Flanders Sour Red Ales are traditional reddish brown colored beer of West Flanders, Belgium. While still popular as a table beer in Flanders today, they are a style of beer that many have never heard of. Flanders red ale are infamous for their distinct sharp, fruity, sour and tart flavors which are created by special yeast strains. Very complex beers, they are produced under the age old tradition of long-term cask aging in oak, and the blending of young and old beers. Beginning with a selection of medium-dark malts, and just enough hops to add some aromatic complexity, the brew is first fermented using traditional, top-fermenting ale yeast. After brewing, the ale is aged for long periods in huge, old, oak casks, more reminiscent of those used in the wineries of old-world countries than of any other beer style. After an aging period of at least 18 months, the main portion of the beer is considered ripe, and it is then blended with a beer of the same recipe, but that has been aged for much less time. This process will add to the liveliness of the finished product, while allowing the amazing sweet and sour flavors that can only develop with extended aging to still shine through.
A world class Flanders Sour Red Ale to try: Rodenbach Grand Cru
Although Belgium would certainly top most people’s list of most interesting beer destination in Europe, the German beer loving region of Franconia (in northern Bavaria) provides stiff competition.
Currently there are over 300 breweries and brewpubs in the region, creating styles of beer not seen anywhere else in the world. On a trip to Franconia in November of 2009, I experienced first hand this relatively unknown kingdom of artisanal beer culture.
Germany, and specifically Bavaria is famous for its beer. Sadly, a lot of what gets transported to the United States is a heat damaged, dusty, pasteurized version of what is enjoyed there. More importantly perhaps, its hard to gain an understanding of German beer culture without the proper setting; a cozy Gasthaus or tavern or a beer garden surrounded by oak trees filled with the happy energy of a beer loving culture. Franconia leads the German regions for number of breweries per capita and per square kilometer, and the majority of the beer made in the area is for local consumption. There is really no better place to go for beer made locally for the locals!
Home not only to a stunning number of breweries, beer halls, beer gardens and beer guest houses (a recent German language guide listed 631 total), Franconia can also lay claim to having the widest array of beer styles in Germany, from the sublime cask conditioned Ungespundet Lager, to the robust, bacony Rauchbier, to the king of dark malty lagers, the Eisbock and many more in between.
The city of Bamberg, nestled in the heart of Franconia is the capital of Franconian beer culture. Home to nine breweries, and Weyermann Malt, the world’s leading producer of specialty beer malt, Bamberg literally lives and breathes beer. Not that beer is the reason most tourists visit this city. On the UNESCO world heritage site, Bamberg is a stunningly beautiful city with a massive Romanesque cathedral perched upon one of the seven hills that make up the town.
One might easily spend several blissful days touring the winding streets of the old city, peering in to the beautiful churches and wandering along the mossy banked waterways of the city without realizing they are in the heart of beer country. Luckily or unluckily depending on how you look at it, I was able to avoid the charms of the city and focus on the beer for two reasons:
#1 My trip fell in the middle of November and it was cold, wet and gray. (I would highly recommend a late spring or summer visit although the city will be swarming with tourists)
#2 I came armed with a guide an indispensable guide to Franconian beer culture, “The Beer Drinkers Guide to Bamberg”, by Fred Waltman, who also curates an online guide to Franconian beer culture. Available online as a pdf for a nominal fee, I wouldn’t visit Bamberg without it.
Even if you were to somehow lose the guide however after a few too many pints of Schlenkerla, the people of Bamberg would be more than happy to give you tips on where to go and what to drink. Speaking to the natives in German or English (no problem finding English speakers in Germany of course!) you will get to the heart of the Franconian culture and that wonderful feeling of gemütlichkeit.
I visited probably a dozen more brew pubs than the average tourist interested in things non-beer might want to see, but my must-see favorites are listed below.
Brauereiaushank Schlenkerla A trip to Bamberg would not be complete without visiting the most famous producer of Rauchbier, Aecht Schlenkerla. Schlenkerla has been run by same family since 1877, although the tavern in the heart of the city has been serving beer 1405. In their brewery just a few kilometers away Schlenkerla produces a several styles of smoked lager including their flagship beer a Märzen. Enjoy a glass of the amber colored smokey stuff with some locally made liverwurst or an order of “beer cheese” and dark bread. Dominikanerstrasse 6, 96052 Bamberg, open daily
Mahr’s Bräu Just a few doors down from Brauerei Keesmann is the cozy Mahr’s Gausthaus. Built in 1670, it wooden benches, soft lighting and warm stove invite one to stay and chat with the old timers over their signature brew, an unfiltered lager simply called “U” (pronounced “ew”), short for Ungespundes Lager. Absolutely a must. If you visit Bamberg in the right season, you should also sample their Helles Bock, which is deceptively smooth and delicious for over 6% abv. Wunderburg 10, 96050 Bamberg, open daily
Brauerei Keesmann I was particularly interested to try the beer from Brauerei Keesmann, as it is not available in the United States. I arrived around lunch time and sat at one of the communal tables next to several older gentleman and woman, who turned out to be Mrs. Keesmann! She recommended their Pilsner, which was fantastic, especially with a hearty platter of traditional Franconian cold cuts and cheeses. Wunderburg 5, 96050 Bamberg, closed Sundays
Spezial Keller Spezial is another brewery specializing in smoked beers, although they also make a wonderful Ungespundes Lager that is not smoked. While their brewpub is cozy, dark and traditionally Franconian, I would recommend their beer “cellar”, which sits upon the top of a hill north of the old town, providing a beautiful outlook down onto the city. The term beer cellar in Franconia might be confusing to tourists who picture a subterranean cave. Anywhere else in Germany, a Franconian beer cellar would be a beer garden, so picture trees, open air, sunlight and fresh beer.Oberer Stephansberg 47, 96049 Bamberg, closed Mondays
A beer focused trip to Bamberg would not be complete without hitting the open road (or bicycle path as it were) and visiting a Franconia Gasthaus or three. There are literally dozens of small village breweries within easy biking distance of Bamberg all connected by immaculately maintained and sign-posted bicycle paths.
