40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 47: A “special vacation” with Kölsch, Altbier and Roggenbier (1993)

40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 47: A “special vacation” with Kölsch, Altbier and Roggenbier (1993)

40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 47: A “special vacation” with Kölsch, Altbier and Roggenbier (1993)Previously: 40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 46: Expansion culminating in espresso and the Red Room in 1993.

Our “special vacation” in 1993 (as you might guess, the more common term for such an excursion was “honeymoon”) lasted almost the entire month of July and included stays in Germany, Denmark, Slovakia and Austria. In our absence, Rich O’s BBQ was capably tended by Amy’s sister Kate, everyone’s favorite server Stephen, and whomever else was available to pull duty.

Our condo was up top, with the veranda.

Burkhard and Kay graciously invited us to stay for two weeks at their condominium in Seibersbach, a small town in Germany near the Rhine River. Their condo was situated directly above a bakery, resulting in unavoidably aromatic 3:00 a.m. wakeup calls and delightful daily breakfasts. Burkhard was in Europe on business, and met us at the airport in Frankfurt to provide a hair-raising lesson in autobahn transit.

After a few days alone we were joined by friends, and a series of day trips took place: Trier and the Mosel River; the overlooked gemstone city of Idar-Oberstein*; scenic Heidelberg; and a beer-soaked Rhine cruise.

The regional bus network usually sufficed to get us to the nearest train station in Bingen on the Rhine; when connections were scant or intoxication precluded making sense of posted schedules, we used taxis and even hitchhiked once.

Following is a summary I wrote in 1993 for the FOSSILS newsletter’s annual Travel Dog edition. It has been lightly edited.

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I Left My Heart in Zum Uerige (and Zur Linde, and P.J.  Früh’s)

We were surrounded by grapes, and yet only one day out of 14 did I drink wine. Imagine that.

If you were to ask a descending Martian to tell you what he has learned about Germany in the course of his interplanetary eavesdropping, chances are that the wild and wacky green man would begin making extra-terrestrial oom-pah noises, start chanting “ein Prosit, ein Prosit” and insist on buying a round of liter tankards for the house.

Speaking for the occupants of Earth, such an interpretation would be entirely normal. Seduced by the eternal image of legendary Bavarian drinking festivals, buxom Bavarian barmaids toting enormous Bavarian beer glasses, cavernous Bavarian beer halls suitable for sporting events – and Lederhosen, and feathered hunting caps, and full-throttled singing, and even May poles – the planet’s non-German majority tends to view the whole of Germany through blue and white checkered glasses.

During my first three trips to Europe, I did little to expand my scope of inquiry beyond that encompassed by Munich and vicinity, with the exception of a Rhine River cruise or two and a month in Berlin in 1989. Each time I eventually came to rest in Munich, where I would attend courses in Advanced Beer Hall Architecture for as long as my Deutsche Marks held out.

In 1991, visiting friends in the former East Germany, I began to fathom the regional differences within the territory of federal Germany. Finally, our “special vacation” of 1993 provided the opportunity – for which I was finally mentally prepared – to examine non-Bavarian drinking culture in Germany.

There were three basic venues for this exploration. The first, and most often visited, was the Zur Linde restaurant and watering hole in “downtown” Seibersbach**, a village located south Bingen, near the Rhine and in the heart of Germany’s winemaking region.

Second was Köln, and third was Dusseldorf. Both are large, cosmopolitan cities on the Rhine, each boasting numerous varieties of their traditional top-fermenting beer styles, Kölsch and Alt respectively, as well as brewpubs in which to sample these delectable specialties.

Who needs the Hofbräuhaus anyway?

Seibersbach

During the two weeks that we stayed in Burkhard’s and Kay’s apartment, first alone and then in the company of Barrie and Beth Ottersbach, Bob Gunn and Don Barry, seven or eight evenings were passed at Zur Linde.

To visit the restaurant, Seibersbach’s central meeting spot and seemingly the preferred drinking establishment of imbibing locals, required the arduous trek of at least 30 yards, first across the street and then into the front door of the two-story haven.

