Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Beer and Brewing Culture Through the Eyes of a New England Heathen

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The Beer And Brewing Culture Through The Eyes Of A New England Heathen- Mark Andersen
The Beer And Brewing Culture Through The Eyes Of A New England Heathen- Mark Andersen
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Date:August 8, 2014
Back in the mid 90’s, almost a decade before I converted to Asatru, I took up the hobby of home brewing.  Back then, my knowledge of beer in general was very limited, home brewing technology and ingredients weren’t nearly at the level they are today, and not that many people were home brewing. Undaunted and armed with the book “The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing” by Charlie Papazian, I gave it a fair go. Nothing I brewed during that 2-3 year period was particularly good or memorable, but I learned the basic mechanics of home brewing using only extract recipes and a stove top kettle. Ultimately, I gave it up.  My non-heathen ex-wife wasn’t very friendly towards the process. Usually she complained about the smell of malt boiling on the stove and the mess made in the kitchen. Also, there really weren’t any other home brewers that I knew on Cape Cod at the time. I have since found out that the CCLAMS (Cape Cod Lager and Ale Makers) home brew club, of which I am now an active member, started around that time.

After the year 2000 I got divorced, and not long after met my current wife who introduced me to the world of Heathenry. Finally in 2004, the two of us decided to attend our first ever Asatru event, the East Coast Thing, that summer. One of the things that struck me most was the variety, and in most cases, the quality of the home brewed beer and mead at the event. There seemed to be a real sense of pride in this homemade beer and mead , not only by the individual brewers, but by the community as a whole. I was also struck by the fact that folks were very hospitable when it came to sharing their beer and mead. It was as if a significant part of the pleasure derived from brewing and mead making came from sharing it with other heathens and the socializing/bonding that went along with it. This event and meeting other heathen home brewers provided the inspiration I needed to really delve into home brewing again.

What was it that brought about this inspiration? Learning that good quality beer could be home brewed and subsequently enjoyed was, of course, a big plus. The more time I spent around other heathens, however, I realized that there was something more to it.  What I came to understand is that home brewing is an integral part of our culture and highly valued by the heathen community. Becoming a proficient home brewer is one way that an individual can gain a good reputation within the community. It also is a great way to bond with other members of the community. It is one thing to share a store bought bottle of beer with a fellow heathen but it is ten times better to share your own home brew.

Shortly after my first East Coast Thing in 2004 I began a flurry of brewing activity.  I bought lots of new equipment, dusted off some of my old equipment from the 90’s, and began brewing a variety of extract and partial mash concoctions. Some of the batches came out pretty good, but something was still missing. I would bring bottles of it to local heathen events. My fellow Raven Kindred North members would politely (but not too emphatically) praise some of my beers. None of them were anywhere close to being home runs. I tried a variety of things, including shifting to outdoor brewing with a big 10-gallon kettle and propane cooker so I could do full boils, as well as several other improvements. I still had not reached the point where I was wowed by any of the beers.

Then I met a fellow heathen named Aaron Bennet at a pubmoot in Providence, Rhode Island. Aaron was a member of a local Asatru Alliance kindred at the time.  Not long after, I attended his annual Oktoberfest party where he put on a keg of home brewed Oktoberfest. I was really impressed with it. That was the home run I had been trying to achieve.

Aaron told me that one big reason for the better quality in his beer was that he used the “all grain” brewing process instead of using malt extract. I had read about “all grain” brewing quite a bit even back in the 90’s but was a little intimidated by it. Aaron generously invited me over for a brew day to show me the process. Admittedly, it did look easier than I had previously thought it to be. I got the run down on the equipment needed and made a commitment to do “all grain” brewing from then on. With a lot of mentoring from Aaron, I got pretty good at it and started to produce the quality beers for which I had always hoped.

My first home run came when I brewed a Maibock to be served at Raven Kindred North’s May Day celebration back in 2007. I was completely hooked. I’ve been insane about home brewing ever since. I can’t tell you how much time and money I’ve since invested in it, but a tour of my home will reveal a brew cellar complete with lagering tank, racks of grain, grain mill, many carboys both empty and full, a fully packed fridge just for hops and yeast, a kegerator in the living room, and so on- and the madness has really just begun.

My second big inspiration for brewing, and beer in general, came when I visited Germany for the first time also back in 2007. I had always wanted to visit Germany as I had been fascinated by the culture, the history, the geography, and of course the beer! Having joined RKN a couple of years prior, I had a chance to become good friends with a longtime member of RKN from Germany called Ingmar Lauer. Ingmar had since started Raven Kindred Deutschland after moving back to Germany from Boston a few years earlier. In 2007, I met Ingmar in Switzerland, and we worked our way from North to South doing a beer tour of Deutschland that would bring us from the border of Switzerland all the way to the northern city of Hamburg. What I discovered is that the German beer culture is substantially different than our understanding of it here in the United States, based on the beer that has been exported to us. First, the quality of beer in Germany, assuming you know where to look, is a lot better than what we’ve been exposed to.  Second, there is, in quite a few places, a deeply, well-established and very, very traditional beer brewing and beer drinking culture in place.  It really was an eye opener of how great it can be.  I also think that in experiencing the traditional German beer scene, I was witnessing a window into the past as to how beer was brewed and enjoyed and thankfully still brewed and enjoyed in some places today.

There are quite a few very interesting practices in German brewing and beer drinking that you can experience and I’ll enumerate a few of them here:

It was in the city of Bamberg that I first tried a beer that the city and region is renowned for called Rauchbier. Rauchbier has been jokingly dubbed “bacon beer” by many because of the very smoky beer made by Brauerei Heller Trum of Bamberg. Heller Trum brews a beer called “Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier”.   Schlenkerla does give the impression of almost drinking liquid bacon. They are one of a couple of dozen breweries in the Franconia region of Germany that still brew this historical style. In their case, the smokiness comes from the practice of kilning the malt over a beechwood fire before mashing it. I reckon that most of the beers brewed historically from Germany all the way through Scandinavia had this smoky aspect to it because of lack of modern kilning methods. Luckily we can reproduce these historical styles either by purchasing pre-smoked malted grain or even smoking the grain ourselves.

We’ve come to know lager here in the United States as a bland, pale, and generally poor quality cheap beer. I discovered in Germany that this is not the case with many breweries, especially in the Franconian and Bavarian regions. I think this is a result of these breweries using a much higher standard in both the ingredients that they use and the process that they employ. In many small breweries in Bavaria and Franconia, they still use the process of step mashing called decoction mashing. This is a more labor intensive process that can be employed by the home brewer to bring out smoother, maltier, and clearer lager beers, especially when it is combined with the process of lagering the beer at cold temperature.

In certain parts of Germany, there exists much more of a community aspect both to brewing and beer drinking. Here in the US, all too often, going out for a few pints entails sitting in a bar staring at the TV’s on the wall. This is not the case in a traditional brewpub in Germany. Often times, as a visitor, you will find yourself sitting at a table with benches and conversing with complete strangers, or you’ll be sitting outside in a gorgeous bier garten or bier keller enjoying the scenery along with the beer.  Many of the bier kellers in Franconia even have playgrounds and swing sets as they are often the weekend hangout for families looking to enjoy a nice day out with good food, and great beer with other members of the local community.