Monday, September 19, 2011

Part 8c - The Food of Köln

Köln definitely has its own regional character - the accent, words used, the beer, and the food.

Earlier this month, I described our incredibly delicious meal of raw pork, called Hackepeter, in Wollnitz. When we went to Köln, we noticed that people were eating something similar on crusty rolls. I crudely translated part of our food menu at Gaffel and found that they serve something called "Mett" - ground raw pork seasoned with salt & pepper spread onto bread and topped with minced onion.

Sounds gross, right?

It was amazing! The texture was incredible - soft and slightly chewy, much like cured salmon or tuna sashimi. If you're ever in Köln (or the area) and see Mett on the menu, order it. Raw pork sounds pretty awful, but it's quite the opposite. And I'm rather disappointed it's not more popular here.
Mett for lunch at Gaffel

I also noted a couple of other regional specialties. One was "Kaviar", blood sausage with onions & pickles. The other was "Himmel und Äd", which is blood sausage, mashed potatoes, and applesauce. I tried Kaviar and really liked it as well, but preferred the mett.
"Kaviar" with a side salad.  Germans aren't too big on greens.

You can make your own Mett at home. I know, I know, bacteria etc. The key is grinding the meat yourself. NEVER eat raw meat that was already ground when you bought it. If you don't wnat to do this with pork, try it with beef... you'll be making steak tartare, and some great instructions on the process are over on Michael Ruhlman's blog.

Once you've ground/diced the meat (again, see the link to Ruhlman's blog above), dice up some onion (very small dice) and mix it into the meat along with a liberal dose of salt & pepper. You can add some mace, caraway, and/or marjoram if you want, but I don't believe the Mett we had was seasoned with anything other than salt & pepper.

Spread this on a crusty dinner roll or a piece of toast (rye would be excellent for this). Alternately, shape a mound onto a plate, create a little divet in the top, and crack a raw egg onto the top (wash the shell off first), then spread onto toast. I know, sounds disturbing, but it's so delicious. Really, it is.

If you want to try this without making it yourself, bluestem serves wagyu steak tartare on their lounge menu. It's half-price Tues - Fri during happy hour (5-7; 5-6:30 on Fridays), and steak tartare for $6 is a steal.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Part 8b - The Beer of Köln

Over the course of 2 days, John and I were able to try Kölsch made by 9 different breweries. Each brewery clearly had its on take on the style, but Kölsch definitely has some defining characteristics - and, like Altbier, is served in its own special glass: the 2cl thin-walled Kölner Stange. ("SHTONG-uh".)

Kölsch is a pretty narrowly-defined style, and the following stats come from Eric Warner's book on Kölsch. The BJCP guidelines are even narrower in range. It's a filtered ale typically between 3.5-7 SRM (straw, light gold), has an OG of 1.045 - 1.050, 4.5-5.2% ABV, 16-34 IBUs, and is hopped using only noble hops. It's typically lagered for anywhere from 2-8 weeks (most Köln brewers appear to lager on the shorter end of that timeframe). It should have a soft pale malt flavor character with few fermentation flavor characteristics; it shouldn't be estery, fusely, or fruity. Lagering helps reduce diacetyl & acetaldehyde (green apple) as well.

Similar to Düsseldorf & Bamberg, the beers are often served from cask. The glasses are carried around by the servers in a tray called a Kölschkranz. The tray holds several beers at a time, and in at least a few places, the beers are filled halfway and set aside until someone orders them. The glasses are then filled to the brim and carried out. Unusual and seemingly inefficient, but fun to watch.

Another note about serving is that the person serving Kölsch (called a "Köbes") wears a long blue apron - and is typically male. While we did get our Kölsch poured by a female at one brewhaus (Reissdorf), she wasn't a Köbes. While it's not against the law to hire a female Köbes, it appears that it's just not done.

Kölschkranz at Gaffel

Filling the Stanges. You can sort of see the cable mechanism in the background that Sion uses to bring the casks up from the cellar. 

Gaffel am Dom
This was the first Kölsch we had, and it ended up being one of my favorites. It had a lot of sulphur in the nose and was a bit vineous as well. I loved the contrast of the soft pils malt with the prominent (but not dominating) hop bitterness. The sulphur was also detectable in the flavor, but it was slight. I was surprised at this, as I'd have thought sulphur would have been undesirable in Kölsch but it was a rather common characteristic. Regarding the brewery itself, it's right on the cathedral square and the first recorded mention of it is dated 1302. Sadly, it was completely destroyed in WWII but (thankfully) rebuilt in 1955.

You can find Gaffel in some parts of the country; I tend to see it on the east coast. I definitely recommend ordering a glass if you ever see it on tap.