On one cool summer’s evening, with the windows of the apartment open to the crisp and clean air of the farmland around Seibersbach, we were intrigued to hear the sound of voices in song coming from somewhere across the street. Ruling out the possibility that these tunes were being carried by the cows boarding in the traditional farmhouse/barn to the east of our building, we turned instead to the brightly lit second floor of Zur Linde, where the local men’s chorus members were energetically flexing their vocal cords to the accompaniment of an upright piano. By the time we made it to our table in the restaurant’s front room, the same men were installed around the tiny stand-up bar, flexing their voices in a slightly different manner to the accompaniment of cigarettes and Pils.


The meals at Zur Linde are fabulous and the beer list scant, but representative. Kirner Pils and Schinderhannes Alt (both from the PH. & C. Andres brewery in Kirn, southwest of Seibersbach) form the twin pillars of Zur Linde’s draft beer trade. The Pils is typically solid and balanced. The Alt? Rather generic, especially when compared to the hoppiness of Dusseldorf’s house brewed varieties.

Photo credit.

Of more interest is the bottled Schierlinger Roggenbier (rye beer), brewed in Bavaria but apparently much in demand in other parts of the country (for more detailed information on the use of rye in beer, consult Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion).

Schierlinger’s interpretation is delicious, although I lack the ability to adequately express the flavor of the final product. The color is reddish-brown, and the use of a wheat yeast produces many characteristics that are similar to those of a dark wheat beer, but the rye (in a proportion of 60% to 40% barley malt, the latter of three different types) adds a pleasantly grainy sharpness that is simultaneously challenging and refreshing.

On one memorable evening I topped off a platter of schnitzel and fries with at least six of the alluring half-liter Roggenbiers, and I’m happy to report that they passed the mini-session test with high marks: crisp, malty and challenging, never sour, and each finishing with an urgent request from my palate to “give me another.”

In terms of strategic layout, Zur Linde is a homier, rural version of the brewpubs visited in Köln and Dusseldorf, with the emphasis on upholstered, sectioned seating following the largely wooden contours of intimate rooms. The tables and chairs completing these dining and drinking sections can be easily moved to make room for gatherings of a larger scale while still providing for comfortable seating along the perimeter.

The atmosphere is informal and the extroverted exuberance of Bavarian beer halls isn’t much in evidence. Friends chat with each other and with newcomers, and it is the type of place where a regular guy could bring his wife, kids and dog, and all could dine without incident in the company of the unwinding heavier drinkers – and if you think it’s easy to combine these elements, try being a publican for a while.

Köln

The first of two day trips taken with the specific goal of scientific sampling, our excursion to Köln provided more than good beer. The city’s famous cathedral looms over the train station like a mystical, elemental mountain, and the structure is so rich in artistic detail that one could spend a lifetime studying the sculptures, carvings and related artwork.

Köln’s cathedral in Europe in a nutshell, symbolizing art and history and human experience, and the contemplation of such lofty topics can produce the kind of thirst that the Silver Bullet cannot quench in this or any other lifetime. Luckily, Köln’s native ale illustrates the axiom that pale, lighter-bodied beer need not be bland and flavorless.

Kölsch is top-fermented and pale golden in color, light-bodied and subtle. It is a comprehensively defined and closely protected appellation, restricted to Köln and environs. It isn’t clear to me whether this protection extends to America, where a number of brewpubs (including Louisville’s Bluegrass Brewing) offer Kölsch beer as a lighter, “introductory” choice.

After an awe-inducing visit to the Cathedral, we set off in a roundabout search for the Heumarkt, where several of Köln’s brewpubs and other taverns operate. After some time, we stumbled upon Brauerei zur Malzmühle (Heumarkt 6). Maltiness dominates Mühlen Kölsch, with a marshmallow-like fruitiness followed by a mildly hoppy finish. The downstairs dining area is divided into two rooms, and the atmosphere is quiet, almost like a Viennese coffee house.

The Heumarkt location of Brauerei Päffgen was next on our shopping list (* important note). The decor is far more modern than at Malzmühle; we were amused by the table stand statues of human-like figures, some with their heads hidden unobtrusively beneath the table tops, others poking up through the center to eye the Kölsch-wielding consumer. Päffgen Kölsch is close to Mühlen’s version, but hoppier and almost suggesting a fruity Pilsner.

