Year of the Beer Day 34: Altenburger Pilsener

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The year 1256 and the production of beer during the Medieval Period was exceptionally strong in many of the kingdoms of what is now Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. This included the kingdom of Saxony-Altenburg in what is now eastern Thuringia and western Saxony, where between 1260 and 1871, about 60 breweries were in operation crafting their own beer for the village people. It is unknown why beer was so common in the kingdom, let alone how it influenced other neighboring kingdoms and tribes, including the Sorbians and Slavic tribes, which prior to ca. 1200, had resided in areas east of the present-day Saale River before Germanic tribes drove them away to areas now called Bohemia and points to the south and east.

When Altenburger Beer was created the same year as the establishment of Germany- 1871, the brewery was built on the property of the Lord Kauerndorf, which had been purchased by Hermann Herold. The production of beer started in 1873 with first the brown dark beer. It was then followed by Bavarian Beer, Bohemian Beer, Pilsener, and draft beer. In 1913, the brewery expanded with the construction of the “Südhaus” building and included modern technology for crafting beer, as concepted by Thomas Ganzenmüller, then touted the most updated in Europe. Altenburger’s independence ended in 1921 when it merged with two  breweries based in Leipzig and Gera because of economic difficulties on the count of hyperinflation. The brewery conglomerate later molded into the United Brewery of Leipzig (VEB Brauerei Leipzig) in 1949, as with other breweries in East Germany as the Communist government consolidated all businesses and gained control over them.  The brewery complex produced 330,000 liters of beer annually- one of the largest outputs of all the VEB breweries during that time- until 1990. After a brief ownership by Kulmbacher, it was bought by Leikeim in eastern Bavaria in 1991 and has been under ownership ever since. The brewery still operates in Alterburg and one can find beer products in a radius from Erfurt to Chemnitz, Leipzig to Hof, and including the areas of Gera, Glauchau, and Halle (Saale).  The brewery is famous for its Christmas market, which has taken place on the grounds since 2010. 🙂

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Photo taken by Lucas Friese

The Altenburger Pils is one of seven beers that are crafted by today’s brewery, and is one that was put under the loop for Day 34 of the beer marathon. Like the previous pilsener, the Gessner, the Altenburger has the typical features of a clear, straw-colored appearance with a very persistent head. The carbionation levels are high, even ten minutes after pouring a glass, and upon consumption, the beer has a pretty full body. However, the taste and aroma of the beer could not live up to the hype of the other pilseners, I’ve tried so far.  The aroma consists of grain and toast malt and floral hops, yet the levels were quite low, so one cannot smell it. Nevertheless the impression is that the beer has a herbal but nice smell to it, but it was rather faint.

The flavor of the beer consisted of the same ingredients plus a bit of herbal hops, yet despite the ingredients, the balance of flavor shifted to bitter. The overall taste of the beer is mild on the one hand, but bitter which was dressed with the ingredients, this having a herbal touch to it. It was astingent but warming. Yet with this mild but bitter taste, one could do a better job of crafting the beer as others had a much more refreshing and herbal taste to it, especially for a pilsener. It was not too spectacular, but on the other end, it was quite decent, and many people would be willing to take a good beer, like this one for consumption and while conversing with others.

Grade: 2,3/ B- The Altenburger Pils is a mild but bitter beer that people can enjoy. Its beer production goes back over 700 years and the current establishment reflects on that tradition plus that of the pilsener in Germany. And while the pilsener is typical, the rest of the beers are worth trying, many of which go back many years. Highly recommended to drink, but even more so for the Christmas market, something that has been added to my places to visit during the holiday season list. 😉

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Year of the Beer Day 17: Pilsner Urquelle

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Author’s Note: While the Urquelle was tasted on 17 January, 2016, the article is a bit late to allow the readers to complete the Guessing Quiz, which you can see here. This article will feature the answers to the history of the Pilsner.

The pilsner. While beer has been popular since 9500 BC, according to record, the pilsner beer is one of the youngest brands that has existed. First brewed in the mid-1800s, the pilsner was first crafted in response to the need for a beer that is filtered and has a clear color. Prior to that, the beer was top-fermented, creating a dark color but also poor quality. That changed in 1842, when the first batch was introduced. Since then, the pilsner has become one of the most popular beer brands in the world, where almost every brewery has crafted a pilsner. This includes those in Germany, some of which will be tasted in the series.

