'Black bears? In Thuringia?' The man I was phoning at the East German Trade Mission exuded incredulity. 'We have no black bears in Thuringia or anywhere else in our Democratic Republic. No bears at all.' I tried a second time: 'No, black beer. I have heard you have a very special black beer, made in a place called Kostritz. The trouble is, I cannot find Kostritz in the gazetteer.'
The man sounded puzzled. 'I'll get back to you,' he said. I thought I heard the shaking of a head and was surprised when he did phone back, though his answer offered only a morsel of assistance: 'Yes, we can confirm there is a place called Kostritz in our country.'
My efforts to locate, and taste, Kostritzer Schwarzbier ('Black Beer') succeeded eventually, though not until the Wall had tumbled down. And now this Black Beer is available in Britain. I had flown to Frankfurt in search of the first-hand experience, from where a friend drove me on a seemingly endless journey. It is all very well Westerners rushing to consume the East, but Mercs do not travel well on roads made for Trabbies.
It took six or seven hours to drive a couple of hundred miles through the forested country that inspired Bach and Schiller, past hilltop castles, skirting towns that have been gathering dust in the attic of European history: Gotha, Erfurt, Weimar, Jena, Gera . . . Bad Kostritz. It was the Bad that had hidden Kostritz in the gazetteer. 'Bad' for 'bath': Kostritz was once a spa whose water, washing along the sandy banks of the river Elster on its winding, leafy way to the Elbe, apparently had curative properties.
Sand-baths were offered to ease rheumatism. Nearby wells offer the water and Thuringia the barley suitable for brewing which, in this region, probably pre-dates the use of hops, though the area not far to the east, near Dresden, and to the south in Bavaria has a long history of hop cultivation.
The making of beer in Kostritz itself may date from the original Slavic settlement though its documented history begins with a brewery in the 1600s at the castle of the local count. Even in the days when all beer was dark, the product of Kostritz seems to have had a reputation for being especially deep and sustaining. Students from the University of Jena were said to vist Kostritz to sample the beer and not to return for three days. When Goethe was ill, a friend wrote: 'He is not eating, but fortunately we have some Kostritzer beer.'
Several folk-rhymes celebrate Kostritzer Schwarzbier and its malty, bitter-chocolate richness. It is sometimes sweetened with sugar or enriched with a beaten egg, and was traditionally given to children as well as adults.
Similarly, my native Yorkshire's stronger, sweeter Mather's Black Beer, mixed with lemonade, is given to children as a treat, and adults often often lace it with rum as a protection against the winter. Several comparable traditions exist in Scandinavia.
Kostritzer Schwarzbier is made from pale, kilned and roasted barley malts and Bavarian hops. Technically, it is an almost opaque example of a dark lager with a conventional alcohol content (about 4.6 per cent). Use of a lager yeast gives it a characteristic roundness and cleanness of palate. The first lagers were dark brown or black, and that style of beer was perfected in the 1800s.
The Yorkshire product, made from malt and brown sugar, is more of a dark barley wine and contains 8 per cent alcohol but no hops (it dates from the days when spruce tips were used). The wine yeast employed makes for a fruitier character. Mather's says sales are up, perhaps because of the wintry weather.
The German Black Beer was such a success over the centuries that in 1907 the brewery's aristocratic owners moved production from the castle to a majestic, brick-built brewery in the middle of the townful of half-timbered houses. The building is topped with a tower, spire and gilded weather-vane in the shape of a lion and a crane, the local emblems.
After the Second World War it was nationalised and 'modernised'. The building remains today but its elegantly tiled brewhouse lies empty, supplanted by the modern stainless-steel kettles that bubble in a utilitarian structure across the yard, where I noticed a photograph of Erich Honecker that appeared to have been used as a dartboard.
The brewery has been taken over by a West German brewer who is slowly knocking it back into shape. His product, a wholehearted effort to restore the grandeur of the Black Beer, has just arrived in Britain, and I name it my Beer of the Month. Add a shot of rum and you will think you are drinking chocolate truffles.
Kostritzer Schwarzbier can be ordered by mail from the Elite Beer Company (0403 261554) and is available from the following stockists: The Ale Cellar, 114 Rosemount Viaduct, Aberdeen (0224 624700); Jug and Firkin, Mill Road, Cambridge (0223 315034); Pop Inn, 43 Boughton Road, Chester (0244 320013); Ale Shoppe, 205 Lockwood Road, Huddersfield (0484 432479); Bottle Store, 66 London Road, Leicester (0533 856505); Small Beer, 91 Newland Street West, Lincoln (0522 528628) and 57 Archer Road, Sheffield (0742 551356); Real Ale Shop, 47 Lovat Road, Preston (0772 201591) and other specialist beer and wine shops.