At this point we withdrew from the Kölsch sampling and clipped off two snippets of the wider Euro-ambience of the Heumarkt: bottled Czech Budvar at an upscale bar, and a pint of draft Murphy’s Stout at an Irish pub manned by an authentic native of Cork. Our palates cleansed, we proceeded to the final stop of our tasting tour in Köln.

Everything about our long visit to P.J. Früh Cölner Hofbräu (12-14 Am Hof) was as close to perfection as is possible in an imperfect world. On a balmy Friday afternoon, the pub’s outdoor tables were crowded with natives just off work, a festive atmosphere heightened by the quintessentially European nature of the small square lying before us between the tavern and the nearby towering visage of the cathedral. Barrie, Don and I chose an outdoor stand-up table near the front door, an excellent vantage point to watch the blue-jacketed waiters bustle past with their circular trays filled with small, 1/5 liter glasses of Kölsch.

A mustachioed server brought the first round, and we agreed that it was the best of the Kölsch beers sampled that day. All the attributes of the style – delicate drinkability, malty fruitiness and a gently dry hop finish – were clearly defined and balanced. We raced through seven rounds before Beth and Amy returned to lead us on the short walk past the cathedral and back to the train station.

Düsseldorf

The entire expeditionary contingent of myself, Amy, Don, Barrie, Beth and Bob – the largest gathering of F.O.S.S.I.L.S. in Germany to date – made the long trip from Bingen to Düsseldorf, lured by the magical prospect of Altbier. The threat of rain and an overall lack of time necessitated a mobile sampling strategy of hit-and-run, and while a certain superficiality was the inevitable result of such a lightning campaign, I’m glad we did it. Düsseldorf’s Altbier, as house-brewed by the city’s famous pubs and consumed on-site, surely must constitute one of the world’s most sublime beer drinking experiences.

To quote Michael Jackson’s definition of Altbier in the Companion, “Altbiers are the copper-colored, dryish ales of northern Germany – sociable brews in Düsseldorf’s taverns. Their all-malt smoothness and German hop character is rounded by a period of cold maturation.” To my palate, this definition conjures up the vision of a Bass Pale Ale grafted onto a dark German lager. The Alts we sampled shared a coppery brown color, a restrained fruitiness reflecting the smooth tones of lagering and some of the best hop flavors I can recall experiencing, not overpowering like in some California ales, but firm and long lasting, lingering on the roof of my mouth for minutes and begging another sample.

It is a long walk from the train station to the old, central district where the brew pubs are located, but we navigated it briskly and found Bolkerstrasse. The fresh-scrubbed, outdoor stand-up tables of Brauerei Ferdinand Schumacher’s beckoned; wisely, we put up no resistance. It is officially known as the Im Goldenen Kessel tap (“In the Golden Cauldron”), at Bolkerstrasse 44.

Shortly thereafter, the experience was repeated that Zum Schlüssel (The Key; 43-47 Bolkerstrasse). Then it rained, slowing the 15-minute walk to Im Füchschen (Little Fox, at 28 Ratingerstrasse). Finally, the rain having abated, our column dash to Zum Uerige (meaning “cranky fellow,” at 1 Bergerstrasse) and closed the sampling session in the most famous of these classic brew pubs.

How did the house-brewed Altbiers rank? I scored them as follows:

  1. Zum Schlüssel Altbier. Maltiest of the four, milder hop finish.
  2. Schumacher Altbier. Lightest body of the four, redeeming hop character.
  3. Im Füchschen. Hoppy, dry and served with wooden cask debris in my glass, and assured by the leather-aproned, bearded waiter that this was perfectly normal.
  4. Zum Uerige. As with P.J. Früh’s Kölsch, all factors join together to thrill the humble sampler. The body is medium and firm, the ale tones appropriately burnished, and the hop finish positively majestic.

All the taverns are intimate – not necessarily small, but composed of rooms and corridors in which small groups of people can blend in with the wooden furnishings and devote an afternoon to Altbier, conversation and the joys of living in a place where so much good beer is so readily available. The Altbier is served in glasses similar to those used in Köln for Kölsch; like Kölsch, Altbier is cool but not cold, a fact that unnecessarily discourages so many Americans, for whom frozen beer is an article of tasteless and ultimately futile faith.

To this day I’m not sure why spent Altbier grain was being dumped onto the street.

