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Beer Here

Great Beers from Europe and the United States are Leading a Renaissance of the Brewmaster's Art
Garrett Oliver
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 1)

To this day, the original pilsner beer, Pilsner Urquell, still defines the style ("Urquell" means "original source"). Burnished gold in color and capped by a rocky, brilliantly white head, Pilsner Urquell delivers up front the sharp hop snap that makes this style of beer so refreshing. A medium-bodied palate full of bready grain flavor and a slight touch of sweetness balance out the bitterness. The aroma is redolent of Bohemia's famed Saaz hops, prized for their floral, perfume-like character. At a modest 5 percent alcohol by volume, this is a fine beer for everyday enjoyment.

Crisp and light, true pilsners are a perfect accompaniment to seafood, from scallops to cold-smoked salmon. The sharp hops cut though briny flavors while leaving the finest qualities of even delicate fish undisturbed. Once off its home turf, the pilsner style is less steady. There is an "international" pilsner style that is brewed around the world, but its pedigree is less impressive than the German-Czech style. These beers tend to be lighter in color and less bracingly hopped, both in the bitterness and aroma. Sometimes adjuncts--rice, corn and other grains excluded from German brewhouses--make their way into these beers, lightening their color and their characters. Many American "pilsners," a style that includes some of the world's best-selling brands, fall into this latter category. Many of these beers are marvels of technology and quality control, but often without the pronounced flavors of barley and hops.

German barley malt remains as unique as, say, Pinot Noir grapes in France's Burgundy region. As German beers, especially those of Bavaria, get deeper in color, the distinctive flavor of that malt becomes more apparent. The caramel and toffee tones start to step forward in the amber Oktoberfest Marzen-style beers, become more predominant in the soft, dark dunkel style and reach their full expression in the powerful doppelbocks. Bocks are strong lagers, and doppelbocks even more so. With an 8 percent (or higher) alcohol content, doppelbocks abandon all pretense of moderation, reveling in the deep toasty flavors of German malts.

From the pretty Bavarian town of Aying we get an excellent example of the doppelbock style, the aptly named Ayinger Celebrator (the names of doppelbocks have traditionally ended with the suffix "-ator" ever since the Paulaner brewery dubbed the first commercial doppelbock "Salvator" in the early 1800s.) Lagered for six months to achieve a silky smoothness, this nearly black beer sports a malt aroma reminiscent of a baking loaf of brown bread. The dark color is derived from heavily roasted malts, which add their own coffee-ish overtones. The bitterness is just enough to keep the sweet palate from becoming cloying, and the beer finishes long and clear, with a certain warmth signaling its high 8 percent alcohol content. Perfect with stews and wursts, doppelbocks are an excellent example of one Bavarian reference to beer--liquid bread.

Long before American megabrewers happened upon the silly marketing concept known as "ice beer," German brewers perfected the stunning pinnacle of the bock range--the eisbock. A doppelbock is lowered in temperature until some of its water is crystallized and harsh-tasting tannins precipitate. Then the ice is removed, concentrating the beer to about 10 percent alcohol by volume. The result is the Sauternes of the beer world. Kulmbacher's Reichelbräu Eisbock shows this style in its full glory, with both the aroma and the palate packed with malt, toffee, coffee and molasses character. The finish is smooth and miles long. An eisbock has no need of food--it wants a warm wood fire and a fine cigar.

Whereas in Kulmbach beer is subjected to ice, in Bamberg it is tempered with fire. From Bamberg comes an even more creative regional specialty, rauchbier ("smoked beer"). The malt used to make the beer is first smoked over a beechwood fire, which suffuses the beer with a smoky aroma and flavor. The reigning prince of this style is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (just "Schlenkerla" to friends). The smoke is in the forefront of the nose of this amber beer, which has an aroma rather like smoked German sausage with a slathering of barbecue sauce. The palate also shows some smoke, but standard malt flavors come through clearly, backed up by a snappy bitterness. In lesser rauchbiers, the smoke is allowed to overpower the beer, but Schlenkerla holds it all together. Smoked beer isn't for everyone, and I must admit that I was fairly dismayed when I first heard of it. Now it's the first thing I think of with a lot of Chinese dishes--the perfect replacement for smoked Lapsang teas.

When the rulers of Bavaria came up with the Reinheitsgebot, they left in one loophole--for themselves. Only the royal breweries were allowed to make beer from wheat, giving the aristocracy a lock on the wheat beer trade. The royal connection is long dissipated, but we are left with tasty reminders of why royalty might have wanted wheat beers to themselves.

Until recently, wheat beer (known in German as weizen, for wheat, or weisse, for white) had been dismissed as a light summer refresher or a style for stodgy old folks. Today, wheat beers are all the rage again and make up more than 30 percent of the Bavarian beer market. Not bad for a beer style that is probably about 800 years old, and is a throwback to Germany's ale-drinking days.

Wheat beers are made from a blend of malted wheat and barley in which the wheat predominates. The use of a high proportion of wheat produces a beer that is light-bodied yet full-flavored, with a slightly tart edge. Bavarian wheat beers are fermented with a special ale yeast strain that produces a wealth of spicy flavors and aromas associated with the style. These beers are highly carbonated, with a lightly hopped yet snappy palate, a huge creamy head produced by proteins in the wheat and a fruity, spicy, clovelike aroma that is more pronounced in some versions than others. Most of these beers undergo a final fermentation in the bottle (called "bottle-conditioning"), leaving the beer robust, flavorful and cloudy with yeast, in which case it is referred to as hefe-weizen (yeast-wheat).

Among the most refined examples of hefe-weizen is the renowned Schneider-Weisse of Kelheim, brewed by the Schneider family for six generations. Schneider-Weisse has a pleasantly aggressive pinpoint carbonation and a finely tuned aroma of cloves, banana bread, smoke and bubble gum. Expansive and grandly snappy on the palate, it complements everything from light salads to roasted chicken to spicy Thai food.

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