Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Italian Beer Series: Christmas Brews!

As the "beer renaissance" continues in Italy, special Christmas brews are increasingly becoming common. Here are two I have tasted, one from a macrobrewer and another from a local brewpub, both decent and worthy of a try. Enjoy!

Forst Christmas Brew - Someone told me before that Forst is better in and around Bolzano, where the beer does not travel more than a few miles to table. I thought it wasn't true, but having recently tasted their Christmas Brew in Bolzano I realized that there may be some truth to it. The Forst I have tried before ranged from drinkable to awful, but their Christmas Brew is a notch above, actually pleasant. The aroma and taste are still subdued to the point of irrelevance, but the hops were apparent and delicious without leaving such a metallic bitterness. Perfect for warming up and taking a break from the Christmas markets if you don't fancy a glass of vin brule.

Birrificio Birracrua Birra Natale - This beer is good and spicy and goes down quite nicely. The beer is cloudy and dark orange and produces a nice tall head that lasts for a while. The aroma is of grains and overripe oranges (not nasty guts outpouring overripe, but ripened to the point when sugar and flavor are concentrated). The taste is of strong hops, nutmeg and something like lychees, with a nice bitter finish. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied and crisp, aided by the sting of strong carbonation. Another good fruity beer from the brewpub.

Also, a nice defense of "regular" beer in Appelation Beer. Although Italy veers more towards American-style of beer production (take classic styles from elsewhere and crank it up in flavor, ABV, etc.), some of the better brews I've had in Italy were unadultered brews that don't go crazy on the bitterness or alcohol--just nice brews made to be enjoyed with others rather than just by its own proud self. But even in Italy, the scene has its own Calagione in the form of Baladin's Teo Musso, an advocate for innovative brews, exotic ingredients, and fancy bottles--and an advocate whom people happen to listen. But really, these guys make their money on being "off-centered." They're not about to speak highly of boring, traditional beers, especially when "traditional beers" are to them just styles and do not have any meaning beyond how they taste. Ultimately, as the author said, what they do is one way of doing things, and "regular beers" is another...they are all worth mention as long as they are good. "There can’t be too many good ones."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snowshoeing in Asiago

My first real snowshoe hike, to relatively flat Asiago so I don't fall to my death if I happen to trip on my rackets. The weather was definitely nicer the day prior, but at least it was not windy and snowing violently. Enjoy!

Nice views of the surrounding mountains. The next picture is from the same area in summertime. I like the snow, but I won't miss it when spring and summer rolls around.

Our destination: Forte Corbin, an Italian fort built in preparation to WW1. There were a total of seven forts built along this area (which used to be Italy's border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire), in retaliation to the seven forts built by the Austrians out of mistrust towards their southern "allies" due to Italy's claim to Trentino.

A great way to end any hike...a beer in Birreria Summano. In the summer, the pub is popular with hikers and motorcyclists. In the winter, the crowd changes to the cross-country skiers coming back from Asiago.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Vicenza By Night

A few pictures of Vicenza at night. I've always wanted to walk around the city center past midnight to take pictures of the city after its bed time, but always found myself too busy or too lazy to do so. The night these were taken happened to be perfect: the air was thick with humidity due to the forecasted snow, and the light was just right...dreamy and hazy.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Italian Beer Series: Bozner Bier (Bolzano)

The Alto Adige part of Italy still follows Reinheitsgebot, so I expected (ignoramously) their beers to be traditional to a fault. Bozner is very much that, but their execution makes for very good brews. The helles is golden and cloudy and produces a nice head. The aroma is nice and citrusy, and taste is fruity and grassy. The dunkel is dark and opaque, producing a medium off-white head. The aroma and taste is of grains and earth, largely defined by their extreme balance and smoothness. What is missing from both beers is the general lack of dominance of hops both in aroma and taste, which I think does not hinder the beers one bit. I think both are some of the nicest "traditional" beers I have encountered in Italy, and I'm looking forward to going back to Bolzano to try these again and their weissbier and bock, which I didn't have time to try.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Italian Beer Series: Peroni Gran Riserva (Vigevano)

A nice offering from Peroni, Gran Riserva was brewed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the company. This one is actually quite good. At 6.6%, Gran Riserva is a bit stronger than the typical lager. Granted it does not have--nor could it afford to have--the complexity of an exotic spiced beer brewed for off-centered people, but for its one-notedness it is very likable. On pouring, the dark golden liquid produces a fine white head about two fingers in height. The aroma is slightly hoppy but mostly grainy, with a bit of burned caramel. The texture is medium, a bit heavier I would say for a Peroni. The bitterness and slight sweetness of really dark chocolate or burned sugar plays from finish to end, with the weak carbonation allowing that pleasant bitterness to be felt throughout. As mentioned, it plays just one note, but plays it competently. Although stronger than the typical lager, it doesn't feel heavy at all. A nice surprise, and would go very well with heavy beef stew or goulash of some sort.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bolzano, Termeno, and the Krampusumzüge

This Sunday I traveled to Bolzano for the city’s famed Chirstmas market and St. Nicholas Procession. I have not been to Bolzano previously, merely driving past it on my way to Munich or Innsbruck. The city is like a hidden Alpine town, with colorful Austro-Hungarian building facades surrounded by low snowed-in mountains. The cobbled streets weave in and out of the small center, leading to the Waltherplatz, next to the city cathedral and its colorful roof most likely fashioned after the one in Vienna. Although maze-like, Bolzano’s streets are world away from the cities and towns just an hour or so southit is cleaner, its paint fresher, and everything just has a feel of being more organized.