At Zum Uerige we tried the recommended appetizer platter of blood sausage and Mainzer cheese, the former of a texture between bologna and hard salami, and the latter marinated in beer and sausage drippings. A day later, I could still smell the meat and cheese on my fingers, such was the staying power of these remarkable, beer-friendly foods.

Before reluctantly departing the hallowed halls of this venerable establishment, a few of us wandered back to where the brewery is visible. Facing it is an open barroom, and atop the bar is an area for tapping – except that in the case of Zum Uerige, the wooden casks sit upright and are gravity-tapped, and when necessary, new ones are rolled through the room and pressed into service.

Zur Linde … Köln … Düsseldorf. What was learned? Are the differences between these places and Bavaria really so pronounced?

I think that the intimacy of these pubs contrasts with the stereotypical view of Bavarian excess. This is not to say that Bavaria isn’t filled with similarly configured establishments, because they exist in abundance, and yet in spite of all evidence to the contrary and all the exceptions to such generalizations, Bavaria remains the Texas of Germany, a place where epic size and scale are the stuff of mythology and reality. It’s simply inescapable.

In ordinary guesthouses like Zur Linde, and in the brew pubs and taverns of Köln and Düsseldorf, one sees a more relaxed, reflective side of Germany’s drinking culture. Instead of waiters and waitresses hoisting huge liter mugs, there are circular trays with those little 1/5 liter glasses, each snug in its slot. There are no oom-pah bands. Comparatively speaking, the drinking atmosphere is introverted; something about the small glasses of distinctive German ale and the cubby-holed pubs is reminiscent of cafes and coffee houses, contrasting with the stereotypical drinking factories in Bavaria.

There will continue to be many good reasons to drink beer in Bavaria, and with luck I’ll be able to devote time to them. However, we mustn’t overlook the flourishing beer culture and beer styles that are unique to other regions in Germany, ones represented in Louisville by Bluegrass Brewing’s Kölsch and Altbier, which I heartily recommend as liquid introductions to the experiences I’ve recounted here.

FINIS

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After two weeks in Seibersbach, Bob and Don went on their own way, while Barrie and Beth tagged along as the gang relocated to Copenhagen to visit the Three Danes of the Apocalypse, a stay that included Tuborg and Carlsberg brewery visits as well as a lazy Sunday trek to Helsingborg, Sweden, memorably described by Allan with characteristically deadpan dryness as an opportunity to decide which we preferred, to go to Sweden on Sunday in order not have fun, or not drink beer, or both concurrently.

Allan is usually right.

We laughed, but Allan was spot on. From the top of the 35-meter Kärnan Tower in Helsingborg there as an eerie silence, as though we were in a Carpathian village – and the bars were all closed tight.

From Copenhagen, Amy and I ferried back to Germany and continued by rail to Košice in Slovakia via Prague, each connection requiring an overnight couchette rental, separated by afternoon beers in the Czech capital. I remember nothing whatever about it.

In Slovakia (from left): my teaching “replacement” Kurt; Amy; a former student whose name escapes me; and Boro.

Košice offered a wonderful chance to catch up with my former students, as well as observe the remarkable changes that had occurred there in only two years. The trip’s finale came in Vienna, enabling a session at the Nussdorfer Brauerei and a bus ride down to Mayerling, yet another tragic Habsburg bucket list destination of mine.

Upon returning to America, David Pierce told us that Bluegrass Brewing Company would be open for business soon – and he’d jumped over to BBC from the Silo to run the brewery. Even before stepping into BBC, I already suspected that it would become a place of refuge amid all the crazy days, weeks and years to follow, all the way until 2019++ when the original St. Matthews location closed.

Footnotes

Thanks to the late Ralph Griggs for recommending a visit to Idar-Oberstein so long ago, back when we’d talk at Scoreboard Liquors.

** It appears Zur Linde closed in 2011, leaving Seibersbach without a “joint.” I don’t know if this situation has changed.

+ What was then Päffgen is now called Pfaffen, apparently the result of a lingering family dispute. Today there are two separate breweries and dispensaries, with Päffgen no longer located on the Heumarkt (there was dining and drinking at the more recent location in 2007 and 2008, if memory serves.)

Next: 40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 48: F.O.S.S.I.L.S. newsletter antics, Typo’s Brewpub, and True Beer Freedom.

Don Barry in Rhineland wine country.