We spoke with Jenia Semenova and Corbin Crnkovic of The Muted Horn about their passion for beer. Natural wine is often equated with craft beer. From production to enjoyment, the nose, the palate, the body sensation and drinking habits, how much in common is there really?
Muted Horn: There's this trend with colors. Any color that deviates from the traditional beer color draws attention. Red works great and pink is a common color right now. Especially on the web store, it's doing really well.
Return: That actually goes just as well in the natural wine world when it comes to marketing.
Muted Horn: Of course, one or the other aficionado is also interested in the tasting notes. Especially with hoppy beer. Yeast has a huge impact on beer because it basically provides all the esters and phenols, it completely changes the flavor depending on what it is. People still hate or love a beer for a particular hop in it. But as an amateur, it can quickly become overwhelming when you're confronted with all the details or tasting notes. On the menu, we try to keep the information to one line per item. On the other hand, if you like Citra hops, for example, and find them in the descriptions, it can help the decision-making process. Beer fans seem to be much more tech-savvy compared to wine fans, so maybe that's because of home brewing. This is especially big in North America, but here in Berlin people also like to simply brew in the kitchen. Consumers know about details when they are involved in the process themselves.
Return: You guys have a great selection of kegs on tap, how does that compare to the longevity of open wines?
Muted Horn: We have around 20 beers on tap, so as long as the keg is emptied in a week, that's ok. Wine on tap, in kegs, probably has a similar shelf life. The trend doesn't seem to be catching on yet, though. Handling a wine bottle seems to have a very high cultural value. Thereby, the ecological and economical advantage is not uninteresting. It's similar with lambic, which is probably the closest thing to wine, where people are also reluctant to use a KEG because bottle aging makes a big difference.
When storing beer, a dark cool room should be a given as well. Light kills beer. A beer that sits in a Späti store window in the sun for a couple of weeks, and then goes into the fridge, isn't really fresh anymore.
Return: Does that have any positive effect, letting beer breathe after opening?
Muted Horn: It depends. With lambic, it works in a way like cognac or oxidative wines, where the oxygen enhances the nuttiness. It adds a depth that wasn't there before, yet very subtly, it doesn't change that much. Temperature and carbonation are important constants to monitor here, personally we don't like beer to stand too long. Some people do that with stouts, as well – as they warm up a bit, those styles can release different deeper flavours. With lambic at least something interesting comes out of the experiment. But a lager or pilsner really isn't something anyone wants sitting around.
Return: Then we come to sour beer, which is often celebrated by natural wine lovers and also seems to have a special status in the craft beer scene. How come?
Muted Horn: We think it has to do with wine, sour beer comes from places where vines are grown. In Canada, most mixed-fermentation sour beer first came from around Quebec or British Columbia, there are a lot of vineyards there. Knowing how to make wine, how to take care of barrels, how to work with fruit, that has an impact on sour beer production. In the region, they know how to blend and macerate, how to control different yeasts that are found on the fruit, and, this is not to be underestimated, how to clean properly. Beer is very sensitive to oxygen and different bacteria because it's not as acidic as wine, except for the gustative perception, but the physical pH is higher, the lower pH in wine keeps a lot of bacteria in check there. California is kind of the center for sour beer in the US. It got big about 15 years ago, maybe 10 years ago in Canada. But it still represents a very small part of beer production because it's more expensive and takes more time. It takes two and a half weeks to brew an IPA, so that plays a role in making the best use of space. To make a sour beer it takes 6 to 12 months, it costs a lot more because space is very expensive. It usually takes three and a half weeks or more to ferment the beer, but there are some modern breweries that are pushing it with modern techniques like centrifuges. Before you put the beer in the fermentation tanks, you run it through a centrifuge, like in a bio lab, that takes out all the yeast and all the components that might affect the flavor you want.
Return: Wait a minute. So craft beer is anything but a natural approach!
Muted Horn: Yes! It can also be very high-tech! With a lot of modern styles, it's all about machines. Lab analyses, engineering.
Return: So it's going in a very different direction. But aren't there also defenders of craftsmanship that are as close to nature as possible in the scene?
Muted Horn: That's how it started a long time ago. But demand is changing production methods. Where we come from, the most popular craft beer is IPA. That's what sells the best. Even us, who love sour beer, we sell 80% IPA because that's what people like to drink and it's easily accessible. When that came into vogue, we drank it ourselves for the next 20 years, always West Coast IPA. IPA was supposed to taste like that, it had to be clear, super dry and bitter, and if it didn't have any of those qualities, it fell into the bad beer category. Back then, it was embarrassing if your beer wasn't clear. IPAs were canned to hide the fact that they were cloudy, and thus commonly enjoyed out of the can. Today, hazy IPAs based on the New England style are extremely popular - they are intensely fruity, smooth, a bit sweeter, cloudy and not clear. It's become the new trend. With fruit and easily accessible flavor, it has become the most popular craft beer and is now produced in raucous quantities.