Although small, the city’s Christmas market is considered one of the best in Italywhich, for a country that doesn’t have the tradition, isn’t much competition. Bolzano’s market itself isn’t that old, celebrating its 20th iteration this year. Fairy-tale like as it already is, the city goes a step further in Christmas. Everything is lit with string lights and covered in green and red paper; mulled wine, hot cocoa, and hot apple cider is sold by carts at every turn; carolers are blasted on speakers at all hours that the market is open. It’s so jolly and festive that one’s head is liable to explode, but good thing good beer and strudel is always on hand to calm one’s nerves.

I have never been to the Christmas markets up north, but I’m sure that the shopping for hand-made stuff is much better over there than here. Most of the items come boxed and mass-manufactured from somewhere else. The hand-carve religious figures are neat, but are usually grossly overpriced. But in a sense, I came expecting that, and didn’t come for those typical trinkets. Instead, there are other things that are typically Bozner: Bozner Bier, brewed locally and very very good; Loacker has their flagship store, and a visit enlightened me to the other kinds of wafers and candies they offer; different kinds of cold cuts, especially speck; and strudel, from pretty much every corner of the city. And if you’re getting ready for your upcoming ski trip, the city is host to a three-story Sportler.

Although Santa is the centerpiece of the town’s afternoon parade, I didn’t come for him. No, he is too boring, too ubiquitous, too common. If I wanted Santa, I would have just stayed home. What I wanted instead are his companions, taking care of the bad children while Santa rewards the good ones. I am of course talking about the Krampus, evil creatures who, bypassing the coal, drag bad children to hell as punishment for being naughty. Unfortunately, Bolzano was not going to have their krampus procession until the next day, but I received a tip to visit a small town to the south called Tarmeno sulla Strada di Vino. There they say is one of the best in the region because it isn’t so organized as the big towns and the krampus are still authorized to literally drag bad kids to hell.

Tarmeno is small, and we drove for an hour or so trying to find the place amidst the darkness and snow. Once we got there, we were almost disappointed: a small group of adults huddled around a makeshift bar selling mulled wine and hot apple cider. There were no signs of krampus or any sort of preparation for a big parade. We couldn’t ask anyone because we were too afraid to offend German speakers of speaking Italian, and vice versa. However, we knew we were in the right place when we heard over-eager kids running around yellingKRAMPUUUUUUUS!!” Slowly the crowd grows and more children start running around, some pretending to be horned monsters stalking unsuspecting babies. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and reminded me when I too was as excited about Christmas. The crowd didn’t get much bigger, and I was glad to realize that it was a largely local event. As trite as it sounds, I felt like I stumbled on a traditional event held solely because it is traditional, not for tourist money.

When the clock struck eight, things became very tense. Once in a while, children would come running down the street from what I assumed was the general direction of where the krampus was traveling. Finally, a flash of red light and a loud eery moan. Next, a burning cart is dragged into the street, followed by boys and men dressed in fur wearing creepy masks and cowbells that made loud noises as they hopped closer. At first there were maybe ten, then twenty, then thirty carrying switches and harassing bystanders. By harassing, I mean literally. Girls were being carried away or their hairs pulled, bystanders were being hit with tree branches, and little kids are being chased around with firecrackers.

I was personally attacked by this guy. As I was taking pictures, he stood right in front of me, staring at me. I put the camera down and innocently smiled back. Suddenly he had his hands all over my face smearing some greasy stuff all over it. Afterwards I look around surprised for realizing why parents had already put black paint on their children's faces to spare them from the terror.
It only lasted about half an hour, after which we decided to leave. Honestly, it got too wild and creepy for us, and we were terrified of cowbells as we walked back to the car. A very weird way of celebrating Christmas, but definitely also a more exciting and exhilirating one. And I agree with Mr. Colbert: bring the krampus to America!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Polish Beers: Porters, Honey, and Piwo Grzane

In Warsaw for four days and with a newfound liking for beer, I made tasting Polish beers one of the goals of my trip. Although not as well-known as the Czech Republic for beer, the Polish love their beers: they are the third largest producer in the continent and the seventh largest consumer of it in the world. But the vast majority of the beers in the country is produced by three large conglomerates (what else, SABMiller/Tyskie, Heineken/Zywiec and Carlsberg/Okocim), and their beers all roughly taste the same (bland with a high dose of carbonation, like other American lagers). Although recent introduction of craft beers from overseas has prompted these big companies to start producing different types of beers, from my experience the divergence largely results in failure. The Baltic porters from Zywiec and Okocim for example were too harsh, with I'm guessing the brewers adding adjuncts to bump up the alcohol content artificially. (Surprisingly enough, Zywiec porter gets good revies online; I guess in relation to what I had, it was really awful.) Anyway, beyond the ubiquitous Tyskie/Zywiec/Okocim beers on tap pretty everywhere in Warsaw, there were some interesting beers--at least for me, who never really had much on experience with beer other than the German/Belgian/Czech style beers popular in this side of Europe and in the US. These beers were not very easy to find--regional Polish beers, unlike regional beers elsewhere, rarely venture too far away from their place of origin--but offered a diverse array of flavors that are worthy of being sought.

