For the past few years I embark on a trip to explore new places under consideration for future Alumni Trips. During this trip I am accompanied by a group we affectionately refer to as the "HardCore™." The focal point of this group is to visit breweries, try new beer, and have a look at new places. We travel by rail, bus and taxi and the average beer consumption is five liters of beer per day, every day. In 2015 we targeted several new locations: Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and Einbeck. Along the way we encountered Berliner Weisse, Gose, Lüttje Lagen and the original Bock beer of Einbeck.
Our journey started in Berlin where we all met at the Tegel Airport. This airport should have long been closed since the Germans have dumped trillions into a new airport (BER) which has been delayed in opening for several years. So much for German efficiency! Anyway, we had to take a bus to a train and change once more before getting to our hotel. The Berlin transit system is noticeably short on escalators and elevators, so all this was quite a work out with luggage. Just after checking in, we reassembled and headed for lunch. The dish that Berlin is most famous for is Currywurst and my friends directed me to Konnopke's Imbiss. It was the first Imbiss to sell Currywurst in East-Berlin in 1960 and is located under the train platform. Currywurst is a red sausage sliced up and coated with ketchup and/or Worcestershire Sauce and curry powder and usually served with fries. The ultimate street junk food. Most of us jumped at the chance to sample a Berliner Weisse. This is a sour wheat beer which can be ordered "red" or "green." This raspberry or woodruff syrup masks the sourness of the beer. We learned, however, that getting a premix version is not nearly as good as when the barkeep mixes it fresh, right in front of you. After lunch we explored a little of Berlin on foot before having dinner at Brauhaus Georgbraeu - a new brewpub in the former east section of the city.
Everyone was a bit more fit for day two in Berlin. We met Ajra, a Berlin tour guide and history major and soon-to-be-published beer author. She took us around the city and showed us a lot of the WWII sites, including the site of Hitler's bunker and also many Cold War sites, like Checkpoint Charlie. I had been in Berlin three times, but not since 1990. With the fall of the Wall and the subsequent building frenzy, the city is almost unrecognizable to me. There is a line on the ground where the wall used to be, but in some cases, it's not so accurate. Sadly, the real history will be forgotten in a generation or two. Anja's tour was great and, after our late lunch at the Prater Beer Garden, she met up with us again and showed us two more new breweries on the Berlin scene. It was a late night and our heads where spinning - both from the beer and the many new inputs from the day.
As for the Berliner Weisse, we found the best at the Prater Beer garden where the syrup is mixed into the beer on demand. Even though mixing something into the beer is sacrileges to many, I found it to be quite good. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it, but on a nice warm day in Berlin, why not!
Next we entered the depths of what was once "East Germany." Located deep in the east and in a valley so that western TV didn't penetrate, many referred to the area as "the valley of the clueless" since they had to take East German propaganda at face value. And, more recently, this is the area that is the home of Germany's right-wing inspired, anti-immigrants movement, PEGIDA. However, I can say that everyone treated us just fine, with the friendliest folks in Leipzig.
Our port of call was Dresden. Destroy by allied firebombs in the late stages of WWII and immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter House Five, I longed to see this city. It's been rebuilt and lovingly restored since the fall of the wall. We spent several great hours at the Augustus Beer Garden with a beautiful view of the old city across the Elbe River. In the evening, we enjoyed the beer and food at the Ball und Brauhaus Watzke. The next day was excellent weather and several got sunburnt sitting on the terrace of the Waldschlösschen beer garden, they were having a little festival: A solo guy on keyboard and each liter of beer for €4.60. As we arrived, we noted how awful the music was, but it got strangely better as the afternoon wore on. In the evening we followed a Rick Steves tip into a funky "in" neighborhood. we quickly decide that we are no longer among the "in" crowd.
On Monday morning we took the train out to Radeberg and toured the famed Radeberg brewery. We did the tour in German and we were allowed to taste the brewing water and the yeast - that's a first! We were all impressed with their beer - great head retention, Belgian lace, and a crisp, clean taste with excellent finish. I have a new respect of Radeberger. We also learned that this was a cash cow for the East Germans - the exported the beer and this brought in lots of badly needed western cash. This beer was too valuable to waste on the socialist brothers at home!
Leipzig was the city that I expected nothing from and ended up overwhelming me. We stayed right next to the Nikolaikirche where the protests which lead to the demise of the East German government. Another highlight was the Battle of Nations memorial commemorating when the independent German lands finally worked together to defeat Napoleon. However, the biggest memory was at the "Ohne Bedenken" beer garden. We were on the trial of the mythical "Gose" beer - a style exempted from the Reinheitsgebot! It is actually brewery with lactic acid and salt and has a distinct sour taste. Granted, it's not everyone's cup of tea, but it is an endangered species in Germany and we wanted to taste it in its natural habitat. Originally, this style came from Goslar and then Halle. The only producer left on Leipzig is the Bayerischer Bahnhof, a somewhat modern brewpub. We found their version milder and preferred the stronger version from Brauhaus Hartmannsdorf called "Döllnitzer Ritterguts Gose." Some of the locals will drink the Gose with an added syrup or perhaps with a shot of something - like locally produced caraway schnapps. We drank it pure and relished the sourness. While there we met the owner and many other guests - they seemed truly happy to have us there and had a good laugh watching the "Amis" oh and ah over their local beer. We loved it so much that we came back the next day to see if our finding were just a fluke - Nope, this place is the real deal! We also tried the Bayerische Bahnhof and another place which was an Italian Restaurant with a brewpub. The Bayerischer Bahnhof was OK, but the Italian joint was very unimpressive.
