Brauereisterben: The sad state of German beer culture.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 2 2011 10:07 AM

Brauereisterben

Germany's beer culture is in decline.

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Trouble is, the Reinheitsgebot is now working against the very industry it was supposed to preserve. For one, it puts a vise grip on innovation by demonizing flavor- or body-enhancing additions of any kind: oats, ancient grains (such as spelt, millet, and sorghum), spices, herbs, honey, flowers other than hops, and any other natural fermentable starches and sugars. This taboo rules out trying Belgian, French, and New World brewing styles, which often call for refermentation in the bottle with sugar in a manner similar to Champagne.

Technically, when the Reinheitsgebot was officially replaced in 1993 by something called the Vorläufiges Deutsches Biergesetz—Provisional Beer Laws—additions of beet sugar, pure cane sugar, and invert sugar were made legal in top-fermenting beers, a category which includes the iconic beer style of hefeweizen. But the industry has almost universally kept up the old purity routine. And while it's feasible to stay within the Reinheitsgebot strictures while trying new combinations and new techniques, most brewers seem to think that following the spirit of the law means you have to brew to some sort of historical flavor archetype. As a result, many modern German brewers shun experimentation of any kind outside of increased mechanical automation. There are only about 20 common styles used for brewing in Germany whereas craft brewers in the United States are working ably in at least 100.

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Another issue is the hypnotic marketing force of Reinheitsgebot may make Germans less sophisticated tasters by limiting their perception of what a good beer can be. When asked, many Germans—even well-traveled beer-industry professionals—tend to wrinkle their noses at beers of foreign style or origin. They would sooner drink cheap biermischgetränke or mass-produced domestic beers mocked as spülwasser (dishwater) than try anything exotic, such as Belgian ales spiced with herbs or the sort of hoppy, aromatic ales and lagers making waves in the American craft-beer market. If Germans want the taste of something new and exciting, they look to other forms of alcohol.

One exception are the cheap biermischgetränke ("beer-mix") products such as radler (light beer mixed with lemonade, based on an old Munich-area cyclists' tradition), or beer mixed with cola, fruit juice, and other nonalcoholic drinks, which spiked in consumption to a share of 4 percent of the total beer market in 2010—a jump up from 2.7 percent in the previous year. These are considered acceptable innovations because producers claim to "brew first, mix after", thus preserving the tradition of Reinheitsgebot. In other words, in today's Germany, it's OK to sell an industrial pilsner mixed with corn-syrupy lemonade or cola flavorings (the latter is called a diesel), but the concept of carefully brewing a beer with the natural ingredients used in cola—lime, vanilla, coriander, orange peel, and caramel, for starters—remains far-fetched.

As young German consumers have rushed to embrace the latest international wines, cocktails, spirits, alco-pops, mixed drinks, and energy drinks, brewing companies have found themselves saddled with costly excess capacity, forcing them into slimmer profit margins, price wars, mergers and consolidation, and closures.

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Despite all these bleak indicators, there's a chance the brauereisterben will yield a brau-renaissance. Garrett Oliver, of the Brooklyn Brewery, who has brewed considerable quantities of beer with Belgian candy sugar, Sauvignon Blanc lees, exotic botanicals, espresso, even bacon—all to very palatable effect—says he sees signs that German culture is changing, that German brewers and drinkers alike are on the cusp of accepting modern styles.

Starting in 2007, Oliver began collaborating with German brew master Hans-Peter Drexler of Schneider (a famous Reinheitsgebot-loyal Bavarian brewery that opened in 1872) on a pair of brews, including a strong German weizenbock dry-hopped with American flowers. The beer was highly rated, especially in the United States, and the reception in Germany was more or less kind, though the brew wasn't made widely available. "At first I think they were like, 'Oh look, the American has come to learn how to brew from our great brewers,'" recalls Oliver. But the experiment has had a positive ripple effect. Drexler and Oliver's second joint effort (a hefeweizen, or traditional Bavarian unfiltered wheat beer) was also dry-hopped with local German Saphir hops from Kelheim post-fermentation, imparting floral and citrusy aromas and flavors practically alien to local palates. The beer remains in Schneider's lineup, and Oliver has been contacted by other German breweries wanting partnerships. Schneider, too, advertised its eagerness to embark on new collaborations outside Germany.

Even without American assistance, Germans are pushing the hops envelope. Wernecker Bierbrauerei in Werneck, Germany (some 40 miles West of Bamberg), released Hopfen-Fluch in 2010, a hoppy, American-style riff on the IPA (India pale ale). Wernecker brewery claims it has doubled in size over the last decade or so, and that sales accelerated 20  percent in 2007, bucking the bleak national trends.

Hopfen-Fluch and the Oliver-Schneider collaboration beers would likely pass muster under the Reinheitsgebot, but change could come with or without the purity business in tow. In Bamberg, Weyermann Malting supplies specialty roasted grains in 80 varieties for the global craft-brewing industry. The company's small, pilot brewery has turned out cherry and pumpkin ales (definitely not Reinheitsgebot-approved) as well as barley wines (strong English ales) and even "imperial" American-style ales (which might pass inspections, if they existed, depending on carbonation and clarifying methods), all with the intention of "showing the world, and German brewers, what is possible," says Sabine Weyermann, spokesperson for the 130-year-old family-held firm. The Weyermann family sees the Reinheitsgebot as less of a "straitjacket" than some believe it to be, because German brewers (with their excess capacity and ingredients on hand) can easily have it both ways— brewing new, rule-breaking beers and familiar recipes.

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