Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Doppel-Off: Ayinger Celebrator, Weihenstephaner Korbinian, and Birra Moretti La Rossa

Okay, stop me if you've heard this one before. Two Germans and an Italian walk into a bar...

...(the punchline is fascism).

Welcome back to my lonely blog. I've been away doing lots of work and being very sick, very often. Happily, I'm squared away for the moment and I finally have a chance to do a little comparison I've had in the works.

So here's the thing: I realized that I've yet to do any lager reviews. This should seem strange to the vast majority of Americans (according to Americans, the only beer drinkers who count), who are unaware that any other sorts of beer exist at all. Or that the word "lager" itself indicates something other than a guy who cuts down trees. It's a niche that my website should fill if it wants to be respectable, and so I'm gonna review some lagers. Oh boy am I gonna review some lagers. Thing is, what I've got in mind are indeed lagers. but they're also exactly the sorts of beers from which the typical American beer drinker would recoil in horror. Yup: today I'm doing doppelbocks.

Dopplebocks are the anti-Budweisers of the lager world. Save for a couple of oddities (double pilsners, eisbocks, and malt liquors being my favorites) no other style of lager matches them for sheer knockdown power. Instead of being pale, light, fizzy, and American, these things are dark, heavy, moody, and very - very - south German. It's like drinking Friedrich Schiller, and I absolutely love the things. They're my favorite style of lager by far, and - more importantly - their very existence shows just how good these humble bottom-fermenting brews can be when they're made with some TLC and not shot through with corn and rice.

To give the style a good showing, I'm writing up one of my old favorites (La Rossa) and two I've never had before (Celebrator and Korbinian). These by no means exhaust the style. I wanted to find several others that I enjoy, particularly some Americans (Capital's Autumnal Fire and whatever the heck the Victory one is called), so I went on a doppelhunt to various shops around Chi-town. Alas, no dice. That leaves the Germans, the Italian, and whatever their plans are for world domination.

If I was hoping for a range of variation, the bottles alone are encouraging. The Celebrator is probably my favorite, in that it is unabashedly pagan. The label features goats standing around a gigantic glass of beer, performing who-knows-what ritual. Actually, goats seem to be a running theme here, as each (expensive) bottle comes with its own little plastic goat figure on a string. It's rad; I plan to use mine as a Christmas ornament. All of this makes the Celebrator one of my favorite bottle designs ever; you just can't beat alcoholic goats for setting the mood. But if the Celebrator is shamelessly pagan, then the Korbinian is its Catholic counterpart. Right above the brewery name is a bishop of some sort, apparently offering the beer a benediction. There are also some flags I don't recognize and - of course - there's a bear. This is Germany we're talking about, after all. Overall, the Korbinian comes off as even more Bavarian than than the Celebrator - hell, it's more Bavarian than Benedict XVI. As compared with the theological leanings of its two more expensive Teutonic cousins, then, La Rossa has a mustachio'd guy in a suit and trilby drinking a pint. This comes across as delightfully secular. Like the other two, though, it wears its national identity on its sleeve - or are the red, green, and white borders not enough of a hint for you?

So, let's deal with the Ayinger contribution first. In terms of alcohol content, it's the weakest (6.7%); in terms of price, it's the most expensive ($3.29 for 11.2 oz.). On the other hand, it's among the top fifty beers in the world according to our friends at BeerAdvocate, and the only lager there that's available in any wide degree. So, let's give it a shot.

Aaand my doubts are put to rest the moment I pour it. Holy damn this one looks good. Celebrator pours a dark russet color, with a frisky one-finger tan head. There's a surprisingly complex aroma here, not the sort of thing you expect from a lager. I get a ton of thick yeasty malts first of all, but behind it there's actually some fruit as well - raisin, maybe, and some other stuff that's tougher to pin down. No real hints as to the hops here, but then this isn't really that kind of lager. And speaking of lagerness, it very surely is one: it's got that slight sourness to its nose that lets you know exactly what kind of beast it is.

The taste. Dear lord, it's good. Where has this beer been all my life.

It's a massive explosion of flavors, like biting into a really spicy sandwich. Along with the bready textures I get sweet molasses, ginger, some vanilla, even some nuttiness. Then, at the end, a bite from the hops comes out of nowhere and cuts things wide open. The aftertaste takes yet another turn, where it becomes almost minty - or at any rate, there's definitely some incredible herbal notes. There's more fruitiness here, as well (raisins? prunes, maybe?). And despite this incredible succession of flavors, the beer remains impossibly smooth.

Celebrator is eye-openingly, mouth-gapingly, hair-raisingly fantastic. There's no doubt in my mind that it's the best lager I've ever had up to this point, and now it's only a question as to whether one of the others is going to take that title away from it. It's absolute magic. Nothing so exciting, so varied, so anti-boring should be this drinkable, especially when it's a lager. It has a flavor profile that other beers can only dream of, and yet (if you didn't mind being broke) you could easily put away four of these in a sitting with no problem at all. Unbelievable. It gets an A+ - not because you couldn't ever do a lager better than this, but because I can't imagine what such a monster would be like.

Onto the Korbinian. How the hell do you follow something like that? I hope to hell the Weihenstephaners have something in these 500 milliliters of abbey brewery goodness that will match their neighbors; otherwise this isn't even going to deserve the name "comparison."

