Lager Beer Made In USA, Part 2: Goldfinger, History and Community

This is the second part in my series about some of the excellent lager beer that I had on our trip to the US in June 2024.

Goldfinger Brewing Company (Downers Grove, IL): History and Community

I had first been in touch with Tom Beckmann, the founder and brewer of Goldfinger Brewing Company, a few years ago, when they had first launched Danube Swabian, their interpretation of a historic Vienna Lager based on specs from my book about the beer style. I found that truly honouring, not just that somebody makes product decisions and takes a certain business risk based on things I like to write in my free time, but the extent to which Tom implemented it was better than I could have ever hoped.

Tom is a big proponent of decoction mashing, so that was of course an element of this beer, but I think what influenced the character of the beer even more was the decision to recreate a historic Vienna malt, in cooperation with Sugar Creek Malt in Lebanon, Indiana. Using Haná barley grown in Indiana and the description from my book of how Vienna malt used to be made historically (with some adjustments), they recreated a Vienna malt quite close to the historic original.

Downers Grove is an easy 50 minute train ride away from Chicago Union Station. Add 10 minutes of walking, and you’re at Goldfinger’s taproom. When we did our trip on a Saturday, it was quite rainy. Several people in Chicago later told me how the weather was “icky”, but I actually enjoyed that, and taking the commuter train through some of Chicago’s southwestern suburbs was surprisingly relaxing.

Tom had mentioned that he was at a “brewery of the month” event in a local market hall and that he was going to join us later, so we just sat down in the busy taproom and ordered beers. Goldfinger Original (a Helles) for Louise, their regular Vienna Lager (of course!) for me.

On the front right, a Tübinger glass with Vienna Lager. Behind it on the left, a Helles in a Tübinger glass. Both beers have a very dense, white head.

With a very recent impression of Dovetail’s excellent beers, these two were quite different. Well, as different as beers of the same respective styles could be. What I very much noticed about the Vienna Lager was a slight residual malt sweetness, and I was somehow immediately transported back to Czechia, but was also reminded of the historic example I had brewed years ago myself.

Yes, if Dovetail’s Vienna Lager is Franconian in its character, then Goldfinger’s Vienna Lager is very much Czech in the best way possible. This is not a judgment of relative quality, in my book both are equally excellent and without exaggeration some of the best Vienna Lagers I’ve ever had.

The beer was so good, I tried not to down it too quickly. Eventually, Tom arrived, and we got chatting, first and foremost about his brewery, his family history (Goldfinger brewery is named after Markus Goldfinger, a brewer and brewing equipment manufacturer from Kraków in modern-day Poland, and an ancestor of Tom), and of course about his beers.

Oh, yes, the beers: I tried all of them on the menu. I don’t remember all the details of all of them, but a lasting impression for me was that every single one of them was absolutely flawless, full of flavour, and so enticing that you would have wanted a second one of every single one of them. Goldfinger Original, Vienna Lager, German Pils, Mexican Lager, Heller Bock (it was the end of Maibock season, after all) and Hefeweizen were on tap, and all of them excellent examples of their respective styles. Not just excellent, but formulated and brewed to absolute precision.

Specifically for the German Pils, Tom told us that he was inspired by Tegernseer Pils when he spent time in Bavaria as part of his brewing education at World Brewing Academy (a cooperation of Siebel in Chicago and Doemens just outside of Munich). While it wasn’t an identical clone, I absolutely got the similarity. Bavarian Pils, whether it’s from Schönramer, Augustiner, Tegernseer or Hofbräuhaus Traunstein, is the best Pils in Germany in my book, and Goldfinger’s German Pils plays in the same league with its fine hop aroma and incredible drinkability.

Of course, no visit to a brewery is complete without a tour around the brewery facilities themselves.

Goldfinger’s brew kit.
The view from the steps of the brew kit towards at least 10 horizontal lagering tanks stacked on top of each other, as well as a cylindroconical tank and two homebrew-sized cylindroconcial tanks. In the background, parts of the brewery taproom can be seen.

You could tell by the size of everything that Tom has big plans for Goldfinger, and fortunately still lots of space to expand to.

While showing us around, he told us about some of the approaches he takes when it comes to ingredients. What I found interesting is that he uses domestic base malts from large producers such as Rahr, then local craft malts from Sugar Creek, and imported malts from e.g. Weyermann, and blends them as he sees fit.

We got to try a sample of Sugar Creek Pilsner malt, it was the most complex tasting Pilsner malt I’ve ever come across. Tom was really pleased with the malt, and I can totally understand why. In fact, I’d love to brew with malt like that myself.

Another peculiarity is that Tom is strictly sticking to lager brewing only, so only bottom-fermenting yeast will enter his brewery. You may have noticed earlier that I did drink a Hefeweizen. It was actually a collaboration with nearby Skeleton Key Brewery, where it was also produced (in my opinion, it was as good as some of the better Bavarian versions; in fact, it reminded me of Schneider Helle Weisse).

Similarly with another seasonal beer that I think has been released only a few weeks ago, the New Zealand Lager: when we told him that the first New Zealand Pilsner brewed at Emerson’s in Dunedin was actually just fermented with US-05 (a top-fermenting American ale yeast strain) at cool temperatures, Tom insisted that he’d only ever brew the style as a bottom-fermented beer.

To be completely honest, I can’t exactly remember whether we tried the NZ Lager from the tank because we tried so many beers that afternoon, but what we most definitely sampled was the Märzen and the Summer Beer. The Summer Beer was also released recently, and was inspired by Anchor Summer Beer. It’s not a clone, but Tom was apparently so impressed by the original, he took all the elements he liked so much about it and recreated them in this summerly 4.0% ABV beer.

The Märzen on the other is a completely different beast, at (IIRC) just over 6% ABV. It’s amber-coloured and has the right amount of malt flavour to make it taste distinctly like the style it’s supposed to be. I also remember a slight residual sweetness, but the beer itself was the opposite of cloying. I could see myself leisurely drinking a few Maß of that beer over the course of a long afternoon in a beer garden or a beer tent. And there was just something about it that very much reminded me of Ayinger’s Festbier of which I once had an unfiltered sample from the lagering tank.

Tom Beckmann squatting in front of one of the lagering tanks, pouring samples of Märzen straight from the tank’s Zwickel. In the background, the people in the taproom can be seen through a large window.

(when you have an Austrian go to a small brewery in Chicagoan suburbia, drink their beer and suddenly reminisce about all the great Bavarian beers it reminds him of, you know the brewery is doing something very right)

Lagering times are another area where Tom doesn’t compromise. No beer is rushed, and some styles are given even more time to condition and mature, like the Märzen which gets a full 6 months of lagering, much longer than what even contemporary Bavarian breweries would do.

We eventually had to catch our train back to Chicago, so just before we were about to leave, Tom surprised us with a four-pack of Danube Swabian as well as some Goldfinger merch. I had assumed that batch of beer was completely sold out and gone, but he had kept a few. What a fantastic gift!

A selfie of a very happy me with Tom Beckmann, holding said four-pack of Danube Swabian in my hand.

