Well, it applies to a couple of things really… firstly the snow and secondly the beer. I’ll be honest… I didn’t have high hopes of finding such a diverse and interesting range of well-built lagers up in the Alps, but I guess I was at altitude, so any hopes were high by default!
We had landed in Kitzbuhel in the North Tyrol region, about an hour and a half from Salzburg for a solid week of snowboarding with a bit of beer and food thrown in for good measure. Great place and my first experience of boarding in Europe, so the scenery and incredible beauty of the town and its buildings were something to behold… especially when it began snowing! Even more amazing was the fact that although the roads became more and more covered and white, powdery goodness, the cars kept driving around. This was in stark contrast to the week before in the UK, where a few inches in some places caused local economies to plummet, people to call work describing how their cars were snowed in and entrepreneurial folk to sell cheap, closing down sale Woolworths knives attached to the bottom of stolen shoes as high-tech ice skates. Yet, here in Austria it was business as usual… so confusing for a Kiwi lad like myself!
So we hit the slopes, I smashed my body to pieces all in the name of fun and come lunchtime it was time to head to an Apres-Ski restaurant for a snack to eat and maybe some liquid refreshment. There are times when I try my damnedest to remove the “brewer’s hat” which has been firmly sewn to the skin of my head so that I can just enjoy a beer for beer’s sake and I’ll admit that with a bit of coercion, the hat found its way to the chair next to me and the first drop of golden liquid that touched my lips was probably the finest I’d had in many a while. The beer in question was Steigl Pils. Stiegl is brewed in Salzburg and uses that ultimate Pilsener hop, the mighty Saaz. On draught it was incredibly refreshing and had a delicate, grassy hop kick that was very clean and definitely needed!
This was to become something of a habit! We’d drop our friends children off at ski school in the morning, hit the slopes for an hour or three, then off we’d go to the closest restaurant on the mountains for a beer and a snack! The food was fantastic! Sausages with sauerkraut, Nuremberg style, was a favourite of mine, as was the local Tyrolean bacon dumpling soup (Speckknodelsuppe). Hearty meat-filled goulash was ideal after a day wallowing through powder as well!
The local Billa supermarket touted an impressive selection of both bottled and canned beer as well as a vast selection of alcohols, with Schnapps a plenty! Each night I’d grab a few different beers and take them back to the hotel to taste. Although we had no fridge in our room, the double windows just so happened to fit beer bottles between them, so we had our own natural refrigerator!
First up was a 5.3% Kapsreiter Landbier Hell… supposedly this is a Landbier, which is a Franconian style lager, often unfiltered, with a good dose of malt and a whack of hop. This beer was okay, they’d used Tettnang, which I was hoping would be more apparent. If I was after a nice crisp, clean, very light coloured lager, then this was the beer for me!
Next up was a Wieselburger Stammbrau Pilsener. Weiselburger also brew Kaiser and Schloss beers, so am guessing they’re a pretty big operation! Not to knock them for being a big brewery but this was pretty standard as a 5.4% lager. It was relatively clean, with some sweetness and a bit of body, yet was lacking any hop-punch or the bitterness that I expect from a pilsener.
I had high hopes for the next beer, which was a 4.9% pilsener called Samson Budweiser. This was confusing…it had the same address as the famous Czech Republic brewery, it even had part of the name, yet the Samson moniker?? I took a sip and prepared myself for an Asterix-like transformation. No difference. I walked over to the bed and tried lifting it. Still weak. I looked in the mirror…yep, hair was long, so there was potential for some Samson-like strength there. I took another sip. Impressive bitterness in the swallow, nice noble hop note with a little malt-spice. I like this beer… even if it doesn’t make me strong. Maybe if I was to drink another five?
My favourite beer of this session had to be the delicious Zipfer Stefani Bock. This was heading more down the pale strong lager route than the rich, caramel bock path, but was a stunning beer. In no way, shape or form did this force it’s 7.1% AbV down my throat. The alcohol was well-masked and the hop and ester combined to give a bit of citrus and grass with a pinch of spicy, white pepper. Best of all was the crisp, dry finish. So smooth as well. My beer of the trip!
The next day dawned, a lot of snow had fallen, yet the sun tried it’s hardest to give us a winter-tan. It failed, yet gave us just enough time to sneak into a beer-tent on the slopes where I tried a Schneider Weisse. The waitress rinsed the tall glass with a spurt of fresh water, then gently poured most of the beer into the glass. I sat there stunned! This wasn’t the Schneider Weisse I knew was it? The beer poured a rich orange colour and was as clear as the most filtered of cheap, crap lagers! Where was my yeast! Where was my dosing of turbid, hazy wheat proteins! Would I have to have a good steak tonight just to make up for this lack of amino acids in my diet?
My panic was short lived. With a flick of her shapely wrists, she swirled the remaining portion of beer in the bottle and topped up the glass – a swirling dervish of yeast and protein made its way to the bottom of my glass, allowed the thick, white head to claw its way to the rim and looked me straight in the eyes. It said “Drink me, I am a perfect glass of beer.” I did. Divine as usual, caramel with a touch of spice in the middle and some very subdued wheat beer yeast characters. The yeast provided a little mouth-dryness though the softness of the wheat came through in the swallow, all full and fruity and magical. I looked out of the beer-tent at a vista of Alps. I like Europe…
The next night saw a few more beers sampled. Body sore, yet spirit fighting against being broken by the snow that seems so soft when it’s falling; I soldiered on and forced the liquids down my gullet all in the name of research. It can be a tough job this brewing thing… A Schloss Eggenberg Premium Bier at 4.0% was first. Some caramel and a bit of egg yolk on the nose. A nice rich, golden colour, some clean hop though not much bitterness and some metallic hop in the aftertaste. This was pretty average really, not a lot of character though this was drunk quite cool, so this may have subdued some of the flavours. I needed something a bit more exciting!
Would Zillertal Schwarzes, a 5.2% Schwarzbier live up to its label and be Premium Classe as indicated? Very sweet in the mouth with a touch of treacle and a little metallic, golden syrup tin character. This had very little perceived bitterness but some dry astringency from the roasted malts that helped balance the sweetness. Some cardboard in the finish didn’t bode to well and turned this from okay to average.
I’d been holding this beer back for no other reason than the fact that it had the word “Bio” written on it. Weitra Brau Hadmar Bio Bier from Bierwerkstatt Weitra Brau (it took me about a minute to write this sentence) poured like a standard lager with a lovely dark, burnished gold colour. It had some initial sweetness and a malty, almost toffee-like flavour. Apple and fruity hop danced across the nose with a distinctive green sultana character coming through as the beer warmed slightly. It also finished with a maltiness that reminded me of both Sam Adams Boston Lager and of Brooklyn’s lager. This was a surprisingly good beer!
Due to my earlier love of the Zipfer beer, this time I went for a Zipfer Marzen to finish the night. 5% and full of esters in the mouth (some slightly gluey) and a spicy, almost ginger character in nose. This showed a little bit of dryness and an almost residual bitterness that doesn’t quite do any favours to in balancing the sweetness. Not bad, but definitely nothing on their Stefani Bock! I will admit though, that the sugary, lemon juice and beer blends known as Radler did help to slake the thirst as well!
The week saw a few more beers tasted and a few more tumbles on the board, but I really loved Austria and would go back again in a heartbeat! The more I read about its breweries and beers, the more I want to travel there and find some hidden craft-brewed gems. I think next winter is as good a time as any!