Fearful Symmetries

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15 January, 2011

German Beer Is Not All That It Seems

Back in 2009 Jeff Glazer of Madison Beer Review went on the radio and said that Germans brew only "boring lagers". When I asked him about this attitude he admitted that he'd never actually been to Germany and, if memory serves, that his perception of German beer was mostly, if not completely, shaped by the imports available here in Madison. Why he felt compelled to slag off some wonderful brews is unknown to me. It's hardly better than the impression of likely most Germans that American beer is all piss water because they know only Miller and Bud.

But in a way this is an apples and oranges kind of thing. I have some friends who have spent time in Germany and there's this thing called the Internet which is really handy and my impression is that American beer culture and German beer culture are different. Despite Germany being a much smaller country, beer there doesn't seem to travel far. With some very qualified exceptions, it seems that people generally drink beer brewed in their town or region. (Any Germans out there to comment on this?) On the other hand, American craft beer drinkers can go to a good beer emporium and find beers from around the country. The craft brews that I think of as being the Big Boys of the industry, so to speak, are from various parts of the nation. Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Anchor, Bell's – they're scattered.

Just as American brewers had to contend with Prohibition, German brewers have to deal with the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Purity Law. Ron Pattinson has a great critique of it here. A Bavarian law originally “to stop people using grain better suited to making bread for making beer” spread throughout the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with German unification. Pattinson gives an English translation of the law but it doesn't appear to be the whole nine yards so I really don't know what it says today. He blames the Reinheitsgebot for killing off a lot of old beer styles, particularly from Northern Germany which had a very different tradition than did Bavaria in the South as well as for leaving the country in the grip of the pils.

The popular conception of Reinheitsgebot is that German brewers can call a bier a “bier” only if it contains nothing more than barley malt, water, yeast, and hops. But it also says “Malt shall be taken to mean: any grain that has been caused to germinate.” So it would seem German brewers have some wiggle room. Plus there are exceptions. Top-fermenting beers can use sugar but bottom-fermenting beers cannot. In addition there's apparently also an exemption for regional styles. And I have no idea how EU regulations come into play.

So there is a kernel of truth in Glazer's statement. Germany's beer market seems dominated by the pils with weizens also taking a large share. But I don't understand why rauchbiers are boring. Same for something like Schneider Aventinus, a wheat doppelbock.

And using the availability of German beer in Madison in drawing a picture of what Germany has to offer beer-wise is misleading. Perhaps it's me and I need to hit liquor stores on a daily basis, but I've never seen an alt for sale here. Nor a gose. Have you ever seen a roggenbier (a rye ale) on the shelves at Woodman's or Steve's? I sure haven't. Of Schlenkerla's six rauchbiers I think I've seen only two – maybe three – of them here in Madison. How about a German porter? Or a kirschenbier? I saw a Berliner Weiss on sale for the first time only about three weeks ago. I have seen a couple brands of kolsch but, unfortunately, never in six-packs.

I think people's perceptions of German beer here in Madison would be different if the exceptions to the pils rule were more readily available. My understanding is that sales of German imports here in the States are declining and this is probably due in large part to American craft brewers making quality beers and helping swing tastes towards the hoppy and away from the malty. As exemplified by Glazer's comment, German beers surely have a stale reputation here and it, in addition to having the Reinheitsgebot hanging over them like the Sword of Damocles, German brewers seem unwilling to innovate on a large scale and German drinkers seem content with Pils.

My hope is that people like Glazer won't throw the baby out with the bath water and realize there's more to German beer than the Paulaner and Spaten on store shelves here. I also hope that the demands of the market will force German brewers to experiment more and stop letting an old bread law get in the way. If there are more brewers over there like Cornelius Faust then I can see things getting very interesting.
|| Palmer, 11:01 AM

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