Saturday, 22 March 2014

Trouble Finishing

It’s very rare that I find a beer that I struggle to finish. However, I seem to have met my match in Schwarzer ABT (Black Abbot), a bottled beer that I picked up on my recent visit to Berlin. Before going any further, I want to add that I’m not talking here about beer that is stale, sour or generally off; but beer that’s fresh and in good condition, but which for one reason or another is just plain undrinkable.

I normally try and bring a few bottles back with me from my trips abroad, and wherever possible I look for obscure or hard to get examples. On this trip though, my plans were thrown into disarray as I found that Bier-Spezialitäten-Laden, the speciality beer shop where I was going to obtain the bulk of my purchases, had closed. I’m certain there must have been other speciality beer shops in a city the size of Berlin, but without an Internet connection I had no way of finding one,. I therefore had to put plan B into action, and start looking in the local shops.

The supermarket opposite our hotel stocked only brands from Berlin’s mega brewing group, BKS or big name beers such as Paulaner or Warsteiner, but East Berlin’s largest department store, Galeria Kaufhaus, situated on Alexanderplatz, came to the rescue, and I was able to purchase a reasonable selection there.

I must admit I didn’t look too closely at the rather functional-looking label of Neuzeller Klosterbräu Schwarzer Abt, or I would have spotted that the beer is only 3.9%  in strength. I also didn’t notice the inclusion of invert sugar on the list of ingredients. Not exactly Reinheitsgebot, but let’s not forget we are talking about a beer brewed in former East Germany, (the DDR), where the Purity Law was not enforced, and the use of sugar in brewing was permitted.

So what did the beer actually taste like? Well it poured jet black with a nice firm contrasting white head, and there’s some chocolate notes in the aroma, but the overall impression of that first taste was one of over-powering sweetness. There was some chocolate and roast flavours in the background, but they were completely swamped by the sickly sweet taste from the invert sugar! I persevered, and eventually consumed around two thirds of the bottle. After that I gave up, as the experience was more akin to drinking Coca Cola than beer!

Schwarzer Abt is brewed by the Neuzelle Kloster Brewery, based in the town of Neuzelle, in the eastern state of Brandenburg, close to the Polish border. It is best known for its Neuzeller "Anti-Aging-Bier" which, in addition to the four usual main brewing ingredients, adds spirulina and flavonoids in order to, supposedly, increase health and longevity, This unorthodox approach to brewing has brought the company into conflict with the German Beer Brewers' Association, most noticeably in 2004, when the brewery was ordered to cease production of their product "Schwarzer Abt" or face a substantial fine. This was because the drink contained added sugar syrup it was in conflict with the Beer Purity Law. The brewery had been brewing the dark beer with sugar syrup in East Germany, which had been allowed under the DDR’s permissive brewing laws. The brewery had not explicitly labelled it as beer, but as "A Specialty Made from Schwarzbier, With Invert Sugar Syrup Added Afterward." In 2003, the brewery changed the labelling to simply read "Schwarzbier." In 2005, a German court upheld the brewery's challenge to purity laws and allowed the brewery to add sugar syrup to "Schwarzer Abt" and label it as beer, ending the 10 year legal battle.

Be that as it may, I would rather the court had dismissed the brewery’s challenge and insisted the beer was brewed to the strictures of the Purity Law, with the sugar omitted, but then looking on the brewery’s website it seems Neuzeller Klosterbräu also brew Cherry, Ginger and Apple-flavoured beer. There must be market for these concoctions, even if it is fairly localised, so who am I to criticise? Next time though, I will definitely pay a bit more attention to what it says on the label!


Bryan the Beerviking said...

I applaud Neuzeller fighting for the right to call their beers "beer" even if it doesn't meet the Provo Purity Law. The Einheitsgebot is these days mostly used as a nationalist and conservative anti-competitive marketing tool, after all.

And while some of the Neuzeller beers you mention are pretty dreadful, others are excellent - their Porter, for instance.

Paul Bailey said...

Bryan, I did notice the Porter on Neuzeller's website. It's just a pity it wasn't on sale in the shop, as I would have bought a bottle.

In the dim confines of my memory, I do vaguely remember reading about changes to East German Schwarzbier following re-unification, and I thought that these days, German brewers are not obliged to stick to the Reinheitsgebot.

The irony is that refined sugars were not available at the time the Bavarian Purity Laws were first introduced. Perhaps the law would have been drafted differently if they had?

A moderate amount of sugar does not, of course, spoil a beer, although like their German counterparts there are many British brewers who eschew its use altogether. Equally, there are many UK beers brewed with a proportion of refined sugar in the grist, and they are none the worse for it. (Burton Pale Ales were a former classic example, and I suspect Marston's Pedigree is still brewed in this manner).

The problem I had with the Schwarzer ABT was not the inclusion of invert sugar in the beer, but the sheer volume of it. But, as with many things in life, it's horses for courses and Neuzeller must sell sufficient volumes of this beer to make it worthwhile brewing it.