We've recently been on holiday to the Alsace, a very fine part of France. Having decided not to rush to get to our destination we took the over-night ferry to Holland, followed by a planned stop in Liege, Belgium the next night. When looking for a place to stop on our journey we ignored the advice of Tim Webb, author of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide Belgium, and decided to plump for Liege - we felt that it surely couldn't as bad as he suggested. Unfortunately a mixture of a head cold and the fact that Liege is actually quite crap resulted in a not very exciting evening. All I drunk was Grimbergen Blond, one of my favourite blond beers, but not exactly the new experience one expects from foreign travel. As an ale fan, I am somewhat ashamed to say that we were quite happy to hightail it out of Belgium and get to our Alsation destination. Apologies dear readers for failing in my duties as an intrepid beer reporter.
Alsace was altogether a different story. A lot of the place names are German, as are the names over shops, vineyards and other businesses. It is a region on the banks of the Rhine that has changed hands on a number of occasions. At the turn of the twentieth century it was part of Germany. It is now again part of France as a result of conflict in which the Germans were runners-up. The German influence is still there, and particularly on the beer front. Most of the beer that is available is either German or German influenced. I was looking forward to the odd imbibe.
Pression is the key word to remember. It's draught beer. And the first draught beer I had was in a friendly bar in Chatenois, where I sampled a Familienbrauerei Bauhöfer – Der Ulmer Maibock, from Baden-Württemberg I believe. My experience of the Maibock style of beer is limited so I was very pleased to try this one. It was a rich fruity lager style beer, not too gassy, with a slight bitter after-taste. The predominant flavour was one of Crunchie Bar.¹ Not one hundred percent sure what the abv was. I think it might have been around 7%. If you get a chance to try this one don’t pass it up!
The weather was gloriously hot while we were there. And gloriously hot weather demands wheat beer. The first wheat or beer blanche that we came across was the indigenous Meteor Blanche 5%, a mediocre little number from Brasserie Meteor. It is as bland as the beer I suspect it's trying to emulate, namely Hoegaarden Wit. This is one beer that would have benefited from a little Teutonic tweaking. One serving suggestion was to add a slice of lemon. I didn't but wished I had. Ideally beer should be able to stand on it's own without adulteration. This blanche, or should that be blank,² is a thirst quencher from the fridge on a hot day, but not much else.
You think Alsace is quite wonderful, with its pretty little villages, rivers and the contrast as the flat plain meets the mountains. And then you go to Strasbourg. Strasbourg is a fantastic city. On arrival you think to yourself, "this is a place I'd like to return to." It has everything, great history, great architecture, bags of culture and some great cafes, brasseries and bars. The first place we decided to stop at was Au Bureau. Now, normally I'd have been put off by the fact that it had the words "Heineken," "Pub" and "Murphy's" painted on the frontage, but the menu looked good, and the location was outstanding. We hoped the beer would be acceptable. We were in luck. One of the regional food specialities is tarte flambé, a sort of more refined distant cousin to the pizza, and that's what we were after. I can report it's a must try. Washed down with Mützig Old Lager and Edelweiss Blanche, shown at the top of this post, it is even better. The Mützig Old Lager is a more-ishly sweet, non-bitter golden fruity brew with bags of malt. Very tasty amber nectar. Lager with flavour, a novelty to an Englishman. British producers take note. The Edelweiss Blanche is a white beer with flavour, which again is enhanced by a slice of lemon. It has a full floury, yes floury, robust body. A tasty thirst quencher. What more could you want on a hot summer's day? This is most certainly the best French white beer I have tasted to date. We made sure we brought some back with us. I had some more later in the day, without the slice of lemon. Without it has a strong floral smell and a taste that lends itself towards elderflower. Flowery. Great with or without. Effectively two beers for the price of one.
Shock horror, the holiday wasn’t just about drinking beer! I can sometimes be persuaded to partake of the odd tasse du vin. Alsace is the best kept wine secret in France. Its crisp, dry, fruity Rieslings are a perfect accompaniment to fish. While the floral, perfumed sweeter Gerwurtstraminer makes a great apéritif or dessert wine. The method champenoise travels over the Vosges to manifest itself as Crement. Pink or white, both are alright!
Anyway back to the beer. As previously stated, German beers are in abundance in the region. Geographically the breweries are perfectly positioned to deliver. And being the indisputable world champions at brewing wheat beer I suspect it's not a particularly hard sell. In Colmar I sampled Sparten Munchen. It is a cracking example of the genre. This fruity full-flavoured dark golden cloudy beer is most certainly liquid bread. Almost chewable - it's a fine brew. Slightly citric, offset by it's floury body. Cumulo-nimbus in a glass. If Sparten Munchen is a fine example of liquid bread then Hirsch Dunkel Weisse, tasted in Barr, is the equivalent to Hovis.³ Full bodied, malty with slight hints of caramel. A king, a kaiser or a chief of a beer. Yet another thirst quencher.
In the next village to the one we stayed in we came across a microbrewery, Saint Pierre. In the next article I shall tell you all about my visit there. I hope we can return to Alsace one day. It's a well-kept secret from most Brits. Long may that continue!
¹Paul: Not sure how widely available this chocolate bar from Mars is. But in case it’s not international, like some of their other products, or it has the wrong name like Mars Bars which I think are called Milky Way in USA and/or Canada, then it's golden honeycomb covered in chocolate.
² Alan: Paul wrote "sic" but I would add a "k"...
³Paul: Hovis is the leading brand of wholemeal bread in the UK.
Alan: wholemeal is England English for wholewheat.