I managed to sample the beer when we were finally back in Berlin (at the time of writing, I still have 3 cans in my beer fridge), and there is definitely something special about it. It’s ever so slightly paler than a Vienna Lager made from modern Vienna malt would typically be, but it has a complex malt aroma and flavour that decidedly makes it not a Pilsner. To me, being able to drink that beer means so much, as I never would have thought 4 or 5 years ago when I still worked on my Vienna Lager book that it could inspire people around the world to do such meticulous collaborative work and create the most faithful reproduction of a historic Vienna Lager as of now.

(for the record, Westerham Brewery in Kent is a very close second, which got Crisp Maltings to produce a Haná Vienna malt; I unfortunately never got to actually try it).

Besides the beer and the brewery itself, there were things that particularly impressed me about Goldfinger after my visit: a deep understanding of their own history, and a great sense of community.

The History

While Goldfinger Brewing in Downers Grove, IL, was only founded in 2020, Tom’s family’s connection to brewing goes back to the 19th century, when his ancestor Markus Goldfinger had founded a brewery in Kraków in 1874. When you enter the brewery, the entrance area is basically a mini exhibition about Markus Goldfinger and his brewery and brewing equipment business. Tom even owns a historic Goldfinger-branded tap from the time period.

The close connection to this history absolutely resonated with me. Naturally, I was interested in how much I was able to find out about Markus Goldfinger myself. And it turns out, a few things:

Markus Goldfinger officially registered the firm “M. Goldfinger” on March 20, 1874 at the company register at the Imperial-Royal Regional Court in Kraków (source).

His son Samuel got married in Vienna on March 5, 1889 to Sidonie Silberstein, to which Gambrinus, one of the Austrian brewing and hop trade newspapers at the time, congratulated them. Markus Goldfinger is acknowledged as Brauherr (brewery owner) in Kraków (source).

In the following years, his name appears several times in guest lists of the Austria spa town of Baden bei Wien, e.g here. In later years, his profession is simply described as Kaufmann (i.e. merchant or business man), and I wonder whether it has to do with a shift towards his brewing equipment business.

What got me excited the most though was when I found Markus Goldfinger’s name in a short list of breweries of Kraków, in an index of breweries, distilleries and sugar factories in Austria-Hungary from 1880 (source).

One of the other names appearing in this list is Johann Götz. He was a cousin of Anton Dreher, and was working as brewing foreman (basically head brewer) at Kleinschwechat where he helped invent and brew the very early Vienna Lager, until 1845, when he left Kleinschwechat and founded Okocim Brewery in what is nowadays Poland. While I don’t have definite, conclusive proof, I would say that it’s extremely likely that the few brewery owners of Kraków at the time must have all known each other. At least in Vienna and its suburbs, the brewers all had a Stammtisch where they met regularly. So quite likely, Markus Goldfinger hung out with Johann Götz, someone very closely connected with the invention of Vienna Lager, and discussed the latest innovations in the brewing world.

One of the things I have yet to find out more about is something Tom told me about: Markus Goldfinger apparently owned a number of patents on various brewing equipment he had developed. Unfortunately, in the Austrian Patent Office’s online archive of historic “privileges” (“Privileg” was the historic term for what is nowadays a patent), nothing seems to come up, so either it’s not been digitised yet or is simply not in the archive.

In any case, Tom’s interest in the history of brewing and how he connects it with his brewery was just astounding to me, and definitely showed to me how much thought he put into everything in and around the brewery.

The Community

But Tom isn’t just celebrating the history of brewing with Goldfinger, the brewery also seems to be very community-focused. I first noticed this when we visited the taproom. The weather was quite miserable, there weren’t that many cars parked outside, and yet, the taproom seemed almost full, at a brewery that only serves lager beer styles in a country with a beer scene that is now infamous for its obsession with IPAs. So very clearly, there must be something special about the brewery and the beer that attracts people to just go there (and I guess, quite a few people made it part of their Saturday afternoon walk, or even walked there despite the rain).

We were made really welcome already when we ordered our first beers, everyone of the staff were super friendly and explained everything they offered and did (when I first ordered my Vienna Lager, I asked for a “large” beer, assuming it would be small 0.3l and large 0.5l pours; no, the large option is indeed a Maßkrug, and I was kindly warned about this, LOL).

When you follow the brewery on Instagram (please do!), you will also notice that quite often, visiting food trucks are regularly being announced which also seems to attract quite a crowd. An even cooler event are the monthly tappings of Stichfässer every first Tuesday of the month, just a cask of gravity-poured beer, each time tapped by a different guest tapper from another local brewery. If I lived anywhere near Downers Grove, that alone would be a good reason for me to visit regularly. Most recently, an unfiltered, only briefly lagered version of their Pils was served (a true Keller-Pils), while the month before that, a sneak peek of the Märzen was served, when it still had 3 more months to lager.

The other aspect of community is how Tom interacts with everyone in the beer scene, whether it’s customers at the taproom, professional brewers or beer writers like me. I felt incredibly welcome, and Tom was just such a lovely and generous host that made my visit truly memorable. He also brings together brewers (like inviting guest tappers for the monthly Stichfass), and connected me with head brewer Dusan at Live Oak in Austin, TX (more about them in my next post) for which I’m really grateful. Also, my friend Colin who happened to visit the brewery with his family just a day before us seemed taken aback when he mentioned that he had spoken to Tom, and Tom had remembered him from his only other visit several years back.

So, yeah, Goldfinger Brewing in Downers Grove, Illinois is one of the top places in the US for amazing lager beers and to spend a great time in a vibrant and yet relaxed atmosphere. If you’re ever in Chicago, don’t miss out on their beers, and say hello to Tom if he’s there.

If you want to hear about all this from Tom himself, Craft Beer & Brewing have recorded a podcast with him last year, and if you want to brew one of their beers (and are a subscriber to Craft Beer & Brewing, which I really recommend #notanad), you can find the recipe for Smoked Helles (a collaboration with Fair State Brewing Cooperative) here.

Remember how rainy it was on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Downers Grove, Illinois? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

Lager Beer Made In USA, Part 1: Dovetail, Franconian at Heart

My wife and I spent the first two weeks of June 2024 in the US for our holiday. I got this trip as a gift for my 40th birthday last year from my lovely wife (lucky me!): we started in Chicago, IL, then went to Austin, TX, and finished the trip with a few days in Boston, MA.

I could tell you all the details of my trip, and how absolutely amazing it was, but this is not a travel blog. I rather want to talk about beer. More specifically, about lager beer, because that’s what interests me, and that’s what I want to drink. So that’s what I did: lager beers of whatever style available was my first choice when ordering beer in the US. I had plenty of excellent ones, some good ones, some okay ones, and some bland and boring ones. So let me tell you about the outstanding ones, about 4 breweries that I was very much interested in from the start, and which did not disappoint. This is part 1 of a series of articles that I intend to publish in the next few weeks.

Dovetail (Chicago): Franconian at Heart

I had heard about Dovetail quite a few years ago, everyone I know who had visited there had told me that their beers were excellent, so naturally, I just had to go there as well. As I had previously communicated with them by email, I mentioned my intention to visit and say hello, and was invited for a tour around the brewery.