To contrast with Gaffel, Früh's Kölsch was a lot of sweet pils malt flavor, fruity esters, and had low hop bitterness. I got a lot of apple, pear, and white wine in both the aroma and flavor; it almost seemed like watered-down apple cider. The body was light, and the finish was very dry. While I didn't enjoy this Kölsch as much as Gaffel's, it'd be perfect on a hot summer day. I don't believe you can get this in the US.

Früh was founded in 1904 and made a less-bitter ale than the other breweries at the time. Remember that leading up to the early 20th century, the popular beer at the time (wiess) was bitter and unfiltered. It's suggested that Früh led the transition to the form of Kölsch we know today, though there isn't a lot of information I could find to back that up.

Brauhaus Sion
Similar in age to Gaffel, Sion was founded in 1318 but survived through the world wars intact. Their Kölsch had more of an earthy, herbal hop aroma than the others; the hop flavor was a bit different as well, being a bit peppery (but not spicy). Sion's Kölsch was low in sulphur and a bit "tangy" but low in acidity. Some Kölsch brewers use a little wheat in the grist, and Sion is one of them.

Peter's Brauhaus
Peter's is an interesting brewery, as they brew a pretty broad variety of beer. Though 95% of what they brew is Kölsch, they also make Altbier, pilsner, festbier, and a weizen. We didn't have any of those, though, and I'm not even sure they serve them at the brewhouse. We went to Peter's twice on our trip and had two entirely different experiences. The first night was subdued and laid back; the second time around, we were crammed into this little tasting room that seemed to keep getting more & more crowded. I remember crawling over a table just to get out.

I really enjoyed the beer (less so the 2nd time around, but only because I'd tried more Kölsch by that time and preferred others more). It had a mild floral hop aroma and had a bit more hop bitterness than some of the other Kölsches we had but still retained a solid malt/hop balance.

In the 13th - 15th centuries, brewers made their own malt and would sell excess malt in the city center for regional breweries and homebrewers. The brewery located at that malt market is creatively named Malzmühle (malt mill), and we stopped in for a tipple.

Like the others, Malzmühle's Kölsch was a bit sulphury but also had a touch of green apple - likely from acetaldehyde. The pils malt sweetness was a bit dominant in this one and the hop bitterness was restrained. The finish wasn't quite as refreshing or dry as I'd hoped and I left this brewery unimpressed.

We were near a now-defunct brewery (zur Täsch) that serves as a beer bar, so we stopped in to try some Päffgen Kölsch (I'm getting a little tired of all the umlauts now). This place was a trip, as the decor inside all seemed to be from Gothic cathedrals.

Later on in our trip, we went to the actual Päffgen brewhaus and enjoyed it even more. The brewhaus is gigantic and full of different rooms. We went in late afternoon and the place was already packed

I really enjoyed Päffgen, though, and wish we could get it in the US. The lightly-sweet pale malt character shone through, but was met with a reasonable amount of hop bitterness and floral flavor & aroma. It was a perfect combination of tartness, malt sweetness, noble hop bitterness, aroma, & flavor, and a touch of sulphur in the nose. This quickly became one of my favorite beers of the trip...

Dom Kölsch
... and then we went to Dom.

Light sulphury aroma met by noble hops and faint pils malt breadiness. Flavor wasn't malty-sweet at all (finally!) and the finish was actually reasonably bitter and dry. It had a little bit of malt sweetness at the end, but really the balance was toward the bitterness of the hops used.

We ended up coming here twice and enjoyed the beer just as much both times. This became the most-liked Kölsch for both of us. And despite Dom being one of the largest Kölsch brewers in the country, their beer is, unfortunately, not available in the US.

But one Kölsch that is available in the US is Reissdorf! (Pronounced "RICE-dorf") When you think of Kölsch, this is possibly the brand that comes to mind. And while it wasn't our most favorite we had on our trip, it was still quite delicious, and fun to drink at the brewhaus.

Like Gaffel, the Reissdorf brewery was obliterated during WWII. It was rebuilt and brewing again by 1948, making several beers in addition to the Kölsch (such as pilsner & a dark lager).

I thought the aroma of Reissdorf's Kölsch was fantastic. Just a touch of sulphur, but in the forefront were the pils malt & floral hops... and unripe pear. I am not a fan of the fruitier Kölsches, and this was one of them. While the fruitiness & sweetness were not overwhelming in the least, they just led me to enjoy the Kölsch a bit less than those that had a sharper character to them (more hop aroma & bitterness, more sulphur).

