My cousin Ulli: A quest for non-traditional beer in Germany and Belgium

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Jim Hulbert (right), with his German cousin Ulrich, or “Ulli,” at the Kölner Dom in Cologne // Photo courtesy of Jim Hulbert

Like many natives of the Midwest, I am part Rheinländer German. My mother’s family is from Trier, a city near the border of Luxembourg; they were captains of riverboats on the Moselle and the Rhine. I graduated as a German major at the University of Iowa and studied for a semester in Göttingen, then in West Germany. That means I happily began my experience with German beer in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) almost 60 years ago.

My family’s homeland, from Trier to Koblenz, is a valley of riesling grapes. Most Rheinländer comfortably divide their loyalties between riesling wine and a tasty beer. My relatives have nurtured and picked riesling grapes for generations. During family reunions in the fall, we sample the crisp, half-dry (not the sweet) riesling wines produced at small wineries along the Rhine.

On these visits, my cousin Ulrich, “Ulli,” and his wife, Waltraud, who are both retired executives and live within walking distance of downtown Bonn, welcome me with their gemütlichkeit and hand me the key to their home. Ulli usually spends two days getting me back to German-fluency, and we drink good beer and eat classic Rheinländ fare at Zum Treppchen, just around the corner. Waltraud also makes world-class Rhenish meals—I still remember her pasta and fresh-that-morning Steinpilze (porcini) mushrooms from a previous visit.

In the past few years, I have described to Ulli the exploding craft beer movement in the States, and especially in the Twin Cities. He’s become intrigued by my accounts of Urban Growler Brewing Company, in St. Paul, and uses it as a lens to see how the American market welcomes development and creativity in beer. More generally, he lauds the growth of a beer movement that goes beyond his country’s 500-year-old purity standard (the Reinheitsgebot), which mandates that beer should contain only barley, hops, water, and yeast.

Our mutual interest in the industry, in Europe and America, led Ulli to suggest and then plan a brief tour of traditional and not-so traditional breweries and brewpubs (Brauhäuser) in Belgium and northern Germany. We planned to find worthy brewers and great beers, traditional and craft-brewed, in two of the world’s most über-traditional brewing countries, with the same commitment to creativity and quality that is already characteristic of the brewing community in Minnesota.

The New and The Old

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De Halve Maan (The Half-Moon) is tucked into the historic and beautiful city of Bruges // Photo courtesy of Jim Hulbert

After my lengthy trip from Minneapolis–St. Paul to Keflavík (Iceland) to Frankfurt, a 200-mph rail trip on the Intercity-Express north to Siegburg near Bonn, and a night’s rest, Ulli and I were ready to begin.

Our first visit was to a local suburb, Pützchen, and a 7,500-square-foot warehouse where Fritz Wülfing is working to develop a market for his craft Ale-Mania beers (a play on the Latin word for Germany) which includes a tasty IPA (the Germans simply say “ee-pah”) and his gose made with coriander and bitter-orange zest (apfelsine). Thinking of Urban Growler’s CowBell Cream Ale, I thought that Fritz’ gentle and still adventurous gose could be his “transition beer,” introducing lifelong German purity-standard drinkers to the wider world of freed-up craft beers.

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Fritz Wülfing (left) of Ale-Mania in Pützchen, Germany // Photo courtesy of Jim Hulbert

Surprisingly, our next visit, to 19th century brewery De Halve Maan (The Half-Moon) in the historic and stunningly beautiful city of Bruges, in the Wallonia region of Belgium, also provided us with some coriander-and-apfelsine-flavored beer. After a thorough, highly entertaining, and educational tour, the guide taught us to cool each glass to the temperature of the beer, draw a pint with an optimal head, and not ever to spoil the taste of a pint or liter by topping-off the brew. Their helles (light) and dunkel (dark) tripel were inspirations.

Tempting the beer gods, I decided to bring home a bottle of minimally filtered and unpasteurized De Halve Maan Helles Tripel. On the advice of our tour guide, I have planned to let it rest unmolested in the beer fridge before a neighborhood tasting in October.

