Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

27 July, 2016

If You Go to New Orleans, You Ought to Drink the Abita: Strawberry Lager by Abita Brewing Company

With the closing of The Bayou, Madison has lost one of, it not its only, bars that reliably served Abita beers.

Abita, I have just learned, is not, as I previously thought, in New Orleans despite all of the NOLA/Mardi Gras imagery on the labels. It is, in fact, in – quelle surprise - Abita Springs which lies 30 miles north of New Orleans. In Madison-area terms, Abita is about the same size as New Glarus Brewing and resides in a town about the same distance away from New Orleans as New Glarus is from Madison.

According to Wikipedia, the brewery distributes in 46 states and Puerto Rico. They even ship some of their brews to Germany. For a brewery with such reach and no small renown, I have to ask myself why I've sampled so little of their beer. I recall having one at The Bayou a few years back and just not being impressed. Since that experience, I have – unfairly – avoided their beers. Until recently, that is. It was a very hot summer day and my wife was keen on some strawberry beer. I was hesitant at first because the label has those dreaded words "natural flavoring" on them but the Abita webpage says that they use strawberry juice. So I took the plunge.

Strawberry lager pours a lovely light gold color and has a haze to it that the Abita notes is from the strawberry juice. Although I was not able to capture it with my camera, my glass had about one inch of white foam atop it. The beer was fizzy too with lots of bubbles inside.

As I expected, there was plenty of sweet strawberry aroma and I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't smell like candy. Not that it was like fresh strawberries, mind you, but instead I was reminded of the cans of strawberry nectar, I believe from Libby's, that I drank as a kid. There was also a little toasted grain.

On the hot day that I sampled this beer, its light body and plentiful carbonation were most welcome. The strawberry tasted a little less sweet than it smelled – like strawberry juice. The pilsner malt came across as a lightly toasted grain and the wheat as, well, wheat. It had that clean lager taste too which allowed a little grassy hop bitterness to come through.

Abita uses Vanguard hops with which I am not familiar. In addition to a little bitterness that you get while drinking the beer, you get even more of it on the finish. The strawberry lingers a bit but it's really the hops here with a nice grassy flavor and some mild bitterness which makes for a fairly fry denouement. The lacing in my glass was, as Darth Vader once opined, impressive with white streaks and splotches everywhere.

Considering that I was rather skeptical going in, Abita surprised me here with a great summer quencher. The beer has a light body and plenty of fizz. It's clean and crisp letting the tasty flavors shine. And those flavors provide a great example of restraint. The grains are light and toasty while the strawberry is a fine accent and not a big, sweet candy simulacrum.

Junk food pairing: Strawberry Lager will complement light summer fare such as 7 Layer Dip Tortilla Combos.

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26 July, 2016

A Chimeric Brew: Pilsner by Wisconsin Brewing Company

Earlier this week I made a trek out to Verona where the Wisconsin Brewing Company was debuting one of their Forward brews – the Forward series being limited trial runs of beers that are perhaps sometimes brewed simply to placate the desires of a brewer. Other times they seem to be pilot batches of brews in contention for bigger and better things.

This week there was a pilsner on offer, one that the brewery described as "a hybrid of Bohemian and German varieties". Upon reading this I thought back to the beginning of the year when a brew schedule showed that a new annual would be entering WBC's line-up apparently called Czech Pilsner and that it was due in July. The best laid plans, as they say. Apparently things changed and it remains to be seen whether a pilsner enters WBC's line-up or not. Maybe things have simply been delayed and the Forward beer is a prototype for a revamped pils to enter the fray. We shall see.

The taproom in Verona was doing a fairly brisk business when we arrived. I had invited a friend who is my usual companion to WBC on Wednesdays but he was unable to make it. In addition, he expressed fear in his e-mail to me that it would abandon tradition and be hopped with lupulin nouveau, teeming with tropical fruit flavor like a stick of Juicy Fruit. And so it was quite ironic to see that Golden Amber Lager was now being flavored with Cascade hops instead of Willamette(?). People can't get enough of those C-hops with their F-flavors, I guess.

Would the pils suffer the same fate?

I asked for a pils and was taken aback when I saw the gentleman behind the bar grab a couple sample glasses when I suddenly recalled that you get a free sample of the Forward brews. Thus my photo.

