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The Trouble with German Beer

Do you think that Germany is the beer drinker's paradise on earth?
Features March 30, 2004      
Written by rpattinson

Amsterdam, NETHERLANDS -

Do you think that Germany is the beer-drinker's paradise on earth? Do you believe that the Reinheitsgebot guarantees that only high quality beer is produced in Germany? Do you think that the 1200 or so breweries in the country provide unparalleled diversity? Well, I certainly do not. And I'll explain why.

What's The Problem?

Ask Mr. Average his opinion and a likely soundbite reply would most likely be along the lines of "The Germans brew good, pure beer". The 'purity' of the end product and the enviable skill of those who make it are certainly points the industry itself likes to emphasise. But how accurately does this reflect the true situation?

I've become increasingly skeptical in recent years of the image German beer projects of itself. To be succinct, I'm not greatly impressed with the majority of it and consider it to be terribly overrated. Which isn't to say that there are no excellent beers brewed in the country, but I don't find the general standard to be particularly high. I can see parallels with the sad situation in the former Czechoslovakia since the disappearance of the Iron Curtain. Variety, character and flavour are disappearing without anyone seeming to care, or even to notice.

There are several very worrying features of the contemporary German beer scene:
<li> the lack of knowledge about beer amongst drinkers
<li> the blind belief in the Reinheitsgebot as an assurance of quality beer
<li> the absence of innovation in beer styles and flavours
<li> the narrow range of styles brewed
<li> the emphasis on cheap, low-quality beer
<li> the insularity of German beer culture
<li> the scarcity and poor quality of published information on beer in German

Let's have a look now at each of these points in detail.

1. Badly Informed Consumers

I'm married to a German and consequently have a number of German friends and relatives. As soon as started discussing beer with them, I was struck by their lack of even the most basic knowledge of how it is brewed and the range of flavours which can be achieved. Even the most basic differentiation between top- and bottom-fermentation was new to them.
One couple, who had moved from the DDR to a small town in Baden-Würtemburg, hadn't really tried the excellent local beers and drank Beck's - even though there was a small brewery in the town where they lived. I introduced them to weissbier and tried to explain a little about the possibilities the beer world could present. It was interesting to see how, armed with a little background knowledge, they became both more adventurous and more critical when drinking beer.

Franconia, of course, where the best lagers in the world are brewed, is a different story. There's little that can compare with a kellerbier served by gravity from a wooden barrel. They're the bottom-fermented equivalent of British cask-conditioned ales and intrinsically superior to any processed beer. The only problem is, you can't find these beers outside of a very limited area. Whereas in Britain cask beer is seen as a vital part of the indigenous beer culture and attempts to phase it out caused a strong reaction amongst some consumers, kellerbier appears to only be appreciated by a small group of enthusiasts. In Belgium, 70% of the market may be boring pils, but a large part of the remaining 30% consists of natural, bottle-conditioned beers which retain a sizeable following. The impression I have gained from German beer ratings pages, is that the characterful Franconian beers aren't greatly appreciated in the rest of the country.

2. The Millstone of the Reinheitsgebot

The Reinheitsgebot is often praised to the extent that it would appear to be Germany's greatest contribution to world culture. At the very least, it's seen as a piece of consumer protection to which all countries should aspire. Over the years I've read and heard various tosh about the Reinheitsgebot, expressing the received view that it is 'a good thing'.

My own view is rather different. It's main effect (and no doubt a big factor in the Bavarian's insistence on its extension to cover the whole of Germnay) was the destruction of North German beer culture. The restrictions of its rules go totally against hundreds of years of tradition in the north.

Today it continues to limit the styles of beer which it is possible to brew. Should some adventurous brewer want to recreate the lost glories of Broyhan or Jopenbier, he would find it very difficult to reproduce them with any degree of authenticity.

Virtually none of the classic Belgian ales is, or even can be brewed if you stick to the rules of the Reinheitsgebot. Framboos and kriek because of the use of fruit (hardly a cheap replacement for malt), La Chouffe and witbiers because of their use of spices, none of these would be possible. Given the choice between Heineken Pils and La Chouffe, I know which I would go for.

Considering the number of breweries it possesses, Germany is home to relatively few beer styles. Bavaria, with its hundreds of breweries only has a handful of different styles. Belgium, on the other hand, with it's open-minded approach to ingredients, has almost as many styles as breweries. Even Austria, with only 60-odd breweries, manages to have more different types of beer than the whole of Germany.

I have a Reinheitsgebot page which rants on at greater length about its evil influence. Have a look if you want to have explained just how bad it is.

3. Lack of Innovation

Unlike other major beer-drinking countries, there has been no microbrewery revolution in Germany and no rediscovery of old styles.

The only new breweries I have heard of are brewpubs. In my experience these don't brew much that's very exciting, sticking to a pale and a dark lager, which differentiate themselves from the products of larger breweries by being unfiltered.

There seems little interest in reviving any extinct beer types, even in towns with illustrious brewing pasts such as Hamburg or Hannover. (How many Germans have ever heard of Jopenbier or Broyhan?). Equally, there is no experimentation with new ideas, partly because of the restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot, partly through a lack of nerve and, more worryingly, technical ability.

German brewers are very competent when it comes to brewing consistent, stable lagers, but don't have much idea about anything else. The brewer in an American micro would be expected to have a mastery in the brewing of a wide variety of types. No Belgian brewer would be considered fully trained if he was only capable of brewing pils. I would be interested to hear of any new beer type developed in the last 30 years in Germany. Novelties like ice beer and whisky malt beers excepted, I know of none.

