German lagers – more than just Oktoberfest

An assortment of German lagers. Photo courtesy the German Beer Institute.

An assortment of German lagers. Photo courtesy the German Beer Institute.

Right now, one can’t enter a package store without tripping over an Oktoberfest beer. Nearly every brewer makes one, and they’re as ubiquitous in the fall months as leaves on the ground, but they’re only the tip of the proverbial German lager iceberg (what a mental image that is).

Heck, Oktoberfest is just another name for Märzen, a beer traditionally brewed in the winter and aged until late summer and fall. We can thank the German beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot) for the name, as brewers had to stop brewing for the summer in April, so March (“Märzen” in German) was the month of frantic brewing. Malty, rich, and cleanly amber-colored, Märzens are synonymous with fall parties. They usually range from 4 to 7 percent Alcohol By Volume. (German examples: Paulander Oktoberfest, Spaten Oktobefest. American examples: Jack’s Abby Smoked Märzen, Berkley Harvest Ale, Goodfellows Wheneverfest!)

While the Germans are known for their Pilsener lagers, the style actually originated in the city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic (which is quite close to Germany). While Bud/Miller/Coors likes to call their beers Pilsners, that’s simply false. German Pilsners are dry, crisp, light-colored (and low-ABV, rarely going above 5 percent), highly carbonated, and can have subtle spicy hop notes. (German examples: Beck’s, Radeberger, Warsteiner. American examples: Victory Prima Pils, Troegs Sunshine Pills, CBC Remain in Light.)

Bocks may be the most varied of the German lagers, and are among the most alcoholic. Maibocks are the hoppiest and lightest-colored of the bock family; traditional bocks are darker, roastier, and maltier; weizenbocks are about as dark and strong one gets with wheat beers; doppelbocks are richer, stronger versions of a bock; and eisbocks (or ice bocks) are made by freezing a bock and removing the water to create a boozy beast that ranges up to 15 percent ABV. Bocks are all strong beers, rarely dropping below 6 percent ABV, but the eisbock is the Kraken of the bock world. (German examples: Paulaner Salvator, Einbecker Mai-Ur-Bock, Hacker-Pschorr Dunkel Weisse. American examples: Rogue Dead Guy, Smuttynose Maibock, Abita Andygator.)

I’ll give you one guess where Vienna lagers originated. Surprisingly, the style died out in Germany, but was renewed by expatriate German brewers in Mexico, with Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo keeping the style alive. But the most famous and common Vienna lager is our own Sam Adams Boston Lager. Amber-colored, well-balanced, and easy-drinking, Vienna lagers are a style I’m glad took root in the New World.

Finally, let’s talk about schwarzbiers and rauchbiers. To put it simply, schwarzbiers are black beers, and rauchbiers are smoked beers. Don’t confuse a schwarzbier with a stout or porter, though, as these “black lagers” are crisp, dry, and much more subtly roasty. Often mildly hoppy, these brews are great “lighter” black beers. I eagerly await the day that Buzzards Bay brings back their Black Lager, one of their best brews from their first iteration.

Rauchbiers can be an acquired taste. Sometimes overwhelmingly smokey, a deft brewer needs a subtle touch to create a beer that’s drinkable. Jack’s Abby’s Smoke & Dagger may be the perfect blend of a rauchbier and a schwarzbier. It’s absolutely delicious: balanced, complex, yet subtle.

Originally published on October 9, 2014

The view from the other side of the table


Being behind the table at a beer tasting can be as much fun as being a taster. Perhaps the camels in the background at Roger Williams Zoo’s “Brew at the Zoo” were thirsting for a sample?

Beer tastings. Most of us have, at the minimum, gone to a liquor store while someone is offering beer samples. Some readers have been fortunate enough to attend a brewfest (like the ones listed at the bottom of this column). Beer events are always fun to attend, but working at them is also surprisingly enjoyable.

During the past three or four months, I’ve worked tastings at a variety of events, including a half-dozen tastings at liquor stores, for Berkley Beer or other beers for Craft Brew Tastings, and last weekend’s Brew at the Zoo at Roger Williams Park Zoo. Working these events has given me insight into the other side of beer tastings, and has given me a new appreciation for the “beeristas” who pour our favorite beverage.