Pils was a medium straw color and, curiously enough, hazy. I even wiped my glass a second time to be sure my eyes weren't being deceived. They weren't. It appeared that I had another keller pils on my hands. My sampler glass came with a fairly sizable white crown of loose foam which lasted a fair while. Long enough for me to get the glass to a table, fumble with an iPhone, and get a passable photograph. Keeping in line with the style, it was plenty fizzy on the inside.

The beer's aroma was quite simply fascinating or rather it's lack of aroma. I think water has more of a scent than this beer. At one point after several sniffs, I think I caught a hint of cracker, but I don't know if this was my incredulous brain doing a poor job filling in the massive blank or if there were genuinely a few malt particles wafting into my nostrils. Nothing like some philosophical skepticism to go with your beer. On the other hand, at least it didn't smell like violets violently mashed together with passion fruit.

Tasting the beer I realized what WBC meant by a German-Czech hybrid. Initially it tasted Teutonic with prominent grassy hops laid over a light biscuit flavor. The carbonation added a little bite and dryness while the hop bitterness was fairly restrained. Things took a turn towards the Bohemian on the finish when the grain flavor faded allowing a more spicy/peppery hop flavor to come to the fore. I'm not sure if this come courtesy of Saaz hops or a similar variety. Things got pretty bitter and dry here, although not as much as a true Czech pils.

My little glass was left with a whole lotta Schaumhaftvermoegen - streaks of foam everywhere.

This was a good pils although "pils" may not be the most fitting term to describe a turbid beer with an aroma that may not be grounded in reality. Hell, maybe someone had too much double eyepah and forgot to add some hops. Whatever the case, this beer is pretty tasty. It's got a nice light body and a fine clean malt taste that's complemented by a goodly amount of fizz. The hops are forward – no pun intended – but not overwhelming. And I like how they went from grassy to spicy.

This pils is surely a beta, if not alpha brew. While it would be nice if it were tweaked and refined and finally put into regular rotation, I just don't see that happening with its Noble hop flavors.

Junk food pairing: If you head to the brewery to give the pils a taste, be sure to bring some snacks with you. Try some Jays Sour'n Dill potato chips or Buffalo Blue Cheese Pretzel Combos.

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25 July, 2016

It's All Greek to Me: Westporter Weisse by Parched Eagle Brewpub

Last month when I stopped in at the Parched Eagle Brewpub to try out their ESB, proprietor Jim Goronson was putting the finishing touches on a Berliner Weisse. It took me a few weeks but I eventually made a return trek to try out the bier which had been christened Westporter Weisse.

Little did I know that day in June that Goronson was back in his brewhouse wielding Greek yoghurt. I guess this makes Westporter Weisse probiotic or some such thing. Apparently yoghurt is blessed with multiple strains of lactobacillus, the bacteria that gives the Berliner Weisse (and other sour brews), their distinct citrusy tartness. With Athens Gyros next door to his building, Greek yoghurt must have been a no-brainer for Jim.

While I neglected to ask him exactly how he soured his bier, my understanding is that you put a dash of yoghurt into some warm wort which is the lacto equivalent of the back seat of a car - an ideal breeding ground for little critters. After a honeymoon of a few days at the right temperature, you have a colony of lactobacillus ready and waiting for the right kettle souring opportunity.

When I received my pint of Westporter, I was surprised at how turbid it was. The brew looked like one of those New England eyepahs that I hear are taking the world by storm. This is stuff looked like a whiteout in a glass. Well, except it was light yellow. The small white head didn't stick around very long and I was unable to see through the lemon haze to check on effervescence.

Things returned to normality as my nose hovered over the glass taking in wheat and sourness. The sour smell was lacking the usual lemon bit at first but it became more citrusy as the bier warmed. While the mildewy, wet blanket aroma of brettanomyces yeast has a long history with the Berliner Weisse, none was introduced here. And so some strain of lactobacillus was responsible for the faint, yet very pleasant, funky smell here.

While Destihl's Berliner Weisse has a lock on the Best Beer for Making Voltaic Piles category, Westporter has a good, firm tartness. Cold, the tartness flies solo but is joined by the expected lemon-citrus taste as the bier warms. The wheat poked through a little bit as did a mineral water flavor but I didn't taste much carbonation.

