Monday, January 08, 2007

Beercraft newspaper column #30- Wild Styles

Three wild beers for a brand new year
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish

It’s a new year, and in observance of that we have a new resolution: 1280 X 800.

Ha ha. That was a little computer joke. But seriously, one resolution all beer fans should make is to try something new. We all have our favorite brands and styles, but it’s a good idea to get out of the rut from time to time; you never know what you might be missing.

In this spirit, allow us to suggest three “must-try” beers for 2007. They’re wildly different styles, but will certainly go well together in your refrigerator.

First, we’ll talk porter. It’s best known as a British style, and most American producers keep their recipes faithful to the classic London archetype. But 18th century shipping of porter from England to Russia has left an indelible taste for this dark, substantial beer style all along the Baltic Sea. Breweries in Poland, Estonia and Mother Russia developed a sweeter, milder porter of their own.

You can find Baltic porter by breweries such as Okocim (Poland) and Baltika (Russia), but we’re going to recommend Saku, from the diminutive nation of Estonia. Thick and dark, with a light caramel sweetness and creamy body, Saku goes down well on a chilly evening. Be careful, though. At 7% alcohol by volume, Saku Porter could get you into trouble with the law or your spouse.

Crossing the Baltic to Finland, we find sahti, of the strangest and rarest beer styles in the world. It’s the last of the primitive European beers; the kind peasants drank before hops wore used in brewing. Sahti is made of barley and rye, and flavored with juniper twigs and berries.

Finland is pretty much a “drink at home” (or sometimes a “drink until you pass out on the ferry to Leningrad”) culture, so sahti remains a very uncommercial beer. To our knowledge, you won’t find the real stuff anywhere in the USA. You will, however, be able to get your hands on Helsinki Gold, from Vermont’s Otter Creek Brewing Company.

We can’t really vouch for this beer’s authenticity, but Helsinki Gold is a different and very pleasant beer in its own right. The juniper lends the beer a prominent citrus bite, and the rye malt imparts a distinctive aroma. It’s lighter in color and mouthfeel than we expected sahti to be, actually a pleasant drink for a sunny afternoon. As usual, Otter Creek has released an adventurous and excellent specialty beer.

Hopefully, some entrepreneur will wise up one day and send us the real sahti. Who knows? It could be the most interesting thing to come out of Finland since saunas, hockey goalies, and, uh, Finnish chicks.

We’ll wrap up this tour of unusual beer styles in the unbearably quaint town of Bamberg, Germany, where half-timbered houses, cobblestone streets, and medieval-esque guildhalls provide the setting for one of the world’s great “love-hate” beer styles: Bamberger Rauchbier.

“Rauch” is the German word for smoke, and we’ll let that serve as an ominous introduction to what’s about to be poured in your mental glass. It’s basically a dark, sweet Marzen-style German lager in which the malt has been smoked over a beech fire prior to brewing.

Some people think the resulting beer is fabulous. Others think it tastes like a sausage. Still, people flock to Bamberg in droves to sample the famous Rauchbier at the source.

Your best bet here in the USA is the tongue-mangling Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Don’t try to pronounce it, just point and the guy will get it off the shelf for you. Very rarely, you’ll find it on draft in specialty beer bars, but usually a trip to a good beer store, like Rochester’s Beers of the World, s necessary.

Lots of American craft brewers have taken a stab at making Rauchbier, but more often than not, it tastes more like a brewery fire than anything else. It goes to show that 800 years of monastic brewing tradition and technique do pay off in the end. If you’ve been put off by microbrewed smoked beers, go back and give the Schlenkerla a try before closing the book on the entire style.

So there you go. You have a whole year to try three of the most unique styles in all of beerdom. Pull it off, and you’ll be an expert amongst your friends, and gain the almost magical ability to be insufferable at parties. And even if you don’t go wild over these untraditional styles, at least you’ll have something against which to contrast the flavor of your favorite pint.

At any rate, we’d love to hear your opinions on these styles. Drop us a line. We’ll be drinking sahti. In the sauna.

Hopefully with the Finnish chicks.

Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

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