In some ways, store tastings like an imperial IPA — more challenging, but in the end, often more rewarding. People aren’t at the store to taste beer, they’re there to buy beer/liquor/wine, and 99 percent of the time aren’t buying YOUR beer, so a lot of folks will walk on by. Because of this, the job requires more salesmanship than at a beer fest, where people have come for the express purpose of tasting beers.

That being said, it’s quite rewarding to be at a store and turn people on to a new beer, then see them walk out with your beer in hand. There’s a real enjoyment in broadening someone’s beer horizons, especially when it’s a quality local product like Berkley‘s.

Store tastings can also be frustrating. It’s a lot of standing around, punctuated by trying to persuade people to try your beer. As a beer enthusiast and all-around flavor addict, I simply don’t understand those who turn down samples of beer (or wine, or hard alcohol). I know there are legitimate reasons people say no. But I’ll always try new drinks (or foods), especially if they’re free!

Fortunately, I’ve never experienced anyone being rude about not tasting what I’m offering. They’re usually quite polite, with either a simple “No, thank you” or they give a reason, such as “I’m a wine drinker,” or “I only drink beer XYZ.”

Thankfully, on the other end of the spectrum are enthusiastic tasters: those who are eager to try your beer and talk about what you’re offering. I’m definitely one of these tasters when I’m on the customer side of the table. These people are a blast, and will often pick up your beer just to show appreciation.

Somewhere in between these two poles are the really rewarding customers — those who need a little coaxing to try the brew, but will often end up buying some, or, at minimum, will leave with a new appreciation for your product. These folks are often surprised to like your beer so much, and are sometimes even thankful to the brewery rep for introducing them to the beer. I’ve received a couple of “This is my new favorite beer!” comments that are always a blast.

Attendees of beer fests and events are a much easier sell. Their whole purpose is to try beer, get drunk, or both. (A designated driver is a must.)

Heck, these folks will form lines to try your beer if it builds a buzz (as happened for me at “Brew at the Zoo,” where people were freaking out about the Schofferhofer grapefruit wheat beer from Germany). They’re all beer enthusiasts, and while there’s the occasional beer snob in the crowd, they’re mostly psyched to try your stuff and vocal about how it tastes.

The next time you’re at a tasting, such as the ones listed in the Beer Events section of the site, make sure you remember the person behind the table. They care what you think, and are psyched to get feedback about their beer, even if it’s not a glowing review.

Originally published on September 11, 2014

Three ways to ruin your beer

Very little ruins a picnic or cookout like bad beer. Even more insidious than a bad beer is a beer that’s been degraded through bad handling. The drinker may not even know that the beer in their hand could taste better than it does! In this column, I’ll teach you about the three main ways that beer gets ruined: temperature, sunlight, and time. Continue reading

Sessionable beers are perfect for a summer gathering

notch_session_pilsAmericans love their beer on the Fourth of July. There’s something about barbecues, fireworks, and independence from England that makes us a thirsty lot. Beer is a fantastic companion to fireworks and barbecues, at least until the person manning the grill or the lighter has too many brews and Independence Day ends up being celebrated in the ER.

Thankfully, there is a way to enjoy your brews and stay upright: “session beers.” The term for these low-alcohol but full-flavored brews comes from England, with the idea being that the drinker could knock back a few pints in a few hours without falling down on the way back home or to work. Continue reading

Drink Local, Especially When on the Road

Good beer is local beer, and local beer is fresh! The jingle is true for eggs AND beer. The thing is, drinking local applies when shopping or drinking at your favorite local store/bar/restaurant AND when traveling.

About to visit Allgash

About to visit Allgash

The last GBH column discussed beer trading and how each region, or even each city, has its own “only available locally” brews. Sure, you can always find a trading partner to send you rare local specialties, but just as effective a method is to seek out all the local brews when on vacation or traveling for work. Continue reading

To satisfy beer geeks, trading is on the rise

There are now more than 2,700 breweries in the United States (probably 2,800 by now, given the almost daily brewery opening). We could easily pass the all-time mark of 3,286 (from 1870) this year or next, given that there are more than 1,700 breweries in planning. Since breweries are popping up like dandelions in the spring, eventually every mid-sized city will have a brewery and local beers will be available anywhere in the nation.