The tartness slowly faded on the finish and left my mouth with a slight citrus tang and the aforementioned mineral tastes. Schaumhaftvermoegen consisted of a few scattered spots of foam.

Key to enjoying a Westerporter Weisse is letting the bier warm up a tad so that the lemon scent and taste from the bacteria comes through to really bring the tartness to life. It falls in the middle of the pack as far as the acidic taste and sourness goes. It won't dissolve metal but it may be something of a challenge for those new to sour brews. (This can be remediated with the strawberry syrup on offer at the bar.) Westporter has a light body perfect for this heatwave – it's only; 3.5% A.B.V. - but I wish it had more carbonation. There's also a mineral aftertaste that, although not strong, challenged my tastebuds to figure out what to make of it. It seemed more out of place than bad tasting.

All in all, not bad. Westporter Weisse was, to the best of my knowledge, the first beer I've had soured using yoghurt and it'll take more tasting to figure out if the process lends anything unique to a brew.

Junk food tasting: Keep the Greek theme going. With a Westporter Weisse in one hand, put a pile of Shearer's Rosemary and Feta Kettle Chips in the other. For dessert, pair Westporter with a Hostess Greek Yogurt Swirl cake.

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22 July, 2016

Your Brewer Was a Hamster: Berliner Weisse with Elderflower by Victory Brewing Company

I'd bet a dollar to a doughnut that most people who laughed at the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the French guard insults King Arthur by saying, "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" hadn't the faintest notion of what elderberries smell like. We laughed anyway not because of any inherent quality of the elderberry but because of the sheer absurdity of the scene.

I'd also wager that most people who see a bottle of Victory's Berliner Weisse with Elderflower will have never tasted elderflowers and that a sizable chunk of drinkers will, like me, have Monty Python and the Holy Grail spring to mind.

Late last year Victory announced its Blackboard series, an annual run of four limited edition brews. The beers are alternately draft-only and bottled. Berliner Weisse with Elderflower is the third entry this year having been preceded by an Agave Eyepah with Grapefruit and a Dry-Hopped Brett Pils. (Oatmeal Porter with Hazelnut will close out 2016.) Thankfully the Berliner Weisse was bottled because there's no way I'd be able to make it out to sub(ex?)urban Philadelphia to try it.

Now that we're firmly entrenched in the dog days of summer, the Berliner Weisse is a fine style to indulge in with its light body, abundance of carbonation, and tangy tartness. And hell, who knows what additional delectations the elderflower may bring to repulse the positively plutonian heat.

Berliner Weisse with Elderflower pours a pale yellow with the characteristic haze that wheat brings to beer from its proteins. (I wonder when we'll have Kristall Berliner Weisses.) I got a half inch or so of frothy, white foamy goodness that lasted about half a minute. As expected, this is an effervescent brew with bubbles aplenty inside.

There was a big lacto-lemony sour scent along with a floral/herbal aroma that leant towards the sweet. This was my first encounter with the elderflower in the beer and quite pleasant it was. New Belgium's Gruit also had elderflowers and it too had a nice floral smell.

That lemon did double duty and made for a bracing, sour salutation for my tongue. The lactic acidity along with the firm carbonation gave the bier a really nice bite. Wheat was hinted at while the elderflower added a floral touch that was on the earthy side and another layer of tartness. I presume this latter taste was the elderflower, anyway. It was a bit like the child of a tart, baking variety of apple and a quince.

This may not be the most tart Berliner Weisse I've ever had but it has a good, sturdy sour taste and it should not be surprising that it lingers well after the liquid has left my mouth. Oddly enough, the wheat then comes on strongly followed by a little berry fruitiness and a hint of sweetness. A most unexpected, though welcome, finish. Alas, my glass was left with no Schaumhaftvermoegen.

Fantastisch! Even ohne the elderflower this is a great Berliner Weisse. The tartness is strong but not deadly as you with a Destihl brew and it has the requisite light body and plentiful carbonation. At 5.2% A.B.V., it's a bit more potent than usual. Adding in the elderflower laces an already wonderful brew with shades of sweet botanical joy.

