Clear Brew

Beers of a Bavarian Night

Print
Bavaria is frustrating. So many breweries, so little time.

BavariaI’m travelling from town to town and signs outside every bar promise yet another range of beers I’ve never heard of before but, finally, I reach the end of the road, abandon the car and sort out accommodation.

I spot the village's only watering hole – a rather modest-looking gasthof – but it’ll more than do for me. I’ve a thirst that has been building for hours.

I am the only person in the bar when I squeeze into a booth and take my seat at a solid oak table. A waitress, daintily dressed in the traditional dirndl, is busying herself behind the counter and when she cheerfully makes her way over, I order a helles.

Helles is the everyday drinking beer of the Bavarian people. If you simply ask for a beer round here, it is helles – a pale lager – that you get.

Hundreds of Breweries

Like all the beers in this establishment, this helles is brewed by Klosterbräuerei Dietl, a former monastic brewery in the little village of Baumburg, south-east of Munich – just one of hundreds of breweries in Germany’s southernmost state, a region where provenance and tradition are highly prized.

National brands have been hard to establish here because of the people’s stubborn loyalty to tried-and-tested local breweries and their equally inflexible range of beers.

The craft beer revolution that has rocked the world has been slow to arrive in this conservative corner and that means just a handful of different beer styles still dominate what’s on sale.

My helles is the colour of brilliant gold and froths with loose white bubbles. It looks and smells gloriously fresh and inviting. Because it is brewed so close to where it is consumed, a beer like this is usually left unpasteurised. There’s no need to artificially prolong the shelf-life.

It’s just as well. Helles beers are such delicate creations – the fragile-petalled flowers of the beer world – that even just a short blast of pasteurisation heat can destroy what makes them so special.

I lift the thick, heavy glass to take a first sip. A burst of sweet cereal and aromatic herbal hops wafts towards me as I plunge into the refreshingly cool liquid that immediately feels full bodied, soft and velvety.

So many international lagers are overburdened with carbonation, tasting sharp and shrill and pricking the tongue with gaseous acidity. Here there’s only a modest frisson of life, a gentle effervescence just lively enough to prevent the lush sweetness of the malt from cloying.

The hops are mellow, slightly perfumed and smoothly herbal, but they add a firm bitter backbone. It’s a beer of utmost simplicity and yet wonderfully complex at the same time.

At Ease

Wiping froth from my lips, I already feel at ease in this strange, subtly-lit bar with its panelled-wood ceiling and sturdy dark beams. It’s a calm, no-frills sort of place, mostly set up for food, with damask-shaded lamps slung low over each table.

A little cheesy Bavarian music – unbearable in any fake German beer hall – is surprisingly atmospheric here as it tinkles through the speakers, alternating between little folksy jigs and impressive choral refrains.

After my day on the road, the beer slips down elegantly and effortlessly. It’s gone in no time, so I order another, choosing now a zwickel. This is an unfiltered lager and is presented slightly hazy. Apart from a more chalky texture, it tastes very similar to the helles. I am not unhappy.

It’s been a wet day here in the shadow of the Alps but, at this point, the sun breaks through and the view from my window is stunning. Beyond the pub’s small terrace, still damp and glistening from the last shower, unfolds a vista of verdant, rolling meadows.

In the distance, neat little hamlets of chalets with terracotta roofs and beaming white walls sit basking in the evening rays. Gingerbread balconies erupt with colour as purples, reds and yellows billow from fastidiously-tended window boxes.

At one point, the roofline is pierced by the onion dome of a church tower, soberly reminding visitors that this is a god-fearing, Catholic neighbourhood where everything is properly ordered and in its place.

Behind the houses, thick stands of conifers guard the lower slopes of foothills whose high, rocky summits, like a row of crooked teeth, gnaw into a serene blue sky now freshly laundered and emptied of moisture. What clouds remain hang low, snagged on the peaks like wool on a barbed wire fence.

Shadows Lengthen

The pub begins to fill. I am totally absorbed in the beer provision, but others are drawn in by the food. When meals arrive, they appear to be inspired by the Desperate Dan cookbook.

Bavarian beerHuge plates of pork and dumplings, sausages and potatoes, accompanied by bowls of vinegary salad to cut through the fat, are devoured with little ceremony. No one orders wine. Beer does just fine.

I turn to a pils. Germans present pils in a more refined way than helles. Instead of a chunky half-litre, you’re given a slightly smaller, elegant, conical glass with a dainty little doily placed around the bottom.

Spritzy, perfumed and pleasantly sharp with floral, sherbety hop notes, this is one of the best pils I have ever had in Germany. The finish is wonderfully clean, lipsmackingly hoppy and super dry. It doesn’t last long.

The chatter on other tables grows ever louder as plates are emptied and the shadows lengthen outside. Softly, somewhere, a cow bell tinkles as the herd makes its way home from pasture.

A chain of lights twinkles into life high above the village centre, betraying the presence of a few more homes, previously unnoticed. It’s a long walk down to the pub from there, I think.

The waitress, still bright and cheery, delivers me a weizen. Even though it is a little thin and less impressive than the beers I’ve had up to now, there’s still plenty to like in the lively balance of apple, bubblegum and spice flavours.

It reminds me of earlier beer garden days in this part of the world, seeking shade beneath a leafy horse chestnut tree as the sun beats down.

An accordion wheezes into life, another jaunty tune fills the room and I’m now well on the way to completing my journey through the whole beer selection. It's a shame there's no dunkel on offer tonight but I'm drawn to a beer mat that poses a simple question: ‘Where is the Bock?’.

The answer is provided on the reverse, which advertises the three varieties of strong lager that are now available in bottle.

I can’t let this go and decide on what’s called Weissbier Bock to finish the evening. This doesn’t appear to be a conventional weizenbock. It’s clearly an attempt to create something different.

The brewers have chosen the Saphir hop – a relatively new German hop noted for its citrus and berry notes – and worked it into a wheat beer recipe. I taste grapefruit and other zesty fruit alongside creamy banana.

The fact that such information is openly declared makes me think that, even here in time-warp Bavaria, change is coming. Adventures in brewing are now beginning to re-shape the local brewing scene.

I deliberate long and hard about my evening’s drinking as I sup that last beer and settle the surprisingly modest bill, and, wandering back to my home for the night, happy and full of lovely beer brewed the way it has been for decades, I rather selfishly hope that things don’t change too much.

There may not be much variety in the traditional Bavarian beer diet but I, for one, like it very much that way.


Beer image courtesy of the Bavarian Brewers Association, Munich.












Bookmark and Share