Fearful Symmetries

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03 April, 2016

Decoction Madness: Zwickel and 1516 by New Glarus Brewing and Weihenstephan



It's like I died went to heaven this spring. The good news came like a 1-2 punch. First came the left jab that the venerable Bavarian brewery Weihenstephan had brewed a limited edition kellerbier called 1516 in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot and that it would receive U.S. distribution. This was quickly followed by the right hook of New Glarus resurrecting Zwickel with a new formula (when was the last time it was brewed?) and in limited quantities.

Personally, I think kellerbiers/zwickels should be produced in mass quantities and widely distributed, displacing IPAs from taps across the globe. But, sadly, I am in a minority on this issue. So I'll take what I can get. I really enjoy because, in my (limited) experience, they have that wonderful malt flavor that combines fresh and lightly toasted bread. It's that Maillard reactiony/melanoidin taste that German brewers seem to make with ease while American brewers often struggle to create or don't even try to. I think the contrast is most stark with Oktoberfests. German varieties are usually very bready while American ones often have a lot of sweetness.

I've heard two opposing explanations for why German biers have more of that bready flavor. First is that German brewers use decoction mashing. This involves taking part of the wort (the grain-water mixture), boiling it, and then returning it from whence it came. I'm not sure how this is supposed to produce the desired flavors; just some kind of latent heat voodoo, I guess. The opposing view is that German brewers use different malts than American brewers.

Personally I am agnostic on this issue. All I know is that A) I love the Maillard reactiony/melanoidin taste and that B) German biers have it more often and in greater quantities than American beers.

I have undertaken a completely half-assed amateur investigation into zwickels and kellerbiers and it has revealed that they are, for all intents and purposes, the same style. Unfortunately, my inquiry never took me to Germany so I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are slight variations in practice such as one being a bit hoppier than the other or more carbonated.

Kellerbier means "cellar beer" while a zwickel is a sampling valve on a cask and each is an unfiltered lager. They're pale, turbid, and have a solid malty base along with generous helping of hops. That's my take, anyway.

Weihenstephan claims to be the oldest brewery in the world with records showing a brewery having been licensed on its site in 1040. New Glarus Brewing, meanwhile, was founded slightly more recently in 1993 in the eponymous Wisconsin town just south of here. Its brewmaster, Dan Carey, served as an apprentice brewer in Bavaria and is no stranger to German bier.

Each brew has some novelty in its hop selection. 1516 features Hallertauer Record hops, an heirloom variety that appears to be hanging on by a thread. Only 1 hectare was grown last year - that's about 2.5 acres or, as my calculator helpfully informs me, .92 soccer fields. What do Hallertauer Record hops taste like? I dunno. Zwickel features not only German and Czech hops, but also French ones. I've encountered the French Strisselspalt hop on a couple of occasions but am unsure if that is what was used here. The label notes it was brewed with six hop additions and warns drinkers that it is "assertively hoppy". In addition, pursuant to my blathering above on decoction, Zwickel's label also says that it was brewed using a decoction mash.

Zwickel poured a burnished yellow and was clear. 1516 was a little bit darker and appeared light gold in the center of the glass although it was much lighter at the narrower bottom. Unlike the its cousin, 1516 was a touch turbid. Both biers ended up with creamy, white heads that lasted what I consider to be an average amount of time – about 30 seconds. While both biers had bubbles inside, 1516 was noticeably more effervescent.

Beginning with the home team again, Zwickel smelled of bread along with a fresh, zesty hop aroma that was grassy and spicy. 1516 had a similar smell but it was a richer, more yeasty kind of bread aroma and the hops were more like grass or hay without the spiciness. Oh mama! That smell, that bready smell. We were getting into Platonic ideal territory here.

1516 kept the melanoidin melody humming along with a big yeasty, bready taste that reminded me of walking into a bakery. As the bier warmed a touch just the slightest hint of malty sweetness crept in but mostly it was Maillard madness. The hops remained grassy tasting but highlighted with a bit of lemon or citrus. Some carbonation rounded things out with a little dryness. Zwickel's carbonation was more up front but I could taste that wonderful bready flavor. Not as strong as in 1516 but it was still delicious. There was also a little roasted grain taste as well. The German and/or Czech hops offered more fresh grassy goodness but I also caught some floral hop in there which I presumed to be from the French greens.

Both biers finished with lingering grain/bread flavors and a swelling of grassy/peppery hops which added both flavor and some dryness. Zwickel's carbonation was felt here too and it had a more pronounced hoppiness but I didn't feel it was assertive.

In each case my glass was left with some nice Schaumhaftvermoegen. Zwickel gave a few nice streaks along with numerous spots of foam while 1516 left a couple large patches along with several spots.

Ausgezeichnet! These are two great biers. Light in both body and color yet they each are full of flavor. While both had fantastic clean lager profiles, 1516 has more of that yeasty, fresh bread taste which I crave. And each had a goodly amount of hoppiness that fell somewhere between a German and a Czech pils, but it was Zwickel that had a broader and fresher hop palette which delivered on the Noble flavors but also added a little floral to the mix which I loved. I didn't find Carey's creation to be "assertively hopped" as the label admonished and it was certainly much hoppier than a helles, but, at the same time, this was not an IPZ. 1516 is 5.6% A.B.V. and I cannot find the alcohol content of Zwickel but it is surely 5-5.5%.

Dan Carey declares the zwickel to be his favorite bier style. I cannot be so confident as to label a single style as my favorite, but it is certainly a favorite. The zwickel/kellerbier has a wonderful simplicity to it. There is the delicate bready side which is like manna but the hops stand on their own instead of just adding a little balance as they do in a helles. The leafy greens are a distinct set of flavors to savor in addition to lending dryness and balance. This less-is-more ethos must surely make demands on the brewer. Bereft of any bursts of tropical fruit, with no time spent in a bourbon barrel, and no lacing with Lactobacillus, any mistakes or just the fickleness of the brewing gods will be evident in a kellerbier. To have two fine examples at once is a real treat indeed.

Each of these biers have limited availability. I bought my 1516 out at Steve's on Junction Road and was told there was not much left. Zwickel has been available exclusively at the brewery since the middle of last month. It is nearly $18/six-pack so savor each sip.

Junk food pairing: Complement the relative austerity of Zwickel and 1516 by pairing them with soft pretzels dipped in a mild cheese food product sauce.

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|| Palmer, 8:46 AM

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