Junk food pairing: The Berliner Weisse pairs well with lighter fare such as thinly cut potato chips. Plain ones will allow you tease out the elderflower accents. On the other hand, you may want to play up the lemony-citrus flavors of Berliner Weisse with Elderflower and so get your hands on a bag of Lemon Oreos.

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20 July, 2016

Out of the Keller: Keller Pils by Summit Brewing Company

While Surly over in Minneapolis is perhaps the trendiest brewery in the Twin Cities, Summit Brewing in neighboring St. Paul is the stalwart veteran of the scene. Having been formed in 1986 the brewery is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with a quartet of special beers. The first, a double eyepah, was released late last winter. Then, just before the heat of summer, they unleashed Keller Pils, an unfiltered German-style pils.

Despite my perception of them being the unfashionable old-timer of the Twin Cities (though not as old as fellow Minnesotans August Schell which is 155+ years old), I just looked them up and Summit brews somewhere on the order of 120,000-130,000 barrels a year so someone is drinking their brews. It's just not usually me, I guess.

It's not that I'm anti-Summit. I suppose it's because stores tend to display their Sága Eyepah most prominently and then there's another eyepah and another and I then begin to get eyepah fatigue and my eyes wander to the Schell section. The truth is that they brew a fine pilsener and it's on store shelves year round. My parochial taste in beer no doubt also plays a role. Their year-round line-up looks to be mostly pale ales and so I tend to turn away. Finally there's Summit's Maibock and Oktoberfest. While I enjoy both, they tend to get lost in a sea of such beers every spring and autumn.

That I have failed to adequately support this neighbor to the west in the past is beyond a doubt. In my defense, however, I did purchase a six pack of their anniversary Keller Pils last weekend and have gone a long way towards guilt tripping myself with my writing thus far.

Keller Pils pours a hazy straw color. This being an anniversary brew, it put its best foot forward with a large, fluffy yet firm, white head that remained for quite a while until I greedily slurped it down. The bier was highly effervescent with bubbles aplenty inside going upwards.

"Keller" is German for cellar and implies a couple things to me. First is that the bier is unfiltered which I saw with the haze. But I also associate keller biers with freshness. It's fresh from the lager tanks downstairs. So fresh, the brewery didn't even bother to filter it. My can of Keller Pils had "10/10/16" printed on the bottom. Do they give consumers six months to quaff it?

Regardless of the fact that the bier in my glass was not pumped fresh from Summit's lagering tanks promptly upon hitting peak tastiness, it did have a really nice, pungent hop aroma that was floral and herbal just like spring itself when the flora once again comes to life. I can just imagine how it would have smelled earlier in the year. There was also a great cracker graininess here too.

Summit states that their Pilsener is brewed using a decoction mash and although I don't know if the process was utilized in brewing Keller Pils, it has those wonderfully rich malty flavors associated with decoction mashing. The bier is awash in seas of biscuit, toasted grain, and yeasty bread. The hops are no slouches either with a herbal taste above a floral one like I smelled earlier. Summit declares Keller Pils to be a German pilsner. And so while the hops give a fairly strong taste they are not as assertive as the Saaz you'd find in a Czech pilsener. Bitterness was moderate.

Keller Pils finishes with a spicy, almost minty, hop flavor overtaking the melanoidin maltiness. The bitterness is bumped up a couple notches making for a dry conclusion.

Decoction or not, Keller Pils is chock full of wonderful toasted grain and bread flavors and being a nice, clean lager, they really shine. A light body and a healthy level of carbonation means the bier isn't cloying and instead has a fairly bracing crispness. The hops are wonderful as well and I just love the floral freshness. But the greens aren't overpowering.

For anyone keen on taxonomic correctness, I'd bet that Keller Pils should lose the "Pils" and be happy being a kellerbier. I mean, can a pils not be clear? Regardless, Keller Pils ist ausgezeichnet!

Junk food pairing: As long as you're drinking bier from St. Paul, you should pair it with junk food from St. Paul. While quaffing your Keller Pils, snack on some Old Dutch Ripples Onion Blossom potato chips.