This unbelievable growth makes it near impossible to try everything. There are simply too many options, and too many breweries and brewpubs that are only available in a few zip codes. Rare beers, and the booming online beer culture, has led to a rising tide of beer trading. Continue reading

Judging homebrews isn’t as easy as it sounds

The judging sheet, our "calibration beer", and a sheet of beer faults.

The judging sheet, our “calibration beer”, and a sheet of beer faults.

Judging a homebrew is a fascinating experience. It’s fun, challenging, and ultimately quite rewarding. It allows one to really get into the nitty gritty of beer, a process that ultimately makes one a more aware and adept beer drinker.

This past weekend I was honored to be a beer judge for the fourth annual Ocean State Homebrew Competition, held at Johnson & Wales University and sponsored by JbreW. I spent Saturday helping out with logistics and Sunday judging in the front, which gave me different perspectives into such a big event.

Some might think beer judging is a dream come true, and it IS great, but I wasn’t able to just enjoy beers and write a grade. We rate the beers on five categories: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression (detailed in my July 4 column). A good judge will also then write comments for why they gave the score they gave for each section. It can be tough to be critical while remaining positive, and it’s quite the challenge to come up with different ways to say “hoppy” after one’s 10th IPA.

A big contest like Ocean State requires more volunteers than a bake sale at a southern megachurch. Nearly 40 judges worked over the two days to taste all 311 entries (placed into 28 categories). There were also 25 stewards who brought all the beers to the judges and tallied the scores, six staff, and more than 40 student volunteers and chefs to prepare meals for the crew.

I helped judge the “Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer” category, which was an adventure. Beers ranged from an American wheat with cucumber to an IPA brewed with coconut to an oatmeal stout with vodka and vanilla beans. Only one of the six beers I tasted was poor, and I really enjoyed the various flavors.

The process is relatively simple: pour a small amount into a cup, smell it, examine it, taste it, repeat. Judges then discuss the beer, noting if it’s true to its style, picking up on any of the potential off-flavors that might detract from the brew, and talking about what stood out about the beer. Everyone then writes down their comments, puts scores in each category and tallies them (maximum of 50). The judges’ scores are then averaged.

Each rating category has a different weight. In order: Appearance is worth 3 points, Mouthfeel is 5, Overall Impression is 10, Aroma is 12, and Flavor is 20. All but one beer in my group earned a 31 to 40 score, with our “Mini Best-in-Show” going to the really excellent coconut IPA.

After each of the 28 categories have a best beer, the highest-ranked judges (a topic for another column) taste all 28 winners and declare best-in-show for beers, ciders, and meads. At a big contest like OSHC, it takes two full days to winnow the field down to the winners, and those that earn the top spot have been better vetted than a presidential candidate.

Originally published on April 10, 2014

Contract brewing: good for the brewer, good for the brewery

Go to any liquor store with a decent beer selection and you’ll find enough “bombers” (22-ounce bottles) to start a war. This proliferation of beers is due, at least in part, to the rise of contract brewing, or brewing your beer at someone else’s brewery.

This relationship is mutually beneficial — it helps the physical brewery’s bottom line while allowing a new brewer to get a foot in the door for a much lower initial cost. By contracting, startups can avoid the often multi-million dollar investment that comes with building a brewery. Lower entry costs means more breweries, which means more selection, which means more hoppy goodness for all. Continue reading

Green beer is local beer

Many of us have been unfortunate enough to try a green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day, but why dye a beer green when you can make it truly green by drinking something more sustainable? Read on to find out more about how to make your St. Patty’s Day beer even greener than the meadows of Ireland.

No matter how rich your stout is, no matter how many hops are in your IPA, beer is still 85-95% water, which weighs over 8 lbs per gallon. Oh, and beer’s packaging doubles that weight, so takes quite a bit of oil to ship all that Guinness just over 3,000 miles from Dublin.

Continue reading