Entries in beer types (3)


Starkbier Tasting

Every year in the weeks leading up to Easter, Munich holds its other beer festival - Starkbierfest. 

This one is a lot of fun, because it still involves beer, chicken, trachten, and schlager, but it's much more relaxed and less crowded than Oktoberfest. Perhaps because there are fewer tourists, or perhaps because it's spread out over multiple venues and runs 3 to 4 weeks.  Whatever the reason, it's a lot of fun!  However, this festival doesn't have all the rides and carnival games and food....no, it's all about the beer. And the beer is strong!

Starkbierfest at Paulaner am Nockherberg

The origins of Starkbierfest date back to the mid-1700s, and starkbier itself a hundred years earlier. The monks at Paulaner started brewing this "liquid bread" (flussiges Brot) and drinking it through Lent, when they had to fast.  The Bavarian rulers of course turned it into a public festival, and Starkbierfest was born. 

Today, many breweries produce a Starkbier, which basically is a doppelbock. Though the "strong" in "starkbier" refers to the wort, it is also worth noting before you head to a festival where beer is served by the liter, that it's also quite strong. Usually around 8% ABV. 

The most popular sites for Starkbierfest are Paulaner's am Nockherberg and the Löwenbräukeller.  There are others, and of course restaurants from most major breweries (Augustiner, Ayinger, Hacker Pschorr, etc) will offer their starkbier seasonally. For some reason, most starkbiers have names ending in -ator, such as Celebrator (Ayinger) or Maximator (Augustiner).

But, we rarely have a chance to compare starkbiers head-to-head. So, we brought home the four we could purchase to go. Paulaner's Salvator is the best-known and is available year round. In fact, it was a huge hit in the Schnitzelbahn Beer Tournament, going all the way to the final four before losing to the eventual champion, Andechs Weissbier. Löwenbräu's Triumphator also is available year round in stores, but Augustiner's Maximator and Hacker-Pschorr's Animator are truly seasonal beers. 


In the first round of our Beer Tournament, we did have Löwenbräu and Paulaner in the Starkbier Round.  But we weren't able to get the others then. So now we have a rematch, with a couple of other competitors. 

First up was Paulaner's Salvator vs Augustiner's Maximator. Note the difference in color? The Paulaner was much lighter than the Augustiner. 

Both were excellent, and it was a split-decision. Herr J preferred the Paulaner, with its distinctive starkbier taste and sweetness. I preferred the Augustiner, which was seemed a little more balanced to me in both hoppiness (not very) and malt flavor. It reminds me of the Traditionsbier served in the historic Oktoberfest tents the past 2 years. And that was good beer!! 


Then we tried the Hacker-Pschorr vs the Löwenbräu...no contest. Much to our surprise, the Hacker-Pschorr was a very smooth, malty and drinkable beer. The Löwenbräu was a little bitter and just not so good. 


A fun experiment for a rainy evening. We're looking forward to Starkbierfest next year!

On a side note, an American homebrewer last year decided to walk in the Paulaner monks' path (and blog about it) and fasted for Lent, having only doppelbock.  You can see his adventures at Diary of  Part-time Monk.


German Beer Wars - Starkbier (the Dark & Dangerous Round)

In the German Beer Wars, we've had The Power Pils Round and this weekend played with fire by holding the Dark and Dangerous Round on a Sunday night.  I have to finish the homework I didn't do and go to morning German classes and Herr J has work....neither of which are things that go well with drinking superstrong beer the previous night. 

Our competitors this time all come from the Starkbier classification of beer. In reality, the "strong" part of "strong beer" has to do with a tax-based classification.  Beer in Germany is taxed based on the weight of the run-off that is strained off after the mashing part of the process (see here for more technical brewing and taxation info).

All four are strong lager types of beer, with 3 doppelbocks (darker, stronger lager beers traditionally brewed by the Paulaner monks in Munich for about 3 centuries).  Paulaner's Salvator (meaning "Savior") is the classic Starkbier, though many breweries make one these days. Interestingly, many often name the beer with a single word ending in "-ator." Here we have Löwenbräu's Triumphator, and you can also find other Starkbiers named Celebrator, Optimator, Maximator, and so on. This is also the beer known as the "liquid bread" that the monks could drink while fasting for Lent. See here for a good rendition of the history of Starkbier.