So. At 7.4% abv, the Korbinian is the strongest beer here. While it's not exactly cheap ($3.29 for a pint and change), it's still better than the Celebrator. And, most importantly, it's equally Bavarian. Let's give it a spin, then.

First off, it pours a rather odd color - not an unpleasant one, just odd. Rather than brown, it's more like a very dark orange. There's also a finger or so of creme-colored head, which quickly dies down (a victim of the abv, one suspects). And the aroma is - well, wonderful really. Like the Celebrator, it's a surprisingly busy nose. A crisp chocolate milk smell from the malts is center stage; there's also some toffee, along with a fruitiness that's hard to identify. On my best guess, I'd say red grapes. More surprisingly, this beer is completely lacking in that sour lagery smell that I found in the Celebrator. If you didn't tell me different, I'd have taken this for an ale. Maybe they used a funky yeast of some sort.

Wow, that's good. It's not nearly as complex as the Ayinger - no, take it back, complexitywise it's not even in the same building as the Ayinger - but it has charms of its own. Korbinian is delicious maltiness all the way through, but more amazing is its much creamier texture. This is a mouth-filling beer of the best sort, with a flavor that coats everything and lingers forever. And it does so without even toeing the border on being too heavy (although it still comes across as the heaviest beer in this comparison). It's wonderful, lovely, fantastic. The maltiness, unlike with the Celebrator, is really all that's here, but it's a very multidimensional maltiness. There's milk chocolate and dates most of the way through, and things round themselves off in the aftertaste with a move towards a (slightly more sour and bitter) strawberry ice cream flavor. It's quite sweet, but I'm not complaining. And, just to make a point of it, I have no sense of the extra alcohol at all.

Amazingly, the Korbinian is almost as good as the Celebrator. They're extremely different beers, of course: one is spicy and insane, the other creamy and mellow. I love them both. I prefer the Celebrator, but some part of me senses that it's based more on personal preference than objective fact. I can easily imagine someone of good taste picking the Korbinian instead. Basically I prefer the Celebrator in the same way that I prefer Mercedes over Audis, or vanilla ice cream over chocolate. You can't really provide good reasons for these things.

Finally, there's humble La Rossa. Birra Moretti is nestled way up in the north of Italy in Bergamo - near the Austrians, in fact, who seem to have taught them a thing or two about brewing. It's now owned by Heineken, oddly enough, and that fact combined with Heineken's ownership of Murphy's and Affligem may accidentally make Heineken the producer of several beers that are actually good. No matter who makes it, though, La Rossa is (at $8 a sixer) by far the cheapest brew here, and easily one of the best bang-for-your-buck beers in Chicago. Heck, at 7.2% alcohol, it's almost as good for a cheap drunk as the Mendocino stuff. And, mind you, I'm not really expecting this working-class Italian to measure up to the Bavarian aristocrats. All the same, I'm curious to see how much good one can get at this price.

Like the Korbinian, La Rossa pours an odd orange-brown tone. Unlike the Korbinian, it's a much lighter color; also unlike the other two, there's tons of carbonation. You get a two-finger head for a start, one that's quite a lot more resilient than the others. It's got that same sweet malty aroma, but sadly there's nowhere near the complexity. The slightly sour lager smell I was missing from the Korbinian? It's back!! Aside from that, butterscotch is the main note, along with a touch of bready yeast. Miracle of miracles, I can also detect some hops in this: I can't place them, but they feature a nice kind of raisiny spice.

Well, in terms of taste, if you can think of the Korbinian as being akin to an English stout, then this is more like an Irish one. It's lighter and less sweet, with a much drier finish. There's a bitter sting on the tongue at first, and then the malts enter with a wave of caramel and smoky sweetness. Make that very smoky, in fact. The hops at the end are perfectly balanced against this - they come bearing a strange, almost sour yogurt note, though. The aftertaste is pleasantly dry and earthy.

I didn't expect this to be as good as the others, and it isn't. On the other hand, it's a fine beer by its own merits - maybe even more versatile in its own way (I wouldn't dare try eating anything alongside the other two, but this brew would go perfectly while munching on a swiss cheese sandwich or something). It's lighter than the Korbinian, but still has a really buttery, mouth-coating texture. And that's pretty nice now, in the midst of winter, but in August I think I'd find it cloying. It's not a perfect beer by any stretch, then, but for what it is I'd call it a solid success. And for the price, I'm hard-pressed to think of a better deal in Chicago if you're in the mood for a damn good lager.

To conclude, I really like all three of these beers. If I'd been able to find them, I'm sure I would have loved the Capital and Victory takes on the style as well. These are the lagers of lagers, giants wandering a sandbox filled with limp-wristed fizzy wimps. No God-fearing Bud drinker would ever touch any of these suckers, but for my money they represent the redeeming moment of half of the beer world. Friends, let us go out and drink us some lagers.

Ayinger Celebrator
Grade: A+
Summary: Complex. A rollercoaster of malts and hops and the sort of things witches keep in their cabinets. Despite all that, you could drink it every day.

Weihenstephaner Korbinian
Grade: A
Summary: Sweet and creamy, like drinking a bar of milk chocolate. If the chocolate had really amazing fruity notes, anyways.

Birra Moretti La Rossa
Grade: B+
Summary: Drier, simpler, and somewhat more ragged. Not really in the same league as the others, but a fine budget choice.

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