Fearful Symmetries

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16 December, 2015

We All Came Out to Bamberg, On the Regnitz River Shoreline: Helles Schlenkerla Lager by Schlenkerla

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for me to maintain any sense of objectivity here. You see, I adore rauchbiers and the rauch helles is something of a rarity here in Madison. The luscious, er…let's try that again. What I mean is…Helles Schlenkerla Lager can be found on tap at Freiburg Gastropub or it was when I was last there a couple of months ago. Whenever I've gone there and had a Schlenkerla helles, it's always been a bit like how I imagined it must have been for those culinary aesthetes who got to sample woolly mammoth steak at that infamous fancy dinner back in the 1950s.

OK, so Helles Schlenkerla Lager is not exactly rare and exotic like mammoth meat. But it isn't commonly available here in bottles. (On a side note, I highly suspect that the bottles of Schlenkerla's other biers over at the east side Woodman's date back to a time when woolly mammoth roamed the land.) Microbrewers don't seem to have rushed to fill the void either. Lakefront did brew and bottle the fantastic Luther a few years ago but that's the last time I recall an American rauch helles hitting store shelves here in Madison. And so a recent trek to Chicagoland saw me in a Binny's on Black Friday where I snagged the last bottle of this precious elixir. I guess all those Bourbon County Stout buyers grabbed a Helles Schlenkerla Lager for good measure.

If you've read this far and are still wondering what a Helles Schlenkerla Lager is, then let me tell you. It is one of the tastiest things in the known universe. A helles is a light Bavarian lager known for its easy going maltiness and a light hopping regimen. This iteration from the fine folks at the Schlenkerla brewery in Bamberg, Germany ups the tastiness quotient by adding smoke, a.k.a. - rauch. This bier uses not the normal smoked malts but rather the same yeast slurry used in brewing their other rauchbiers which are flush with the pungent earthy, clove-y, savory flavor of broken down lignins.

Helles Schlenkerla Lager pours a lovely clear yellow which belies the tantalizing smokiness within. My pour produced a nice ivory head of about a quarter inch. It dissipated fairly quickly leaving behind a thin film of foam on top of the bier which had just a few bubbles inside making their way upwards.

Rauch is the order of the day for the bier's aroma. But the smoky temptress granted her favors in moderation and it was not like having a pound of bacon underneath your nose. There was some bread to be had as well as an unexpected hint of fruitiness that was reminiscent of a Kölsch. Sort of berry-like yet also akin to grapes or verjuice. The smoke is doled out judiciously in the flavor as well in the aroma. Its goodness is omnipresent but it never seeks to overpower. Indeed, the bier's clean grain/biscuit flavor, the sine qua non of the helles, was never in doubt. The malty contributions were joined by some grassy hop flavor though not very much bitterness. There's just enough carbonation for an ephemeral kiss of dryness.

The bier finishes with the smoke fading and hops taking its place. Grassy flavor is joined by some spiciness along with just a touch more bitterness. Just enough hops to take the malt edge off while never drifting into dryness. Upon emptying my glass, I found it lined with some fine Schaumhaftvermoegen. There was beautiful webbing all around the glass from stem to stern.

I hope to be drinking one of these beers at Schlenkerla in Bamberg soon. Until then I will suffer with bottles of indeterminate age imported from that city via Chicago. Still, Helles Schlenkerla Lager is one of my favorite biers. It has a fairly light body yet manages to be equally adept at being an easy going thirst quencher and something a bit more substantial. I think it does this by keeping the smoke, biscuity grain, and hop flavors all in more or less equal proportions. There's nothing extreme going on here but rather the merging of crisp, clean flavors into a perfect zymurgilogical gestalt.

Junk food pairing: Pair Helles Schlenkerla Lager with a meat flavored potato chip like hot dog or, if you can find it, bratwurst. For a special treat, try it with some chocolate-covered marzipan.

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|| Palmer, 8:07 AM


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