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18 July, 2016

On the Sugar River Shoreline: Smoke on the Porter by New Glarus Brewing

After having inveigled Scott Manning out at Vintage Brewing to brew me up a rauch helles – the extremely tasty Kindled Spirits - I was contented to have another smoke beer added to the rather short list of those available to me.

And then all at once the gates of brewing were thrown wide open and the aestival beer drinking season was transformed into the Summer of Rauch.

Earlier this month I read that the fine folks at New Glarus Brewing had resurrected Smoke on the Porter which hadn't been brewed in many moons. Was I dreaming? Would a Citra bomb shake me from my smoky reverie? No, it was true. Smoke on the Porter had indeed returned after an absence of, from what I can gather, almost nine years.

As I hinted at when I reviewed Kindled Spirits, the smoke beer has, in my opinion, been the victim of ill-considered commentary and, if I may be blunt, outright calumny. It suffers from the stereotype that all smoke beers take like bacon. While there certainly are meaty flavors to be had in some smoke beers, the tastes in a beer brewed with smoked malts are dependent on the wood used in the drying process. Beech seems to be the most common wood used in malt preparation and it also seems to be the one that imparts the most smokiness that has a taste that people associate with bacon.

Smoke on the Porter deviates from the norm and uses malt smoked with Cherry wood and provides a great chance for tasting something new and to discover how Cherry wood contrasts with Beech. Having smoked bratwurst – including cherry brats from Jim's Meat Market - with Cherry wood, I poured my Smoke on the Porter with an inkling of an idea of how the smokiness would taste.

This is a dark beer. While I understand that describing a porter as dark is tautological, it is remarkable just how stygian this stuff is. Its deep, deep copper color makes it a worthy challenger to Dark Something for the title of darkest, most opaque beer ever. The beer appeared to be clear but I wouldn't bet my life on it. As you can see from the photograph, my glass had about an inch of frothy, tan head on it that proved to be in no hurry to go anywhere. The contrast of the tan and the near black makes for a handsome, inviting appearance.

The aroma was equally alluring with wisps of smoky goodness wafting into my nose. As I suspected, the smoke here was essentially bereft of bacon and more akin to a campfire. While definitely the primary scent, it was not extremely pungent. Beside it was a little bitter chocolate.

On my tongue the smoke was again lacking the porcine flavor that unfairly stereotypes the style and proved to be rather moderate in strength. It melded your grandfather's pipe smoke with the wood's namesake fruit. Although moderate, you won't soon confuse this with a non-smoke beer but the taste isn't overpowering and is happy to mingle like a good hostess with the other ingredients.

I have a friend who dislikes porter because of the fuliginous flavors characteristic of black malt and Smoke on the Porter has a fine line to walk with the smoke and those almost ashy flavors. And it succeeds. The smoke complements the coffee and dark chocolate from black malt as well as a more lightly roasted grainy flavor. The dark malts give a little bitterness that is contrasted with some sweetness which is like plum and sweet chocolate. The carbonation is tamped down revealing a luscious creaminess to the beer.

The smoke and dark malt flavors linger for quite some time on the finish and are joined by a refreshing burst of hops. Not a lot but enough to put a grassy taste on the tongue for contrast along with a moderate dose of bitterness. There were a few small patches of lacing but that was it.

This beer is a real treat. The Cherry wood smoked malt has a really nice fruity accent to its baconless smoke profile. And it goes well with the coffee and chocolate tastes from the dark malts. It has a rather nimble medium to medium-light body that belies the misapprehension that dark beers are thick and heavy. As the beer warms it adds a little sweetness and a creamier texture to the myriad of flavors.

As Single Malt And Single Hop brews slowly become more popular, it is becoming easier for drinkers to acquaint themselves with the qualities of certain malts and hops in a way you cannot when they are working in concert with several other varieties. Smoke on the Porter gives Wisconsin smoke beer fans (and those of surrounding states) a similar opportunity. Here is the rare chance to taste Cherry wood smoked malt and compare and contrast it with the much more common Beech wood smoked malts.

Smoke on the Porter is a great way to continue the Summer of Rauch in 2016.

Junk food pairing: I tend to favor the savory over the sweet when pairing food with beer but Snyder's Sweet & Salty S'Mores Pretzel Pieces are the ideal accompaniment for Smoke on the Porter. The marshmallow sweetness is toned down allowing the dark chocolate dust to take pride of place.

