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Barking up the right tree with Alsatian beers

As compared with the idiosyncratic, Belgian influenced beers of Northern France (the region around Lille) those from the German influenced East (Strasbourg and Alsace) have always appeared to me disappointing.

The brews of the North are often in the ale-ish style Bire de Garde, while those from Alsace are lagers, but I take no issue with that. Even as compared with the mild German lagers across the border in Baden-Wurttemberg, the Alsatians seem tame.

This perception is not altogether fair. The biggest breweries in the Strasbourg area are mass-marketing giants, against whom the smaller ones have to defend themselves while also trying to produce their own specialities. On the latter score the small breweries have made much more effort of late. I just hope it is not too late, or too little.

If we may get the giants out of the way: Heineken have the Mutzig brand as well as "33," and Kronenbourg offer their own name plus Kanterbrau.

The biggest independent is known by both the German surname Fischer and its French translation Pecheur. The president of this brewery, Michel Debus, was the person who successfully challenged the German Beer Purity Law in the European Court.

That was a dubious achievement, as I have observed elsewhere. Was this why he seemed a little distant when I recently met him in Strasbourg at the biennial exhibition Eurobire? More likely he had never heard of me.

Pecheur and its subsidiary brewery Adelshoffen have produced several colourful specialities, some more emphatically gimmicky than others. A few years ago, there was the supposedly aphrodisiac Bire Amoureuse, a golden lager flavoured with ginseng and other plants, and packaged in a phallic bottle that might have contained a male fragrance.

I thought it had a ginseng taste, and that it may have worked, though I did not measure its effect in a very scientific fashion.

A slightly more serious speciality has been Adelscott, a copper-coloured lager made with a proportion of Scottish whisky malt (6.4 per cent alcohol by volume). I have always found this an enjoyably malty beer, though very subtle in its supposedly-peated whisky-malt character. It has nonetheless inspired enough imitators in other countries to constitute a sub-category among smoked beers.

This year, Ncheur/Adelshoffen presented at Eurobire an additional speciality, a far darker version of the whisky-malt beer. This brew, called Adelscott Noir (6.6 ABV), has indeed an almost-black colour, with just a hint of cherryred when it is held up to the light and a distinctively greyish head (that sounds unattractive, but it is actually an interesting colour).

Adelscott Noir also has a dash more flavour. It is still only lightly peaty, but has its own grainy-smoky notes, especially at the back of the mouth.

Adelscott Noir also has a dash more flavour. It is still only lightly peaty, but has its own grainy-smoky notes, especially at the back of the mouth.

Pecheur/Adelshoffen also had a more gimmicky new speciality, a golden lager called Kingston that comes ready-laced with white rum from Martinique. This beer, at a potent 7.9 per cent ABV, has a distinctively soft body, a lightly sweet palate and a gently rummy aftertaste.

It is not the most serious of beers, though I could see it selling well to younger drinkers, and pot only those of Caribbean ethnic origin.

My encounter with Pecheur's Monsieur Debus was impromptu, but I had a planned luncheon date with Madame Rina Muller-Walter, of the city's smaller independent brewery Schutzenberger. Madame Muller has run this business since the death of her husband some years ago, and is doing so with some charm and energy.

We ate in l'Ami Schutz, which sounds like the brewery tap but is really a restaurant, in a house in the timbered medieval style that characterises much of Strasbourg.

My lunch began with an aperitif of Schutzenberger's Pils and a starter of brawn, the jelly of which had been flavoured with the brewery's pale bockbier Jubilator. Then there were kidneys in a sauce of the brewery's Vienna-style amber lager Cuivree, and finally an ice-cream parfait made with the darker Patriator.

There was even, as a digestif, a fruity distillate made from Jubilator. This spirit, called Fleur de Bire, is reduced by a distillery called 'Wlfberger, in Colmar, Alsace.

The Pils, sub-titled Tradition, is soft, light and dryish. The Jubilator, at 7 per cent ABV, is surprisingly light for its strength, with a pleasantly hoppy finish. The Cuivre, at a hefty 8 per cent, and very smooth in body, starts dry and develops fruity-malt notes.

The Patriator, at 7 per cent, is again surprisingly light in body, with a soft maltiness, again slightly fruity; it is a dark bock-bier, but has allusions to Scotland on the label (the French tend to appropriate strong brown beers to Caledonia). The brewery also has a springtime Bire de Mars,at 5.8 per cent, with a russet colour and a quick surge of toffeeish maltiness.

There is also, at 6.5 per cent, a yeasty, hazy, golden beer served on its lees (but not bottle-conditioned) called Deux Miles (after the 2,000th anniversary of the establishment of Strasbourg). This has a good dash of bitterness.

The brewery was founded in at least 1740, in the town of Strasbourg and, with the growth of lager brewing in the 1840s, subsequently established maturation caves in the suburb of Schiltigheim, to which it moved its whole operation in 1866. It is now one of four breweries in Schiltigheim.

To celebrate its 250th anniversary, the brewery built a copper fountain from which beer can be tapped. This is in the garden of the turn-of-the-century house on the brewery site. Another decorative feature is a tiny weighhouse, with a clock tower. The brew-house is in copper, with stained glass windows, and there are still cellars underneath.

After a farewell beer with Rina Muller, I bumped into another of the formidable women of Alsace's brewing industry, Marie-Therese Haag. The family Haag are principals of the Meteor brewery, and Marie-Therse handles public relations.

The brewery is about 20 miles north-west, in the village of Hochfelden. As with Schutzenberg, so at Meteor, the basic product is a Pils-type, but the brewery does have its specialities. At Eurobire, it was introducing a strong (8 per cent), coppercoloured, darkish lager called Mortimer, which was the hit of the show.

This beer has a very dense head, a smooth body, a malt accent and some ho p in the finish. The name is intended to suggest Englishness, hinting at an ale, though surely Mortimer has Norman origins?

The day finished at the speciality beer cafe 12 Apotres, on Rue Mercire, right by the cathedral.

The cafe specialises in beer, not food, and does not normally serve meals, but patron Bernard Rotman had etched in a huge selection of smoked fish, sausages and cheeses.

When I had clearly had my fill of such savouries, a young man approached and whispered, with the air of a drug-dealer: "Would you like some chocolate?" He was Christophe Meyer, a dealer in nothing more sinister than mousses, ice-creams and petits four across the street at Patisserie Christian.

There he entertained Bernard and me to a chocolate mousse made with Schutzenberger's Cuivre; a beer sorbet flavoured with Jubilator, and truffles moistened with Gouden Carolus, the dark, strong, spiced ale from Belgium.

How had the patisseur made a hop glaze without rendering his sweets too bitter? He had milled the hop leaves, sauteed them in butter, then filtered the liquid through the muslin. He had then rolled the truffles in the clear liquid. It provided an astonishingly flowery touch.

L'Ami Schutz is at 1 Ponts Couverts, Strasbourg (88-327698. 12 ApOtres is at 7 Rue Mercisre (88- 320824). Patisserie Christian is at 10 Rue Merciere (88-221270).

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: JUNE 1, 1993
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review - Beer Styles

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