Brewpubs are not very popular in Poland, and in Warsaw one can only find two: Browarmia and Bierhalle, both found along Nowy Swiat. Bierhalle is a chain restaurant found across the country specializing in Bavarian cuisine and beer. Their waitresses wear drindls, they serve hefeweizen in winter, and serve little German sausages and pork knuckles. The beers, although produced on site, are nothing special, surely appealing to a wide range of taste. Browarmia on the other hand is worth seeking, serving more distinctive beers and food. Their seasonal cherry beer is good, more tart like a cherry geuze beer than sweet like a Lindemanns. The arome is of hops and cherry blossoms. Their porter is also very good, defined by its robust smoky coffee flavors and aroma and really smooth finish.

Beyond these two places, there really is a major dearth of beers on draught in Warsaw. Even in the best pubs around the university area, beers on tap usually consist of variations of the big three. In this case, one is required to venture out into the rest of the city in search of bottled beer. This proves to be not so difficult. The city is littered with "alkohole" or liquor stores. Unlike liquor stores in the US, these tend to be less sketchy and more upmarket, offering beers from the cheapest/skunkiest to the premiums. Out of these, I picked a handful that the person behind the counter suggested.
Jagiello Magnus is a 6% chocolate-flavored porter produced by Jagiello in Pokrowka, 80km from Lublin. Upon opening, the sweet, milk chocolate aroma immediately hits, almost like Hershey syrup. In a glass, the beer's brownish head is moderate with a clear, dark brown color. The body is appropriately nice and creamy. The taste is not as sweet as I expected. Now, don't get me wrong: it is sweet. But it's not so cloying, and the mellow carbonation and the lasting raw cocoa bitterness cuts through the sweetness. I love chocolate milk and I became tipsy too quickly due to drinking this a little too fast.
Next up is Perla Czarna Extra Strong from Lublin. At 8%, it is the newest and strongest of Perla's generally highly-renowned line of beers. The aroma is hoppy and a bit savory. There is a bit of tartness on the flavor and a hint of sweetness, and finishes with a somewhat chemical and spicy bitterness. The beer is decent, but nothing special.

Unlike the Perla Czarna, Ciechan Porter was an absolute discovery, and what I imagine a proper Baltic porter should taste like. Brewed in Ciechanow about 100km northwest of Warsaw, the porter pours a very dark brown, producing a thick, creammy, brown head that lingers throught the entire session. The aroma is robust and dare I say muscular, with hints of dark roasted coffee, hazelnuts, dark syrup, and smoked wood. The coffee continues with the taste, with the dominating espresso flavor backed up by a slight sweetness and nuttiness. A coffee bitterness lasts throughout and finishes with a mellow and pleasant aftertaste. Unlike the relative innocence of the Jagiello which hides its alcohol well, you can feel the 9% hit, but such an aggresive beer would have otherwise been pointless without it. Probably the best beer I had in Poland, and one of the best anywhere.
Hands down the most distinct beer I've had anywhere, Piwo Miodne is a product of Browar Kormoran in Osztyn. Honey or honey flavored beer is a fairly common product in Poland, but this is the only one I had. To be honest, I don't really know what to think about this beer. It is a complex beer surely, but I wonder if it is a little too complex. When pouring, it looks like soda that lost its fizz: almost still, no head, dark mahogany color, with no traces of cloudiness. The scent is different gradiation of sugar: floral, honey, candy, perfume, all alternating. While tasting it, I imagined that this was how drinking perfume might be like: combinations of fruits and flowers all doused in a liberal serving of honey. The 5.7% ABV is not aparent at all. It's not too sweet, but one would not miss the honey. I think I will be seeking this upon return to Poland, just to see if I would still be ambivalent to it the second time around.
Although I previously mentioned that beer produced by the large breweries are generally not worth the attention, they do have one very good use: making piwo grzane. In Italy, most everyone is familiar with mulled wine especially during the holidays, but piwo grzane is more than worthy of being considered an alternate. Basically, beer is boiled with spices, lemon, orange, and honey to produce a sweet, spicy, and warm concoction perfect for cold Polish winters. I think piwo grzane is best if the beer doesn't assert itself too much. In essence, it's just a vessel for delivering the tangy flavors created by the added spices. The name brand beers are perfect for their cheap price and relative tastelessness. Although it seems like sacrilege, it is more than worth the try.
If messing with beer isn't your thing, there are brewers such as Koreb that produce spiced beer--in this case, Herbowe--that are served heated by the brewery in Christmas markets. The flavors are more subtle, but the cheeriness of such flavors are definitely still there.