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Jim Hulbert in Cologne with Tünnes and Schal, two legendary figures from the Hänneschen Puppet Theater in town // Photo courtesy of Jim Hulbert

Next was a tour of the mountainside Steffens brewery in Linz, Germany, on the banks of the Rhine south of Bonn, which brewed its own light and hopped lager. Our tour included a discussion of the unique qualities of the water and the intense competition within the German beer market that makes it difficult for craft brews (mikrobrauereien) to pick up a share. Our guide, the brew master, spoke almost non-stop for an hour.

We next visited a shop in Bonn selling premium German beers, including the new craft beers emerging in the national market. One of the ads mentioned the high quality of the water in the volcanic region of the southern Rhineland area of the Eifel Gebirge (Eifel mountains). Several of the local parks contain crater lakes within ancient volcanos where people can camp and rent small sailboats. Andechs is a popular brand, as is the smoked beer (known as rauchbier). Even with the German craft beer market in its infancy, the variety is outstanding.

After other samplings, we made our way to the Trier region, and just north of the Autobahn to Bitburg and the long-established Bitburger Brewery. With several horse farms dotting the area’s rolling hills, this must be a meaningful reward to American servicemen and women posted at the nearby U.S. airbase. We enjoyed a somewhat generic tour and sampled the famed “lawnmower beer,” helles Bitburger lager. I’ve tried the beer in St. Paul, but this time around, in Germany, I discovered it to have a more robust hoppiness and a better flavor overall. The guide agreed. “To ship our beer to the States, we have to filter it much more intensively than we do the European beer,” he explained.

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Ulli at a cafe in de Haan, Belgium // Photo courtesy of Jim Hulbert

The guide also commented on the competition anticipated from mikrobrauereien and, after our conversation, gave us a brochure describing Bitburger Brewery’s planned entries into to the German craft beer market (under the Craft Werk Brewing label), listed below along with their descriptions translated from German. (Note that the varieties of yeast are not given. None of these four beers appears to depart from the purity standard, although the influence of Mandarina Bavaria hops might be similar to the effect of shavings of apfelsine zest.)

Craft Werk Hop Head IPA // Photo via Craft Werk website

Skipping Stone – Summer Ale (4.8% ABV). A golden, with hop varieties from the recent past, will take you back to the ‘70s. Pilsener and caramel malt; Hersbrucker Spät, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Brewers Gold, and Nordbrauer hops; and “yeast.”

Hop Head IPA – American India Pale Ale (8.0% ABV). Intense herbal aroma and taste; a set of seven varieties of hops that will turn the head of every true hop-head. Pilsener, caramel and Munich malts; Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Herkules, Taurus, Magnum, Simcoe hops, and “yeast.”

Holy Cowl – Belgian Style Tripel (9.0% ABV). Beer inspired by the beers produced at Belgian monasteries, but definitely not holy. This beer will bring you to your knees! Pilsener and caramel malt; Perle, Hallertauer, and Tradition hops; and “yeast.”

Tangerine Dream – Single Hop Pale Ale 5.8% ABV). A refined fruity taste of Mandarin-Orange hops of Bavaria explodes on your tongue. (Pilsener, caramel and Munich malts; Wheat malt; Mandarina Bavaria hops; and “yeast.”)

Our final evening with Ulli’s son, Peter, was spent in Cologne (Köln) at four brewpubs, two massive establishments with hundreds of happy imbibers, and then two more moderately-sized establishments. Brauhaus Päffgen was our final Kneipe (“tavern”). These are the sites for pilgrims seeking the true kölsch, served in small, narrow glasses and immediately replenished. Keep sipping and the beer in front of you is always cold. We finished the evening and the trip, riding the train at midnight back to Bonn with shouts in the distance of crowds approving a score in the UEFA European Championship.

So what do I know now about European beer that I didn’t know before?

1. Belgian beers offer the most established and entertaining beers, unfettered as they are by a central European market defined by an old purity standard. That said, a tripel, and certainly a quadrupel, are not session beers. Drink responsibly. One bottle of these Belgian brews is the whole party.

2. Higher-quality European beers need to be gently transported by air to the States before most imports can be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this would increase their retail pricing.

3. Brauhaus Päffgen in Cologne is a prime destination.

4. European beers I was familiar with back in the U.S. really do taste better in their hometowns. The experience taught me to opt for local beer that is offered in a relatively unadulterated draft form. Stateside, that includes expertly developed and brewed Minnesota beer.

 

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