Beer, Glorious Beer!

If there is one thing the Germans are serious about – aside from Spargelzeit, the manufacturing of good quality cars, and international football – it’s beer.  I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to address this topic in my blog – perhaps I was too busy becoming a beer connoisseur myself to consider writing about it (read: I was probably too drunk to write about it whenever the thought occurred to me.)  But let’s crack open a cold one and consider German beer and its rightful, honoured place in society.

I guess the thing that really underlines how serious a topic this is for the Germans is the fact that they have a law – called the Reinheitsgebot –  around how the stuff is made.  A law on beer production, for Christ’s sake.  Imagine ending up in prison with a load of tattooed convicts and explaining that you’re inside because you brewed beer with some synthetic sweetener added to it.  Compared to a cannibalistic serial killer and a man who’s kept his daughter locked in the basement for twenty years, you’d hardly be classed as hard as nails, would you?  But as I said, this is an extremely serious business.  The original law, passed in 1516, said that beer must be brewed using hops, water and malt and must be ‘top-fermented’, which is – I think –  a fancy way of saying that yeast has to foam on the top during the brewing process.  Challenge accepted, said the Germans, and all the Bavarian monks got to work brewing in the cloisters (after all, there’s only so much praying and singing one can do in a day.)  Adhering to the now-slightly-more-relaxed-but-not-really-Reinheitsgebot remains as important as ever, probably thanks to the general German attitude of following the rules.  And yet the thing that is fascinating is that there is still such a huge variety of beers.  There are white beers and dark beers and unfiltered wheat beers and filtered wheat beers and yeasty wheat beers and pale beers and pilseners and lagers and rye beers and dark lager beers and cellar beers and ‘Zwickels’ and sour white beers and… I’m starting to feel like Bubba from Forrest Gump.  You get my point.  There’s a lot of beer in Germany.  In some parts of the country – and I’m looking at you, hipster trendsetting capital city – there’s even a fashion of adding fruit syrup to beer (sour Berliner Weisse beer, to be exact), creating a weird and frankly rather disgusting cocktail.  And then there’s Bananenweizen – a bizarre concoction of wheat beer and banana juice.  What I’ve always wondered – aside from the obvious question of ‘why?’, is how do you juice a flipping banana in the first place?!

But it’s not just the recipe of the beer which is important.  The glass that is used for beer consumption is practically a science.  Wheat beer, for instance, must be served in a special glass that has a wider top for extra foam.  The ‘Pilstulpe’ glass, meaning Pilsener Tulip, is a (funnily enough) tulip shaped glass especially for drinking…you guessed it, Pilsener.  A beer stein is a heavy-duty mug, traditionally with a lid, designed to prevent Plague-carrying flies from ruining your day (this is also the one you’re most likely to find in tourist tat shops, complete with goudy ‘I Heart Hamburg’ print).  Meanwhile at Oktoberfest and in most Bavarian beer gardens, you’ll see people drinking out of glasses as big as their heads.  That one is a ‘Krug’ and it holds a litre of the golden stuff, which I’ve discovered is considerably more than what my bladder can hold (side note: one of the first things I learned to say in German was ‘kleine Blase’, meaning small bladder.  It sums me up.)

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Me with a traditional Krug in Bavaria.  Good arm exercise.  Bad bladder exercise.

 

My favourite glass though has to be the Beer Boot (Bierstiefel).  The legend (according to Wikipedia – so definitely credible) goes that a General once told his troops that if they won a battle he’d let them fill his boots with beer and drink it to celebrate the victory.  When they did win, the mixture of beer and cheesy feet was unsurprisingly unappealing, so the General had a boot made out of glass instead. Beer boots were immortalised for the rest of the world in this video, which you should definitely watch if you’re in any doubt about how cool beer boots and Germans are.

Celebrating the national drink is an important aspect of German society.  We’ve all heard of Oktoberfest of course – girls in Dirndls, men in leather shorts, brass bands playing drinking songs, people peeing in the bushes – but what a lot of people don’t realise is that Oktoberfest is just one of many ‘Volksfests’ held throughout Germany.  A combination of beer festival and funfair, it’s the perfect opportunity to get mind-numbingly drunk and then go on the waltzer – a match made in puke-coloured heaven.  The biggest rival to Oktoberfest actually happens concurrently in another southern city.  Stuttgart’s ‘Wasan’ is a more German experience than Oktoberfest, with the same beers and bratwursts but less Geordie stags and hens getting rat-arsed.  What I love most about Volksfest tradition are the quaint drinking songs.  The one you’re guaranteed to hear every ten minutes, especially at Oktoberfest, is the following:

‘Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit!  Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit!’

At the end of this, you have to toast everyone and chug down what’s in your Krug.  Sometimes the leader will finish the song with ‘Prost ihr Säcke‘ to which you respond in unison ‘Prost du Sack!‘  This basically translates to ‘cheers you pricks!’ ‘cheers you prick’.  Absolutely charming, isn’t it?

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Stuttgart’s Wasen.  Basically a giant drunken funfair.

If it weren’t already clear how important beer is to German culture, here’s an anecdote for you.  A colleague of mine was visiting last week from Ireland, and she asked us if it’s the ‘beer opener thing’ is typical of Germany.  When I asked what she meant, she told me that not only does her VW Golf have a bottle opener built into the middle console, but in her hotel room in Hamburg there was one attached to the wall.  Next to the toilet.  I don’t feel like I’m qualified to confirm that this is an inherently German thing, but if any nation did have that as a habit, it would be the Germans.  If anyone would like to confirm if it is a normal aspect of your culture to sit on the throne, trousers around your ankles with a cold beer in your hand, please comment below!

