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A Real Brew-Ha--Ha

Taps' Lagers Match Best Berlin Has to Offer

Taps Fish House & Brewery, 101 E. Imperial Highway, Brea. (714) 257-0101.

November 04, 2000|DAVID LANSING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't ask me why, but the Germans make the best Gummi Bears in the world and Harobi Gummi Bears are the best of the best. While you can buy them at any market in Germany, my favorite place to get them is at KaDaWe, the legendary Berlin department store that is even larger than Harrods in London.

You take the express elevator to the Feinschmecker (gourmet foods) on the sixth floor, where you can buy 400 different kinds of bread, 1,200 varieties of German sausages and 100 different Gummi candies from frogs to pedestrian traffic-light men called Ampelmannchen. It's mind-boggling.

But I also like to go to KaDaWe because it has all these food bars on the sixth floor where you can order Emerald Irish rocks oysters on the half shell with a Schultheiss beer, or a mushroom omelet with a dark Kostriker, or a plate of curry wurst and a Berliner Kindl pilsner. In addition to Gummi Bears, I love German beer.

So I get my Gummi Bears and then spend the next hour trying to decide what to eat and what kind of beer to have with it. Eisenbuck wurst? Spargel suppe? Fillet of havelzander? Let me just say this: I can be indecisive when faced with a large menu selection. But I was looking at all these food bars and trying to make a decision when I passed a seafood place full of Berliners eating round sandwiches of tiny North Sea shrimp and drinking green or pink beverages. I joined them.

My waitress told me the odd-colored drinks were actually beer. "It is a specialty here called Berliner Weisse," she told me. A light, newly-fermented wheat beer that, she admitted, tastes a bit sour. Which is why it is mixed with either a raspberry cordial, giving it a faintly pink color, or sweet woodruff syrup for a green tint.

Always one to try something new, I ordered the woodruff Weisse, which came in a wine glass with a straw. It tasted medicinal. Not at all what I had in mind. It took a dark bock beer to take the taste away. Two of them, in fact.

But here's the point: It's nice to have a choice. Something other than a regular or lite beer (and can anyone really taste the difference?). Despite the recent public relations efforts by the descendants of Adolphus Busch, telling us how carefully they select their hops, wheat and barley malt, I still find mass-produced American beers to taste remarkably similar. Miller, Bud, Coor's--what's the diff? For some reason, Americans seem to like their tastes homogenized.

But not Victor. Victor is to American beer what KaDaWe is to a mini-mart. Victor Novak is Mr. Hops, the Brewmeister, the Suds King at Taps restaurant in Brea. I went to Taps recently because I'd heard they were celebrating Oktoberfest. Not with oom-pah-pah and schnitzel, but with rock bands and some handcrafted German-style beers brewed by Victor. And beer there was.

Two minutes after sitting down in a booth next to the bar, Victor brought over 11 beer samplers. Wait--10 samplers. They'd run out of Irish red. Which was fine with me. I could save that for St. Paddy's Day. I focused on the German ales and lagers. There was a reddish-brown Alt and the classic Bavarian wheat beer called Hefeweizen and a spicy pumpkin ale.

In honor of Munich and Oktoberfest, Victor had also brewed up a pale lager called Helles (the word meaning "clear" or "bright"), a yeasty Keller Pils, and a deep brown, malty Oktoberfest beer called a Marzenbier or "March beer" in Germany.

When Victor talks about beer, it's like listening to Tommy Lasorda talk about baseball. He gets excited. So ask him, as I did, why a "March beer" is traditionally consumed in Germany in September and October, and his eyes light up like a man who was just asked if he'd like a free meal.

"Have you been to Munich?" he asked. First he has to tell you about the Hirschgarten and the barmaids who can carry a dozen steins at a time without trays, but eventually he gets to the Marzenbier. "March used to be the last month that you could brew beer. After that it got too hot and the yeasts got messed up. So all the breweries would brew a big batch of this special beer to store over the summer. And if it wasn't all gone by September or October, they'd have a big party and finish it off. Eventually, it turned into a Bavarian tradition where in the fall, you'd only drink Marzenbier."

The Oktoberfest beer, the color of a smoky Scottish whiskey, was thick and malty--what a friend of mine calls "a drinkable dessert."

"You like that one, don't you?" Victor asked. I told him I did.

Having settled on what to drink, the dinner menu was more perplexing. Since Taps is a fish house, there were plenty of charbroiled or blackened seafood selections, from Mexican sea bass to swordfish. Plus oysters, raw or cooked, chowders and gumbos, ceviche and steamers, as well as Victor's fish & chips (slabs of Icelandic cod dipped in a cream-ale batter and fried.) But seafood just didn't seem right while drinking a German-style beer in October. Better to go with the special bratwurst platter with its sauerkraut and warm German potato salad.

When I was done, Victor stopped by the table to ask me how it was. "The food you mean?" I asked him.

He frowned and shook his head. "No," he said, "the beer! Who cares about the food?"

Ah, the beer. "As fine as anything I drank in Berlin," I told him. "And much better than Berliner Weisse."

Victor smiled. "Prosit!" he said.

Prosit, Victor.

Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-11 p.m.

David Lansing's column is published on Saturdays in Orange County Calendar. His e-mail address is occalendar@latimes.com.

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