This here is a guest post by the enviably well-traveled Doug Brainard, long-time homebrewer and UNYHA (Upstate New York Homebrewers Association) member. Earlier in the year, he contributed How Long Would you Wait for a Pint?, on his award-winning framboise lambics. Rare and delicious, Doug’s lambics are a real treat for those lucky enough to taste them. Today, Doug’s not talking about his own brews; he’s back with a travel article and tasting notes from what might be the world’s smallest pub.
I was sitting in a German beer tavern on a Friday afternoon a while ago. Possibly the smallest tavern I’ve ever been in – cozy seating for two, or slightly cramped for larger parties of four or six (but not all at the same time). In a corner, someone was enjoying a plate of Franconian Sausages, which you can get 8, 10, or 12 at a time, along with fresh crusty bread. Occasionally, a bicyclist would stop outside the window behind the bar and exchange a couple of empties for liter bottles full of fresh lager beer. Otherwise, the tavern was relatively quiet.
On the table in front of me was a paper placemat printed with five small circles, along with brief tasting notes. But I’m not tasting anything yet, I’m just smelling the contents of the five sample glasses (well, six, but I’ll get to that).
A bell rings as the door opens, and a man (who would not look out-of-place at a Dead concert) enters and walks up to the bar. He orders one of the local beers, and casually mentions to the bartender that he was a brewer. As he walked past my table I said hello, that that I was a brewer as well, and “Smell this!” We took turns, smelling the various sample glasses, interspersed with light conversation, when I asked him where he brewed.
“Oh, I make Guinness for New Zealand.”
Well enough about Guinness. We were sitting in the tavern portion of Hausbrauerei Altstadthof. Literally, the ‘house brewery in the old town courtyard’, nestled within the outer walls of the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg.
Entering the old town through a dark pedestrian tunnel through the outer wall of the castle, you find yourself in a public plaza, surrounded by multistoried medieval buildings. Restaurants and tourist spots abound at ground level, while floor after floor of apartments rise above, almost to the height of the castle wall itself. Off to the right, one of the many cobblestone streets leads past a giant bronze rabbit to the Albrecht-Dürer-Haus.
To the left, though, another road leads to the Hausbrauerei Altstadthof complex, of which the aforementioned beer tavern is only a small part. Within the complex, an open courtyard is surrounded by the brewery and distillery, picnic tables, several banquet rooms, a beer museum, a retail shop, a nightclub, and access to the tunnels.
Yes, tunnels. The Imperial Castle is built on top of a red sandstone mountain. Perhaps ‘mountain’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but having walked to the top of it several times, that is the word I prefer to use. The point, though, is that the red sandstone is very easy to carve, and so the castle has extensive cellars, hand carved into the rock. And not only the castle, many landowners dug their own cellars into the sandstone below their establishments. And since their neighbors were doing the same thing, the only way to expand your cellars was to go down some more. Which they did, and more than once. Through the years, families were united in marriage, and cellars were joined, until a significant portion of the old city sat upon a subterranean network of tunnels. The tunnels are now somewhat of a tourist attraction, but the various businesses still make use of them when they can.
But, back to the tasting samples. They were beer schnaps (or BierBrand), served in small shot glasses. Hausbrauerei Altstadthof brews several beer styles, including Red Beer, Red Bock, Black Beer, Maibock and Red Wheat Beer. (The preponderance of ‘red’ beers makes more sense when you recall that Nuremberg has a red sandstone mountain in the heart of the city.) The various beers are brewed with Red special malt, pale malt, Pilsner malt, roast malt, and red wheat malt. “Hersbrucker Tradition” and “Hersbrucker Aroma” hops provide 10 to 38 IBU, depending on the style.
Hausbrauerei Altstadthof then takes a portion of their brews and distills them into 80 proof elixirs, in the prettiest still I have ever seen. The schnaps are then aged (either in glass alembics or barrique barrels) for up to two years in the convenient catacombs beneath the brewery, before being bottled for sale in the retail shop, or served on a paper placemat in the tavern.
I misplaced my tasting notes long ago, but some things you never forget. These are the notes provided by Altstadthof:
RotBierBrand, made from Nuremberg’s classic red beer (stylistically a Vienna). Subtle touch of fruit, rich experience for the palate resembling premium grappas.
BockBierBrand, with malt flavors that resemble honey and roasted hazelnuts.
MaiBockBrand. strong and spicy with a hint of fresh herbs.
WeissBierBrand, fruity flavors of fresh apples and pears.
SchwarzBierBrand, subtle touch of oak wood, delicate vanilla and almond aromas. A gold medal winning “Noble brandy of the Year 2008“.
Now, if you were paying attention, that is only five schnap samples. The tasting placemat was pre-printed for those five, but I had opted for a sixth sample – the Hersbrucker schnaps. Neutral spirits infused with Hersbrucker hops. Crystal clear, with an intense aroma of noble German hops, and all the pleasure you can get from licking a wet tea bag.
Most of the other samples were more subdued, with flavors and aromas that did not particularly distinguish themselves over the smell of roasted bratwurst wafting over from a nearby table. Colors ranged from pale straw to a deep, burnished bronze. But the WeissBierBrand, distilled from red summer wheat beer, could distinguish itself, and with a vengeance. Never before, or since, have I smelled anything so overwhelmingly floral. It was like walking into your grandmother’s funeral.
Finally, my recollection is that the SchwarzBierBrand was indeed excellent, and was thoroughly as enjoyable as a fine brandy. I would have loved to have had time to relax with a full snifter of the SchwarzBierBrand, but I had had enough of Franconian Sausages, and the smoked beers of Bamberg were only a short drive away.
Text and photos provided by Doug Brainard (except for the photo of himself).