We’ll Always Have Germany

The drinking Chicken Littles come for German beer.

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It’s become fashionable in American beer-geek circles to talk about the dire state of beer in Germany. The story is usually based on this fact: Germans are drinking less beer, about 101 liters per capita last year, down from more than 130 liters in the mid-1990s.

The story usually then leaps to questionable assumptions about why this is happening. Chief among these: German beers have become boring because the big six Bavarian beer producers make exactly the same beers. A conclusion is arrived at: What Germany really needs to regain its former glory is some gosh-darn, rootin’ tootin’ American innovation — namely in the form of American-style craft brews.

The latest appeared a few weeks ago in a Slate piece by Christian DeBenedetti titled “Brauereisterben” — literally “brewery death,” a term used since the 1990s and named after a term for Germany’s dying forests. One of the few actual Germans he quotes happens to be a brewer who left his homeland to work for a U.S. craft brewer.

The reason for Germany beer’s malaise? According to DeBenedetti, it might be the famed Reinheitsgebot, the 500-year-old “purity law” that stipulates that beer can only be made from barley, hops, and water, hamstringing innovation and experimentation. “This taboo rules out trying Belgian, French and New World styles,” he writes. DeBenedetti does mention that a European court repealed Reinheitsgebot nearly 25 years ago.

He cites a couple of collaborative projects between U.S. and German brewers, and ends on this note: “Innovation is happening, slowly, but German brewers and the drinking public will need to truly embrace change to get the country out of its rut. Blind adherence to a centuries-old edict isn’t working anymore.” Ahem.

DeBenedetti recently published a guide to U.S. craft beer called The Great American Ale Trail. I’m guessing he heard a lot of this kind of talk while researching. A few weeks ago, at a craft beer festival, I heard an American brewer telling the audience an apocryphal story about enraptured Germans who tasted the promised land upon taking their first sip of a good old, hoppy American IPA.

Call me an unrepentant Europhile, but I get a little uneasy when I hear Americans talk about how our innovations can save the world’s oldest beer culture. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Coors’ “cold-activated can” also a so-called American “innovation”? And let’s be clear about beer consumption: The United States consumes a little over 80 liters per capita. Even with the decline, Germans are still drinking significantly more beer than we do. Until I walk into the average bar and see everyone drinking barleywine or barrel-aged sour beers rather than Bud Light or PBR, I suggest we should be a little more humble when it comes to commenting on other established beer cultures.

When I read these German-beer-in-decline pieces, they sound a lot like the braggadocio we heard from New World winemakers — and the wine critics who loved them — in the 1980s and ’90s. Back then, there was a lot of talk about “boring” French wine, about how innovation was trumping tradition and terroir. The French wine industry managed to survive.

Yes, offerings from big German breweries like Spaten or Paulaner or Augustiner can be similar — there’s always a helles and a dunkel and a weizen, some kind of strong seasonal bock and, of course, the Oktoberfest beer. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I happen to enjoy many of these beers. Perhaps most of the misgivings about German beer stem from the 1980s, when German beers were cast in the United States as “skunky” and Lowenbrau made the grave misstep of licensing its name to Miller Brewing Co.

I am still looking for an American craft brewer to blow us away with a domestic variation of traditional German styles produced by the likes of Weihenstephan or Ayinger or Schneider Weisse. I’ve been disappointed in the American-German collaborations to date, such as Sam Adams’ recent Infinium (made with Weihenstephan) or Schneider and Brooklyn Brewery’s Hopfen-Weisse. I love the breweries, but these projects seem too high in alcohol and out of balance.

Above all, I’ve found that there is diversity in German beer. I don’t know too many American brewers making the smoky rauchbiers traditionally made in Bamberg. I would love an American brewer to focus on making zippy, low-alcohol Berliner Weiss styles. Or perhaps a schwarzbier better than Kostritzer. And outside of beers such as Magnolia’s Kalifornia Kölsch, I’m always surprised I don’t see more American attempts at a refreshing kölsch that truly rivals Reinsdorf or Sünner.

All of which is to say that we can still learn a lot about beer making from Germany, regardless of whether tradition is fashionable. • 12 April 2011

Recommendations
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen

$5.29/500 ml

This “smoke beer,” traditionally brewed in Bamberg, takes its flavor from malted barley dried over a fire of beechwood logs. If you like peaty scotches (or smoked bacon) you will love this. 5.1 percent alcohol.

Dr. Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse

$6.49/500 ml

Briem, who works for brewing consultancy Doemens, is reviving a series of historic but forgotten brewing styles. Zippy, cider-like, assertive. Like saison, it’s bottle-conditioned with lactobacillus, unfiltered and unpasteurized. 5 percent alcohol.

Dr. Fritz Briem 13th Century Grut Bier

$6.49/500 ml

Another Briem effort — brewed with spices, fruit and herbs, a historic style that predates the Reinheitsgebot and the use of hops. Beautiful notes of anise, caraway, ginger, gentian and bay leaves. 4.6 percent alcohol.

Sünner Kölsch

$3.49/500 ml

There are American kölsch versions, but none better than this. Surprising tart fruit and a hint of sweetness, but a clean, crisp finish. 5.3 percent alcohol.

Pinkus Müller Organic Pinkus Pils

$3.49/500 ml

Earthier, maltier and spicier than most Pilseners. From one of the few remaining breweries in the northern German town of Münster. 5 percent alcohol.

Georg Schneider Weisen Edel-Weisse

$4.49/500 ml

Extraordinary, smooth weizen from a historic recipe made with organic barley and hops. Lots of flower and pepper aroma, and rich flavors clove and orange. 6.2 percent alcohol.

Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).
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