Don’t Judge a Bembel by it’s Color

by William Grote

Full disclosure, I am a big fan of German Cider – known as Apfelwein, or in local dialect, Ebbelwoi. This stems from the 10 years I spent living in Frankfurt am Main, right in the city’s cider district, which is called Sachsenhausen.  I learned German by spending too much time sitting at a local Apfelweingarten (outdoor cider bar) getting locals to help me with my German homework (this is also the reason my German is so amusing).  German Apfelwein is so popular and beloved that is usually ordered & served by the pitcher, called a Bembel,an object now dear to my heart. Handmade of gray stoneware and painted with sweeping blue brushstrokes Bembels are as beautiful as they are practical, usually containing anywhere from two up to ten liters of Apfelwein.  Deservedly so, the Bembel is an iconic symbol of Frankfurt’s Apfelwein culture and history.  Bembels are pervasive in Frankfurt, you see them everywhere, souvenir shops, bus-stops, on t-shirts, posters, and outside the doors of the hundreds of Apfelwein bars throughout the city, so much so, that Frankfurt is often called Bembeltown. Not to be restricted by grammatical boundaries, many use the word as a verb, as in “Hey guys, where shall we Bembel tonight?”

Until very recently, it was nearly impossible to find authentic German Apfelwein anywhere in the US, let anyone any Bembel references. That glaring deficit in state-side cider options has thankfully been addressed by Benedict Kuhn and his cousin Christoph Trares, the Apfelwein barons behind Bembel-With-Care.

With tears of joy in my eyes, I can finally say, “America, get ready to Bembel!”

Bendikt and Christoph made a Bembel debut in Boston recently, introducing their brand of Apfelwein, Bembel-with-Care, to cider fans delighted at the opportunity to sample authentic German cider. I was lucky enough to be at Bronwyn in Somerville to meet them, drink their ciders and learn their story.  However, to be completely honest, I was not so optimistic at first. When I did a bit of internet brand stalking I learned their cider was sold in cans, discovered that one of their flavors claimed to be mixed with cola, and saw their brand was untraditional at best, I must admit, I was disappointed.

Expecting the worst, I grabbed my own Bembel and Geripptes (a special non-slip cider glass) assuming that they would be serving it ‘all wrong’, and headed to Bronwyn to confront my fears.

I spotted Christoph first, chatting outside with a friend. He saw the Bembel i was carrying and smiled knowingly. After some stumbling bad German phrases on my part, he graciously introduced me to his business partner Benedikt, who was sitting inside at long wooden table, adorned with open cans of their Apfelwein and plenty of large, full Geripptes glasses. However, I spotted something unexpected, an object familiar in shape but foreign to my Apfelwein knowledge. Standing out against all tradition, there stood on the end of the table, an alien, unfamiliar Bembel, it was pitch black!

At this point I considered just walking out politely rather that subjecting myself to what I imagined was commercial cider garbage, you know, fake apple flavors, added sugar, probably made using some sort of highly processed concentrate.  After all, it came in cans and their Bembel was the wrong color. For perspective, that’s like seeing a dark blue Dunkin’ Donuts logo – it’s just wrong.   How dare they adulterate the sanctity of my beloved, traditional Apfelwein.  I wished they had never come. I wanted to hate their cider.

Despite my visible hesitation Benedikt offered me a taste.  I accepted a glass of deep golden cider, poured from a black can. I was surprised it had such rich color… I took a deep, long sip.

I am such an asshole…  Yeah, the cider was wonderful.

“Unfuckingglaublich”  I said through a full swallow. Benedikt smiled back, maybe my German was getting better?

I took another sip and closed my eyes, I was back in Frankfurt, with my Bembel brethren, smiling.

I had assumed that since it came in a can, it must be made from culinary apples, as is the sadly the norm in most cases here in the US. However, it was richer than most of the modern ciders available here, this cider had complex flavors with a medium body, with discernable phenolics reminiscent of the craft English varieties. Light carbonation exposed layers of earthy apples,  some oak, medium tannins and a nice acid bite, with just a hint of residual sugar, keeping it all in balance. I drank more, hoping to lessen the embarrassment of my terrible pre-conceptions.

This was the real thing, or was it? I thought back and couldn’t remember any Apfelwein in Frankfurt that had tasted quite like this.  It was Apfelwein, for certain, but something was different. This Apfelwein was cleaner, clearer and much less sour. In Frankfurt, there is a saying, “you will hate your first glass of Apfelwein, you won’t like the second either, but by the third it’s somewhat pleasant and by the forth you’re hooked for life. This was actually better than my old Apfelwein.  I didn’t need a 2nd or 3rd glass to acclimate, I was ready for more now!

Now I was even more curious to know their story, I wanted the genesis of the Bembel-with-Care,  What was the blend of apples, where was the orchard, what prompted importing to the US. I wanted to know everything, I wanted more cider too.

Bendickt poured another glass from black, alien looking Bembel and did his best to answer my numerous questions.

I learned that Benedikt came into the cider-world much in the way I had, obsessed with Apfelwein.  A graphic designer by trade, his passion for cider drew him into the industry though a serendipitous set of circumstances involving a work project that required a re-branding and an opportunity to help his favorite local Apfelwein producer, the 100 year old Kelterei Krämer, located in the Odenwald, south of Frankfurt near Heidelberg.

Benedikt proposed re-branding their traditional Apfelwein into a more modern ‘cool’ beverage, designed to appeal to the new generation of cider drinkers, but maintaining the quality and craft production values of the original.

Bembel-With-Care was the result.  Their cider is made from a blend of over 20 heirloom cider apple varieties, all from the same family orchards.  There is no added sugar and the cider is fermented to nearly complete dryness.    Cider as good as this normally come in champagne bottles but that was too old school, so Benedikt created a new logo, a take on the classic ‘handle with care’ stencil and added the alien looking black Bembel.  The cans? Well that just makes it a bit more hipster – yes, they have them in Germany as well –  but don’t let that fool you, 16oz can and all, this is real orchard based craft cider, smartly disguised for hipster appeal and consumption.

The Apfelwein-Pure, in the black can, was my favorite with an ABV of 6.% and almost no residual sugar.  The Apfelwein-Kirsch, in the red can naturally, is their sour-cherry-cider blend,  also bone dry with a deep red color and just a hint of sour cherry, ABV 4.2%

And last but not least,  I was once again pleasantly surprised by their Apfelwein-Cola blend, in the white can, which has 35% cola added to their standard cider and has a low ABV of just 4%.  Again, I didn’t think I would like this but I was wrong, the initial flavors of light cola yields to a discernible apple finish.  Don’t let your inner cider snob stop you from enjoying this one.  It has caffeine too!

Bembel-with-Care does justice to craft cider and is worthy, in this cider geek’s opinion, of being the first official Bembel-Ambassador to the US.

Oh, the Bembel license plate?  Yes, that was mine too,  from when I first moved back to Boston. I promise, I won’t stalk you guys.

Note from DrinkingCider — this is a guest post, contributed by award winning Boston area cidermaker William Grote. We hope to hear more from him in the future! Let us know what you think!

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