Okay, huddle up….Here’s the basic 411 on Zwickelbier (ZWI-kul-beer): “Zwickel” is a term for a valve on the side of a wooden beer cask that allows the brewer – and you, if you’re lucky enough to be standing there – to pour a sample of the contents, in order (usually) to check on its aging process. Zwickel is a sub-species of KellerBier, which translates literally to “cellar beer”, referring to the process of making a lager which is aged in an oak cask, often chamber-dried, which just means it doesn’t have to be kept wet, unlike your local winery’s casks, which should be promptly refilled to avoid shrinking. Kellers are traditionally unpasteurized and conditioned in an oak cask, in which the cork or “bung” hole is left open. (The barrel is turned up so that the hole is on top. This is because the brewers are not stupid. I explained this style to a friend, whose brow immediately knotted up and he said, “Well, wouldn’t the beer, then, just kinda, uh, run out?“) (Oy vey) This allows any CO2 from secondary fermentation to vent off, letting free-floating yeasts and bacteria (the good kind) in the air, even in the somewhat controlled environment of a cave, wind up in the beer, creating new flavors and undertones. A close and maybe more familiar corrollary is the use of the “coolship” open fermentation method, which dozens of more experimental US brewers now use to make sour and brett ales, Deschutes’ Bend neighbor, Crux Fermentation Project’s “Coolship Series” notably among these.
So…that’s the tech stuff. So, you’re maybe thinking, “What is a lager-repellent crank like Steve Body doing writing up a lager collab, anyway? Are ya getting a little, uh, mellow, in yer old age, there, Bubba?“
No, I fucking well am not.
To being with (and although I pretty much single-handedly created the impression that I hate lagers), I do NOT, in fact, even really dislike lagers. I dislike BAD, clumsy, underrealized lagers and the unfortunate fact of the current Great Lager Scare of the Ought-Twenties is that far too many less experienced brewers think making a lager is easy, so they make ’em and, yeah, they’re light and undemanding and generally less flavorful and intense than the brewery’s ales and they also OFTEN suck. It’s not easy to make a GOOD lager. It is, in fact, the same set of technical choices as making ales but even easier to screw up.
But you give the idea for collabing on a beer to Bend’s sublime Deschutes and Bitburger, the Bitburg, Germany colossus since 1817, and the fact that they go to one of the most obscure, uber-geeky styles anyone can name, lately, makes perfect sense. And it winds up being Bitburger/Deschutes Dry Hop’d Zwickl, which is, dare I say this, STUNNING. This might also be called, “Two Breweries in Search of a Challenge” and getting larger numbers of beer fans interested in a style that even some Germans are a tad fuzzy on is certainly enough of a challenge to sink one’s corporate teeth into.
And, my friends, if this beer doesn’t put the term “Zwickel” onto the personal beer maps of a LOT more Americans, nothing ever is likely to do it.
Zwickels are, by definition, lighter-bodied and a bit darker than the average Keller and are traditionally less hoppy. But not in this classy 16 ounce can. This is forthrightly labeled “Dry Hop’d Zwickel” and the hops character of this beer more than lives up to the name. It’s a GORGEOUS light copper color in the glass, with a creamy, almost milkshake-weight head, and is hopped three times with Bitburger’s own proprietary Bitburger Siegelhopfen, their unique proprietary hop blend from the Eifel National Park, artfully complemented with madly aromatic American Citra and Mosaic hops, grown in Yakima Valley. This very genteel head-butt of two usually divergent brewing cultures results in a far more full-bodied lager than many Americans usually drink, with peach, lime, apricot, tangerine, and mango notes, all whispered rather than shouted, that finishes with a lovely tongue-tingling bitterness that gives the bounteous flavor profile a crisp, bright send-off. For all us Ale Geeks, is this anything like the weight and relative intensity of your favorite ale? No, it’s not. But it over-delivers on every other aspect – hops bitterness, texture, BALANCE, and complexity. This, in a way reminiscent of my own favorite ale-surrogate US Lager, Great Divide “Hoss”, is a lager with enough hair on its chest to satisfy even the most devout HopHead.
This is such a pleasure to drink. I was so impressed that I walked the glass into the home office from which my corporate big-shot wife, Judye, runs the benefits business of a large, statewide credit union. I am sternly prohibited from entering this hallowed chamber, during her business hours, so I know I’d better have a damned good reason to interrupt her. I just set the glass on her desk and said, “Taste this“. She stopped, glared at me momentarily, and then took a sip. Her eyes rolled blissfully and she murmured, “Oooh, that is GOOD!” and, glancing at the glass, said, “And pretty, too!“
Right on both counts.
The 16 oz. four-pack is not at all expensive, the beer is eye-poppingly fine, and it’s available enough that I found it in my local supermarket. As an intro to the Keller/Zwickel mini-universe, it’s the equivalent of starting your baseball career by playing shortstop for the Red Sox: everything after it might seem a tad pallid by comparison. But even if you’re a recent convert from either your youthful juice boxes or habitual BudMillrCoorsPabst or your Peter Pan Syndrome hard seltzers, this is a beer you can drink and enjoy and get excited about and even learn something from. Wins, all the way around. It’s one of those extremely rare things you find usually only after a LONG search through the marketplace: Something For Everybody. 95 Points