Way back in the middle ages, approximately five years ago, some of the best beers in the world were hard to get. There were mythologies about the elusive beers you had to travel around the globe to find, and some micros had serious trouble scaling up their production when the buzz on ratebeer or BA said this was something worth seeking out.
Other beers were perhaps not as exclusive or even exciting, it was just that they did not travel well. British cask ales are generally best in Britain, and it takes some cellarmanship to make sure they are served in prime condition.
The session beers of Central Europe are also best enjoyed fresh and on tap. The dusty bottles you brought home from Prague were not very enjoyable a few months later.
I don’t mind, actually. It is amazing that we now can get some of the best beers of the world in keg and bottle here in Oslo, and I certainly hope that things will stay that way. But, on the other hand, I’m happy to know that there is a fresh Mass or pint of the local brew waiting for me, something different than the stuff I get at home.
Some try to do both at the same time. Pilsener Urquell has been a benchmark beer for decades, and even had a good reputation during the Communist area. The bottled and canned version is available everywhere, and they ship it chilled to North America to make sure it is up to standards.
But there is also the other beer of the same name. The beer which was, until recently, only available in the vaulted cellars of the brewery. The cloudy, unpasteurized and unfiltered version of the glowing golden beer we all know.
SAB Miller, the owner of the brewery and of the brand name as this is being written – tomorrow they may be gobbled up by someone else – has decided to make a road show of the exclusive unfiltered beer. They are bringing a few selected 25 liter barrels, fresh from the tank, to a short list of pubs and bars in some European countries. Norway and Finland are included, I’d be surprised if Sweden and Denmark don’t get a visit. I don’t know about the rest of Europe.
There was a tasting session in Oslo last night, with a few barrels as well as a representative of the brewery flown in from Plzen. A video showing the making of the barrels, subdued lightning, the feeling that you are a part of something exclusive. Q&A with the brewery guy. The question is, obviously, is it worth all the fuzz?
It is a good beer, no doubt about that. There is an inviting freshness, a pleasant malty body and Saaz hops giving both fruit and just the right amount of bitterness. Cloudy, low carbonation. But, to be honest, there are many small scale breweries around Europe that can make a replica of this. The ingredients are readily available. The wooden casks look nice, but don’t let them fool you. They are sealed with resin to make sure noen of the oaky flavours seep out into the beer. It is nothing like an Altbier where the wood adds flavour, character and and edge to the beer.
One way of looking at this is as a museum piece sent out in a temporary exhibition. The historical beer has some interest in its own right. But it is not sent out for that purpose.
In a time where every item of food and drink has to have a story, having a real history is a great advantage. The recent ads from Fuller’s, oozing of London nostalgia, are spot on. For SAB Miller to have a beer in their portfolio that goes back centuries give them an opportunity to tap into this. Of course they use this every day to market the standard Urquell brand. But to have this old fashioned beer that has to be consumed within a few hours of opening is a new opportunity to spin the tale, to place the brand name in the spotlight. To create positive associations between old handicrafts and traditions and what, frankly, is a lager among lagers. In the mundane global marketplace, you do not get any space on the counter for your beer engine by claiming an impeccable heritage – you need to sell enough pint to justify your presence. And when everyone else tells a tale about Mother Theresa, cobwebs in the attic or hand picked blueberries, you have to keep trying.
But the importers have set up a puzzling list of places in Norway to get the privilege, one of them a trade union conference center where I think they would be more likely to think the unfiltered beer was faulty than to appreciate the rare opportunity.
But by all means- this is a beer you should make a detour to try. It definitely belongs in a 100 beers-you-must-try list.