However, in our minds, the "strong" has more to do with the alcohol content, and not only with color and taste.  Let's put it this way...at 7.1% ABV, the Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel was the weakest beer of the group!

Next in line were Löwenbräu's Triumphator (Dunkler Doppelbock), with 7.6% ABV, and Paulaner's famous Salvator ("the original Starkbier"), with 7.9% ABV.

Leaving the first three in the dust, was our final competitor: SchorschBock 16%. You can likely guess from the name the alcohol content, and they proudly market it as "The Strongest Lagerbeer in the World." It is not, however, their strongest beer...SchorschBock's offerings proudly include the strongest wheat beer (13% ABV), the "formerly strongest beer in the world" (32% ABV), and The Strongest Beer in the World, clocking in at a liver-frightening 43% ABV.  Why make a beer with comparable ABV to scotch? "'cause Frankonian Men don't dress like girls."

We needed something to stand up to these beers, so we tasted them with our Feng Shui Texas Chili.  These are good beers to drink with a spicy and hearty chili, but the spice of the habaneros did cover up some of the flavors of the beers. So we also tasted them alone, and with only the slightly sweet cornbread.   

  Feng Shui Texas Chili with Paulaner Salvator and SchorschBock 16%

First up were the Doppelbocks:


 Andechs Doppelbock Dunkelr vs Löwenbräu Triumphator

These two looked surprisingly similar in the glass, and both had a lovely dark beer smell....malty, a bit spicy and chocolaty.  Though their tastes were in the same family, each had a different take on the Doppelbock variety. The Löwenbräu finished with a slightly bitter, almost hoppy ending taste; the Andechs with a sweeter, toasted caramely ending.  It's really a matter of how you want your beer to taste, but we gave the win to Andechs, as we preferred the sweet finish to the bitter.  (No worries to you manly beer drinkers... as it's a stronger, darker beer, it is not a beer you can really call "sweet," just a description of it's final taste.  Both were great beers, very complex mix of flavors, and drinkable. Perfect for drinking on a cold night in front of a fire. However, these definitely pack quite a punch and are would be hard to drink for long beer drinking sessions!


Then we moved on to the heavyweight championship....Paulaner's world famous Salvator starkbier vs SchorschBock's world's strongest lager. I remember Paulaner from the annual Starkbierfest as a really dark, meaty beer. However, I also realize that I never quite saw what it looked like, as it was served in the traditional pottery mugs. Don't worry, it's still a liter of beer, but the container is completely opaque.

So, initially I thought it would be dark like the Doppelbocks and was certain that it was the darker of the two (see the picture above with the chili). And then I tasted them. Wow. I'm going to award extra points to any beer that makes Starkbier taste smooth and light by comparison.

Both were good, in their own ways. The Salvator was a tasty (many flavors combined together) and smooth beer. The SchorschBock did have a strong and good flavor, but was quite concentrated.  I doubt I could drink much of it in a sitting as a beer, but I would definitely serve it as a sort of "beer liquer." I'd expect that's even more true for their 43% beer! But it was much more concentrated, thus tasted closer to a whisky or liquor than to a beer. but with retaining the good maltiness, cloves, burnt caramel, and other characteric tastes you may find in a darker beer.

While the SchorschBock put in a nice showing in the first quarter, it couldn't go a full game and Paulaner predictably takes another victory.


We've learned a lot so far in this little experiment, including that generally all of the Paulaner and Andechs beers are unusually good beers.  So we knew that the Salvator vs Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel was going to be a tough matchup. It was. Again, this one came down to a matter of personal preference. We'd give both beers top marks, but found the Salvator to be a little smoother and drinkable. The flavors in both were outstanding, but the Starkbier just went down more smoothly. Something I really did not expect. I had thought it would be a little more bitter, and not so easy to drink. Of course, after half a maß of Starkbier it always goes down really smoothly. But I had always thought of it more as a festival beer, and not something you might drink with dinner or one evening. Another happy discovery, and I'm looking forward to celebrating Starkbierfest next spring at Paulaner am Nockherberg!