On our first full day in Chicago, our plan was to watch a baseball game (Cubs v Phillies) and then to visit the brewery for a few beers afterwards (Dovetail isn’t far away from Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ gorgeous historic stadium), which is exactly what we did. After ordering our beers (Vienna Lager for me, of course), we were greeted by Jenny Pfäfflin (one of Dovetail’s employees who I’ve known on social media for years) and Hagen Dost and Bill Wesselink, the brewery founders. We were chatting and trying out the beers. By coincidence, another group of people from Canada also visited the brewery to meet Hagen et al, so we also got to say hello to them. It was a pleasant surprise to discover Jordan St. John in the group, who I had followed online for years. The beer world seems so small when something like that happens.

We were eventually shown around by Hagen and Jenny in a private tour of the brewery. Dovetail’s brew kit is very German: a mash tun, a lauter tun, a kettle, and a holding vessel.

Dovetail’s brewing system. From left to right: holding vessel, kettle, mash tun, lauter tun. They are accessible through a gallery via stairs. On the front, a computer panel is installed. Next to the stairs is a small standing desk with lab equipment and documents.

Following a rather traditional vibe, the brew kit is accompanied by a coolship located upstairs, into which wort is pumped after boiling and left to cool there until it’s dropped to 75°C (167F) after which it’s pumped through a plate chiller and into open fermenters (accomplishing the traditional vibe).

As Hagen had to leave but we had so much more to talk about, he invited me to come around another day for me to witness some of their brewing. And that was truly exciting: sure, I got to see somebody brewing on the kit, but most excitingly, I witnessed wort being cooled in the coolship!

A happy looking Hagen Dost leaning against the side of the coolship which is getting filled with wort of the day’s first turn of Hefeweizen, while the room fills with steam.

In my conversation with Hagen, what became clear to me is how well he understands Bavarian and Franconian beer culture, and how much he’s done to discover some great breweries off the beaten path. He then showed us how a coolship was part of the plan when he was brewing with Bill before they had even founded Dovetail: on one side of the room, a small rectangular metal vat was leaning against the wall, which is what they used as a coolship when they still test-brewed on essentially home-brew scale.

But Dovetail isn’t just a German-style brewery: they will brew the classic Central European styles, whether they’re from Germany, Austria, Czechia or Poland, but also do spontaneously fermented beers in the style of Belgian Lambic (they don’t call it that, though). I didn’t try any of the sour beers, but I tried plenty of the others: Helles, Dunkles, Vienna Lager, Lager (their idea of a Franconian Landbier), Sticke (a slightly stronger Altbier), Kölsch, Rauchbier, and Grodziskie. Honestly, I couldn’t fault any of them.

The Vienna Lager is straight to the point: just Vienna malt and Styrian Golding hops. According to Jenny, they occasionally get people complaining how it’s not adherent to the BJCP style guidelines, and they’re right. But neither would have been historic Vienna Lager, and the BJCP is meant for competitions. Dovetail’s Vienna Lager has a certain minimalism about it that just makes it an easy-drinking, uncomplicated beer with the right amount of malt complexity to make it exciting and a beer I could’ve been drinking the whole afternoon/evening (if I hadn’t wanted to try many/most/all of their beers).

The Dunkles was equally good, and exactly what I’d expect in a Bavarian brewery. Hagen later told me it had been inspired by Kloster Weltenburg’s Dunkel. Their Lager was a kind of Helles, similar but different from their regular Helles, and definitely something I’d expect in a small Franconian brewery served as the #1 beer consumed in large quantities by most of the village. Sticke and Kölsch tasted like the Rhineland, the Rauchbier would probably be well-received in Bamberg (personally, it reminded me more of Spezial than of Schlenkerla), and the Grodziskie wasn’t very different from the one I tried a few months ago.

But most importantly, all of the beers had character. They weren’t just very good, clean examples of their respective styles, they all had something about them that made them truly exciting to drink. Some cleaner, some maybe a bit rustic, but all of them with something that just screamed “this is the style in which we brew our beers, and we like it like that” to me.

That’s when I realised that there is something very Franconian about Dovetail, not just in the aspects of traditional brewing (like the coolship and the open fermentation), but also the “house style” that goes into them. At the same time, Hagen is very technically minded: he spoke to me about how they are very specific about certain temperature rests during mashing, such as alpha amylase rest (a mash rest at a temperature range that promotes the activity of alpha amylase, an enzyme that chops down chains of starch first into unfermentable dextrines and if given enough time, eventually into some fermentable sugars), as there are other things happening at around 72°C, such as the extraction of glycoproteins, which are relevant for head retention. Hagen even specifically spoke about glycoprotein rest and how important it was for their Hefeweizen which they brewed that day.

(Back home in Germany, I looked up glycoproteins in brewing literature, and really, Prof. Narziss mentions it in a few sentences in his book)

Four open fermenters in the fermentation room at Dovetail, accompanied by two yeast harvesting vessels.

Hagen also emphasised the importance of the coolship in removing DMS precursors from their wort. What I could contribute was to teach him the German term for that: “ausstinken” (lit. “to stink off”), and that it’s not only used to describe what happens in the coolship, but also in open fermentation, another traditional element Dovetail employs.

All in all, I was really happy with every single beer I drank at Dovetail. I also have to thank everyone at Dovetail, but especially Jenny, Hagen and Bill, for the friendly welcome we received. We actually brought a few cans of their Helles and their Vienna Lager back to Berlin, and they travelled quite well.

Thinking back, there is something quite special about a brewery like Dovetail, something that I wouldn’t be able to find the same way in Germany: I could go there to drink really well-brewed German, Czech, Polish styles, easily at the same level as a good, traditional brewery back in Europe. But unlike here, I could enjoy a whole range of local styles from all over Central Europe at the same time. I don’t know of any brewery that serves a Helles, a Kölsch, an Altbier, a Rauchbier, a Hefeweizen and a Grodziskie all at once, at an incredible quality.

A handled beer glass of Helles on the left, and a Willibecher of Vienna Lager on the right, both sat on coasters on the bar at Dovetail. In the background, a historic copper Grant with swan neck taps for lautering can be seen embedded in the wall.

My Summer Beers for 2024

I feel like I’ve mostly blogged about beer history in the last year, but the truth is: I still brew beer at home. So this time, I want to talk about what beers I brewed for myself together with friends as the summer beers of 2024.

Czech 8° Pale Lager, Revision 3

Both in 2021 and 2022, I brewed Czech Pale Lagers specifically for the summer: refreshing, with lots of character, but lower in alcohol. In Czechia, beer “styles” are most often described in two dimensions, one is the colour (pale, semi-dark, dark, black), the other one is a band of strength, but not alcohol content, but rather original gravity, i.e. the amount of sugar in the wort before fermentation. “Eight degrees” thus refers to an original gravity of 8° Plato. It’s certainly on the lower end for Czech draught beers (10° is much more common), but it’s certainly allowed, though quite rare these days.

