Ask Mr Average his opinion and a likely soundbite reply
would most likel 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 sceptical of the image German beer projects of
itself. I'm not greatly impressed with the majority of it and consider
it to be terribly overrated. There are excellent beers, but the
general standard isn't particularly high. Parallels can be drawn with
the sad situation in Czech Republic 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
- the lack of knowledge about beer amongst drinkers
- the blind belief in the Reinheitsgebot as an assurance of quality
- the absence of innovation in beer styles and flavours
- the narrow range of styles brewed
- the emphasis on cheap, low-quality beer
- the insularity of German beer culture
- the scarcity and poor quality of published information on beer
Let's have a look now at each of these points in detail.
|1. Badly Informed
I'm married to a German
and consequently have a number of German friends and relatives. When I
discussed beer with them, I was struck by their lack of basic knowledge
of how it's brewed and how it tastes. The basic differentiation between
top- and bottom-fermentation was new to them.
German friends, living in Baden-Würtemburg, hadn't tried the excellent
local beers. They 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 knowledge, they became
more adventurous and more critical when drinking beer. (At least that's
what I like to think. They were probably just humouring me and went straight
back to the meths as soon as I left.)
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
The only problem is, you can't find these beers outside of a very limited
area. While in Britain cask beer has a broad following, kellerbier appears
to be appreciated by only 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. Serious
beers have a significant share. Yet in Germany, characterful Franconian
beers aren't greatly appreciated outside their homeland.
|2. The Millstone
of 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 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 can be brewed. Should
some adventurous brewer want to recreate the lost glories of Broyhan or
Jopenbier, he would find it difficult to do 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
use fruit (hardly a cheap replacement for malt), La Chouffe and witbiers
spices - neither of which is allowed. 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 hundreds of breweries, has only 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 90-odd breweries, easily matches Germany.
I have a Reinheitsgebot page which rants on
at greater length about its evil influence. Have a look if you want to
read my description of its horns and cloven hooves.
|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. The presence of Pilsner is overwhelming. 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 of the region. A tradition
that had far more in common with Belgian brewing than with the bottom-fermenting
practices 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. Today, centuries of top-fermenting culture are represented
by the handful of examples I've already named.
The foundation of industrial bottom-fermenting brewing companies and the
forced introduction of the Reinheitsgebot (vigorously opposed, it's worth
noting, by North German brewers) after German unification destroyed the
top-fermenting tradition. Around 99% percent of beer styles disappearrd
in the 50 years before the First World War. Compared to the current choice
of pils, 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. 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. It's 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.
German consumers don't help. A survey in 2006 of 500 drinkers from all
over Germany by the Linzer market-Institut (Brauwelt 2007, Issue 3, page
44) found that 50% had only bought one brand of beer in the last 3 months.
Amongtst the remaining 50%, the majority had not bought moe than three.
While 60% of drinkers limited themselves to drinking only Pils, 21% had
never even tried it. For other mainstream styles the results were even
worse: 36% had never drunk Hefeweizen, 44% no Schwarzbier and 65% no Kölsch.
More exotic styles such as Rauchbier or even Bock were virtually unknown.
|5. Too Much Supermarket
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 luducrously
small. 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.
Take a look at the wine world: a top of the range Burgundy will set you
back a few hundred times more than a plastic bottle of table
If a brewery knows that better-quality beer commands a higher price, it
makes economic sense to stick with traditional methods, rather than cut
costs. The current structure of the German market is the exact opposite.
Drinkers are telling brewers that a low price is paramount. The effect
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. Ideas have been swapped around between Britain,
the USA and Belgium in the last two decades. Particularly in the USA and
Britain, the willingness to experiment in the formulation of recipes has
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, renewed attention is being paid to the
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% orientated 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. Next to
nothing is 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.
My role as beer obsessive includes having subscriptions to 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 an 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 seriously and objectively 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 a respectable beer literature. The poor
availability of information cannot be good for the appreciation and understanding
of beer by the German public.
Perera wrote an articlewhich first appeared
in What's Brewing and makes similar points about Germans and their beer.