A week ago I introduced a Guessing Quiz on the origin of the pilsner, and in particular, this beer: The Pilsner Urquelle. I feel before introducing my taste-testing article on the beer that the answers should be given to provide the reader with a little history on it. So without further ado, let’s have a look at the answers and some facts:

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  1. Pilsner beer originated from the town of Pilsen. True or False?   ANS: TRUE. The town of Pilsen first introduced the pilsner to the public on 5 October, 1842.
  2. It was located in Germany in the state of Schlesia. True or False?  ANS:  FALSE.  Pilsen is located in the Czech Republic in what used to be called Bohemia. Prior to 1918, Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) Empire. The only time it was part of Germany was when Adolf Hitler completed the conquest of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Germany held that region until 1945.  Otherwise it has been under Czech Rule ever since, counting the Velvet Divorce in 1993.
  3. The beer that made the pilsner famous no longer exists. True or False?  ANS: FALSE. Since its introduction in 1842, the Urquelle has been brewing and selling beer to much of Europe. This despite the fact that it is now owned by SAB Miller.
  4. The inventor of the pilsner originated from Saxony. True or False?  ANS: FALSE.  Josef Groll, a Bavarian from Vilshofen, was commissioned to improve the quality of the beer in 1840. Little did he realized that he invented the pilsner two years later.
  5. Michelob beer in the USA has a pilsner brand.  True or False?  ANS: FALSE. Even though many American beers, like Coors, Pabst and Grain Belt craft pilsners (or similar), Michelob produces only lagers, ales and draft beers.
  6. ….and so does Radeberger in Germany.  True or False?  ANS: TRUE, and I have that on my beer to taste list- so, later…. 😉
  7. What is the most important ingredients of a pilsner?  ANS: the hops. When first produced in 1842, the Saaz hops was used for flavor and aromatic purposes. It is still used for the Urquelle today. As the water is hard, most German beers in the northern half use citrus-hops in larger quantities than those in the southern half, where the water is soft. Most hops are either herbal or citrus like, which creates a bitter taste.
  8. What constitutes an Ur-Pils? What is the difference between that and the original pilsner?  Ur means original, and while there is no information on the real difference between the Ur-Pils and the Pils, one can speculate that the Ur-Pils is brewed traditionally, which means top-fermentation and in open barrels, thus leaving it unpasturized and unfiltered, whereas pilsners are fermented in tanks and filtered, giving a clear appearance when pouring it.
  9. What is understood as an Öko-bier (organic beer)? ANS: An organic (or bio) beer is produced using grain and barley that are untreated and not sprayed with pesticides, and the beer is crafted using ingredients that are natural.

More information on the pilsner will come as the beers are being drunk and tasted.

But looking at the Pilsner Urquelle, one can see that the beer still has its charactristic pilsner taste and appearance. The Ur-quelle has its original appearance of it being unfiltered and unpasturized, presenting a cloudy, amber color. Its head is great, carbonization is lively and the body has a medium appearance. Part of it has to do with the soft water that is common and being used to this day for crafting purposes. Both the aroma and flavor have a strong intensity, whose balance is between good and sharp. The main ingredients are grain and nut malt as well as herbal and some citrus hops. The beer had a great freshness and upon drinking it, one can tell that the craftsmanship is great, thus receiving high ratings on the part of the author.

Grade: 1,3/ A: The Pilsner Urquelle still keeps brewing its pilsner, and it should do that, as the beer has set an example for other beers to follow, and sometimes experiment, What used to be unfiltered beer with poor quality that had to be dumped, the Pilsner Urquelle has remained the focal point and basis for a typical pilsner (or in this case, ur-pils) that a person should try while in Germany. While the Urquelle is difficult to find in stores in Germany, it is worth looking for while in Germany. And once you taste it, you have Josef Groll to thank! 🙂 ❤

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Christmas Market Tour 2015: Chemnitz

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Christmas market at Alte Markt next to City Hall. Photos taken in Dec. 2015

The first place on the 2015 tour we’ll have a look at is Chemnitz. Located in western Saxony near the Ore Mountains between Dresden, Hof, Leipzig, Zwickau and Glauchau- in other words, smack in the middle of all the action, Chemnitz was first recorded in the 12th Century when Kaiser Lothar III established the Church of St. Benedict. The city plan of the town was presented over a century later. The city’s origin comes from the river running through it, whose name was derived from a Sorbian name meaning stone. The city was substantially destroyed in World War II and the people suffered a great deal afterwards, as it became part of the Soviet Zone, and the city was subsequentially renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt in 1953, named after the founder of Socialism. Like many cities in the former East Germany (German Democratic Republic), the cityscape was transformed rapidly over the next 30 years, as architects placed high rise after high rise wherever the Socialist Party (SED) pleased. That is the reason why the city center and its churches surrounding them are flooded with more high rise buildings than necessary. Can you imagine looking at the city without these concrete slabs just for a second?

