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A global guide to beer and head cheese

Win (or lose) friends with brawn and potted meats.
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Photo by Joe Stange

A typical zoiglstube snack with pressack in the front | Photo by Joe Stange

Oh, we like to imagine their throaty laughter at our unhealthy interest in the beer-snack sciences. Their mockery is what fuels us to explore greater depths in these dark arts. One day, we’ll be the ones laughing. OH YES! Oh yes.

Guided now by our taxonomy of beer-snackology, we look to the kitchens of Europe for deeper arcana. Just as the Old World provides the source code and inspiration for our beers, so too does it offer obscure gastro-sins to stoke our hedonism, provoke our thirst, win new friends, and destroy our enemies … one artery at a time.

With that in mind, let’s talk head cheese—or brawn, if you like, since it’s not even cheese. It has lots of colorful names, as it turns out. This makes sense, since the name “animal-head-meat-jelly” would seem to lack a certain sex appeal.

Let’s get this out of the way, though: Brawn is great with beer of all sorts. Frankly, anything made with fatty meat parts suspended in meat gelatin—a distillation of savory—usually a bit salty and lightly acidic, sometimes smoked … well, that’s going to go down a treat with nearly any beer you throw at it.

A jar of Potje Vleesch at Brasserie Thiriez | Photo by Joe Stange

A jar of Potje Vleesch at Brasserie Thiriez | Photo by Joe Stange

But instead of guessing at specific pairings here, we’ll just tell you what the locals tend to drink with each regional variation. Because there are a lot of variations. These are only a few.

Brawn is the usual name in Britain, although in Scotland they call it potted heid. In Norfolk it’s a traditional specialty they call pork cheese; at least one butcher uses hock (or pork knuckle), but others use head parts. (One wonders how much that would make a difference.)

What they drink with it: Ale, most likely… let’s say the modern classic Woodforde’s Wherry, a zesty Norfolk-brewed bitter.

Fromage de tête or tête pressée or are the usual French terms for head cheese… though there is a notable jarred variation in French Flanders called potjesvleesch. It usually gets three or four types of meat—besides pork there is often chicken, rabbit or veal—and usually comes with fries. In Flanders they often prepare it with ale.

What they drink with it: White wine, or—in a proper French-Flemish estaminet—a bottle of farmhouse ale like Au Baron Cuvée des Jonquilles or Thiriez Blonde. (In fact, when I visited the Thiriez brewery some years ago, the cafe had jars of potjesvleesch, made with the Blonde, stacked up for anyone in need of a snack.)

Kip-kap is my favorite name for a treat that has a different name in every part of Belgium. Often it appears in the form of cubes in a small bowl, speared with a few toothpicks, possibly alongside some pickles, cocktail onions, or gouda and celery salt. Kip-kap is one of the names for brawn in Brussels, and also in Limburg, but others around Belgium and the Netherlands include sult, kopvlees, gentse kop and hoofdkaas. They call it snede kop in Westmalle’s Trappisten cafe, where they also blend the Dubbel and Tripel to make a half-and-half blended beer called Trip-Trap… so there you can have some kip-kap with your Trip-Trap, if you’re into poetry.

What they drink with it: Normally it would be a pintje of standard pils. I like it better with gueuze, especially if the brawn is tangy with the addition of vinegar.

Presswurst is a common word for it in Austria and Germany, where there are myriad names and variations on the theme. They include pressack, presskopf, schwartenmagen and sülze. In the biergartens of Franconia and the Oberpfalz it’s common to find Pressack “mit Musik,” meaning with a pile of marinated, raw onions. It’s much better than it sounds, especially with a pretzel and obatzda cheese to fill the corners.

What they drink with it: Lager. (Drinking zoiglbier while munching on pressack and rye bread at a family-run pub in the Oberpfalz—and paying peanuts for it—is how I plan to embrace sweet oblivion.)

Sulc is the Czech variant, and it can denote any number of things (principally pork) suspended in aspic. The meatier version more often found in pubs is tlacenka. There is a darker version of tlacenka with more blood it in it. Like their neighbors in Bavaria (see above), the Czechs like it with bread, onions and beer.

What they drink with it: Svetly lezak, always and forever.

Sviðasulta is the Icelandic version, made from fire-singed sheep’s head and said to be a hangover cure. They sometimes eat it with rutabagas that were cooked with the head. We should not be surprised that there is a special version of this in Iceland, a country that loves its bizarre lunchmeats, including such delights as soured ram testicles.

What they drink with it: Brennivin, perhaps? That’s the Icelandic national spirit, brewed from potato and flavored with caraway. The Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter would surely go down more easily. Otherwise we suggest that Hvalur 2, a.k.a. that beer made with sheep-dung-smoked whale testicles, offers a certain kind of symmetry.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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