Special brews
Beers of continental Europe
Special Brews

Beer is regarded with reverence in continental Europe, with each country producing distinctive styles

First Published:  South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

July 7, 2002

"GIVE ME a fresh pint of cask-conditioned best bitter … and I can smell a walk in the autumn woods" says beer writer Stephen Beaumont, describing the pleasures of enjoying a good beer. The world’s best known beer expert Michael Jackson is as eloquent; he writes that a "good beer should talk to you".

People reared on insipid supermarket beers are often surprised at all this fuss; for them all cold beers taste the same. Nothing can be further from the truth however. At last count there were more than 50 different styles of beer and 30,000 known labels. Among them, many treasures – beers with personalities as distinctive as fine Bordeaux wines and flavours almost clambering out of the glass. There are few greater pleasures than savouring one of these delicious brews – whether in an atmospheric café in Prague or a traditional British pub or a raucous tavern in Munich or a quiet little Bistro in Brussels.

The search for fine beers often takes one to Belgium, a small country with a big reputation. Belgian beers are extraordinary in their character and diversity, and many of them are light years away from the common perception of beer.

Perhaps the most distinctive Belgian beer style is the Trappisté, brewed by monks of the Trappist order in 5 medieval monasteries – Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren — under strict production methods that often start at 3 am in the morning. The Chimay range includes the Rouge, an amber coloured fruity beer with a silky touch, the Tripel with its undertones of muscat and raisin and the port-like Chimay Bleu Grandé Reservé which improves with age for up to 20 years. It is almost sacrilege to drink these beers in tankards or tall glasses; a chalice glass or snifter is needed to hold the flavours in.

Another unique Belgian type is the Lambic, a refreshingly sour and complex beer fermented with wild yeasts. Best known brands include those from Lindemans and Mort Subite who make flavoured Lambics like framboise (raspberry), kriek (cherry) and pêches (peach). Some Lambic cafes in Belgium serve the drink with a pestle and a block of candy sugar for you to make your own DIY version called Faro. The prince of Lambic variants is the Gueuze, a blend of young and old Lambics, matured in oak casks and sold  in bottles with champagne style wired corks.

Other Belgian hits include the sour red beers from Flanders (example: the Rodenbach Grand Cru with the most amazing after-taste), spicy wheat beers like Hoegaarden (with a whiff of coriander), and Saison, brewed in farmhouses in the french-speaking south.

No shortage of lagers and ales in Belgium either. Stella Artois rules the Lager market, the strong Duvel is the king of Blond Ales and the Pale Ale category is dominated by the flavoursome De Koninck, served in Antwerp bars in goblets known as bollekes. Truly Belgium is to beer what France is to wine.

Across the continent, the Czech believe that "beer makes beautiful bodies" ! No wonder the average Czech drinks more beer than anyone else in the world - including the German – an incredible 161 litres every year.

The jewel in the Czech Republic’s crown is the Pilsen Urquell – a golden lager with a pure white head, crisp dryness and tongue-tickling spiciness. Made from the juicy barley of Moravia and the soft water of Plzen (Pilsen) town, flavoured with the fragrant Saaz hops of Bohemia and matured in wooden casks inside underground sandstone cellars, it is still regarded as the best Pilsner in the world – a category it created in 1842. Other classics include the malty Budvar and the Staropramen Smichov.

"In Germany we drink beer till the doctor comes", boasts my German friend Joe. Men like him drink their beer with gusto, toasting each other heartily with tall foaming litre mugs. Not for them the small portions served in Dutch bars or beer in goblets as in Belgium or Denmark. The Germans like their beer kingsize.

But the motto in Germany is ‘drink local’ as people in each region swear by the local speciality. Munich in Bavaria, the birthplace of the lager, has many: Dunkel (dark brown) and Hell (pale) lagers in the Munchner style, the strong Double Bock beers with brandnames ending in ‘ator’ (Triumphator, Salvator), and the remarkable Weizenbock combining full-bodied malt flavour with the aroma and acidity of wheat beers. A special brew is the rich Märzenbier, huge volumes of which is drunk during the Oktoberfest.

A little to the west, Dortmunder beers like DAB and König are famous for their bitterness; Düsseldorf drinks Altbiers like Diebels with its dry, malty finish and Cologne thrives on the Kölsch – a pale gold brew with a subtle hint of herbs. A completely different taste is the smoky Rauchbier from Bamburg, made with malts smoked over beechwood. Berlin is famous for the Weissbier (white beer) brands like the Berliner Kindl, refreshing summer coolers often drunk with a slice of lemon. In Hamburg and Bremen, the Pilsner is the popular choice and brands like Becks, Bitburger  and Jever are on everyone's lips.

And this is not even the tip of the beer iceberg in continental Europe. From Switzerland comes the world's strongest beer Samichlaus (14% alcohol), the famous amber beers flow from Vienna , the all-conquering Heineken and the lesser-known Grolsch spring from Netherlands, the French drink their Bierré de garde with relish and there are many wonderful brews in Scandinavia and Italy and Eastern Europe.

The good news is that many of these beers are available in Hongkong. Bars in Lan Kwai Fong and Soho serve German, Belgian and Czech beers; Oliver's (Prince’s Building, Central) has a decent selection of ales, Great (Pacific Place) sells German beers, and City Super in Times Square offers a host of Belgian (including the Chimay Trappistè range and some Lambics ), French and Italian beers.. But the best selection is probably at The Beer Bay (Discovery Bay Plaza) - a range of specialty beers from all over Europe.

Finally, what about English ales ? Or for that matter Irish Stouts and American craft beers and Australian lagers ? Now that's another story, brewing for next Sunday