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Beer Geography Part 3 - Central Europe
OAKES WEEKLY - MAY, 2004
May 13, 2004
In this installment of beer geography, I will outline the scene in central, eastern and northern Europe.
We left off in Germany, so let’s stay there. Bavaria was once its own nation, and was a latecomer to the German nation. It is believed that the practice of lagering beer was born in the mountains of southern Bavaria. The famous Reinheitsgebot was a Bavarian law, and it was only after Germany as a whole agreed to adopt it that Bavaria agreed to adopt Germany as a whole.
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For beer purposes, there are three key parts to Bavaria. The first is the south, centred around Munich. The second is Hallertau, the third Franconia.
Munich is in the south of Bavaria. The region is known for barley-growing, and the city known for Oktoberfest. The big Munich breweries are the most important of all German breweries in terms of the nation’s beer reputation. But the most crucial breweries like in the Munich hinterlands – small town brewers like Ayinger and monastic brewers like Weltenberg, Andechs and Ettal. The region is unofficial home to helles, dunkel, bock, and weizen in all the aforementioned permutations.
To the NNE of Munich lies the famous hop-growing region of Hallertau, and beyond that, the holy gates of Franconia. Prague is Central Europe’s pretty face, Munich it’s muscle but Franconia is the heart. Every village has a brewery, sometimes two. Local beer is king, and quirkiness abounds. Rauchbier and kellerbier are native styles here – a far cry from the uniform pilsners of the north.
From Franconia in a northeasterly direction you come to Berlin, the capital of Germany and home to a rare example of a quirky urban beer style. Berliner Weisse used to be produced and consumed in great quantities, but we should be thankful that it still exists at all. On the way from Franconia to Berlin is Leipzig, home of the resurrected gose beer style. Gose is also a sour wheat beer. Directly east of Berlin, across the border in Poland, another sour wheat beer was made for centuries in the town of Grodzisk up until the mid-90’s. In fact, local wheat beer styles dotted both Germany and Poland in bygone eras. It cannot be understated the impact that pale lager has had on brewing traditions. Which means that the beer lovers of this world should be very thankful for the pockets of old-school artisanal brewing you still see in the great beer countries.
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East of Franconia is the Czech Republic. This nation’s beer drinking achievements are big league stuff, as the Czechs lead the world in per capita consumption. This nation is made up of two parts, and each contributes to the beer. Bohemia is the western part, where Prague is located and where the locals indulge in the true bohemian lifestyle – drinking beer and watching hockey. The soft water of this region is the stuff of legend, and the Saaz hops are as well. The eastern part of the country, Moravia, contributes a notably fine, sweet barley.
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Back to Poland, you’ll find that the imperial stout style evolved into what is now known as Baltic Porter. Though one could surmise that this style originated in trading ports along the Baltic coast, today the style can be found in breweries all over Poland. In the east of Poland, slightly to the south, you find the Lublin region, which is famous for its hops.
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We shall now travel along the Baltic shoreline. Bypassing Kaliningrad, we come to Lithuania. The Baltic states are often lumped into one group, but that is somewhat unfair as they are quite distinct from one another. First, Estonia has a totally different language and ethnicity from the other two. Second, in matters of sport, Estonians prefer bike racing, Latvians hockey and Lithuanians basketball. Furthermore, there are key beerological differences as well.
Lithuania’s northeast corner, centred around the town of Birzai, has a long tradition of farmhouse brews. Yes, this is the area with the dubious distinction of adding peas to their lagers, but there are various strong dark funky beers to be had as well. Latvian beer is not of much renown but Estonia has a strong farmhouse beer style that is still homemade on the island of Saaremaa. This is creatively dubbed koduõlu (“home beer”).
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Around the Gulf of Finland we go to the strategic city of St. Petersburg. It was here that the tsars had their court, and thus it was here that the ships carrying strong stout from England arrived, and were thus known as “imperial”. The style isn’t really brewed as such in the city any more, but it’s bottom-fermented bastard offspring Baltic Porter is quite well-known.
Moving westward we come to Finland. In the central part of the country, Lake Päijänne is long and narrow, running north to south. On either side of this lake you’ll find the sahti heartland. This ancient style of rye and juniper beer is still made in many homes and saunas, though you have to know the brewer. One does not walk off the bus and trip over homemade sahti. Sahti’s smoked cousin Gotlandsdricke, is brewed off the east coast of Sweden, on the large island of Gotland. Of these and the related Koduõlu, only sahti is available commercially.
There are a smattering of other moderately interesting sites for beer around Europe as well. East of Venice, in Slovenia, grow the famous Styrian Goldings. There are other hop-growing regions in the Balkans as well. In the Ukraine there are also hop areas. Russia’s main hop region is Chuvashia, which lies on the Volga River approximately 600 kilometres east of Moscow. They also have their own farmhouse style of beer, reportedly rather weak but very hoppy. This is not known to be bottled for sale. The Chuvash people are a distinct ethnic group and are the only group in Russia, with the possible exception of the Karelians, who have any beer-drinking tradition.
So hopefully this helps with putting some of the world’s most important beer locales into some sort of perspective. Certainly this part of Europe is much larger than the others so I wasn’t able to produce a full-scale map in order to put it all together, but hopefully you what I’m getting at. If there is demand, I might do one of these for North America, but I’d be lost trying to write one for anywhere else.
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