Final Germany Thoughts

MUNICH-PILSEN. I'm about to board a train for Pilsen, and so my mind is turning to Bohemian rhapsodies. Before I completely forget everything about Germany, here's a grab bag of thoughts.

1. Cask Beer
I doubt very many Americans, even beer geeks, realize how often you can walk into a German pub and find a wooden cask sitting on the bar. Altbier, kolsch, ungespundet (unfiltered) lager, and rauchbier to name the examples I enjoyed. But is it cask beer ale?

Yes--but also no if you're judging from the British practice. In that system, the beer goes into the cask before it reaches terminal gravity and finishes fermenting there, naturally carbonating the beer. In the German practice, the beer is long done with primary fermentation and has been conditioning, usually for weeks. The wooden casks are lined with artificial pitch (the translation isn't totally clear--I have to do a bit of study to find out what it is) so the beer picks up no wood or oxygen. The casks are stored cold and when one blows, a new one goes up on the bar, gets tapped, and slowly warms.

At Schlenkerla, Matthias Trum described how they manage to keep fresh, cool beer on the bar: different cask sizes. If it's really busy, they use a big one; slow or near the end of the night, a little one. Once the cask is tapped, the beer has to be drunk in four hours or it will warm up too much--and beer left in casks at the end of the night can't be used the next day.

I would like to do side-by-side tastings of beer prepared in this method, on regular draft, and in a bottle to see how they differed. Anyone out there tried this?

2. Driving in Germany
We spent the first few days on the delightful Deutsche Bahn--the train--before picking up a car in Regensburg for speedier Franconia travel. And thus did I steer out onto the famous German freeways.

I have never seen a more elegant, intuitive roads system than the one they have here. There's almost always space to make turns, the signage and lights are clear and accessible, and the pavement is in fantastic shape (unless you bouncing along cobbles in an old part of town).

But it's on the freeways where the magic happens. It is an illustration that in order to make systems work, you need not only effective infrastructure, but public cooperation. These roads wouldn't work in the US because we don't drive like Germans.

Much of the freeways have no speed limits. There are several basic speed limits at ten kph intervals starting at 30 (19 mph). The top marked speed is 120 (75) and after that you can go as fast as you want. On the open road, I tended to keep the needle between 130 and 150 (81-93 mph), but cars would regularly blast by doing at least 200 (125).

So the question is, how do you negotiate an unmarked road where people are driving at very different speeds? Everyone has to follow the same (unwritten?) rules: you always stay in the lane furthest to the right and pass traffic going more slowly like you would on an American two-lane highway, zipping back into a slow lane as soon as you pass. Even the ultra speedsters do it, zig-zagging from the right or middle lane leftward around slower traffic This keeps the faster lanes free so the speedsters can get through. My observational sense is that the process results in way more efficient roads with far fewer snarls. I encountered none.

3. The German Pub
The habits of a pub vary from country to country, and I'm always fascinated to see how they change when I cross a border. In Germany, like the UK, lots of pubs are owned by breweries, so the distinction is often academic. It's clear from the signage out front which breweryH the pub is affiliated with--restaurants, too (I am amused to see signs outside Chinese restaurants proudly advertising, say, Paulaner beer.)

When you walk in, you're liable to find a scene of chaos--LOTS of people go to pubs, and they're usually humming with life. If you're greeted by a small room, don't assume that's all there is. Often pubs sprawl in a labyrinth over several cozy rooms. Finding a table is a negotiation with customers and the wait staff (don't stand at the door--no one will come to seat you). German pubs, especially in Bavaria, often have large tables. You may need to share. Consult with a waiter and the people in the room--there's always room for a couple more bodies.

There's nothing especially unorthodox about ordering food and drink, but you do need to request the bill. Until you do, the waiter will assume you're mid-session. Even if you've indicated you want nothing more, the waiter will let you sit and digest the experience until you're ready to go.

A final word about what pubs look like. Again, they have a similar feel to pubs in the UK, with dark wood and comfortingly shadowy niches. (The focal point is not the bar, though, and many places don't even have one.) in Bavaria, the tables are white wood (maple?) and there are lots of booths and often antlers on the wall. One distinctively German quality is an ecclesiastical aesthetic. I saw many crucifixes, and stained glass windows and ceilings are very common.

4. Alkoholfrei
The biggest trend in brewing is non-alcoholic. Every production brewery seems to do it, and the segment is growing quickly. The explanation I heard--it's because beer is thought of as unhealthy. Breweries regularly use two methods--distillation (using expensive equipment many breweries have purchased) or brewing low gravity beers and stopping just after fermentation starts. The former is mainly used for lagers, the latter for weizens (in breweries making both). In the distillation method, at least some of the machines use pressure and keep the beer well below boiling (60 C, I think). A departure from imperial IPAs, no?

And finally:
Germans really seem to be into 80s era American and British pop music. I hear it everywhere.

Duvets suck.

On to Czech Republic