On the night of the Germany-Spain semi-final I was invited by a friend to join him at the German embassy to see the game live on giant screens they had put up for the event.
I was further enticed by the prospect of guzzling free beer, which I was told, would be flowing freely, which it did. Germans are a generous lot, at home or away, I can tell you by experience.
Entering the embassy, the first thing I noticed apart from the giant screen and the huge mostly Desi gathering with a smattering of expats, was an empty bottle of Becks.
Even if a pretty woman were to look into my eyes right then she would have only seen a reflection of the lovely green bottle in my widened eyes!
For an extra-long moment, soccer crashed out of my mind, the roaring crowd went mute and then disappeared, and I was transported to a chilly summer evening in Berlin walking back to my apartment with a six-packer of Becks in my hand.
That was my second day in the city and I was on a little walk to checkout the quiet neighbourhood in the Gesundbrunnen district. At the local utility store that day I made friends with Gunther, the owner, and he introduced me to Becks.
It is among the top five brands of beer in Germany and is exported to more than a 100 countries from its brewery in Bremen. Wonder if its sold in India!
There were other brands at Gunther’s shop like Krombacher, Berliner Kindle, and Oettinger, which incidentally is the largest selling brand in Germany. But seeing my puzzled look he gave a thumbs up for Becks and I picked it up.
A Ger-Man (even women) knows his beer, follow him if you’re new and you wouldn’t go wrong!
From then on it became a ritual. Every other day after wandering about in the city taking the U-bahn trains to random destinations, I would drop by at Gunther’s shop near the Neuner Platz station and he would keep a Becks six-packer and a pack of Marlboro ready for me.
I was forced to switch to Marlboro because my stock of Navy Cuts taken from India lasted three days and Marlboro was the only one I had smoked back home. Later I was to discover that the French Gauloises and the American Pall Mall cigarettes weren’t too bad either.
Back to Gunther, he also graciously agreed to become an occasional guinea pig for my German language experiments, which began with the harmless Guten Abend (good evening) to such complicated lines as “Ich habe ein Becks und ein Marlboro”!
He always smilingly bore my linguistic assaults!
In between guzzling gazillion litres of beer every evening and chomping on tonnes of sausages and millions of Doner Kebaps, I also experimented with the German wines. The Reiseling whites soon became a favourite and also the Dornfelder reds.
But when you’re in Germany and living on a budget, it’s got to be about the beers. The world knows how strongly the Germans feel about their beers even though they probably come after the Irish and the Czechs in terms of consumption.
But just how strongly they feel about it could be summed up like this — if it’s not brewed in Germany it’s not a beer! They even have a 500-year-old law known as Reinheitsgebot or the “Bavarian beer purity law” which states that a beer can only have three components — water, barley and hops (a flowering plant used to lend flavour).
Most beer manufacturers still make a declaration on the bottles of their adherence to the purity law even though its now an open secret that yeasts have become the fourth component in modern breweries.
(Pardon me if it is beginning to read like an academic thesis on German beers!)
Going back to the emotional quotient of beers for the Germans, I am reminded of this incident in Cologne while we were on a tour of some of the big cities, visiting the prominent media houses there.
Cologne has its own special brand of beer — a light brew inexplicably served in small glasses — like every other city and region in the country. It’s called Kölsch. (I could never get the pronunciation of Kölsch or Köln as Cologne is called in German, right!)
While having dinner at a restaurant by the Rhine, our German instructor was telling me about the traditional rivalry between Cologne and its neighbouring city Dusseldorf, which has its own brand of beer called Alt.
He said if you asked for Alt here you might get beaten up or if you’re lucky thrown out of the restaurant and the Dusseldorfers would do the same. Hilarious as it sounds, Mathias said why don’t you try when the waiter comes to take the drink orders, being a foreigner you might get away with just a frown!
As I was preparing to do the “unthinkable”, Mathias being a German did the unthinkable by asking for Alt and sure enough a frown crossed the waiter’s face, which may have degenerated into something worse had he not seen me smiling and then he smiled back realising that my German host was only giving a practical demonstration of the Kölsch-Alt rivalry.
Having throughly beered myself in nearly every big city in the two months I lived in Germany, I am left with only one regret that I missed the Oktoberfest in Munich by a month.
Walking by the statue of Bavaria — the patron goddess of the region — overlooking the huge grounds on which this Bavarian beer festival is held, I had made a wish to be there someday when the ground overflows with beer tents!
My reverie was broken as my friend nudged me towards the rows of Becks bottles lined up for the guests. With a heavy heart I drank, saw Germany lose the match and cussed at a rejoicing Spain supporter. “Why aren’t you at the Spanish embassy?” I wanted to say!