I was in a pub yesterday when one of us, who had been abstaining from alcohol for the duration of Lent, wanted to break her fast with a snakebite and black.
For the uninitiated, snakebite is a mixture of (usually) half and half cider and pilsner, often taken with a dash of blackcurrant cordial. It’s sweet and refreshing and is especially popular amongst students and younger drinkers. I sold thousands of them when I worked in bars in St Andrews, sometimes asked for as “diesel” or, ahem, “pinky pees”.
It was therefore slightly surprising when the barman informed us that he could not serve snakebite and black, as it was illegal. As a compromise, he sold us the component parts separately.
It is not illegal to serve snakebite, as far as I can determine. Weights and measures legislation in the UK requires that draught beer or cider can only be served in quantities of one third of a pint, two thirds of a pint, a half pint, or multiples of a half pint, “except when sold as a constituent of a mixture of two or more liquids”.* That doesn’t prohibit anyone from serving a pint of half & half snakebite. It also appears to me that a half-pint wouldn’t be a problem under the exception for mixed drinks, but I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.
It seems that a number of pubs, perhaps including Wetherspoons, refuse to serve snakebite on the grounds that it is drunk primarily by younger drinkers who tend to drink it too fast. This seems to be an odd distinction for places that have posters in the window advertising discounted jägerbombs. Nevertheless, the “illegal” excuse seems to be used by staff in these circumstances as one of those catch-all, blame-shifting excuses, like “health and safety” or “data protection”, when the law in question has nothing to do with it, which is then passed on to others as fact.
My favourite story about this is from the Harrogate Advertiser in June 2001. It’s not recorded whether this particular customer was thought to be a potential troublemaker or whether the member of staff just accepted the myth as fact:
At about 11.45am, seven serious looking security agents had banged on the door of the pub, flashed their warrant cards, and requested lunch for the former president of the USA. […]
“But we let them in and after they’d searched the building in walked Mr Clinton himself. He came to the bar and introduced himself, and then there was the dilemma of what to drink.
“So I gave him and his aide a taste of a couple of real ales we have here, but he decided on a diet Coke.
“He did ask for a snakebite after one of his security men did, but we kindly refused him. It’s illegal to serve it here in the UK you see.”
Welcome to Yorkshire, Mr President.
As well as Brauhaus Lemke, we were lucky to have Weihanstephaner near to our hotel in Mitte and we returned to it a couple of times during our trip. Weihenstephan, north of Munich,claims to be the oldest operating commercial brewery in the world, with the abbey there having obtained brewing rights in 1040. For over two centuries now the brewery has been owned by the state of Bavaria; it seemed appropriate to be drinking nationalised beer in East Berlin, albeit a Western one.
I’d heard of Weihenstephan before visiting its outpost in the German capital, but wasn’t particularly familiar with the beers. I was pleased to find that, although the pub only served beers from a single brewery, it at least provided a range of styles. In our week in Berlin, we didn’t stumble upon the type of beer bar you might gravitate to in London, Copenhagen or even Leeds, with a wide range of styles from different breweries. In that context, finding 12 or so beer styles, or at least sub-styles, from one brewery was very welcome.
All of the beers we tried were very enjoyable, and (as far as I could tell from my limited experience) good examples of each style, from the Hefe and Dunkel Weissbeirs to the Pilsner. The two most interesting beers we tried were the strongest: the Korbinian Doppelbock and Vitus Weizen Bock were both north of 7% and packed with flavour: respectively rich, spicy and malty; and packed with banana and tropical fruit flavours.
On our second visit we also had dinner at Weihenstephaner. I had a posh version of Currywurst, which came as a delicious veal sausage smothered in spicy, brown curry sauce (fruity and more like chip shop curry sauce than a British Indian restaurant curry) and some roasted new potatoes. Kate had a dish translated as a potato hotpot, which was a slightly thin broth which thankfully came with some tasty, thin, spicy Wurst.
The bar is also a nice setting to enjoy your beer. A kind of upmarket Bavarian beer hall, upstairs is white, neat and ordered like a minimal restaurant. Downstairs there are very many more seats in a maze of cellars under brickwork arches, which seems more like a beerhall as I imagined it, but at the same time was civilised, chatty and not too loud, with families, groups of work colleagues and celebratory but restrained birthday parties all able to enjoy the same space.
Happily full of good beer and tasty German food, we experimented with a couple of different schnapps and wondered why our local attempt at a German beerhall wasn’t more like this, with a genuine appreciation of Bavarian beer and food, rather than catering primarily for the worst British stag-and-hen doings.
Conversely, although I enjoyed our week in Berlin a lot, it did make me pine for the best of Leeds and the variety of beers offered by English craft beer bars. North Bar, for example, provides the best of all worlds: the hygge of a Danish cellar bar or Belgian brown cafe, along with the conviviality of the best British pubs and a range of beers from across Europe, America and beyond. Not that I want to go to Berlin to drink anything other than German beer, but there’s an equivalent in Berlin in terms of range, I’d be grateful to know for next time.
The pub is opposite a nineteenth century statue of St George and the Dragon, which has stood in two locations before the restoration of Nikolaiviertel in the 1980s. The inside is large in itself, but in summer would also give you the chance to sit in a beer garden next to the Spree.
For a brewpub, Georgbraeu only seems to have two beers: their pilsner and dunkel. I found both of them inoffensive but uninteresting. The pilsner didn’t taste of much and the dunkel was the same with a bit of toffee. Nonetheless the portions of Schweinshaxe did look huge and maybe, on a warm summer’s day by the river with friends, you might focus less on the beer.
