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Rhine River Cruise

October 1999

By Bobby Bush

For the record, this was a business/pleasure cruise, designed to entertain and educate a group of 40 customers. Beer was the furthest thing from my mind (okay, I’m lying) as we boarded the plane bound for Dusseldorf. Wasn’t my fault that United Airlines stocks 33cl cans of Feldschlosschen Hopfenperle, a light and crisp Spezial Hell lager. And while we waited in the hotel for late arrivals, I just had to sample all three of the bar’s bottled beers, pilsners from Jever and Radelberger and a sweet alt brewed by Schlosser. All three breweries have been at it since the 1800s. There’s history talking here!

Wishing I knew more about German tradition and beer, our ship set sail that evening headed south, up the Rhine River. This was to be a friendly trip on a small ship, only faintly resembling an ocean-going luxury liner. Our first stop was Koln (Cologne), the birthplace of Kolsch, one of the few remaining German ale styles. After staring in awe at a magnificent, centuries old cathedral, the pangs of thirst struck like a bat on a hapless mosquito. We found an open bar and, while the bartender sipped on her morning coffee, sampled the regional fare, each served in its own logo glass complete with corresponding coaster or doily. Served in tiny 0.2 liter portions, Reissdorf Kolsch was medium bodied and golden with a short bitter end. Bitburger Premium Pils, a beer that is exported to the US, was quite nice as well. Brewed since 1543, Kostritzer’s abstruse Schwarzbier was a welcome change. Its slightly burnt dark chocolate taste was followed by a dry aftertaste with little sign of bitterness.

On our walk back to the ship, we stumbled upon Brauerie Zur Malzhuhle, our first German brewpub. Along with a plate of wonderful bratwurst, pomme frites and sweet red cabbage, we sipped on small glasses of Muhlen Kolsch, a 4.8% abv light golden ale underlined by a malty finish. The brewpub’s only other beer was Muhlen Kolsch Malz, a 2% weak beer primarily for young drinkers. Beer in Germany, it seems, is a family tradition. At an early age, children are taught to respect and appreciate every aspect of this ancient fermented beverage. We departed Malzhuhle with a growler full of beer, t-shirts and glasses. Just like an American brewpub.

Up river the following day, our ship moored near Heidelberg, home of the famed castle. Though we’d heard tales of two breweries and a brewpub in town, we found only the latter. Vetter Brauhaus resides in Old Town, a tourist area with brick streets and too many shops. Copper brewhouse just to the left of the stool-less bar, we slid into a picnic-style table and ordered a glass of Dunkles Hefeweizen. This cloudy copper brew was topped with whip cream-like foam. Its flavor was estery, yeasty and exceedingly cloying. Already sick of pilsners (that’s all the ship’s bar stocked), we skipped the Vetter Pilsner, wishing instead for one of the absent seasonals like Maibock, Marzen or, especially, Vetter 33, billed as the “strongest beer in the world.”

Fate served us one more brewpub on this cruise. Brewing since 1988 in the town of Speyer, the bar of Domhof Hausbrauerei was packed on a late Thursday night, mostly with passengers and crew from our ship. Though he spoke not a word of English, the bartender was accommodating (for beer (bier) is a universal language). We drank liter after liter of a dark, delicious Dunkles. Its medium body and soft caramel flavor was welcome respite from too many pils. Domhof’s Light was a crisp, hoppy Helles, while the Hefe was cloudy and yeasty.

Over the harried course of five days, I learned to appreciate a fine pilsner, brewed traditionally to comply with the ancient Bavarian purity law, Reinheitsgebot, which states that beer must only be brewed from wasser, malz, hopfen and hefe (water, malted grains, hops and yeast). But almost simultaneously, I learned that variety truly is the spice of life. Too many great pilsners gets old. By the time we made Strasbourg, France, near the end of our ride, we were looking for anything dark, desperate enough to make forays to Irish bars just to enjoy a pint of Guinness Cream Stout.

Our cruise ended in Basel, Switzerland with an effervescent Warteck lager, full of apple-tones and floral hop flavor. The streetside bar also served Heineken on tap, tasting much better than the Holland brewery’s light struck, green-bottled beer exported to the US. At the hotel that night, we toasted our adventures with Feldschlosschen Dunkle Perle, a dark caramel lager made by the same local brewery that brewed the beer that we began this trip with. What goes around, comes around.

Even in today’s shrinking world, German life is still built around beer. Just give me something other than a pilsner.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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