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Chemnitz Central Station: looks like an East German gym for sporting events. One needs to subtract the tracks and the platforms.

1990 and the people, fed up with the importance of Marxism and Leninism, were granted their wish, and the name Karl Marx Stadt was converted back to Chemnitz. Yet much of the architecture from the East German period remains today, and people can see them while driving past, especially the statue of Karl Marx at the corner of Brückenstrasse und Street of Nations. Even the Central Railway Station, despite its lounge looking more modern than 25 years ago, looks like a hangar gleaming with yellow sodium lighting. If one takes away all the platforms, it would resemble a sports center, with a wrestling ring and matches featuring the likes of Velvet McIntyre and Mathilda the Hun, two of the many professional wrestling stars during the 1980s. Yet it could also look like an ice skating rink, featuring the likes of Katarina Witt, Germany’s beloved figure skater who was born in the city.

However more modern architecture is popping up in an attempt to drown out the  architecture the SED wanted there at any cost. This includes the expansion of the Technical University in Chemnitz, where because of the increase in students, the campus has expanded to the south, thus leaving the former main campus next to the train station with a purpose of having extra space for classes.  Check your Googlemaps app if you have an appointment at the TU, to ensure you are at the right campus, please, or you will certainly get lost.

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The 1884 Chemnitz Viaduct serving the rail line connecting Dresden and Nuremberg via Hof

Yet despite the concrete settings, which resembles the scenes from the dystopian film The Cement Garden, Chemnitz has several features that standout. The city has the Opera House, Roter Turm at Neumarkt, historic buildings at Schillerplatz and several museums focusing on technology, archeology and art, as well as churches and castles. Even the river Chemnitz features many parks and historic bridges, namely the Railroad Viaduct built in 1884.

And lastly, the city is famous for its Christmas market. Located in the city center at Neumarkt, the market is laid out in three areas: Between the apartments along Am Neumarkt, between the Old and New City Halls and at Roter Turm.  Yet, getting there from the train station or other parts of the city, thanks to the maze of concrete one has to go through, takes lots of navigating, regardless of what kind of Verkehrsmittel a person uses. In my case, despite having my bike companion Galloping Gertie, which always gets me from point A to point B, my sense of orientation was lost in the concrete. So to the city council officials who want a word of advice from me: signpost the directions to the market next time, please!

Barring the author’s critique, I was told that the city had won the prize for the best Christmas market in Saxony. Given the architecture that drowns out the historic nature of the city center- at least the ones that were built before 1914, it was hard to believe at first glance. But then again, learning from my visit in Halle (Saale) and its Christmas market in 2012, one cannot judge the book by its cover but should read the first few pages before making the first judgements. This was why I wanted to take an hour to look through the place.

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After fighting through the concrete maze, my first stop was at Neumarkt. Located adjacent to the Roterturm, the market is the second largest of the city’s Christmas market. Visitors are greeted with the black gate, flanked with Christmas angels holding candles and a large black Schwibbogen, resembling the miners and angels. As mentioned in a previous article, the color of black represents the color of the ore found in the Ore Mountain region, the birthplace of the arched candle-holder. To the right is another typical Christmas figure found in the households in Germany, the Pyramid. More on that in a later article.  The market is at the doorsteps of two major shopping centers, one of which is named after a popular historic landmark, Der Roter Turm. Built in 1230, the tower served as a watchtower overlooking the town as its original purpose. It was later a watchtower for the prison complex, which existed in the 17th to the 19th century. It later became a gateway, welcoming people to Chemnitz before it became a historic landmark in the 1990s. The shopping center, located next to the tower, opened in 2000, mimicking the architecture of the tower and the adjacent city hall.

