, where it’s not good to call a Franconian a Bavarian any more than it is to call a Scotsman an Englishman) lies the city of Bamberg. This architectural jewel, split by the River Regnitz, boasts beautiful architecture from the Middle Ages to the Baroque period. Once called the German Rome of Bavaria, Bamberg was built on seven hills. It was the capitol of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation at one time. Today, Bamberg is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. It’s also home to two marvelous rauchbier breweries: Schlenkerla (aka Brauerei Heller) and Spezial-Brau.

Each brewery malts its own barley over open beechwood fires (the wood comes from the Franconian forests), imparting wonderful smoky aromas and flavors to the beers. Spezial-Brau, dating from 1536, brews five rauchbiers, all of which can be sampled from wooden kegs at the brewery’s pub on the right bank of the river. The flagship beer is Rauchbier Märzen (5.3% ABV), sweet and malty in aroma, with a trace of soft smoke and a clear, deep copper color. The taste is subtly smoky, slightly malty with a dry finish. Other year-round rauchbiers from Spezial are Lagerbier (4.6%) and Weissbier (5.3%). In the spring and fall there is Ungespundetes (unbunged, meaning most of the carbonation is allowed to escape from the conditioning tank) and in November only, Bock Rauchbier (6.9%). All Spezial rauchbiers are brewed from organic barley.

On a small island in the middle of the river is the old Schlenkerla tavern, dating to the 1300s. The dates are a bit confusing, because part of the tavern (the old private chapel of a Dominican monastery) dates to 1310, while the rest of the half-timbered building dates to 1405. The brewery, Brauerei Heller, dates to 1678 and is located on Stephansberg, a hill just a few minutes’ walk away.

The beer that made Schlenkerla famous is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (5.1%), aged for two months and served from oak barrels. The color is dark ruby and clear, and the aroma is of intense smoke, which is also powerful in the taste, along with a lovely balance of sweet malt. The finish is dry and, well, smoky. Schlenkerla’s beers are the smokiest in Bamberg.

Two other year-round beers are Lagerbier (a 4.3% helles lager that has no added smoked malt, but picks up residual smokiness from the brewery’s grain mill) and Rauchweizen (5.2%). From Ash Wednesday to Easter there is Fastenbier (5.5%) and from October to January, Urbock appears (6.5%), a bigger, more intense, slightly more malty version of Märzen.

Some people have described the taste of rauchbier to that of smoked meats—an understandable comparison—and Gerry still can’t have any.

The Decoction Principle

by Stan Hieronymus

At the Weihenstephan Institute for Brewing Technology in Freising, professor Martin Krottenthaler possesses both a notebook computer full of PowerPoint presentations and an enthusiastic teaching style that makes his slides and mind-numbing charts engaging.

He spoke about yeast not so much as an ingredient but as a personality, more like we’re used to hearing Belgian brewers talk. His voice resonated with the word “boom” when he described finishing hops.

Krottenthaler hurried happily back to the keyboard when asked if Weihenstephan had studied how traditional decoction mashing (where part of the mash is removed, boiled and returned to the original mash, often two or three times) and less time-consuming infusion mashing differ.

He flipped through the slides, explaining why lesser malts once made decoction necessary. “Boiling is boiling,” he said, showing how the benchmarks the chemists recorded were different throughout the two processes but that the resulting worts still produced almost identical profiles.

Then he introduced the human element. A tasting panel basically confirmed the results, because few of its members could tell the difference—but Krottenthaler was one of those. “For me it was significant,” he said.

I thought of Krottenthaler the next day in Wolnzach when members of the Hallertau hop community turned the topic to farming. “We don’t like it when the discussion about hops is focused only on alpha acids,” said Dr. Johann Pichlmaier, alluding to brewers of international lagers looking for the cheapest way to add obligatory bitterness to their products.

While those who followed discussed hops in terms that would make sense to growers of grapes, I scribbled myself a note: “Lesson of trip: What brewing chemists can measure and what we can taste may be different.”

Munich: A Whirlwind Tour

by Greg Kitsock

So many breweries, so little time. Fortunately, for our livers’ sakes, consolidation has whittled Munich’s “Big Six” down to a Big Four. Paulaner and Hacker Pschorr have merged, as have Spaten and Lowenbrau. Both of these companies are now part of international conglomerates: Heineken controls Paulaner, while InBev owns Spaten.

This might be a blow to Bavarian pride, but the individual product lines remain intact, as do the traditions behind them. For instance, every year on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), Paulaner ceremoniously taps its Salvator Doppelbock to mark the beginning of the Starkbierzeit (strong beer time).

The word on the street is that InBev may use Spaten’s excess capacity to brew Becks, another German brand in its stable. But don’t expect to see Becks at the Oktoberfest. That honor is reserved for Munich’s own.

Speaking of the Oktoberfest, our bus passes by the Theresa’s Meadow, where the annual celebration takes place. On a cold December day, the vast field is deserted, except for a vendor selling Christmas trees. Next September, however, the meadow will become a beer city, as over 6 million revelers drink oceans of beer and consume nearly half-a-million roast chickens.

So where are all those chickens now? During our week in Bavaria we enjoy some fine cuts of pork and ham, but scarcely see a drumstick or a thigh, making some of us long for Popeye’s and Colonel Sanders. A brewery employee will explain to me that Bavarians consider chicken to be fast-food or ethnic cuisine, not something you’d serve to guests.