In my first version in 2021, I tried out a grist of mostly Pilsner malt with a small amount of dark caramel malt (CaraBohemian in my case), double decoction mash of course, Czech Saaz hops for bittering, German Brewers Gold hops as a late addition, and fermented with Lallemand Diamond Lager yeast. The idea was to get a citrusy-zesty note from the Brewers Gold like I had tasted it in other beers I had previously brewed, but in practice, the beer was a bit fruitier than expected. Still, it was very drinkable and well-received even by a few professional brewers I gave samples to.

In my second version in 2022, I slightly changed things: still double decoction mash, but just 100% Bohemian Pilsner malt this time, 100% Czech Saaz hops (did somebody say SMaSH?), and Imperial L28 yeast (allegedly the Pilsner Urquell D strain). That one was absolutely amazing.

So for my third version for 2024 (I had only brewing plans for 2023), I collaborated with my friend Christian, co-founder of THE MASH PIT (which unfortunately had to close during the pandemic) to brew a slightly different version: the change this time was to the grist: instead of 100% Bohemian Pilsner malt, we instead went for 80% Pilsner and 20% Munich malt. Christian in his time as brewer had made the experience that such additions of Munich malt can add just a bit more malt complexity, while I had noticed the use of Munich malt in Vinohradský Pivovar’s Káranská 9 beer which is described as being brewed with Munich and Pilsner malt.

We still stuck to 100% Saaz as well as double decoction mashing, but changed the yeast to the more affordable option of W-34/70 (because it doesn’t make that much of a difference, anyway).

The Recipe

Now that the beer is finished and both Christian and I tasted it, I can report back that it’s also a smashing success. Here are the ingredients:

  • 2.7 kg (79.4%) Bohemian Pilsner malt (Weyermann)
  • 0.7 kg (20.6%) Munich II malt (Weyermann)
  • 34g Saazer hops 2021 harvest (4.7% alpha acid) @ 60 min
  • 30g Saazer hops 2021 harvest (4.7% alpha acid) @ 5 min
  • 2 sachets of Fermentis Saflager W-34/70

Basic specs:

  • OG 8.7 °P
  • FG 2.5 °P
  • 3.3% ABV
  • Colour 7.4 EBC (calculated)
  • Bitterness 22.5 IBU (calculated)
A Tübinger glass with a slightly hazy, dark golden to pale amber beer in it, topped by a thick layer of white foam. It’s darker on the photo than what it really looks like.

And this is how we brewed it:

We mashed in all the malt with 20 liters of water to end up with a mash temperature of 32°C. After a brief wait, we pulled 12 liters of thick decoction, heated it up to 72°C, let it rest for 15 minutes, brought it to a boil for 5 minutes, then mixed it back. The resulting temperature of the mash was 66°C.

After 33 minutes, we pulled 8 liters of thin decoction, brought it to a boil, boiled it for 5 minutes, and mixed it back. The resulting mash temperature was 72°C.

We then rested it for 10 minutes, heated it up to 78°C, and then moved the mash into the lauter tun. After lautering and sparging, we brought the wort to a boil, and boiled it for 60 minutes, with hop additions at 60 minutes and 5 minutes before the end of the boil.

We then transferred the chilled wort to a fermenter and pitched two sachets of rehydrated W-34/70 yeast at 10°C. The beer then fermented until terminal gravity and was then lagered for 3 weeks at 1°C. We bottled it with some of the wort that we had held back so that it could referment in the bottle for natural carbonation.

Looking back at the first version of a Czech-style summer beer, I noticed that I had mentioned Mahrs Sommerpils in my blog post as an inspiration that lower-ABV beers with lots of bitterness and hop aroma can actually work. I actually had a bottle of Mahrs Sommerpils just the other day, and it’s just not the same beer it was back in 2019 when I first had it directly from the source. It lacks that bitterness and hop aroma it initially had. Even if I had Mahrs Sommerpils available in my local supermarket, I would still rather drink my home-brewed summer beer, and it’s definitely something I will brew again next year.

A beer label I designed for the 8° Pale Lager and printed using linocut. It consists of a circle that says “SVĚTLE PIVO” (pale beer) on the top and “OSMIČKA” (eighter, referring to the 8° Plato strength) on the bottom. Inside the circle, there is a Tübinger glass on top, left and right below it two hop cones, and underneath it, a circle with the text “8°” inside, again referring to the beer’s strength.
Best Bitter

This is a beer that I brewed with another friend and former work colleague of mine, Joel. It was actually born out of failure: Joel wanted to learn how to brew beer at home, so I showed it to him, but the first recipe for a Best Bitter I had come up with was not very good: a slight touch of chocolate malt turned the beer to be too roasted and astringent, while the substandard quality of the liquid yeast caused it to perform badly during fermentation. The resulting beer was also too hazy.

So this beer was a revision of that, and I wanted to approach it as simple as possible this time: about 90% pale malt, 10% Dark Crystal malt, Irish moss to help with a clearer beer, and the popular and often-used SafAle S-04 yeast.

The Recipe
  • 3.75 kg (90.4%) Pale malt (Weyermann)
  • 0.4 kg (9.6%) Warminster Crystal Malt 150 EBC
  • 60 g Fuggles (3.1% alpha acid) @ 60 min
  • 30 g Fuggles (3.1% alpha acid) @ 10 min
  • 1 tsp Irish moss @ 10 min
  • 2 sachets SafAle S-04 yeast

Basic specs:

  • OG 10°P
  • FG 2.8°P
  • 3.8% ABV
  • Colour 18.6 EBC (calculated)
  • Bitterness 26.3 IBU (calculated)

This time, the approach was much simpler: we mashed in all the malt with 15 liters of water to end up at a mash temperature of 67°C. We then rested it for 60 minutes. We then heated up the mash to 72°C and rested it for another 10 minutes. We then lautered and sparged it, followed by boiling the wort for 60 minutes, with hop additions 60 minutes and 10 minutes before the end of the boil. We then chilled down the wort to 20°C, pitched two sachets of S-04 yeast, let it ferment, and then bottled it with wort we had held back so that the beer could referment in the bottle for natural carbonation.

In the end, I was actually quite surprised about the resulting beer: it does taste remarkably close to a proper cask bitter (though it may be slightly undercarbonated), it has the right expression of fruity esters that makes bitters so unique, and it has absolutely the right malt character. I very firmly believe that British bitters, whether it’s ordinary, best or extra special bitter, stand and fall with using the right ingredients, and crystal malt from a British maltings is quite crucial for that, I think a lot more important than what people think it is. And I think it’s where most non-British brewers fail, even if they get the hops, the yeast and the water treatment right.

And while a Best Bitter may not be the most typical summer beer, I think what still makes it very good for this time of the year is the relatively low amount of alcohol of just 3.8% ABV.

The Best Bitter in the wrong kind of beer glass, visibly undercarbonated, with signs of chill haze.

Thornbridge’s Old New Burton Union: My Hot Take

By now, many of you have probably heard of the great news that Carlsberg Marston’s, who used to run the last remaining Burton Union brewing system, have handed over one set to Thornbridge Brewery in Bakewell, which will use it to ferment specialty beers. If not, Pete Brown will fill you in on some of the details.