That said, as I've been writing about Köln, I've been craving some Kölsch - and Reissdorf is available here in KC. You can get it on tap at Flying Saucer & Grünauer - and if you ask nicely at Grünauer's Wunderbar, they'll even serve it to you in a glass that's similar to a Stange. (I asked if they served Kölsch in a Stange, thinking they'd laugh at me, and instead I got my beer in a cylindrical glass! I love those guys!) Of course, you can get Schlafly's excellent Kölsch-style ale, but if you want a Kölsch from Köln, Reissdorf's is probably the most accessible.

For our last dinner in Köln, we had mussels at a place called Bier Esel, which is apparently famous for them; they also serve Sünner Kölsch, which we hadn't yet tried. The Sünner brewery was destroyed in WWII, but like others, was rebuilt and brewing again. I found their Kölsch to be a bit too sweet, however, and didn't care too much for it. The hop aroma & bitterness were quite subdued, and instead the balance was toward pils malt & a moderate amount of apple-like fruitiness. Not my favorite.

The Verdict
I had a wonderful time trying all these variations on Kölsch. We tried beers from nine Kölsch breweries, a little more than a third of the number of breweries allowed by the Konvention to call their beer Kölsch. And here is how we ranked them. Both John and I came up with our individual lists and as it turns out (perhaps not surprisingly), that we ranked them in the same hierarchy.

  1. Dom
  2. Gaffel
  3. Päffgen
  4. Peter's
  5. Sion
  6. Reissdorf
  7. Sünner
  8. Malzmühle
  9. Früh

Next up - the food of Köln.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Part 8a - Köln & the history of Kölsch

After our day in Düsseldorf, we drove half an hour to what would turn out to be my second-favorite city on the trip, right after Prague. Köln was beautiful and the architecture interesting.  And the brewing history there is just about as fascinating. Probably most notable is that the Köln brewers have organized in various forms for over 700 years as a way to protect their industry from governmental interference, black-market brewers (those damn homebrewers!), and external competition.

Kölsch wasn't a style until recently; it's a relatively new style whose form as we know it today is less than 100 years old. It wasn't even a prominent style in the city until after WWII. Its predecessors, though, have an interesting history. Gruit (beer bittered with herbs) was the prominent style in Köln up through the 1400s. A heavier, maltier beer bittered with hops called "keutebier" from the north started gaining popularity around that time, but the Köln breweries disallowed production of this style as a way to protect their products. At the same time, taxation on beer was based on the strength of the beer and new taxes on hops were introduced; this heavy taxation solidified Köln brewery resistance against brewing keutebier. In 1495, however, brewing gruit became illegal and breweries turned to making a lighter version of the popular keutebier to stay in business while avoiding high taxation.
Köln cathedral at night

In the 1800s, when the indirect heated kiln was invented and maltsters were able to kiln malt at high temperatures without heavily roasting or smoking the grains, brewers started making a pale, hoppy, unfiltered pale ale called "wiess" ("veess"... rhymes with "fleece"). Filtered, they called it Kölsch. And a style was born.

Fast forward through French occupation and their dissolution of the brewers' guilds, two world wars, the destruction of several of Köln's breweries, commercial competition, the loss of most of the city's brewers, quickly-expanding love for Pilsners across Germany and Europe, and you have a pretty big threat to Köln's identifying brew. Rebuilding Köln's brewing culture took a few decades, but included the emergence of the Association of Köln Breweries and the Köln Brewers Corporation. In 1986, the Kölsch Konvention declared Kölsch the official beer of Köln and protected it under an appellation. That's why you'll often see "Kölsch-style ale" (rather than "Kölsch") on beer made outside the Köln area.

So with its origins in gruit, keutebier, and unfiltered wiess, we now have Kölsch. We'll get into its modern incarnation next, and I haven't really done the style justice, but I find its history interesting. If you want to find out more, check out Eric Warner's book on the style.

And next... on to the beer itself and some of the breweries that make it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Part 7: Düsseldorf

I was going to write about Düsseldorf and Köln in one post, but there's so much to say about each of them, that I've decided to split them into two separate posts. Düsseldorf is home to Altbier, a German ale that's typically known to be fairly nutty & moderately bitter. Our time in the city of Alt, though, proved to us that Altbier is a widely-variable German ale that ranges from nutty & bitter to moderately malty-sweet & floral. If you think about the amount of variation in American Pale Ales, or even IPAs, you get a comparable amount of variation in German Altbier.

Cask at Schumacher
One of the images I remember most from this trip are the casks in various bars. Bamberg's breweries used them, as did those in Düsseldorf (and Köln, which is up next). Some people have this bizarre notion that German beer is served warm; I suspect that comes from the fact that it's not served at "Coldest Beer in Town!" temperatures. Despite that, it's still served plenty cold, but more like cellar temperatures (low 50s). Perfect for being able to smell and taste your beer.

