Rediscovering German Potato Beer and Other Misplaced Styles

In the last two or three years, breweries have gotten strategic. Instead of randomly brewing a few dozen one-offs, they create separate lines of beer and issue year-long schedules. These are typically a lot more valuable for the production team and distribution/retail partners, but every now and again something interesting emerges. When Zoiglhaus sent out their calendar, it included a most intriguing new line for the brewery, the “Heritage Series,” highlighted below with a crude red arrow:

Some of these beers are more well-known than others. Lichtenhainer, for example, appears in The Beer Bible: “Lichtenhainer, the other smoked ale, remains the most obscure. The beer, something of a cross between Grodziskie and Berliner weisse, was last brewed in 1983…. In Lichtenhainer, it was the barley that contributed the smoke. The beer sounds most beguiling: ‘They are highly-attenuated, highly carbonated and wholesome and are regarded as special beers.’”

Doppelsticke, too, isn’t particularly unknown—it’s a very strong altbier; Uerige has tried to make Americans as well aware of it as marketing allows. The other beers are quite a bit more obscure. Steinbier is a thoroughly weird old brew made by heating rocks and adding them to the kettle to boil a beer. (One of the most amazing artifacts of this is documented by Michael Jackson on The Beer Hunter, his six-part television show from 1989. In episode 4 he visits Rauchenfels, a brewery that revived the tradition in 1983 and made steinbier for several years, and witnesses the spectacle.) It’s weird enough that a few breweries have made one-off versions. But what of the rest? I was curious, so I sat down with Alan Taylor to hear about the series and what these weird beers were.

As you may recall, Taylor studied brewing at VLB in Berlin. That was a stroke of luck, because Berlin is in the north, where the old brewing exotica was made. (It has been lagers for centuries down in Bavaria where Doemens and Weihenstephan train brewers.) The VLB library is a repository for information on these old beers, and when Taylor was there, he photocopied reams of it. He held his hand four inches above the table when referring to the pile of photocopies he took away. (Fascinating aside: the Soviets actually pillaged the VLB library, but the old brewers were able to donate private copies of books to reconstitute it.) Had Taylor gone to Weihenstephan, his interest in kartoffel bier may never have been sparked.

The name, pronounced “rote-beer,” means red beer, and its strongest association is with Nuremberg, where it has apparently been made since the 16th century. But it was also made in the north, in Hamburg, and this is the lineage with which Taylor was more familiar. It seems less a style than a description, and doesn’t have many specific guidelines. But hey, who doesn’t like a pretty red beer? Taylor’s is a lager and has a blend of malts and was actually on at the brewery a couple months back. That version was a bit sweet, with a candy note and full body. Taylor plans to tinker with it to dry it out. It’s curious there aren’t more red lagers, so perhaps this will start a trend.

The most interesting by far, kartoffelbier, is made with potatoes (kartoffel). When we peer into history at oddities like this, we often forget to adjust for change. What delicious character do potatoes contribute and what did those old brewers know that we have forgotten? But remember, the old days were hard and poverty and famine were common. This was almost certainly an improvised beer made during times of want. (Tripe? No one’s eating that in times of plenty. Half our traditional recipes emerge from chefs working with what they had.) Potatoes offered a source of cheap starch, so into the mash tun they went.

That said, Alan pulled a glass from the tank and I was quite impressed. His version had a milky white color, reminiscent of witbier. He used Saaz hops and they gave it a wonderful zing, but the potatoes added a creamy, silky texture. That was the unusual aspect. They’re used for fermentability, not to add flavor, and I couldn’t identify them from taste (almost certainly a good thing).  

There are references to potato beer going back quite a ways, but the one reference to brewing Alan found “seemed kind of silly.” He decided on instant mashed potatoes for the grist (15%)—a mistake he instantly regretted when it clogged up his mash tun like glue. (In the future he’ll use a waxier variety, boiled, peeled, and cubed.) I was wondering how much of the potatoes converted and whether they were more a gimmick than an actual source of sugars. In fact, they boosted his alcohol percentage more than he expected. “It’s a big solution,” he told me. “There’s a lot of starch and the amylase don’t care where it comes from.”

I met Alan at Ascendant (formerly pints), and every time he went to the cellar to grab a beer, the took a sack of malt with him. Brewers learn how to use their bodies efficiently.

I met Alan at Ascendant (formerly pints), and every time he went to the cellar to grab a beer, the took a sack of malt with him. Brewers learn how to use their bodies efficiently.

Brett Porter and Landbier
The former of these two may not seem particularly German, but it is. Brewers were inspired by London porters and made these until the 20th century. It’s a testament to just how popular that beer was that it even sparked a decades-long (centuries?) infatuation around Berlin. Alan has a culture of Brettanomyces from Schultheiss, which made Berliner weisse, and pitched that into a lagered porter, letting it condition for two months.

Landbier is another one of those impressionistic categories. It suggests a rusticity, like beer from the land. Like most old lager styles, it is associated with Franconia and Bavaria, but Alan mentioned that “In Berlin we did a landbier in the autumn.” It evokes the autumn, he told me, and so should be a little darker, richer, and more rustic.

As I began thinking out loud about how I’d construct a rustic German lager, my mind turned to other farmhouse traditions in Europe, and that led me to other grain sources—ubiquitous on farms. I will leave you with an exchange that captures why Alan Taylor is a good brewer to take up old German styles. He was, prior to becoming a brewer, interested in medieval German language, and has absorbed so fully the German approach he can no longer deviate from it.

Me: “Hey, you could put a bit of rye in it. That would give it some character.”
Alan: “I couldn’t call it a beer.” (By law and tradition, “beer” means compliant with Reinheitsgebot.)
Me: “But you’re an American. This is an American brewery.”
Alan, shaking his head: “I couldn’t call it a beer.”

Look for these beers to dribble out over the coming year. In a world that valorizes “innovation” above all else, these beers should fit right in—but also illustrate how most of that innovation isn’t really very original.

Jeff Alworth1 Comment