And to a Paulaner (Salvator) vs Paulaner (Original Münchener Dunkel) showdown for the Dunkel regional championship!


Beer Types, Part I

In the Schnitzelbahn Bier Tournament, the structure and “competitors” were not really planned in advance.  The competitors emerged as we discovered simply what was available in two local supermarkets.  The structure evolved as we assessed the beers we had collected and started learning about formal “types” of beer – then we grouped the beers we had on hand in a way that made sense.  This is the result:


We knew that it would be Munich-biased, and so it is:  Helles (“light”), Weiss (“wheat”), and Dunkel (“dark”) are more traditionally Bavarian beers.  Although Pilsner has Czech and northern German roots, it is the most consumed in Germany (and the world) so also has a strong presence in Bavaria too (and forms the basis for most export beer).  More regional German beer types like Alt (“old”) and Kölsch (from Köln / Cologne) did not make the cut, and will be addressed in another tournament.

We also recognized that at the core, a “winner” between two beers is really a matter of personal taste.  Therefore, we decided to determine our favorite beer of each type first, before pitting different beer types against each other.  You really can’t claim a Dunkel is “better” or “worse” than a Helles, because they are fundamentally different.  When it comes to the “final four”, our champion will be just our favorite beer, regardless of type.  We’re not even tasting the beers in the “correct” type of glass (see pic below, with credits to Augustiner Helles maß, Hofbräu Weissbier glass, some random Dunkles glass, and Pilsner glass types from Warsteiner, Krombacher, and Bitburger).

But this process begs the question:  What are the formal types of beer?  What are we really comparing in the tournament?  Should we really be using different kinds of glasses???

You can spend hours reading Internet sources on the topic of beer types (also addressed as categories, sub-categories, styles, sub-styles, etc.)  Online sources range from individual web pages to the Beer Judging Certification Program, with its 1.4MB / 51 page manual! And that is before reading books by the grandfather of beer typology, Michael Jackson.



But we learned something from just the first readings on this topic.  Beer traditionally has only four components:  water, a sugar source (usually a grain), yeast, and hops (by the old laws, German beers had only 3, but the yeast was naturally ocurring, thus not considered an ingredient). 

Almost every brewer begins with the same high-level distinction:  Beer can be an Ale or a Lager.  This distinction addresses the differences in the yeast used and how it affects the brewing process.

Note:  Lambic is a third type commonly found, but how to address this type and other/mixed types is inconsistent. 

The name "Lager" actually comes from the German verb "lager" (to store), denoting that this type of beer was stored longer than Ale, and produced a clearer beer.

Below this first level of distinction between Ale and Lager, beer categorization methodologies start to fragment almost immediately.  A Google search bring up a “family tree of beer styles”, a “periodic table of beer styles”, and other amateur and commercial mappings.



Some sources try to get pretty scientific about measuring beer types, using color, sweetness, bitterness, and even specific gravity scales!  I also found a "flavor wheel" similar to what some wine tastings use -- basically to help the drinker put descriptors to the experience, put prose to chemistry.



Beer Evaluation sources:  Color, Bitterness vs Specific Gravity, Bitterness vs Sweetness, and "Flavor Wheel"


But the main point of interest for us is that about three-fourths of the beers in our tournament are Lagers (Helles, Pilsner, and Dunkel) and only a handful are ales (Weissbier or Weizen).  I think Frau A will want more ales in the next tournament, because she really likes Weissbier!

We’re doing further reading on beer categories, and overall, I find the current ways of describing beer unsatisfying for the average beer drinker.  They’re either too microscopic (who really can tell the difference between an regular ale and a “premium” ale?) or just don’t make sense (why are some beers categorized by ingredient like wheat, and others are grouped by geography like Scottish Ale and “Vienna-style”???)  This needs to change!  Look for this topic in another post soon.