Nikolaiviertel is a small area of Mitte, near Alexanderplatz and Museum Island, which appears older than it actually is. Like much of Berlin, it was flattened towards the end of the war, but in 1980s was rebuilt by the East German authorities for the city’s 750th anniversary, with Berlin’s “oldest” church, the twin-spired Nikolaikirche at its centre.
Opposite Nikolaikirche, now a museum rather than a working church, is a small pub-restaurant called Zum Nussbaum (Walnut Tree), which was built in 1985-7 based on the plans of a destroyed pub that once stood in another part of Berlin.
It’s a small three-room pub with around forty seats. We were lucky to get a seat on a Tuesday afternoon, in the dark wood-panelled back room with small prints from the cartoonist and artist Heinrich Zille, who is commemorated with a statue and museum nearby.
The range of beers was limited to those from Berliner Kindl, but we both went for the recommendation in Around Berlin In 80 Beers: Postdamer Rex Pils, a satisfying bitter pilsner. We had a tasty late lunch of Boulette (a kind of meatball/burger) and Bockwurst with potato salad.
Zum Nussbaum is a pleasant, cosy pub in a nice area. However it was difficult to forget that this quarter was destroyed in the most tragic period in Berlin’s history and that this seemingly aged pub is seven years younger than me.
Thanks to the book Around Berlin In 80 Beers by Peter Sutcliffe (not that one) we were quickly able to find a few good pubs near our hotel in Mitte for a drink on the first evening of our trip to Berlin. Brauhaus Lemke turned out to be one of the best and we returned three or four times during the week.
Lemke is a slightly mediaeval looking, moderately large brewpub in railway arches near Hackescher Markt station that sells a small range of its own beers. Whilst we were there they sold a pilsner, weissbeir, “original” and a special at any time. The special on the first evening was a Zwickl, evidently a light unfiltered lager, which was pleasant but inoffensive. On the second visit, and for the rest of our stay, the special a “Stout Doppelbock“, which was a tasty, raisiny stout with a nice dry hoppiness to balance the malt sweetness.
The beer we kept coming back to was the Original, a balanced chestnut brown beer with a fresh light bitterness. Like a lot of the pubs we visited, there was as much focus on food as there was on drinking, and the Original went well with all the dishes Kate and I tried, including Schnitzel, Goumetbratwurst, Nürnberger Würstchen and pork fillets. There were beef and chicken options too, as well as Flammkuchen, a popular pizza-like flatbread from Alsace.
The food was reasonably priced and generously (although not ridiculously) portioned whilst the staff were helpful and efficient. I understand that Lemke also has another brewpub in the west of the city and owns a number of other pubs, including Brauhaus Mitte near Alexanderplatz, which we didn’t make it to.
For the purposes of a leaving do and a birthday party, I went to Leeds Bierkeller twice this week. Thursday night was fine: a quiet night in the bar as there was no band on, I was able to talk with friends and try some of the different beers, of which I decided that Früh Kölsch (not a lager) and Flensburger Pilsener (which was) were my own favourites. There was a delicate floral hoppiness in the Flensburger which was more interesting than most of the various Paulaners.
In accordance with the standard practice, many of the girls (excluding Kate) opted for the Belgian fruit beers, with many enjoying the draft Rosarda. The waitresses in short dirndels, however, may or may not be to their tastes.
Friday night was very different: with the band on, the bar was bunged by 9 O’Clock, and one’s enjoyment of the event depends very much on whether you enjoy a Northern English band leading everyone in drinking songs, synchronised swaying, and being encouraged to stand on your seat (essentially the rules require that you absolutely must not stand on the table but you pretty much have to stand on the bench). There was at least one stag do in, which is probably the market being targeted, really.
The band were good at what they did, however. An example of one of their medleys went as follows:
Hitler Has Only Got One Ball > Yellow Submarine > She’s Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts > Lily The Pink > The Can Can > Oggy Oggy Oggy! Oi Oi Oi! > Ein Prosit.
If I had one particular criticism of the Bierkeller it’s that the televisions everywhere (above and around the bar, the little ones above the urinals) should probably be switched to something other than Sky News when all this is going on. It’s difficult to get really into bawdy German drinking songs whilst the death tolls of anti-government protestors in Libya and Bahrain are constantly revised upwards on the big screen.
I should be clear that I’m not one of those people who liked pilsner before being converted to “real ale”; I always actively disliked pilsners, preferring Guinness and other nitrokegged stouts and even watery smoothflow beers such as Caffreys and Tennents Velvet. That’s not to say that, given no other option, I won’t happily drink a Peroni, Stella or Mahou in a restaurant, but it tends to be a last resort.
However, on Saturday I found myself buying pilsner again, as Beer Ritz had Thornbridge Italia in. According to the label, it’s a collaboration with Maurizio Folli of Birrifico Italiano, made with Hallertau Northern Brewer, Perle and Spalter Select hops. I thought it would probably go well with curry.
Pouring a very pale blond, it had a fresh lemongrass smell and a light, sharp, slightly grassy floral taste. There was a small amount of the usual pilsner biscuitiness in there, which carried through into a building, light citrus bitterness in the aftertaste. As Reluctant Scooper notes, there’s a lot going on in there for a pilsner, although it remains a light, refreshing beer.
I think it’s an excellent example of the style, it’s just that it’s not a style of beer that I particularly like. Much as I love Thornbridge, it’ll probably be a while before I get this again. However I would probably pick it over most other pilsners.