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15 July, 2016

(My) Turn It On Again: Howard by Lakefront Brewery

Howard, surname unknown, is the Maintenance Manager at Lakefront Brewery and I'd bet he is one of the unsung heroes of the brewery. Presumably he's not dictating Citra hopping schedules and so gets none of the glory from the eyepah addicts but he has probably fixed the brewing equipment on more than one occasion, jury rigged the bottling line, and any number of things to make sure Lakefront's brew gets into its customers mouths.

The brewery's My Turn series is a chance for everyone at Lakefront, including non-brewing types like Howard, to choose a beer to be made. It all began back in 2011 and here in 2016 Howard's namesake beer is #19. The bier he has vouchsafed we non-hopheads is a helles.

The helles is a pale lager that originated in Bavaria in the late 19th century. Apparently the brewers of Spaten in Munich decided to engage in a little counter-brewing in order to challenge the escalating popularity of the pale pilseners from Bohemia. Exactly how that ur-helles tasted is perhaps lost to the ages so I'm not sure if its descendant, Spaten Lager, is at all as the style was conceived or not. But they came up with a pale lager that was light colored like the pilseners being concocted across the border but less hoppy.

Yeah, that's probably more than a bit of an oversimplification but the deemphasis of hops is the important bit. I personally like the helles because of this and because its corollary is that the malts step to the fore – melanoidin-laced malts forged by Maillard reactions to give that rich, toasted, bready flavor. It is, perhaps, the apotheosis of grist.

I've had brewers tell me and tell me that decoction – taking some of the grain/water mixture that brewers heat and boiling it separately before returning it to the original mix – is the only way to produce that melanoidin malt taste. Others say that it's all in the malt. I have a toe or two in the decoction camp mainly because I generally taste The Taste in beers that have had decoction mashes. It could be psychological in that my brain tastes what it desires after having read the word "decoction" on a label. Another possibility is that I have had beers that would traditionally have The Taste but were brewed by folks who just aren't good at brewing lagers. Or perhaps the brewers intentionally brewed a beer that would traditionally have The Taste but avoided it purposefully. I certainly need to do more research into this topic, preferably at a bier garten in Bavaria.

Howard gave a bright, cheerful salutation with its light gold/medium yellow hue and brilliant clarity. My pour may have simply been poor but I managed only a small white head of very loose foam which was gone in a New York minute. However, the bier was quite effervescent with bubbles aplenty inside the liquid making their way upwards.

The aroma was as heavenly as it was simple: bread. It smelled like bread. There may have been other aromas to be had but I smelled fresh bread when I first inhaled and I think I just got excited and fixated on it.

As befitting a helles, Howard shown a spotlight on the malt. There was fresh bread along with some toasted grain, and even a little doughy sweetness, but just a smidgen. The Taste in spades. Behind it lay some herbal hoppiness that added some botanical contrast and a faint bitterness.

All of those bready flavors lingered on the finish as a grassy hop flavor slowly ascended. The lupulin never became very strong, but strong enough to give the remain grainy tastes a run for their money and even add a mild bitterness with its attendant dryness. Sadly, There was no Schaumhaftvermoegen to be had. It all slid down the side of the glass and into the nectar to be subsumed by The Taste.

This is one tasty bier! Howard has a light body which makes it instantly quaffable, a "lawnmower" beer, if you like. But it also has a slightly heavier mouthfeel (I'm looking at you, Beer Baron) which challenges the drinker to discern all of the malt flavors and to savor them as well. I don't know if Lakefront did a decoction mash here or not. Regardless, Howard has a great clean taste is chock full of those rich, toasty bread flavors that come courtesy of Maillard reactions.

While the hops have a lesser role, I really liked the herbal and grassy flavors they added. They provide contrast and make an attempt at balance but they also complement the malt flavors in a way that peppery/spicy hops could not.


Junk food: Howard is a straightforward rendition of a traditional style and as such deserves to be paired with simpler, more traditional German-esque fare. I recommend a bag of Lay’s Beer ’n Brats or one of Herr's Classic American Hot Dog potato chips. Root vegetable and meat stuffed into a casing. Teutonic and perfect for summer.

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