Saturday, August 30, 2008

Misadventures: Good German Beer?

In addition to all the usual reasons to travel to Europe, including history, culture, sightseeing and fun, there is another benefit to Americans who have yet to turn 21 – the seeming lack of any enforced drinking age.

On my first trip to Germany, I was a few weeks away from reaching that all-important milestone in my life, and I had every intention of taking advantage of legally drinking good German beer.

Oh yes, I had had beer in the States, but it had always been limited to whatever I could score at parties or convince older friends to buy for me. It was the typical mix of Budweiser, Coors and Corona – but I knew there were better beers out there. In Germany, I wanted to find them.

My first opportunity came in the town of Bacharach, which sidles up against the famous Rhine River. I had just visited a medieval tower with my family, and the climb to the top had left us all hungry, so we glanced in a few shops before finding a mom-and-pop lunch counter.

Inside, the friendly, middle-aged couple greeted us in English, and we ordered sausages and potatoes. Next to the cash register was a refrigerator with a glass door – and it was chock-full of beer.

Each shelf was devoted to a different brewery, and all the labels were in German. I was able to discern many of the words (lager, bier, braurei, wasser and hopfen). The pictures on the labels consisted of everything from country landscapes, old buildings, a monk with a stein and coats of arms.

My anticipation grew as I imagined what my first sip of true German beer would be like. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it had to be special or people wouldn’t make a big deal about it. Being 20, I was of the mindset that more is always better, so I reached in for a one-liter bottle that was only €2.50.

The woman working the counter popped the top off, and I joined my family at a small table. My first taste of the beer was sadly anticlimactic, and it didn’t taste all that different from anything I’d had before. Nevertheless, I drank the whole thing.

The two owners came over to our table to ask us how the food was, and we spoke with them a bit, and the woman asked, “Do you want moisture?”

We all stared at each other, and she repeated herself. My dad pointed to the condensation on his water glass and said, “moisture.”

The woman looked confused, then picked up a bottle of mustard.

“Mustard,” we said.

“Moo-staard!” she shouted to her husband, and he repeated it several times. Apparently a mystery of some sort had been solved.

But there was another mystery, and that was how I had just consumed a liter of beer, and was not feeling even the slightest buzz. At that time, a liter was enough to get me well on my way to intoxication, and I was really starting to wonder why this German beer, which I was told had higher alcohol content than American beers, was having no effect on me.

I examined the label a bit more closely, and read, “Clausthaler.” It sounded very German to me. Then I read the smaller print underneath the eagle logo. “Premium Alkoholfrei.”

I sat back in my chair, utterly defeated. I was 20 years old, a quarter of the way around the world, and I had just wasted a perfect chance to drink a German beer by buying something alcohol-free.

Since then, I’ve had many excellent German beers, and even sometimes fancy myself a beer snob when it suits me. I have found that there is definitely a difference between the average German beer and the watered-down stuff crowding our grocery stores like refugees over here (see – beer snob), and having a bottle of lager in Munich while the 2006 World Cup was going on made up for my first feeble foray into the world of legal drinking.

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