Augustiner-Brau is Munich’s last family-owned brewery. It dates back to 1328 and is still a very traditional operation. “In the offices of the owner, I’ve never seen a computer,” comments Manfred Newrzelle, general manager of the Association of Munich Brewers. Augustiner is very unusual, if not unique, in operating its own floor maltings.

Unfortunately, the brewery’s superb Edelstoff (an Export Helles) and other brands are sold only in Germany. But CEO Werner Mayer leaves the door open for trade with the U.S.: “Maybe in ten years we send 10,000 hectoliters to America.”

Our Munich tour concludes at the renowned Hofbräuhaus in the city center. The name means “royal brewhouse,” and the Bavarian government still owns and operates it more than four centuries after its founding. Normally, visitors belly up to the bar for liter steins of some very quaffable beers, but we’re ushered to a quieter dining room above the boisterous beer hall, and allowed smaller vessels for the purpose of beer sampling.

Horst Dornbusch, who helped organize the trip and chaperones us throughout, notes that three major beer styles (Helles, Hefeweizen and Bock) were born here. It becomes a running joke throughout the tour that all major innovations and achievements took place here. Bock beer? Invented at the

Hofbräuhaus. Hops? Discovered here. The wheel. Fire. You name it; it started here.

However, after a few beers, you’re almost willing to believe it.

The big news is that the Hofbräuhaus is franchising itself. Already there are clones of the famous beerhall operating in Las Vegas and Newport, KY, and a branch is set to open in Pittsburgh in late 2006 or early 2007, according to the Hofbräuhaus’s managing director, Dr. Michael Moller.

Additional sites are being scouted in Chicago, Wisconsin, and even China. Which raises a pertinent question: How do you translate “Ein, Zwei, G’suffa!” into Mandarin?

Bock to Basics in Bavaria

By Alan Moen

Bavaria has arguably the richest beer culture in Germany, with some 629 breweries producing 4,500 different labels in 42 different styles. But, as I found out in our recent whirlwind beer tour led by the indefatigable Horst Dornbusch, the ultimate in Bavarian beer is bock.

Introduced by Italian monks and refined by brewing techniques imported from Einbeck in the north, Bavarian bockbier is Germany’s king of beers: a regal malt presence is the signature of this beer and its numerous variations. It’s perhaps the ultimate expression of the flavors of barley or wheat, as translated into beer.

There are several basic styles of German bock bier, both lagers and ales. Helles bock is a deep golden to amber lager, a bit lighter in malt flavor than the traditional dark bock (6-7 percent ABV) and often has a noticeable noble hop accent as well. Dunkel or dunkles bock is light to deep brown lager with a toasty, caramel taste from the use of darker malts, a medium-full body, and usually some sweetness in the finish. Doppelbock or starkbier is not twice as malty or strong as the name implies, but this fuller bodied, denser version has a noticeably higher alcohol content (7- 8.5 %) Finally, eisbock is typically the strongest lager of all, with 9 to 12 percent ABV or more. It’s made by partially freezing the beer to remove some of the water content, creating a less carbonated, more concentrated and stronger brew. On the wheat side of the bock family are weizenbocks, made, like weissbiers, with at least 50 percent malted wheat and ale yeasts. They are light copper to dark brown, cloudy brews with very fruity, spicy yeast flavors and low hops. Dunkles and eisbock versions of weizenbocks are also produced.

Although bock biers are cold-conditioned much longer then most lagers, they should never taste old, and nothing beats a fresh-poured one. While we drank many excellent bottled beers on our trip, the most memorable beers came right from the keg or the tank. In Bamberg, brewmaster Stefan Michel of Mahr’s Bräu poured us a keg of his new Christmas Bock, an outstanding helles version. His enthusiasm and pride added even more flavor to this exciting beer, when tapped by the hand of the man who made it.

The 5th Ingredient

by Jim Parker

When the Bavarians tell you there is nothing but malt, water, hops and yeast in their beer, don’t you believe it. There is a fifth ingredient in many Bavarian beers that is largely imperceptible to the most discriminating palate in the US, but whose presence is palpable on their home turf: history.

With more than a millennium of commercial brewing history, the Germans have come to revere the relics of beers gone by, lovingly maintaining their old brewing equipment even as modernization continues its relentless march.

Hardly a day went by on our Bavarian adventure without some sort of brewing museum on the agenda. From a second-century archeological dig in Reggensburg (that just might be the world’s oldest known malt and brewhouse) to the 1880s brewhouse at Maisel’s in Bayreuth that was replaced in 1974, but still stands in ready working order, the trip was steeped in history.

For a modern-day beer scribe who has become numb to the glitter of modern stainless steel and computer-controlled gadgetry, there is certain rush to seeing—and feeling—on old wooden mash tun, or a smooth copper cool ship (used to lower the temperature on hot wort in the days before heat exchangers).

Sure, these old relics were woefully inefficient, and I am sure the beer they produced would not pass muster these days, but filling a swing-top bottle of Schneider Weisse on a single-bottle filler in the brewery’s on-site museum, I could almost see the centuries of care and craftsmanship flowing into the bottle.