Thursday, September 21, 2017

ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Getting in tune with the straight and narrow.

ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Getting in tune with the straight and narrow.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

Really, has it been three years?

The following essay has not been published previously at NA Confidential, though it appeared on September 29, 2014 at The Potable Curmudgeon.

In the interim, time has a habit of marching on. Stone Brewing Company's location in Berlin has opened, bringing San Diego-style IPA to the German capital.

U2's 2014 album was received with indifference, and earlier in 2017, Daisy retired.

Last fall for our Sicilian excursion, I finally got around to taking my iPhone across the pond.

My attitude? It remains unchanged, thank you.


ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Getting in tune with the straight and narrow.

“You can feel that there’s something coming,” said Johannes Heidenpeter, who opened one of Berlin’s newest craft breweries, Heidenpeters, in the gritty-but-hip central neighborhood of Kreuzberg last December. “I think the time is good to change the taste of beer.”

Mr. Heidenpeter may represent the most iconoclastic and cosmopolitan take on Berlin’s newly developing beer culture: instead of traditional German lager yeast, he praises the aromas from the Belgian and English ale yeasts, and he eschews his own country’s favorite pale lager style of pilsner, or pils. Instead, as he explained when we met up the next day, his brewery offers an American-style pale ale as its standard pint, which uses non-German hops such as Cascade and Amarillo.

Yeah, well – I missed it.

In fact, while visiting the German capital for two enlightening days in September, I missed all the rest of the varied outposts of the Berliner New Beer Wave, too.

However, to be perfectly honest, my neglectful attitude toward this rebellion-in-progress was not intended as an overt political statement of any sort. It’s just that there was no time, this time.

My last visit to Berlin came way back in 1999, and an alarming quarter-century has elapsed since I spent a whole month in the then-divided city, just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. With only two days on the ground in 2014, what my soul (?) needed most of all was a refresher – a worldview booster, an agitprop enhancer, and perhaps a final contextual putting to rest of those ghosts inhabiting my beer cultures passed … except that some of them still flourish.

And so it was, quite successfully.


My 34th in a series of European vacations served both as reunion and greatest hits tour. Little new music was performed, apart from selective embellishments to arrangements tried and true – a new breakfast room at Brauerei Spezial, Schlenkerla’s youthful heir to the crown, and a Belgian-hopped beer and food pairing on the Grote Market in Poperinge.

The rich history of my connections with these beers, places and persons dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. In terms of impact on the course of my own beer business career, they were to me what the Ramones and the Clash were to U2 – and like the latter’s new album, it's all about these and other formative influences, invaluable and impossible to overstate:

Berliner Weisse … long before sour was cool, with the many choices of syrup entirely optional.

Those sublime smoked beers in Bamberg, the centuries of diligent craftsmanship they represent, and the local thirsts they slake.

Crisp, subtle Kölsch on a gorgeous autumn day, in the shadow of Cologne’s mountainous cathedral.

The amazing, unchanging Daisy Claeys and her life’s work of art, the seemingly eternal Brugs Beertje café in Brugge.

The stolid crossroads town of Poperinge, observing its hoppy heritage every third year with one of the most genuine and honest fests known to the world of beer.

Food and drink, too, in abundance: Escargot and beefsteak with De Dolle Oerbier; Leberkäse and Spezial Rauchbier; East Prussian meatballs with white caper sauce, beetroot and Berliner Pilsner … pork shoulder and mussels, Mahrs Ungespundet and Rochefort 10, espressos and currywurst, tartare and Hommel Bier, and a Doner Kebab for good measure.


It seems to me we’re all guilty at times of espousing a false dichotomy, in which there is mass-market corporate swill on one side and exuberant, innovative craft beer on the other, but the problem with hegemonic Cold Beer War dualism like this is that it utterly excludes a beer like Schlenkerla Märzen. Maybe it fits rather comfortably in the same metaphor with non-aligned nations of the 1970s.

Schlenkerla obviously isn’t swill, and it’s hardly innovative in the newspeakable sense of a hyacinth-infused, dry-meringued Triple India Pale Ale. Schlenkerla is as craft-based and traditional as tradition possibly can be, fully guaranteed to offend any oblivious beer drinker who believes that Bud Light represents brewing nobility (tell it to the AB-InBev global shareholders, dumbass), and yet is often ignored by today's hoarding narcissists precisely because excellence on purely traditional grounds isn’t sexy enough for selfies.

Yes, I’m slightly exaggerating, although I believe it to be the immutable case that both here in America and elsewhere, an informed grounding in certain eternal beer truths helps provide perspective when gauging flavors-of-the-moment in an understandably changing world. It’s what I’ve tended to forget, and what the September journey helped me to recall.

It was off the grid. I didn’t carry a phone, and there were no books available to consult. The object was to survey classic European beer styles, in their ancient, preferred public settings (with one exception, an amazing bottled Trois Monts from Northern France, supplied by my friend Jeff), and to go with my gut.

My gut turns out to have remarkably good taste, not that there were many doubts in my other mind.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Naturally, I support the continued innovative advance of “craft” beer. At the same time, it strikes me that the very last thing I want to see happen is every beer drinker in Bamberg waking one morning to the conclusion that India Pale Ale is the only beer for them. It’s a nightmare scenario.

Let there be an artisan working his or her side of the marketplace, providing alternatives for contrast and comparison, but don’t sacrifice those elements of tradition which still function as fundamental cultural markers, especially when they're doing as good or better a job of defining "craft" as the majority of "craft" brewers everywhere.

A damned fine Pilsner still is, and it pulls the Baltic right out of the Matjes herring. If I return to Berlin 25 years from now, I hope the pairing still works, and maybe I’ll have time to visit Heidenpeter’s newer tradition, too.


Recent columns:

September 14: ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Beef Steak and Porter always made good belly mortar, but did America’s “top” steakhouses get the memo?

September 7: ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: We are dispirited in the post-factual beer world.

August 31: ON THE AVENUES: On a wig and a prayer, or where's the infidel gardening column?

August 26: ON THE AVENUES SATURDAY SPECIAL: One-ways on the way out, because with downtown at a crossroads, they simply had to be exterminated.

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