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From zero to craft beer in 24 days

I have a rather ambivalent relationship with craft beer: I think it’s a brilliant idea to brew out-of-the-ordinary beers in superlatively crafted quality. But unfortunately the few specimens I’ve tried so far didn’t really appeal to me. For a reason I’m only too familiar with: my stomach and palate are lagging way behind my brain on the evolutionary ladder. While the last of these (fortunately!) has arrived in modern-day civilisation, the first two are still stuck somewhere in the Stone Age. So I’m not what you would call a born gourmet. But what nature has neglected to provide free of charge, you can still acquire yourself. The best example is sushi: I love sushi, even though I had to fight every inch of the way to acquire this love. But it was worth it: today, my taste buds speak pretty fluent sushi. And if they’ve managed to learn that, then they can manage to learn craft beer as well.

As a training aid, I purchased an Advent calendar with 24 different craft beers. The tip came from my colleague Julia, who had also bought a beer-themed Advent calendar, though with a more traditional content. Felicitous: this means we can talk shop throughout the whole of Advent. And because neither of us had written a blog article in a long time, the obvious course was to combine business with pleasure. (I hope the Inland Revenue takes a similar view, and will recognise my Advent calendar as tax-deductible!)

In handling my calendar, I don’t quite follow the specified procedure. Yes, I do open a door every day, but I don’t drink the contents on the spot; instead, I collect them for later on. But this in itself is a lot of fun, because what my calendar yields up in terms of vividly colourful labels and witty brand-names is worlds away from the wares you find on the supermarket shelves. Since this is unknown territory for me anyway, for the first training session I simply pick out blind four of the beers I’ve collected so far. In the actual tasting, I’m assisted by my partner Bobby and by Oliver Wesseloh. The latter not in person, unfortunately, but only in the shape of his book “Bier leben” (“Living for beer”). But better than nothing.

Beer No. 1: Op & Top from the Brewerij de Molen

First surprise: I thought I wouldn’t know any of the breweries involved. But the Brewerij de Molen is an old acquaintance. Or at least its logo is, since Bobby parades it regularly on one of his favourite shirts. He bought it at the Braukunst brewing trade fair in Munich. If I remember rightly, this had less to do with the beer, and more with the two hilarious guys behind the De-Molen bar. Time to find out whether the beer actually deserves this free advertising.

From Oliver Wesseloh’s book, I know roughly what I have to do. True aficionados assess beer in five steps: pour, smell, look, smell, taste – and you have to get the first smell test in straight away, so as to capture the volatile aromas before they vanish. We manage the pouring bit quite well. When it comes to looking and smelling, we encounter our first setback: we lack the vocabulary to describe what we’re experiencing. We are able to identify the colour quite precisely as “between an alcohol-free wheat beer and amber”. When it comes to the smell, we agree on “multi-layered” – the beer smells a bit like lemon, a bit like freshly mown grass, and a whole lot like “very nice, but I don’t know what it is”. We then proceed to apply similar differentiation to the taste. At the first sip, we’re knocked back by how bitter the beer is. For “building-site beer” drinkers like us, this is a real shock, but astonishingly enough not an unpleasant one. At the second, third and fourth sips, we then notice that there are other flavours in play. A well-nigh dramaturgical experience: first comes the bitter hammer-blow, then flowery-fruity reward.

Beer No. 2: Victoria from Birrificio del Ducato

According to the label, Victoria is a “light IPA“ with only 3.5 % abv. I also read that it’s been brewed “with gentle hops and lots of love”. A laudable enterprise. There isn’t enough love in the world anyway. So it can’t hurt to bottle it for distribution to the populace. Although I had stored the beer upright and in a cool dark place, it fountains out of the bottle when my partner opens it. It must be all the love inside it aching for release. After pouring, we first of all reverently admire the head, enthroned in opulent stability on the beer. A head that does full justice to its appellation. When we taste it, we’re both of us equally surprised how engaging the beer tastes: the bitter note so typical for IPAs is definitely there, of course, but it stays discreetly in the background. My verdict: a perfect IPA for beginners!

Beer No. 3: Lebenskünstler Witbier from Raschhofer

The Lebenskünstler (“bon vivant”) Witbier shimmers at us from the glass in a light straw-yellow. I would describe its head as extremely shy. Because as soon as I point my camera at it, it retreats into almost total invisibility. In the smell, we discover a definite note of bananas and a fresh aroma of oranges. This latter is explained by a glance at the list of ingredients. Besides barley, oats and coriander, this also specifies bitter orange. For me, that sounds like a rather adventurous mixture. I sip sceptically at my glass – and I’m immediately enraptured. Although the Witbier tastes fruity and sweet, there’s nothing sticky or sugary about it at all. A fascinating combination. I have really and truly never drunk anything comparable.

Beer No. 4: Pumpkin Ale from Ketterer

I saved this beer till last. Because to be honest, I’m a bit frightened of it. I can’t stand the pumpkin soup that’s omnipresent in autumn. And now the Hokkaido has come to haunt me as a beer ingredient. But a cautious sniff reassures us: the beer smells pleasantly of melon, or to be more precise of Cantaloupe melon. This surprise is promptly followed by a second one: the Pumpkin Ale doesn’t taste of pumpkin one tiny little bit, but more like a fruit punch. At the second sip I notice that the fruity sweetness is accompanied by a slightly tart astringency. The whole thing reminds me irresistibly of a Bellini. Here, too, I have to admit: it’s incredible that a beer can taste like this!

After these four out-of-the-ordinary experiences, I would really like to keep on going, and explore the next beers. But in this case, my partner and simple prudence are in astonishing agreement. Together, they convince me that we should save the second round for the Christmas holidays. I’m looking forward to finding out what surprises are still in store for me. I’ve already cast aside some of my prejudices, and doubtless more will be thrown overboard. My prognosis? The creative beers will go the way of sushi – by New Year’s Eve at the latest, we’ll be the best of friends.

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