29 January 2009

Zappa's Law

You've all seen it, I'm sure, on a beer menu or a list of beer quotations:
You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline — it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
Liechtenstein, a thin glacial valley sandwiched between the Swiss and Austrian alps, doesn't have an airline. It does have a beer, though, which brings it well up in the World's-Smallest-Proper-Country-As-Defined-By-Zappa's-Law stakes. Take that, Nauru.

Wine is the main booze-related activity of the principality, and His Serene Highness keeps a couple of small vineyards under his gaze, though he doesn't seem to mind tourists like me and Mrs Beer Nut tramping through them. We did buy a couple of bottles of his pinot noir in the adjacent shop before heading on, though. It's only polite.

There's one supermarket in the miniscule capital Vaduz and there I picked up a bottle of a lager bigger than Liechtenstein itself. Ländlegold features the princely schloss on the label and is made from a minimum of 50% Liechtensteiner ingredients, the rest sourced over the way in Switzerland where the brewing happens. It's an extremely dull pilsner, smoother than most of your bloat-inducing fizzbombs, but otherwise totally forgettable. The label says this is a beer as unique as Liechtenstein itself, which is pretty much on the money as it's not unique at all and very similar to both Austria and Switzerland, in crap lager terms anyway. For more fake Li(e)chtensteiner beer, see Adeptus's recent post on one such, though it doesn't seem to be claiming association with the principality at all.

For actual beermaking in this micronation you have to go to Schann, a town which is, like everything in Liechtenstein, just a couple of minutes' bus ride out of Vaduz town centre. The Brauhaus brewery (an umlaut-free zone) itself wasn't open, but a local shop was able to provide us with a few takeaway examples of its wares.

Brauhaus Hell's first, while I'm tolerating pale lagers. It looked to me like a plain, honest-to-goodness fizzy lager. There was the grassy nose and the strong carbonation. I was expecting something clean and mildly hoppy, but no. The only flavour in this beer is a nasty kind of mustiness I didn't care for at all. There's no bitterness or sweetness or anything else to hide it. Not a good start.

However, matters improved with the wheat beer, although I'm not sure if that was deliberate. Weiza is darker and hazier than most weizens I've met and presents a sour vinegary nose which worried the hell out of me. It tasted fine, though: a lovely big whack of clove spice at the heart of it. The vinegar notes reappear at the end but they don't spoil the party. The beer is sour but not in a typically beery way, like lambic or Berliner Weisse , but more in a savoury way. I ended up thinking of salt and vinegar crisps, if that helps at all. No? Well I liked it anyway.

The bock was next up, and the first thing that struck me about my bottle of Malbu-Bock was that they had filled it right to the lip of the bottle. I choose to read this as a charming human error on the part of the brewers. And more beer for me: hooray! Once poured, there's a faintly herbal nose off it rather than the syrupy sweetness I feared, and the whole is a promising shade of light, bright amber. The texture is spot-on with the heavy bock weight, but again the sickly sweetness is nowhere to be found. Instead there's a subtle bitter, medicinal character, maybe a note of metallic saccharine and hints of toffee and caramel as well. I'm sure many a bock fan will find it bland and uninteresting but it kinda worked for me.

The best of the lot, however, was Brauhaus Schwarz -- not really surprising, I suppose. It's properly black with a cream-coloured head. Sweet and stouty is how I'd describe it. Plenty of roastiness, some smokiness and a thin-but-creamy texture that puts me very much in mind of milk stout. The slickness is held in check by a spicy bitterness that adds yet another layer of complexity. It wouldn't be everyone's cup of milky tea but I loved it. It slips down very easily and coats the palate, giving the whole taste sensation wonderful legs.

It takes a special kind of tourist to enjoy Liechtenstein, especially on a freezing cold Saturday when almost everything is closed. I liked it though. There's a definite Shangri-La feeling about the way its pastures and vineyards are enclosed by the snow-capped mountains. But someone in the place has managed to carve out a living for themselves producing beer, and that definitely makes it a proper country in my book, and Frank's.

8 comments:

  1. Have the citizens of Liechtenstein moved onto the Euro yet, or are they still persisting with Swiss Fancs?
    Last time I was there (2002?), they were still peddling with the swiss, but accepting Euro's with a rediculous exchange rate.

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  2. Still Swiss francs. I mean, you can buy "Greetings from Switzerland" postcards in the giftshops there. It's like they're not even trying.

    My impression was that they are administratively Swiss (use the franc and are business mad) but culturally Austrian (Catholic, and you get a glass of water with your coffee).

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  3. Even Liechtenstein has more microbreweries the us!

    I wounder is Liechtenstein one of the few country with out the presence of a mega band brewery on their soil?

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  4. Sounds like the "fake" one from Germany (though as you say, not claiming any actual relationship to the principality) was better than the real offerings, although the Bock and Schwarz sound interesting.

    So how many micros are there there? From your post I understood 1.5? :D

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  5. Now now. That's a bit of an exaggeration there, Oblivious. I wouldn't swap our brewing industry for theirs, schwarzbier notwithstanding.

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  6. There's one brewery. Whether it's a micro or not, I don't know.

    Beerme doesn't have its capacity, though I didn't know that it only opened in 2007 and was the country's first.

    Ländlegold is no more a Liechtensteiner beer than anything you've made with Cascade hops is a US beer.

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  7. Or anything with the word Irish (or Craggy Island imagery) on the label being actually Irish.

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  8. Laurent Mousson2:26 pm

    => Tim :
    Liechtenstein is in a monetary union with Switzerland.
    Both are part of EFTA but not the EU, but Liechtenstein has joined the EEA, whilst Switzerland hasn't. Simple, innit ? #o)

    So it is very unlikely Liechtenstein will switch to the Euro in the near or not-too-distant future.

    As to their taking euros but at inflated rates, it's the same practice as anywhere in Switzerland : it is assumed travelers will have swiss francs, which are the official currency (of Liechtenstein too), and accepting euros in payment for goods or services is an extra, usually thought of as a service for people in transit, which comes at a premium.

    Though, as a sidenote, a majority of Swiss cash dispensers also deliver euros if you want. Weird, I know.

    => Oblivious :
    Being per se the same market as Switzerland, Liechtenstein is not free of mega-brands. Carlsberg and Heineken, dominating the Swiss market, are present.

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