As Pete Brown wrote in his blog post:

I’m sure there’ll be lots of hot takes on this.

So here is mine: Thornbridge should use their Burton Union to ferment a Bavarian Weissbier.

“But Burton Unions were built and used to ferment classic British beers, what’s got Bavarian Weissbier to do with it?” Glad you’re asking.

Let me start from the very beginning: in terms of historic fermenters, there are two big approaches: open fermenters and closed fermenters. The former are basically vats where the yeast is rising to the surface and can be skimmed off, while the latter are casks with a bunghole from which all the yeast (and some of the fermenting beer) is ejected.

German brewers call these approaches Bottichgärung and Spundgärung. English brewing also employed both techniques, but interestingly, Bavarian brewers used to make a clearer distinction, where Bottichgärung was typically used for bottom-fermented beers, while Spundgärung was exclusively for top-fermented beers.

The most primitive way of Spundgärung went like this: the wort was added to a cask, filled pretty much to the top, and yeast was pitched. Any yeast that would otherwise rise to the top would get ejected through the cask’s bunghole and run off down the side of the cask, where it would get caught in a tray. Any beer also ejected with it would be used to top up the cask, until fermentation was finished.

Spundgärung, as illustrated in a German brewing book from 1840

This is of course manual labour, and not the most hygienic, either. So is there a way to do this in a better way? Yes, there is: Burton Unions! The Burton Union is basically a scaled-up way of doing this that is not only more hygienic, but also essentially fully automated, at least when it comes to topping up the casks: yeast is ejected from the bunghole of not one, but several casks, through a pipe going upwards, ending up in a tray that is located on top of the casks. Any beer ejected with the yeast will end up on the bottom of that tray, from where it can run back into the casks.

Pressure (from the fermentation) and gravity do all the work here to keep the casks topped up. And this wasn’t just a British brewing secret, German brewers knew about this approach, too.

A Burton-Union-like system as shown in a German brewing book from 1831

Of course, they knew about it from brewing books and journals that also discussed British brewing, but it was nevertheless known.

In any case, Spundgärung is a technique that has completely fallen out of use in Bavarian brewing and German brewing in general, it is entirely historic. Burton Unions are probably the only system where this approach is still followed, at least the only one I know of, and they almost went extinct, too. So why not bring Bavarian top-fermented beers and Burton Unions together? It would be very interesting to see what impact the Burton Union system has on a Bavarian Weissbier: will it change the typical clove and banana aromas of the finished beer? Does it have any impact on the clarity of the beer?

Sure, Thornbridge announced that they will produce a version of Jaipur on it, and intend to use it for some of their other beers, then new recipes specifically designed for it, and of course, collaborations. A lot of it will probably be traditional British styles, because it’s traditional British brewing equipment.

But for me, trying a Bavarian Weissbier, fermented the old Spundgärung way, would be the most exciting and a project I would absolutely love to see.

Book Review: Modern Lager Beer

Kevin Davey of Heater Allen said in a video a few months ago that there are two types of brewers: the ones that focus on a recipe and the ones that focus on the process of brewing, and that lager brewers are in the process brewer camp.

When I read the new book Modern Lager Beer by Jack Hendler and Joe Connolly, I was instantly reminded of this. Normally, home-brewing books focus on styles and on recipes. Of course, processes will also be discussed, but the focus usually lies on the former. The structure in Modern Lager Beer is very different, though: after a brief discussion of the major contemporary lager brewing traditions, the process-drivenness (is that even of a word?) of lager brewing is being acknowledged, and everything after that is being discussed is from a process perspective, not necessarily just the authors’ opinions, but also often from the view of other experienced brewers. Sometimes, these may not always match up, or even contradict each other. As such, I never felt that the book told me what is exactly right or wrong, but rather gave me insight into the possibilities and different viewpoints to achieve different goals in a beer.

Ingredients? Yeast is being discussed and compared in all its expressive parameters, including a quick guide how to choose the right strain for you, without ever getting prescriptive. The insight on malt is how much of its parameters are driven by the malting process itself, and how much of a beer (including aspects of the necessary production process) are predetermined in the malt house, including what’s relevant when working with adjuncts such as corn (maize) and rice. For water, the topics of hardness and alkalinity and their overall impact on the process and the beer are described, while hops are more discussed from the standpoint of how they can be utilized in the brewhouse, and what specific properties of hop varieties (e.g. farnesene content) can have which impact on the beer.

The emphasis on process is even more noticeable in three chapters that make up a large chunk of the whole book: fermentation, decoction mashing, and carbonation, all absolutely essential steps in brewing a great lager beer.

I think this is what sets this book really apart: fermentation is barely ever discussed to such a great detail unless you dig through the standard works like Kunze or Narziss. Whether it’s aeration, free amino nitrogen, pitching rates, top pressure or temperature, the impact on each of these is described and discussed, filled with the opinions and views of a multitude of respected brewers from both the US and Europe. Lagering is discussed in similar detail, including the question of how much of it is necessary, how progress can be monitored, what some of the risks might be under certain circumstances (such as yeast autolysis), and how they can be detected and mitigated.

The same goes for decoction mashing: only rarely discussed in detail otherwise, Modern Lager Beer really gets into all the details of single, double and triple decoction and how to decoct even on very simple brew kits that weren’t explicitly designed for decoction mashing. The authors even bring in the views of breweries that do not employ decoction mashing whatsoever, and their rationale of what they try to achieve in a beer and why decoction mashing would not be helpful in these instances.

The third otherwise rarely discussed topic is carbonation. The authors list the different options to do that, and what advantages and risks they all bring to the table, whether it’s force carbonation, spunding or kräusening. At the same time, they emphasise the importance of carbon dioxide in beer, and even call it “the fifth ingredient”.

The last third of the book is concluded with an overview over various traditional techniques and aspects, whether it’s Kellerbier, open fermentation, coolships, beer served from wooden casks, and even biological acidification (Sauergut) for pH control, an outlook on the possible future of lager beer, and finally, a collection of lager beer recipes of various styles which, matching the overall tone of the book, are still presented in a more process-oriented fashion than usual.

All in all, the book is a very dense (but not condensed) overview over all the more advanced aspects of brewing lager beer primarily in a commercial-industrial setting, but explained in such a way that home-brewers have ample starting points to get inspiration to improve their own brewing process. With plenty of sources and references, Modern Lager Beer is merely a starting point into what can become going down a rabbit hole full of rabbit holes. There’s a lot of information packed into just 300 pages, with the breadth and a level of detail that comes close to the likes of Kunze and Narziss, while remaining approachable.

As for me, I have yet to reflect on the book and what I can incorporate into my standard processes for lager brewing which have worked very well for me in the past. I’m sure there are still details that I can deal with better, but I think that requires a second and third reading of some of the chapters or sections of Modern Lager Beer.

And finally, I think it’s also worth pointing out what the book is not trying to be: it’s most certainly not a guide on individual beer styles (in fact, beer styles are rarely brought up, and my area of expertise, Vienna Lager, is only mentioned in passing as an early stage of the evolution of pale lager beers, on page 14). It is not a collection of recipe (though it does contain 30 recipes in total), nor does it contain a comprehensive history of bottom-fermented beers. And that’s fine, because in its focus on the brewing process in its many details is what makes the book really stand out for me.

