Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Social Appropriateness of Alcohol Free Beer

In Weiss Bräu, a cool brewpub in Cologne, I ordered a beer, sat back and took out my notebook and pencil to write some stuff down: behind me was a large table of students, happy, celebrating something; a businessman sat alone in front of me drinking a wheat beer and eating chips; two chaps shared a huge pizza to my right; and relaxing all around were couples sat in booths eating and drinking.

But one of those couples freaked me out.

He was necking small glasses of kolsch as if he hadn’t had a drink for a week, which was easily done because the beer was very good – served in the wiess style, it was unfiltered (meaning it technically doesn’t count as a kolsch according to the Convention). She was drinking a pint of wheat beer; a large vase glass, hazy amber with a thick foam.

She was also very heavily pregnant. Like beach-ball-under-a-vest pregnant.  

I’m pretty sure I did one of those comedy double takes followed by my eyes bulging out of my head and my chin hitting the table. She was drinking as fast as he was and soon her half-litre was gone and she ordered another. I couldn’t believe it and I didn’t know how to react: Is this behaviour ok in Germany? Is she crazy? Why is no one doing anything?

I watched the server return to the bar and pour another kolsch for the guy and grab a bottle from the fridge for the girl, meaning she wasn’t drinking the draft hefeweizen (probably for the best as I thought it tasted like toilet cleaner because of a massively oppressive clove dominance). I checked the menu to see what it could be and the only bottle on there was enough to calm my frantic thoughts: it was an alcohol-free hefeweizen.


Brow mopped and sigh exhaled, I could now go back to my beer free of worries.

Only I couldn’t.

The sight of her drinking it left me feeling strange and uncomfortable and over the next few stangen I couldn’t stop thinking about alcohol-free beers...

In every bar in Germany you’ll find an alcohol-free beer option. It’s typically a wheat beer, though not always, and many are good drinks, certainly valid replacements for someone who doesn’t fancy water or lemonade (plus in German bars, where they think differently about these drinks to Britain, it's probably more acceptable for an adult to have an alcohol-free beer than a soft drink). But I was thinking about the social appropriateness of alcohol-free beer, not the taste.

What if the person sitting next to you at work opened a bottle of alcohol-free beer at their desk. It’s in a glass bottle and looks exactly the same as an alcoholic version, only it’s not going to get you drunk. Would the boss look upon them and their bottle suspiciously? Would they wonder what was going on? On seeing that it was alcohol-free would they mind it being drunk or would they be concerned?

If my colleague opened a bottle and drank it at their desk, I’d wonder what was going on in a reaction that would be very different to them opening a Red Bull, Coke or even one of those old school cans of Shandy, even though they are all non-alcoholic drinks (the 0.5% ABV in the shandy can probably be overlooked...).

My questions are more rhetorical than direct; I’m throwing out my thoughts because I’m still unsure about them. The thing is, it looks just like beer and is, in a way, a pseudo-beer, something to make you think you’ve got a delicious, intoxicating drink when in fact it’s just a taste-a-like. 

So is an alcohol-free ‘beer’ a drink you can open at any time? Could you have it with breakfast (or before), in a meeting at work, during a game of football or should it be kept in the same situations as alcoholic beer and therefore does it come attached to beer’s social prejudices? And what about seeing a pregnant woman drinking it: ok or unnerving?

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Berlin Brewpubs

I wasn’t prepared for the snow that blanketed Berlin the night before I arrived. Getting off the train, into the shock of the cold, trying to drag a suitcase while slipping over in my Converse every few steps, was an unexpected introduction to what was already going to be an unknown beer stop.

Where Munich has its big old beer halls and Cologne has its little glasses of kolsch, Berlin doesn’t have a beer-thing other than the touristy syrup-and-straw glasses of Berliner Weisse. As a bigger, broader, more progressive and modern city than others in Germany I had no idea what it’d be like as a beer destination, so it was brilliantly exciting to find some of the best brewpubs I’ve drunk in.

Hops & Barley is a simple glass-fronted space surrounded by bars, shops and houses. It’s warm inside with the small brewkit to the right of the central bar – it has the feel of a late-night cafe with a cool crowd. Five brews are available so I ordered a 0.1l taster of each. The unfiltered pilsner was creamy and smooth, lemony and bitter with a pithy aroma; the weizen was bubblegum and spice; somewhere between a dunkel and schwarzbier, the dark lager was smooth with a hint of chocolate and a background char-like roastiness; there’s a cider which was deliciously tart and dry yet still sweet and tasted like crunching into a fresh apple; and there’s always a seasonal beer which was a Bohemian pilsner when I was there, though it was chubby compared to the house pilsner, which was so good I couldn’t leave without drinking a pint.

Out of Hops & Barley and Schalander is about a 15 minute walk. A bold and bright corner bar, the 150l kit sits in the middle of the modern space. They brew a pils, dunkel and weiss plus specials, usually classic German styles. The unfiltered pils was smooth with a hint of apple-like sweetness before a long, dry bitterness which demanded you drank more. The dunkel was full of floral aromas backed with a charred savouriness, which was kind-of odd in an interesting way – I preferred the pils. To go with the beer, they serve delicious flammkuchen.

Eschenbrau is on the opposite side of the city but a direct train from Schalander made it an easy journey. Less easy is finding the brewery when you arrive... Near the station, a couple of left turns and then you enter what looks like some green space between a block of student flats and from there it’s on your left. The copper brewkit is upstairs and glows bright while downstairs it’s cosy and friendly with a young student crowd and bright illustrations on the walls. The unfiltered pilsner is really excellent: creamy, smooth and fruity, then a big bite of bitterness that’s like chewing on lemon pith. The dunkel is equally good: toasty caramel, roasted stone fruit but very little dark malt flavour making it smooth and gulpable. This is a cool place to sit and drink a few fresh beers.

Not far from Eschenbrau is BrewBaker which isn’t quite a brewpub, but it’s close – the beer is brewed in the same space as a beer bar, though brewery and bar have different owners... In a covered market area, the brewery is soon to shift a couple of stalls over but the beers will still be available at the bar where you can expect a modern mix of beers including an IPA, stout, red lager, bocks, a ginger beer, Berliner weisse, specials and a pilsner. This is the craft side of Berlin brewing where you’re just as likely to find a double IPA as a dunkel.

Back in the centre of the city, Marcus Brau is a tiny brewpub with its little kit neatly placed behind the bar. They make a pilsner and a dunkel and both are excellent. The pils is very pale with a waving hint of sweetness cut by the lasting dry bitterness. The dunkel is smooth and creamy with subtle chocolate biscuit notes. Inconspicuous from the outside, you’ll be really glad you stopped for a beer.

There are others: Mitte and Lemke have the same owners and are minutes from each other (Marcus Brau is about two-minutes from both, also), though the spaces they are in are very different: one dominates a shopping centre while the other is cosy in a railway arch. I didn’t love any of their beers, though Lemke’s seasonal Marzen was pretty good. And there are ones which I didn’t get to visit, like Heiden Peters and Sudstern, as both were closed while I was there.

As the last stop on a week-long trip around Germany, I’d already drunk a lot of very good beer. Without the traditions of other places, Berlin is where you can find some classic beers brewed in a modern way by some excellent small breweries. I already want to return.