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The market at Altmarkt. The New Town Hall (left) and the Old Town Hall (right) are in the background

Going left one will find the rest of the market and then some, located at the Market Square. The one at the Alte Markt is the largest and features the Christmas tree and the Spielwerk, a Christmas merry-go-round-like featuring Santa Clause, an Angel, a Snowman and gifts.   Counting the extension along Rosenhof, which has a line of huts, the markets are surrounded by apartment complexes from the GDR era. Judging by the appearance, these modernized apartments are well occupied, which means the families have front-row seating on each floor, especially during the holidays.

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A Christmas market surrounded by high-rise flats.

When looking at the huts, one can see a unique uniform pattern- namely gabled huts with mahogany siding. The color is typical of the wood found in the Ore Mountain region, and most of the products sold at the market- whether they are Räuchermänner, Pyramids, Schwibbogen or even figures for the Christmas tree, are handcrafted with this unique type of  wood originating from the region. Add the red and white lining and lettering and the place looks really Christmassy, even without the snow, as I saw in my visit. Admittedly, it would make the market look really romantic with the snow, even viewing it from the apartments above.

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Das Spielwerk at Altmarkt: another typical feature coming from the Ore Mountain region. 

Most of the huts are lined up into long rectangular islands with the backs to each other. The purpose behind that is to provide more space for people to maneuver towards the stands without the feeling of being crowded. Despite having to fight a maze to get to there, the market itself is rather spacious, enabling the people to move around more freely than in some markets visited until now. That means between rows, the width is equivalent to the width of 3-4 cars, pending on location. Lots of space and less risk of injury by pushing and shoving, or even getting smacked in the face with a heavy backpack. It’s lesson that markets in some cities, like Dresden and Nuremberg should take note, even though the problem with the former is with the Striezelmarkt as Neustadt has a concept similar to this one.

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Typical Christmas market huts with lots of space. 

Despite all the Chemnitz features, many people are sometimes of the opinion that the market is just like any other market: selling items from the Ore Mountain region, having amusements and a large Christmas tree. If that is the opinion, I beg to differ, especially when it comes to food. The market in Chemnitz offers several delicacies one will rarely find at other markets in Germany. Some of the items I tried during my brief stay at the market. Highly recommended is the Bohemian smoked sausage (Böhmischer Rauchwurst), with  or without the cheese filling.  Similar to the Thuringian Bratwurst and the Frankfurter, this sausage comes from the Czech side of the mountains and are smoked to perfection. The sausage has a really tangy taste when biting into it. With the cheese filling, it is even heartier. 🙂   Another delicacy that is a must-eat is the Wickelklöße. Similar to the dumplings, this Sächsische recipe features a combination of dough and pressed potatoes, rolled out and filled with either something sweet, like apple and cinnamon or hearty, like peppers. The recipe on how to make it is here unless you wish to visit one of the booths in Chemnitz to try before doing:

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The market also offers delicacies from the Medieval Ages and from different countries, many of which can be found at the market in Dusseldorfer Platz, whose setting matches the Middle Ages with dark-colored huts covered with darker-colored roofs. This includes the Turkish specialty that sells kebaps and kofta.Koftas are mini hamburger patties with special spices imported from Turkey. When placed in a pita bun and adding all the fixings, they look like the typical kebap but without the sliced meat. Yet they taste like Jennie’s Grinder, a submarine sandwich found at the Iowa State Fair.  And like the sandwich, the kofta is best eaten hot. Taking it to go will mean the loss of taste when it is even lukewarm. This was a lesson I learned upon buying it at the booth to take for the trip home. But in any case, the kofta is one that is recommended if one wants something spicy at the market.

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The Medieval Market at Dusseldorfer Platz

After more than an hour at the markets, it was time to leave for the next market, but not before taking with the impressions from the market. Despite the city’s concrete settings and scars that still remain from the Cold War era, Chemnitz has salvaged much of its pre-1933 past and has built off from it, with modern technology that is attractive and serves as a source of inspiration for future engineers and architects, most of whom are students at the TU. The Christmas market itself, despite being surrounded by many high rises still caressing the city center, definitely deserved the title given out this year. The market offers many local goods and food and beverages from the region and all points in the Ore Mountain region to the south. With its settings, the market is rather spacious, accomodating the residents and visitors. But most importantly, the market does provide a sense of Christmas and hominess for those who love a good Bohemian sausage, mulled wine, kofta and pastries typical of Saxony. If one ignores the concrete settings and imagines the historic places, such as the Town Halls and the churches, one can conclude that the market is typical of the markets one can find in Saxony. It is just the question of finding the way through the maze. But if you do it successfully, the hunt for the market is well worth it. 🙂

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