If you’re a home-brewer, whether you’re just starting out with brewing lager beers, or whether you’ve gained a lot of experience already and are generally happy with what you’re brewing, do get this book and read it. It will open up your mind to all the complexities of lager brewing that most home-brewers can safely ignore, but which may still point you to some adjustments that may improve your beer even further.

The book Modern Lager Beer by Jack Hendler & Joe Connolly, held in my hand

Alcohol-Free Augustiner: The Tasting

A few weeks ago, I wrote about alcohol-free Augustiner and why it’s a big deal. At the time, I hadn’t tasted it and was purely relying on other people’s verdicts and information.

Well, yesterday was the day. I’m currently in Munich for my job (it’s a hard life, eh), and so I tried to get some bottles of it. My wife had sent me to a bottle shop that may have it, but alas, no chance (“nobody has it right now”, as the guy behind the counter said).

So after dinner, I went to Augustinerkeller with a work colleague (a second one joined us later), to have some fresh Helles from wooden cask and to try the alcohol-free Helles because if one place just has to have it, it’s one of Augustiner’s top spots in Munich, right?

So, yes, they did have it.

A glass of Augustiner Alkoholfrei Hell on a beer coaster on a bar counter, with a second glass of it in the background, and a number of waiters further in the background

So let’s just get to the point: it’s very good, but it still tastes like an alcohol-free beer. I would happily order it again, and I would also happily use it to blend it with regular bottled Augustiner at home.

Last time I wrote about it, I said that with the traditional methods of brewing alcohol-free beer, you either end up with a full-bodied but sweet beer, or a very thin and slightly sour tasting beer. This beer balances this out: it’s full-bodied with a very mouthfeel compared to virtually all other alcohol-free beers I’ve had, it’s not sweet, and that sour taste is a lot less than in other beers. It’s more bitter than their regular Helles. It does not have that Augustiner house flavour (that bit of pleasant sulphur), though, but still all the other properties of a good Bavarian Helles.

My work colleagues also both liked it, one of them compared it favourably to Jever Fun. All of us ultimately still preferred Helles from wooden cask, which is understandable because at Augustinerkeller, it’s about the best Augustiner beer you can possibly get.

After that very unscientific sensory evaluation of this new alcohol-free beer, I stand by my prediction that this could be a game-changer. I think the fact alone that it’s impossible to get even in Munich and that Augustiner seemed to be slightly overwhelmed by the success of this new beer shows that they’ve created a bit of a hype.

Fun fact: while we were at Augustinerkeller, we witnessed 3 big wooden casks getting tapped, in a very consistent 40 minute interval. I asked what size they were. One-hundred litres, they waiter said. 100 litres, in just 40 minutes, at least 3 times over. Absolutely massive. But then, football was on, with Bayern playing Arsenal, and Augustinerkeller were showing it on big screens.

Two empty glasses of Augustiner Alkoholfrei Hell

More About Pilsator

Just yesterday, I wrote about Pilsner in Germany and how it lost its geographic indication the courts, including a beer named Pilsator. Of course, I couldn’t resist looking a bit more what was written about it in the newspapers after the name was announced. Let’s just say… the classic philologists and linguists weren’t particularly impressed.

On 17th August 1909, Professor Dr. J. Röhr pointed out that the suffix -ator indicates a male person performing a particular action, such as mercator for merchant, viator for traveller, lignator for woodcutter, etc., so for somebody who has any idea about Latin, a pilsator is somebody who pilses (don’t we all like to pils every now and then?).

In a short newspaper article in Bielefeld from the 19th of the same month, Pilsator is called a “badly done portmanteau of two words every beer drinker should know, Pilsner and Salvator”, and the fact that Böhmisches Brauhaus simply used two existing terms made them not look particularly sympathetic.

And on a similar note, a Cologne newspaper mentions that the inventor must have thought about Salvator but had no idea about the Latin roots of the -ator suffix and how to correct apply it, making “Pilsator” yet another “language stupidity” that will shout at people from thousands of ads and countless beer casks and bottles. The author even recommended that Gustav Wustmann should add this word to the next edition of his book “Allerhand Sprachdummheiten: kleine deutsche Grammatik des Zweifelhaften, des Falschen und des Hässlichen” (lit. All sorts of linguistic stupidities: a little German grammar of the dubious, the wrong and the ugly).

On the 23rd September, German writer Johannes Trojan, introduced as drinker and language connoisseur, responded to Prof. Dr. Röhn by saying that that scientific standpoint should not be considered, as “Pilsator” is a beautiful and bite-sized name that alludes to both Pilsner and Salvator.

At the shareholders’ meeting in December 1909, criticism was voiced about the naming competition, but one of the judges defended it that it was good advertising for the brewery and got people to talk about the brewery and the new beer. In total, an increase in sales of 1,000 hl was attributed to it by the directors.

And in March 1910, Böhmisches Brauhaus released a new Bockbier, aptly named Pilsator-Bock:

An ad for Böhmisches Brauhaus Pilsator Bock from March 1910.
An ad for Böhmisches Brauhaus Pilsator-Bock from March 1910.

How Pilsner Lost Its Geographic Indication Status in Germany

In the 19th and early 20th century, it was common to call beers in Germany and Austria by the place where they came from, a geographic indication if you will, such as Pilsner, Budweiser, or Münchner. Nowadays, this concept is applied to all other kinds of food and drink, and even has its own categories of protection on the EU level.

The success of specific beers of course often came with imitators. Some American breweries were good at marketing their locally brewed beers as all kinds of European beer types. One of my favourite examples is this Schlitz ad from 1891 that mentions Schlitz-brewed Budweiser, Pilsener, Wiener, Erlanger and Culmbacher, all referring to places in either Bohemia, Austria or Bavaria, all of them well-known for their beer at the time.

An ad for Schlitz Brewery Milwaukee from 1891, advertising Budweiser, Pilsener, Wiener, Erlanger and Culmbacher, among others.
An ad for Schlitz Brewery Milwaukee from 1891, advertising Budweiser, Pilsener, Wiener, Erlanger and Culmbacher, among others.

The case of Budweiser, which meant a century-long legal struggle between the breweries of Budweis/České Budějovice and Anheuser-Busch, is probably the best known one, but in the early 20th century, also some of the breweries of Pilsen/Plzeň weren’t super happy about the proliferation of the “Pilsner” resp. “Pilsener” name used for beers not from the Bohemian city of Pilsen/Plzeň.

(Ironically, nobody ever seemed to care about Anheuser-Busch stealing coopting another Bohemian place name well-known for its beer as a brand name, Michelob/Měcholupy)

In 1910, the breweries of Pilsen seem to have sued a number of German breweries, such as Pankow-based Engelhardt brewery, which were then initially banned from calling their beer “Engelhardt Pilsener” resp. “Engelhardt Export Pilsener”. The German court then found them to abuse the designation of origin of a foreign beer without clearly specifying that their beer wasn’t from Pilsen, but rather from Pankow just outside Berlin. This initial verdict is quite interesting, as it even specifically points out that a “light [i.e. pale], highly hopped, bottom-fermented bitter beer” didn’t necessarily need to be called a “Pilsner”, and specifically mentions Schultheiss Märzen as a counter-example of a beer with similar properties that makes no reference to the Bohemian city.