4. Lack of Diversity

Northern Germany is particularly bad for beer choice and there is an overwhelming predominance of pilsner. Apart from the alt biers in Düsseldorf, Pinkus Muller and Berliner Weisse, I can't think of any interesting beers. Which is very sad, if you look at the pre-lager tradition which existed in this area. This had far more in common with Belgian brewing than it did with the bottom-fermenting beers of South Germany. Once there was the same multiplicity of styles that still survives in Belgium and the same open-minded approach to ingredients and techniques. All that now remains of centuries of top-fermenting tradition are the handful of examples I've already named.

The foundation of industrial bottom-fermenting brewing companies and the forced introduction of the Reinheitsgebot (at the time vigorously opposed, it's worth noting, by North German breweries) after German unification saw 99% percent of beer types disappear in the 50 years before the First World War. Compared to the current choice of pils or more pils, the diversity of styles pre-1850 is dazzling.

The Belgians, of course, have always had a very open-minded and individual attitude to brewing. In all three of these countries new products are continually appearing and the choice of tastes available to the consumer is increasing. In Germany the opposite is true, as local styles disappear and pils continues its upward rise. The thousands of brands produced by the 1200 or so breweries is often cited as a demonstration of diversity and choice. This is slightly misleading, given that the majority fall into a couple of categories and that individual beers in a category may have very small variations in flavour.

5. Too Many Supermarket Beers

Massive overcapacity in the industry and the resulting cut-throat competition have led to many breweries selling at ludicrously low prices. This has encouraged consumers to base their purchasing decisions purely on price, a situation disastrous for beer quality. As cost-cutting measures are implemented, so beer quality declines. Cheaper ingredients and shorter lagering are the easy options.

With drinkers likely to be swayed by the odd pfennig difference in the price, there's not much incentive for a brewer to strive for high standards. It may sound perverse, but an increase in price for top-quality beer would benefit the discerning drinker. The price differentials for beer are ludicrously narrow. A bottle of Westvleteren at the top end of the quality range costs maybe 3 times as much as a bottle of Leffe or Grimbergen in the industrial swill niche. Yet still I hear people complain about the price of Westvleteren. If we take a comparative look at the wine world, the difference in price between a top of the range Burgundy or Bordeaux and a plastic bottle of table wine is a few hundred times greater.

If a brewery knows that a better-quality beer commands a higher price, then there is economic sense in remaining true to traditional methods rather than making changes to reduce costs. The structure of the current German market is the exact opposite. Brewers are being told by drinkers that a low price is more important to them than high quality. The effect this has had on the end product is easy to taste.

6. "Germany Has the Best Beer in the World"

The whole German industry strikes me as very inward-looking with scant attention paid to developments elsewhere in the world. There has been a considerable exchange of ideas between Britain, the USA and Belgium in the last two decades. Particularly in the USA and Britain, there has been an increased willingness to experiment and innovate in the formulation of recipes.

In Scandinavia, Holland, France, brewers have taken note of developments in the wider world and the more daring ones have tried something new themselves. Almost everywhere in the world there is renewed attention being paid to wide range of possibilities beer can offer. Except in Germany, where pale lager is still regarded by drinkers and brewers alike as 'normal beer'.

Michael Jackson remarked on this lack of choice and stylistic conservatism when he addressed members of the German industry recently. He dared to suggest that the Germans were failing to keep up with the rest of the world and that this could start to affect their export markets. I have a feeling that his words fell on deaf ears.

I subscribe to Brauwelt (the German brewers' trade magazine) and they occasionally make similar remarks in their editorials. Nonetheless, the articles, though full of very detailed technical information, are pretty well 100% oriented to Germany. Reports on the rest of the world concentrate on the business side and mostly concern which foreign brewery has bought which other foreign brewery. There is next to nothing said about the types of beer brewed elsewhere. I can't remember reading anything at all about Belgian beer, which is establishing itself as the benchmark for quality at the top end of the market. I subscribe to a large number of beer magazines from a wide range of countries - Belgium, Holland, Great Britain, the USA, Sweden, Norway, France and Switzerland. All of these, even though some are only produced by amateurs on a voluntary basis, make some attempt to discuss the beer culture of other countries.

7. Where are the German Books on Beer?

I've always found it odd that, in a country as proud of its beer as Germany, so little has been published on the subject. A German bookshop is likely to have 100 or more books on wine, a dozen on whisky and three on beer, if you're lucky. And two of those will be translations of English works.

I only know one book ('Die Biere Deutschlands' by Höllhuber and Kaul) which attempts to describe in a serious and objective manner the beers and breweries of the whole country. The best German-language writer about the international beer scene is an Austrian, Conrad Seidl ('Noch ein Bier' and 'Hopfen und Malz').

I've yet to find any book written by a German that could speak in any depth or with any authority about foreign beer. There are a few good guides to homebrew pubs and beer gardens in the South of Germany, but the best one I have to Munich pubs was written by an American (Larry Hawthorne's 'The Beer Drinker's Guide to Munich ' - an invaluable book for visitors to Munich, especially those wanting to find the Forschungsbrauerei).

Belgium - where the potential audience is far smaller - has produced a number of detailed studies on various beer topics in both Flemish and French. In English, there is now an enormous range of published material, much of it of a high standard. Even France, where beer consumption is much lower than in Germany, has respectable beer literature. The poor availability of information cannot be good for the appreciation and understanding of beer by the German public.

Copyright 2004, Ron Pattinson, All rights reserved.



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start quote There has been a considerable exchange of ideas between Britain, the USA and Belgium in the last two decades. Particularly in the USA and Britain, there has been an increased willingness to experiment and innovate in the formulation of recipes. end quote
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