Return: Perhaps IPA is a bit like carbonic maceration in wine. Which is what started the natural wine movement. Lots of fruit, easy to drink. When we started drinking natural, that's what we were looking for, today we're going in the opposite direction, away from fruit. But it's understandable why people want IPA, the taste is very distinct, one dimensional, approachable. The first craft beer trend in Paris was also IPA. 20 years ago, most natural wines were made with Beaujolais-inspired Carbo, this kind of wine can be made anywhere. It was new and exciting at first, but the problem is that after a while, all wines from all regions have the same taste. Something gets lost. For us, it's similar to IPA, the hops are overpowering. But maybe our beer palate isn't trained enough to distinguish the different flavors.
Muted Horn: I think you nailed it, it's the entry level beer into the craft beer world.
A simple taste that's pleasant, that has value, it's great for getting together, it's not distracting, maybe that has more value for beer than it does for wine and the situations in which those drinks are enjoyed. For a beer with only 4% alcohol that tastes like pineapple, why would you tend to drink something else when you can just keep drinking that all the time without having to think about it too much. And it's great for the brewery too, they just keep using the same hops and releasing that every two and a half weeks and it's drunk in great quantity, that's how you make 60% of your money to be able to brew other interesting beers on the side that are more niche, but it's the IPA that pays the bills.
Our absolute favorite brewery is one outside of San Francisco that has been making nothing but sour beers for the last decade, mostly barrel-aged beers that are really funky and dry, with little or subtle fruit. But somewhere along the way, they also moved on to brewing IPAs. Sante Adairius. A tiny brewery that is very specific and doesn't want to make more than they can offer in their own two bars. Occasionally they sell us beer, maybe twice a year. Probably the best beer in the world, their sour beer on tap. But every once in a while it's nice to drink something with a high pH. Maybe it's the full body with the alcohol content that changes the pH perception with wine? It hits the taste buds differently. Not everyone can sit in a pub for four hours drinking sours. Most people need something in between to regenerate their palate. That's why this little brewery started brewing IPAs, and they're very good!
Return: We like Kölsch, so drinkable, nice beer, refreshing, no taste. When you're working with Kölsch all night, you stay at a good level between tolerance for the drunken bar crowd and wakefulness of your own responsibilities. When the IPA came along and we replaced Kölsch with it, it was a disaster!
Muted Horn: That's twice as much alcohol!
Return: Getting back to craft, how do you guys view that from the beer scene when someone praises supermarket beers?
Muted Horn: We're not that demanding about it. We drink a lager now and then, mostly from Franconia. But mainly we stick to sour beer. There is a wide range. There are also customers who get very upset about certain beers, as if they weren't real beer. We don't see it that strictly, if it's fun and enjoyable, then we don't worry so much about it. Augustiner we enjoy, it's a good beer, especially at the price. The Germans have really perfected the lager. In the past, they didn't experiment much with different styles, but over hundreds of years, they have perfected lager, even supermarket lager. Especially in Upper Franconia.
Return: When did you guys open Muted Horn and how did you handle importing?
Muted Horn: That was five years ago. When we started, we didn't have a license yet, we had to do it individually each time, fill out a separate form, send it to Dresden, they send it back and we send it on to Leipzig and so on. We could have done it through a logistics company, but that's much more expensive. Now we have a license. One of our friends was about to become a lawyer and helped us through the paperwork. The questions were absurd at times, my favorite, asked repeatedly in different versions, " How can you guarantee that the logistics company won't fund terrorism?" ... Twenty pages of questions that even the aspiring lawyer often didn't know what they meant. I think there is just a standard process, regardless of the size of the company, whether moving whole containers or a few pallets.
Return: It seems like the authorities will do anything to scare you away so they don't have to deal with the little guys, that's our experience as well.
Muted Horn: With hoppy beer, the kind that people really want from America, we're only sold the beer if we fly it over. With any other method of transportation, it takes too long and it would spoil. Most breweries think it's perfect for exactly one and a half to two and a half weeks. To get the beer, it has to be flown, there's no other way. So we fly it over, a few cans on a pallet, it arrives at the airport and has to go to someone in German customs to sign it off. A couple of times we had trouble with customs who didn't believe it was beer, because why would anyone import beer into Germany! We had to explain in a long document what our motivation was and why it was flown.
Return: Finally, a few basic questions, why Berlin, what brought you to Berlin and where did you actually meet?