In December 1913 though, the Reichsgericht (Supreme court of the German Empire) in Leipzig passed a verdict that the term “Pilsener” had simply changed in meaning and couldn’t be seen as a pure geographic indication anymore, but rather as a statement of quality about the product, and that enforcing it as a geographic indication would be an interference into the “free development of business” by the court. The court also rejected any possible confusion of customers because of the price difference between “German Pilsener” and “real Pilsener”, and referred the case back to a lower court (this basically means that the Supreme court told the lower court what the correct legal opinion was meant to be). The complaining parties, namely Bürgerliches Brauhaus Pilsen, 1. Pilsener Aktienbrauerei and Pilsener Genossenschaftsbrauerei, were presumably not happy about it.

Just earlier that year, they had also sued Geraer Aktienbrauerei in Timm near Gera, Radeberger Exportbierbrauerei and Böhmisches Brauhaus in Berlin to stop calling their beers Timmser Pilsner, Radeberg Pilsner, resp. Pilsator (a brand that Böhmisches Brauhaus had started using only in 1909). The courts in these cases argued slightly differently, namely that while “Pilsner” hadn’t entirely lost its geographic indication, the prefixes of respective place names “Timmser” resp. “Radeberger” made the origin clearer and demoted “Pilsner” to a generic product name. In the case of “Pilsator”, it also noted that the beer had always been used in connection with Böhmisches Brauhaus Berlin, thus always making clear where it had come from.

This was hardly surprising, because even the Austrian administrative court had ruled in 1910 that “Pilsator” was merely a fantasy name that obviously did not indicate a provenance from Pilsen.

Little fun fact: the brand name “Pilsator” was the outcome of a competition in 1909 by Böhmisches Brauhaus Berlin that had been advertised with the slogan “Thousand Mark for One Word”. Among many thousand submissions, the jury selected the brand “Pilsator”. As this brand had been submitted by 26 competitors, the winner had to be chosen through a lottery, in which Josef Seestaller from Munich was drawn as the official winner. The Pilsner Tagblatt reported on this with the sarcastic comment that now the Berlin-based brewery just needs to do one more thing: brew a real Pilsner. The Pilsator name continued as a beer type in East Germany’s TGL 7764 regulation, and is still used as a brand name, namely Pilsator Pilsner brewed by Frankfurter Brauhaus in Frankfurt/Oder.

Pilsner beer wasn’t the only concern of the Pilsen breweries, though. In 1911, they petitioned the Prague commodity exchange (Produktenbörse) to stop using the terms “Pilsner malt”, “Vienna malt” and “Munich malt” because German and American breweries using “Pilsner malt” could claim that they were making “Pilsner beer” and that they had to defend their geographic indication in German courts. At the time, the question was referred to the Viennese commodity exchange.

Trade publication Der Böhmische Bierbrauer discussed in April 1912 how the term “Bohemian malt” was really more appropriate as it had been in use in scientific and trade publications, while “Pilsner malt” was more of a marketing term by maltings at the time. They suggested to change the official terminology at the Prague commodity exchange from “Pilsner malt” to “malt of wort colour up to 0.25 cm2 ⅒ n iodine solution”, “Vienna malt” to “malt of wort colour up to 0.40 cm2 ⅒ n iodine solution” and “Munich malt” to “malt of wort colour over 0.40 cm2 ⅒ n iodine solution”.

The article relents that this won’t get the term “Pilsner malt” banned but it will simply not get used anymore in official commodity exchange documents. They still asked readers to use the term “Bohemian malt”, not “Pilsner malt”, “as nobody will gain anything from it.”

Just a few days later, Der Böhmische Bierbrauer published another update about this matter. A report of the commodity exchange came to the conclusion that the proposal was practically a failure as it would only be limited to official documents at the exchange. At the exchange itself, it would also affect the interests of trading maltings that have used that term in their trade for a while now. Abuses of geographic indication should be pursued in other ways, according to the exchange.

Assuming from the lack of further reports on the matter, that seems to have been the end of it with regards to malt, and since the terms “Pilsner malt”, “Vienna malt” and “Munich malt” are still common trade names in the 21st century, the maltings have definitely prevailed.

Why Augustiner’s new alcohol-free Helles is a big deal

Augustiner brewery of Munich, known to be very conservative, secretive and loaded, recently announced their latest addition to their portfolio, an alcohol-free Helles, aptly named “Augustiner Alkoholfrei Hell”. Augustiner hadn’t released a new beer in 38 years, and in fact was the last of the “big six” Munich brands without an alcohol-free beer.

They first teased the release of a new beer type on Instagram without getting specific, which of course came with lots of outcry, “oh no, not an alcohol-free one! Please anything but an alcohol-free beer!” and such, but my first thought that this could be a game changer. Augustiner obviously cares a lot of about the quality and presentation of their own beers (for example, they still run their own cooperage on the outskirts of Munich to ensure that they can serve all their Oktoberfestbier from massive 200 liter “Hirsch” wooden casks, and will typically serve at least one beer from wooden casks in their prime locations), and a poorly-received alcohol-free beer (or any new beer type, really) could have really tarnished their reputation.

On Monday, 18th March 2024, the rumours of an alcohol-free beer turned out to be true, when Augustiner officially presented their new beer. I was of course very curious, and checked out early reports about it. Süddeutsche Zeitung was probably the first one to report on it (link to a paywall-free archived version of the article), and one thing that caught my eye was how openly Augustiner spoke about their method of production.

Basically, there are two ways of producing an alcohol-free beer: one is to brew a low-gravity wort and ferment either with a poorly attenuating yeast (essentially, one that cannot ferment maltose sugar) or to stop fermentation shortly after it’s started by chilling down the beer very quickly to prevent the yeast from metabolizing any further sugar. This approach is called arrested or restricted fermentation. The other method is to brew a regular beer and then dealcoholize it, i.e. remove the alcohol after fermentation through some method of cold distillation. This is generally called physical dealcoholisation. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, leading to either worty-sweet beer with the former method, or very thin, watery and slightly sour with the latter method. And as the Süddeutsche Zeitung says, “Augustiner decided on a mix of both methods.”

Through my very good friend Ben who works as a brewing scientist at VLB, I’ve learned about the paper Effect of Production Technique on Pilsner-Style Non-Alcoholic Beer (NAB) Chemistry and Flavor by Nils Rettberg, Scott Lafontaine, et al., published in early 2022 (Ben himself wrote about his experience with non-alcoholic beers after completing Dry January 2022). One of its conclusions was that blending non-alcoholic beers from restricted fermentation and from vacuum dealcoholisation produced a more harmonious beer that generally fared better in blind tasting than beers solely produced using either method. Another conclusion was that more hop compounds, such as through late kettle-hopping or dry-hopping, can mask the less pleasant flavours of non-alcoholic beers. This a very interesting paper, though of course rather technical, but if you’re interested in all the nitty-gritty details, definitely worth checking out.