I’ve decided I can definitely get behind this beer thing.  If becoming German means that when the sun comes out I have to drink beer in a beer garden, I am on board.  I’m just not sure my bladder can take it.

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Trying my best to become German.

 

 

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The Weather.

As a Brit, I suppose sooner or later the time would come for me to address that most important and beloved of topics: the weather.

It’s a well-known stereotype, celebrated no doubt the world over, that us Brits are obsessed with talking about the weather.  And I am not prepared to fight this stereotype – it is an actual truth, and had the Ten Commandments been written by a Brit, number ten would have surely been ‘thou shalt discuss the weather forecast with thy neighbour every day’.  One of my earliest memories is Michael Fish telling the trusting viewers of the BBC Weather Forecast that there wasn’t a storm coming, and then waking up to find we had no garden fence.  I was 2 years old.  It made a lasting impression.

Slipping into weather conversation is a bit like smoking a joint; it’s comforting in times of stress, you can share it with a stranger, and everyone can relate to it.  (Not that I’d know, Mum, Dad – I’m just theorising.  I swear.)  Speaking of my Dad, he’s a classic example of a Brit who just loves the weather.  When I was a studying in Russia, Dad would give me frequent updates on the Moscow weather, as if I wasn’t already aware by the fact I had blue nipples and frozen snot that it was -25 and snowing most of the time.  When I call  him for a chat, I always know that for the first 15 minutes he’ll moan about how badly Southampton are playing this season, and the rest of the conversation will be completely devoted to the weather.  But I do understand his point.  Weather conversation give us a sense of unity and let’s face it, our eternal obsession with the War shows that if there’s one thing we crave, it’s a sense togetherness as a nation.  If it’s raining cats and dogs outside, we love to collectively complain that we have miserable summers and we want to retire one day to Spain.  If the sun comes out and temperatures rise above 20 degrees celsius, a state of emergency is declared as people fear they won’t survive the heatwave and – no joke – #TooHotToSleep becomes the top trending hashtag on Twitter.  And Heaven forbid we get snow; the country grinds to a halt, schools close, the Tube breaks down and everyone posts Facebook photos of the three snowflakes that fell on the roof of their cars.  Madness.  But a shared madness, nonetheless.

So really, for a Brit, the weather experience in Hamburg is an absolute dream.  (I mean this ironically, of course.  Nobody could seriously love the fact that this city gets more rain than a rainforest in Costa Rica.)  But I cannot deny that the weather patterns here create a special sense of excitement.  For example, I love playing ‘guess what the weather will do in the next hour’.  I wake up to blue skies, a warm breeze and birdsong, and by the time I reach my office a mere 25 minutes away, my Birkenstocks are squelching and my umbrella has blown inside out.  Or I’ll leave the house wearing a scarf and jumper and arrive wherever I am going with sweat streaming from every pore and a face that used to have makeup on it.  It’s wonderful, it really is.  I find this unpredictability, thrilling though it may be, makes it nigh on impossible to decide what to wear in the morning.  I do try, on the days when I manage to wake up with the first of three alarms, to look like I’m a professional thirty-something with an important job, but I often end up defaulting to jeans and Converse because it’s safe and practical.  You wonder why the Germans love outdoor jackets and Jack Wolfskin?  I bet you they’ve all lived in Hamburg at some point and learned the hard way that it’s necessary.  Hamburgers even have their own word for the weather here: ‘Schietwetter‘.  Say it aloud and you can guess its meaning.

To try and help overcome the gargantuan challenge of predicting Hamburg’s weather, I’ve now given precious iPhone space to THREE weather apps.  A quick triage across them every day is as close as I can get to knowing how things might pan out.  And, like the good Army Cadet I was in my youth, I live by the Army 7Ps – Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance (an adage you can apply to everything in life, I recommend it.)  Gone are the days of carrying a tiny, impractical yet terribly fashionable handbag.  These days I need room for the Factor 50, my sunglasses, an umbrella, a scarf, and spare socks.  Minimum.

The thing that irks me the most though isn’t actually that Hamburg has crappy weather.  It’s inconvenient, but as someone who burns if I stand too long under an LED light bulb, I’m more suited to this climate anyway.  But what IS irritating is if I pass comment on the wet weather – which I am wont to do, I’ve been programmed this way since the age of 2 remember – everyone without fail says to me ‘oh, but you’re British, you should be used to it!’  Friends, readers, Hamburgers, please understand one thing.  London is in the South-East corner of the UK.  It’s much further south than Hamburg, it’s completely sheltered from the coast and it’s fairly mild.  If I was from somewhere ‘oop Norf’, like Newcastle, or – Heaven forbid – if I was from Stornoway, then yes, perhaps I would be used to it.  But I’m a soft Southerner.  London is basically the Costa Brava in comparison with here.  Hamburg is precariously perched between two oceans, and is less than two hours from Scandinavia.

Anyway, British whinging aside, I will say that when the sun is out, Hamburg is the best city in Europe.  Maybe even the world.  And if you do hear me moan about the weather, or even just pass comment on it, please humour me.  It’s genetic.

 

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