We also took a 1/2 day to visit the Köstrizer Brewery in nearby Bad Köstriz. The are famous to Americans for their rich "Schwarzbier" or Black Beer. They gave us an informative, but basic tour before inviting us into their new tasting lounge. They are experimenting with several new craft styles for the local market and they are doing a fantastic job with them. We all loved the Pal Ale and the Witbier as well as their more traditional Pils. The Schwarzbier didn't knock my socks off. It is certainly good, but perhaps I was just expecting too much out of it.
Our only disappoint in Leipzig was in trying to visit Auerbachs Keller. Goethe made this place famous when he used it in his famous work, Faust. We tried to have a beer here 3 times and were turned away each time. The historical rooms are only open to people to commit to having dinner. Despite many open tables, late at night we were turned away. Skip this tourist trap!
After Leipzig we had a long ride on the train with a couple of changes along the way. Just as we approached Einbeck, Texas Mike had a guy in his train car clutch his chest, scream in agony, and fall face first on the deck. When we stopped in Einbeck, the ambulance was already there and taking this unfortunate soul off the train. It was shortly after this excitement that we learned that the station was more than 3 miles from the town of Einbeck. Luckily, there was a lady there with a huge van and she gave all 8 of us a ride into town. It's better to be lucky than smart, I guess. The hotel was nice, but a sleepy little place. During the day, they keep the front door locked, which seemed odd. After we checked in, we walked a bit of the “beer route” through town. The town was untouched during the war and has many ornately carved half-timbered houses dating from the 1500s. It’s beautiful, but also kind of spooky. Since there is no train station, there are few tourists; it’s a surprisingly quiet town for being so beautiful. We found it hard to find an open place where we could get dinner and ended up at a small intimate Italian joint which was extremely happy when we asked for the bill.
The next day we went by the Stadtmuseum at about 9am and saw that it doesn’t open until 10am. However, the lady running the place saw us and opened it up especially for us. You’ve got to love small towns. First, she let us try out some of the old bicycles. Scott tried the old wooden push bike. Then I tried out one of those old-fashioned bikes with the huge front wheel. The museum was cool. It has lots of old bicycles and a whole section on Bock beer, including an interesting video of a 1960’s reenactment of the old Bock beer trade route, taking Bock beer all way down to Munich.
In the afternoon, we toured the storied Einbeck brewery. Without Einbeck, there would not have been any bock beer! In fact, the Munich court wooed brewmaster Elias Pichler away from Einbeck and installed him as the Hofbräu brewmaster in 1614. When we arrived for the tour we learned that two other groups of 30 each were touring at the same time. We were with a group of police officers. Since all their bosses were present, they were quite reserved. The tour was really unimpressive and I felt extremely disappointed. The bottling line was shut down and it looked like they had just had a major malfunction - beer and broken glass was all over the floor and nothing was running. I remember feeling somewhat disgusted that they would allow guests to see the bottling line in such a state. However, things were about to get better...
We were escorted into a nice beer cellar and they offered us the first beer - the famous Bock. shortly thereafter, the second group arrived for their tasting and the place became loud and boisterous. After everyone had a beer, one of the guides rang an eardrum shattering bell which hushed the room. She laid out the tasting rules: You have exactly two hours to drink all the beer you want. The next time the bell rings, it's last call. Game on. The HardCore guys were at their best that day and I'm quite sure our group of 8 drank more beer than the entire police officers group! Before long, we were having a singing contest with the other group - a local shooting club consisting of three generations. Out came massive platters of meats and cheeses and, before we knew it, the bell rang and we had to finish up. We have now tasked our club poet with creating a few chant and songs for the BIER club to match that shooting club.
After Einbeck kicked us out, we went to the local bar and had a beer and then met at the hotel to have dinner. We met up with a couple from the beer tasting, was well as Chris’s landlady and her son. Thing were a bit foggy, but I remember debating with the Germans over the difference between deer, elk and moose. They don’t seem to know much about Moose...
We left Einbeck the next morning and stopped for a quick interlude in Hannover. Hoppson and I sampled a local cult drink called Lüttje Lagen. It’s a shot of Korn liquor and a small shot of weak dark beer - "schankbier." You drink them both together in one hand. you put the beer between your thumbs dinner finger and the Korn between your index finger and middle finger. As you lift it to your mouths the trick is to get the Korn to flow into the beer and then the mixture flows to your mouth from there. Most of it ended up in my nose. What I did managed to get in my mouth was quite good - the maltiness of the dark beer mixed with the Korn results in a nice chocolatey flavor. This is where we parted ways with Chris and we returned to Berlin and had a long long train ride out to Spandau to meet Arja at the Brauhaus Spandau, a nice little hotel and brewery near the airport. We had nice beer out of 5-liter casks so we could pour our own beers right at the table. We had a great time with Arja and got her unvarnished opinions on a variety of topics. At times she had a few of us miffed with her views, but it was an enlightening discussion!
The next day unveiled beautiful weather and we took Arja's suggestions and went to Potsdam where we caught the water taxi out to Cecilienhof - the location of the famous Potsdam Conference at the end of WWII with Churchill, Stalin and Harry Truman. We took the audio tour and it was cool see where history was made and the map of Europe was re-written. The building itself was great too, but they don’t allow photography inside. Then we had lunch and beers at the nearby, river front beer garden before catching the water taxi out to Sans Souci and did a walk through the gardens. This palace of Frederick the Great is astounding and I left wishing that we'd had a lot more time.
That was the end of the official HardCore 2015 and we said "auf wiedersehen" to one another. There still is a lot of ground that we have to cover and we have discussed the Black Forest area (Rothaus) , Hamburg and the region north of there (Jever), and there's some interest in crossing over to Belgium at some point.
I treasure the time with this bunch. It's great to see them all at least once a year and it gives me new ideas for trips. Right now, I'm thinking of offering Berlin in September 2017 as an option with our Alumni Oktoberfest tour. Stay tuned for details!