While the paper is about Pilsner-type beers, and Helles is certainly not a beer type that has a particularly large amount of hop aroma or flavour, it still shows that for more lightly hopped beers, it still seems to be a practical approach for Augustiner, and they seem to have either drawn the same conclusions as the paper above or got convinced by the methods through it.

The tasting notes from Mareike Hasenbeck describe the beer as having a fresh, spicy and malty aroma with a hint of sulfur, while the flavour is malty-bready with a touch of lemon and sulfur and ample carbon dioxide on the tongue, finishing with a noticeable hop bitterness. Especially that last bit made me wonder whether the hopping rate was slightly increased compared to Augustiner’s regular Helles to create an overall nicer and rounder beer. Even though Augustiner’s approach was not to create a 1:1 copy of their flag-ship Augustiner Lagerbier Hell but rather a really good alcohol-free beer that meets their exacting, Mareike Hasenbeck notes that straight from the fridge, the fact that the beer is alcohol-free could be easily missed by laypeople (i.e. the non-nerdy, less discerning drinkers).

And I think that’s a big deal. If a regular beer drinker can have the non-alcoholic beer served under optimal conditions and not notice that it doesn’t contain alcohol (or at least, less than 0.5% by volume), you’re at a point where it is satisfying enough for consumers. At least for me personally, unless I specifically want to get inebriated, it would then make no difference whether I drink the regular version or the alcohol-free version. In fact, I would sometimes even want to specifically have the alcohol-free version, for example to avoid getting tipsy too quickly.

Previously, only one beer got close enough for me to this ideal, and that’s Guinness with the 0.0 version of their draught stout. When I first had it from nitro can, this was quite the revelation. To this day, I would still call it the most convincing alcohol-free beer, and don’t mind having a can or pint (or two) whenever I have the chance. Unfortunately, Guinness 0.0 has not made it to Germany yet, but I’m still hopeful. The only other beer that got close to it for me was Riedenburger Dolden Null, a German alcohol-free IPA, but their trick is basically to hide the worty flavour under loads of hops.

Everything I’ve read about the Augustiner Alkoholfrei Hell sounds to me as if Augustiner may have pulled off the same as Guinness, to release a convincing alcohol-free Helles that may be pleasing even to consumers and Augustiner fans that otherwise would not choose an alcohol-free beer. That’s a big deal, and could change the landscape and expected quality of alcohol-free beer in Bavaria and the rest of Germany.

As for myself, I have yet to try the new beer, and it doesn’t seem to have arrived in Berlin yet. One drinks wholesaler with a dedicated beer shop in Charlottenburg estimated it 3 to 4 weeks until they get it, while a restaurant/beer garden near the government district that is known for its Augustiner from wooden cask estimated it to take more like 4 to 8 weeks.

Ben on the other hand has already had a chance to try the beer at Augustinerkeller in Munich, and called it “unsurprisingly excellent”. With everything he also told me about it in private conversations, I am very hopeful that Augustiner Alkoholfrei Hell will indeed be a game changer.

Since the release, Tegernseer also started talking about how they’re currently working on their own alcohol-free Helles. The game is definitely on.

P.S.: in case you wondered what the last beer was Augustiner launched 38 years ago: it was their Hefeweizen.

Liquid yeast: why do I even bother?

The rising costs of ingredients is not just something professional brewers are struggling with, homebrewers also notice the price increases. And ironically, the ingredient that is the smallest by weight is often the most expensive one: yeast.

When I started homebrewing over 10 years ago, dry yeasts were still considered kind of inferior, with a relatively small choice in yeast strains compared to nowadays, they were thought of as sub-standards products because cold chains weren’t considered as crucial as with liquid yeast, and there was a general association with “that homebrew flavour”, probably also because of improper storage.

Liquid yeast on the other hand was thought to be the gold standard, with a large variety in strains, all with their own unique, interesting flavours and aromas that would give homebrewers a key ingredient to push their beer from lackluster to amazing.

It’s March 2024, and I spent €11.49 on a pack of liquid yeast, allegedly the Pilsner Urquell “D” strain, for which I had to create a starter using malt extract to multiply its cell count and improve its vitality. What really happened though was that the yeast was dead, completely dead, and I only noticed it when the starter did not elicit any fermentation activity whatsoever after more than 24 hours on the stir plate.

Instead, I had to resort to my backup plan and rehydrated and pitched two sachets of W-34/70, probably the most widespread bottom-fermenting yeast strain these days. Full disclosure: I got these two sachets for free from a friend who in turn had gotten them at BrauBeviale last December, but if I had had to buy it myself, it would have cost me €9.98. Not much cheaper, but a lot less hassle, because that W-34/70 was rehydrated and noticeably very active in less than 40 minutes, and after pitching it got past the lag phase in something like 24 to 32 hours (no signs of CO2 production at 24 hours, but happily burping away at 32 hours after the pitch).

Now why do I even bother? In the last 5 years of homebrewing, I’ve been mostly brewing bottom-fermented beers, I tried out a number of dry yeast strains, and they were good, with maybe one exception that I found a bit too fruity (and that is a common criticism). Thinking back about all the different bottom-fermenting liquid yeast strains that I used, there was only one that really stood out, and that was Wyeast 2001 (allegedly the Pilsner Urquell “H” strain) due to its very prominent diacetyl note (perfect for a Pilsner Urquell clone). All the others produced beers where the yeast character was just a standard neutral, bottom-fermented flavour, i.e. not much at all.

Every time I picked a specific yeast strain, I chose it for some expected specific flavour element, or “authenticity”, because clearly, a Czech style requires a Czech yeast strain, no? Really, actually, no. One thing I learned in the last few years was that there is so little difference in the yeast strains, you just won’t taste the difference. My Czech Dark Lager, probably the best beer I ever brewed, was fermented with harvested yeast from a German industrial brewery in its 2022 version, and with Fermentis S-189 in its 2023 version, both of them decidedly not Czech yeast strains, and yet both batches tasted exactly like a Czech beer.

So why should I bother about liquid yeast? I probably shouldn’t. The dry yeast strains I’ve had the most success with were Fermentis W-34/70 (a yeast strain is basically an industry standard in its own right, given how ubiquitous it is), Fermentis S-189 (I couldn’t even describe the differences of it to W-34/70, because they absolutely miniscule), and LalBrew Diamond (again, very similar to the others). Fermentis S-23 is also popular, but I found it a bit too fruity, so not exactly my favourite.

With that many similarities, it all boils down to personal preference and maybe price. At my homebrew store of choice, an 11g sachet of LalBrew Diamond costs €4.14, while 11.5g sachets of Fermentis S-189, W-34/70 and S-23 are sold for €4.83, 4.99 and €4.49, respectively. In my experience, two sachets are usually enough for a 20 liter batch of normal-strength beer.

After the frustrating experience with liquid yeast last weekend, I decided for myself that I simply won’t bother with it anymore. Should I ever have the urge of using a pack of liquid yeast, you will definitely hear about it here.