One place I found had particularly good beer was in the village of Buttenheim, just an hour south of Bamberg by bicycle. Visit Löwenbräu (Marktstraβe 8, 96155 Buttenheim) for a taste of a traditional Franconian country guest house. Fresh beer brewed literally next door, paired with hearty, rustic fare.
The applejack of the beer world, supposedly developed by a mistake on a frosty evening in 1890 at the Reichelbräu brewery in Kulmbach, Germany. A barrel of beer was left out in the cold and froze solid. The brewmaster discovered that the freezing process had concentrated the beer and when thawed proved surprisingly tasty. Eisbock is produced today by only a handful of breweries and can reach an alcohol content of 11%. The perfect pairing for this beer would be something equally concentrated, rich and decadent: a flourless chocolate cake or chocolate truffle.
Literally translated as smoked beer, Rauchbier is the modern context is a specialty dark lager of the Franconian city of Bamberg. Before more controlled methods of roasting malt were invented, we imagine that the vast majority of beer might have had a smokey flavor, due to the malt being kilned by use of a direct smoke-producing heat source: fire. As smoke was definitely not a flavor most brewers wanted, as smokey beers disappeared as fast as the malt roasting devise devised by Anton Wheeler (cira 1840) could be distributed. The only place in the world where smoked beer was continually brewed into modernity is Germany, specifically Bamberg, where several breweries have dutifully continued the tradition of using beechwood logs in a direct fire kiln to impart a bacony, smokey accent that might be described as an acquired taste. A quintessential food beer, Rauchbier marries beautifully with parallel flavors such as smoked meats, and intensely flavored cheeses like aged Gruyere or Limburger.
While we are lucky in America to have access to a wide range of amazing beers, Ungespundet Lager is difficult to find. Simply translated, ungespundet means “not plugged”, which refers to the unique method imployed in condtioning this style of beer. Typically the cask in which the new beer is racked into to condition is stoppered with a bung or spund in german which allows carbon dioxide to build inside the cask. By keeping the cask unplugged, this special lager remains only lightly carbonated (think English Real Cask Ale) and develops an amazing complexity of flavor. A few shades darker than a Pilsner and around 5% abv, a good Ungespundet will fool you into thinking your drinking an ale with its round full flavor, slight sweetness and delicate effervescence. This is one of the session beers of Franconia, a delightful easy drinking beverage that harkens back to the pre-pilsner time when beer was served in ceramic steins. This is the kind of beer that will go with pretty much everything but its best with food that is not overly spicy or intense. If possible, search it out on draft at a good bar or go directly to the source: Bamberg, Germany.
A world class Ungespundet Lager to try: Mahr’s Ungespundet
True Pilsner is soft, fragrant and complex and is often described as “naked” by brewers meaning that the primary ingredients malt, hops, yeast and water are on display in this lighter refreshing style of beer. When the very first clear, golden lager was brewed in the Bohemian town of Pilsen in 1842, beer drinkers the world over were immediately enchanted. The Germans quickly proved to be the most passionate devotees of the new style. Towns across the land began brewing their own “Pilsner” beers, and the name of the style was soon shortened to the friendlier “Pils.” The German touch was to make the beer a bit lighter in body – better for everyday drinking – and to add an extra dose of hops for a refreshingly bitter zing. In Germany today, Pils is by far the most popular beer style, and every region has at least one brand to call its own. Pils brewed in southern Germany generally has a sweeter, maltier taste, while Pils brewed in the north tends toward a hoppier bitterness.
A world class German-Style Pilsner to try: Stoudt’s Pils
A world class Czech-Style Pilsner to try: Moonlight Brewing Company Reality Czeck
Named after Oregon’s Willamette River, which runs through that state’s hop growing region, Willamette was released in 1976 from the U.S.D.A. breeding program. It is a daughter of the classic English variety, Fuggle, and is characterized by a low alpha content and mild aroma. Willamette is the most widely grown U.S. aroma hop. It imparts a mild, slightly spicy, and pleasant aroma in beer.
Alpha Acids 4.0 – 6.0%
Cohumulone (% of alpha acids) 30 – 35%
Possible Substitutions: Fuggle, Tettnang, Styrian Golding
Warrior is a high alpha variety of recent origin developed by Yakima Chief Ranches. It is used both for its aromatic properties and especially for its bittering properties, due to its low cohumulone content.
Simcoe is a bittering/aroma variety bred by Yakima Chief Ranches and released in 2000. It is used for its bittering properties and aroma qualities that impart a unique, pine-like aroma. It is very popular in American style Ales.
Alpha Acids 12 – 14%
Cohumulone (% of alpha acids) 15 – 20%
Possible Substitutions: Summit, Magnum
Commercial Examples of Beer that feature Simcoe Hops: Weyebacher Double Simcoe IPA
Millennium is a high alpha variety bred in the John I. Haas, Inc. breeding program and released in 2000. Its brewing profile is comparable to Nugget and Columbus, being used primarily as a bittering hop with strong alpha potential.
Alpha Acids 14.5 – 16.5%
Cohumulone (% of alpha acids) 28 – 32%
Adventures in good beer and great food in Berkeley, Brooklyn and beyond