There are several Altbier breweries in Düsseldorf , and we did our best to check out the most notable. Here's a run-down of where we went & what we thought:

Brauerei Schumacher
Very clear, light brown/amber in color. The aroma was sweet, nutty, toasted malt with a bit of doughiness and a floral hop aroma toward the end. The flavor was prominently toasted nuts and bread, with a bit of a floral hop flavor but lingering bitterness in the finish. I was really surprised at how bitter this beer was; it was one of the bitterest beers I'd had on the trip, but the malt character balanced it out some. Even still, this was - surprisingly so - quite a bitter beer.

Zum Schwartze Maus
We walked about 4 miles from Schumacher to Schalander, only to find out that Schalander was closed. So, we found this place across the street that served a couple of different alts. I tried the Frankenheim Alt which, as you can probably tell from their website, is a bit... commercial. It was pretty sweet and presented brown sugar & caramel right away. It almost had a sweet "Ricola" type of malt character that gave way to a toasted almond presence. The hop bitterness was subdued and certainly not in balance with the malt. I wasn't impressed.

Hausbrauerei zum Schlüssel
After a convoluted tram ride from the black mouse pub, we stopped in zum Schlüssel to rest our feet and revive. As you can see in the picture, alt is served in the little cylindrical glasses; they're all about .2 or .25cl. I love this, because I so often want smaller servings of beer, just so that I can taste different beers. But when the place offers one beer, it's kind of an annoyance... but anyway...

This one ended up being one of my favorites. It was very nutty, likely from the Munich malt, and quite bitter - but not as bitter as the alt at Schumacher. It had some spicy hop notes at the finish, adding to the complexity. I really enjoyed this beer; it had a fantastic balance of malt sweetness & toast, hop aroma & flavor, and bitterness in the finish. I'd love to have this available in the US.

In the picture, you can also see the small gray crock in the background. Every single bar & restaurant in Düsseldorf we went to had these on the table. One would hold flatware, another held mustard. I should have bought some of my own. You can't have enough mustard.

Zum Uerige
This place was insane. You probably recognize the name, and it was largely a tourist attraction. However, it was clear they work hard not to turn it into the ridiculousness in places like U Fleků. And, as it turns, out, they had my favorite Altbier of all the alts we tried.  The malt character was a bit more complex than the others we had. While it definitely had the toasty Munich malt notes, it must have also had a decent amount of crystal malt in it, lending a bit of caramelly sweetness. You got that initially, but each sip ended with a spicy - and slightly funky - hop flavor with moderately high bitterness.
They keep track of how much you drink by marking your coaster.
Is this because the glasses are so bitsy?

We're coming up to Sticke release time (every October & January), so we should start seeing fresh bottles on shelves of our liquor stores here in KC in the coming months. I'm quite curious about their distilled Stickum (moreso, Stickum PLUS), but haven't seen it here... if you have, let me know where you spotted it.

Funny story about this place; their servers are notorious for being a bit impish. I went to the restroom during our visit, and on the way back to our table, our server fake-punched me in the stomach. German flirting at its finest? Not sure, but it did make me laugh just because it was so off-the-wall. Wacky Germans...

Im Füchschen
This place was a short walk from Zum Uerige, so we stopped in for a small beer (remember, these are 20cl pours of 4.5% ABV beer, which is slightly weaker than 6oz of Boulevard Wheat at a time). Their beer was super-nutty with a scant amount of floral hops. There wasn't much bitterness in the finish at all, which made it very drinkable but also relatively uninteresting. We had one beer and left, but not before noticing that their food menu featured steak from Nebraska.

Overall, here is how I rated the alts we tried, from best to ... not best:
1) Zum Uerige
2) Hausbrauerei zum Schlüssel
3) Schumacher
4) Im Füchschen
5) Frankenheim

It's a good thing, then, that we can get what I thought was the best one here in KC. Granted, it's almost impossible to find the original altbier, but the Sticke is fairly available, and we do get it seasonally.

I told you I had a lot to say. :)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Part 6: Dortmund

After we left Wöllnitz, we drove across the German countryside to the Dortmund/Düsseldorf/Köln area, stopping in Dortmund for a night's stay before a couple of days in Köln. Dortmund was cute, but nothing too remarkable or notable. We went to the city center for dinner and ended up in "Zum Alten Markt" ("at the old market") that was like a German version of Old Spaghetti Factory. Kitsch everywhere, gigantic portions of mediocre food, and slow service. Its saving grace was the beer, but even then I didn't mind leaving.
Bird cages hanging from the ceiling of Zum Alten Markt.
It was just missing the streetcar in the middle of the restaurant.