Muted Horn: We've been together for 17 years now, and met in Canada, we grew up in the same small town in Alberta, we met there in high school and then moved to Vancouver together, which is where it started for us, with the beer. There were a lot of hops grown in the region, that led to the IPA being widely available, and often a bit stronger, 6 to 7% compared to the industrial lager with 4,5%, for a cheaper price. It was a local movement where the local breweries were trying to push their beer against the big international brands. This was 2006, and if you go to college, you're happy to get drunk twice as fast, for a cheaper price. On the West Coast, with all the hop fields, beer was widely available and part of the culture - from Vancouver to San Francisco. It was everywhere, the idea of a dedicated craft beer bar was redundant because IPA was available in every student pub, something local was always on tap alongside the generic lager. It wasn't even called craft beer, it was just beer, local and bottled in small quantities, that was part of the beer culture there. An everyday beer and not a decision that had to be made, " Come on, let's get a craft beer! ", it was out there and accessible, which was great.
At some point we started taking beer vacations, planning trips to breweries, from Vancouver to Portland, we flew to San Francisco and visited countless breweries and bars, the goal was to learn and understand as much as possible. It developed into an idea of what people thought was the best beer and why. For example Cantillon, that was sour and really hard to come by in America, but we didn't let up on finding the stuff that was going to be special. Russian River in the Bay Area, one of the first breweries to brew sour beer in North America, about 20 years ago, was a great discovery for us. Now hybrids are all the rage in the beer industry, but they released a sour beer blend with Chardonnay grapes even back then, so that was the moment we fell in love with sour beer.
Return: But why Berlin of all places?
Jenia: We knew Berlin as tourists and Corbin lived here for a summer with a friend, none of which had anything to do with beer.
Corbin: More than any other city, it conveyed the idea that you could do whatever you wanted without being constantly judged. Like you could be whoever you wanted. That's quite nice. An autonomous space where you don't have to frantically worry about your social status so far. That was part of the motivation to leave Vancouver. Yet it's one of the nicest cities I've been to, clean, safe, everything is brand new, right on the ocean, by the Rocky Mountains, a city for someone who likes to be outside, but I like bars and restaurants and music, I like everything inside!
Return: Yeah, we don't really care for the Rocky Mountains either! No, that's true, at least Berlin gives that idea of freedom, at least superficially.
Jenia: I think we chose Berlin because we knew we would leave Vancouver if we wanted to develop professionally, it was time to try something different and we weren't tied to one location. Corbin's grandmother is German, they left for Canada in 1933, just in time. I myself liked certain aspects of East and West Berlin because my family is Russian, some of the history and culture was close to me, not living in Russia but in a city that has a cultural touch point. And Berlin is multicultural, similar to Vancouver, a lot of different culinary and cultural influences that make it a great city to live in. So we chose Berlin first, and then we chose the profession. Corbin grew up in the restaurant business, that was helpful for what we wanted to get going.
Return: We are very happy that you are contributing to the city with your passion, your knowledge and your commitment. Thanks for the interview!
Together we sampled some beers from Brasserie Goutte d'Or in the infamous Parisian neighborhood of the same name. Here, craft and cosmopolitan beers are made with carefully selected ingredients. Rustic Ales, Sour Ales, Grisettes, Saisons - the choice is vast and the interpretations of these even greater. From the 8 beers we tasted together, we chose 3 favorites.
Fermented with the yeasts of Mucat grapes by Justine and Patrick of Domaine la Boheme, aged in their white wine barrels from Auvergne.
Grapefruityyyy on the nose and palate, all fresh, breezy, tangy and direct. The absolute summer beer!
RETOUR DU ROY
If you happen to be a fan of wine wizard Antony Tortul's experiments, you'll instantly recognize La Sorga in this beer. It's strange, light, complex, farmy and balanced with a silky mouthfeel. Of all the samples, it's the one that stands out as a solid beer, even though it's a blend of La Goutte d'Ors Rustic Ale and La Sorga's Grenache Blanc. It has that certain bitterness, fruity notes, carbonation, body, a bit more acidity and it would have broken our hearts!
CALME & CHAOS
Fully fermented and aged in red wine barrels, finished with meadowsweet.
The non-beer! Where's the fizz? More reminiscent of a wine. Lots of soft, vinous layers on the palate. Even though it's unusual to drink flat beers, maybe these hybrids will help you enjoy them. We couldn't figure out what role the meadowsweet plays. It's a bit herbaceous, reminiscent of woodruff, and has a minty aftertaste. All in all, very intriguing.
*You can also find a selection of Goutte d'Or beers in our online shop - be quick, because it's beer and the batches change very quickly compared to wine :)*.