We crossed the square to a place called Brinkhoff's and enjoyed a house beer (eh) and a delicious Czech black lager called Krusovice Cerne. Like others we tried in Prague, this one smelled and tasted a bit of plums and dried fruit, but was still light-bodied and easy to drink. There was a touch of roast & coffee in the finish thanks to the dark malt. There aren't a ton of black Czech lagers you can get here, but Bernard Cerne is fantastic - and easily available in KC (at least at Royal, anyway).

Pilsners in this area come in stemmed glasses - not what we know as pilsner glasses - with paper doilies.
I could have sworn I'd read that you could get Dortmunder Export at Zum Alten Markt, but apparently I remembered wrong. Your best bet at getting a Dortmunder Export in the US is going to be via Ayinger's "Jahrhundert" beer, or Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold (for which you'll have to trade or travel).

Bottom Line - the best beer I had in Dortmund was a Czech beer. I'm sure others have different experiences, but I found most of the local pilsners to be flabby and unremarkable. Pilsner malt graininess, mild hop bitterness, floral hop aroma, and light residual sweetness; nothing outstanding but nothing horrible. Not that I was ungrateful to be there; it just paled in comparison to the other cities we went to. But, the mediocrity was short-lived, as the next day we headed off to Düsseldorf and Köln for some Altbier and Kölsch .

Friday, September 9, 2011

Part 5: Wöllnitz

I haven't written about our Germany trip in months, and I'm determined to finish this bad boy. Let's do this.

After our evening in Leipzig at the Ohne Bedenken, we trekked out to find packing material for transporting our beers. The plan was to buy a box, tape, lots of bubble wrap & packing peanuts, and check the box as luggage. After a lot of searching in a big mall, we finally found a box, but no packing materials. Batting and fake-snow fluffy stuff from the Christmas decoration section would have to do. We also found some cheap-ass cherry mead (3 for a 750ml bottle - and it was actually pretty good!) and entertained ourselves with the flat escalators in the mall.
Despite the best engineering intentions, shopping carts are difficult to hold in place on these things.

With our purchases in tow, we headed toward Wöllnitz, which John had read about on Ron Pattinson's blog. Incidentally, on the way to Germany, we also read Stan Hieronymous' "Brewing with Wheat" where he  mentions this city's unique style of beer. Gasthausbrauerei Talschänke brews a sour wheat beer there, called Wöllnitzer Weißbier. Beer Advocate & Rate Beer list this as a Berliner Weisse, but it's actually a derivative of an old style called Lichtenhainer - a sour wheat beer made partially with smoked malt.
Smoky sour wheat beer in Germany

The aroma was bready and very citrusy, like a lemon sherbet, with a very faint floral hop aroma at the finish.  The flavor was also citrusy, but not so much as the aroma was. The finish was smoky and bready; the wheat in the grist contributed to a light graininess that complemented the citrus character well. We both thoroughly enjoyed it, but I have to admit...

... I liked the Jever better. A very bitter German pils, Jever on tap is something to behold. You can get something sort of close to Jever at Grünauer by ordering a glass of Czechvar, but it won't be nearly as bitter or delicious.

And speaking of delicous? Hackepeter! Take raw pork, add some fresh onion, a raw egg and some spices, toss it on a plate, and voila - deliciousness on a plate. My mother would die knowing we were dining on a plate of raw pork & raw egg, but I am starting to believe that cooking meat ruins it.

A bit of Jever next to some Hackepeter, a pickle, and a giant wedge of butter
It's a regional specialty, and we ran into a variant of the raw pork delicacy in other cities... but first? Dortmund.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

And Speaking of Firkins in Kansas City...

A couple of weeks ago, I was whining about Kansas City’s poor state of affairs when it comes to beers in a firkin around town. I was pretty damn happy to, soon-after, read on the KC Beer Blog that Blanc is considering doing cask beer from time to time (sounds pretty tentative, but at least they’re actively considering it).

So I’m excited to hear that the next Rare Beer Night at Flying Saucer (Aug 4th) will feature a firkin of Tallgrass’ “Dream Warrior” - Halcyon with strawberries & vanilla. If you haven’t tried regular Halcyon yet, you’re missing out on a fantastic summer beer that’s light, citrusy, and far less embarrassing to order than a similarly-refreshing radler. I can’t guarantee that asking for a glass of strawberry-vanilla beer won’t be embarrassing, but maybe that’s why they named it Dream Warrior (am I the only one picturing Game of Thrones imagery?). It sounds delicious.