Germany's Devotion To The Beer Purity Law Is Going To Leave Its Beer Industry In Europe's Dust | VinePair

Germany’s Devotion To The Beer Purity Law Is Going To Leave Its Beer Industry In Europe’s Dust

8 minute Read


German Beer On The Decline

Remember when Britney Spears was married to Kevin Federline and spent most of her time stumbling around strip malls in a bikini demanding “purple drank” from frightened bystanders? Her debilitating level of denial and cluelessness was as scary as it was entertaining. The German beer industry is stuck in a Britney shame-spiral, incessantly denying the need for change. Its purple drank is Reinheitsgebot.

I mean look, no one’s going to spit at a German pilsner, but remember back in the day?

“I’m psyched to challenge my friend’s palates and get them excited about beer with this mass-market German Schneider Weisse,” said no beer geek anywhere, for the past 30 years. Instead, beer adventurers and educators the world over are reaching for quirky Imperial Stouts, IPAs, pale ales, farmhouse ales and wild ales with limited distribution to satisfy their appetite for novelty, complexity and artistry. We all know where the vast majority of the fiercest, boldest, most innovative small-batch beer is being made: in the USA.

Crazy, right?

Brewers around the world are gazing at America as the shining exemplar of hop hotness: not only do we make the best beer, but we also manage to rig the economy with tax breaks and benefits for small-time producers and the communities they brew in. (For example, small brewers in the U.S. pay a lower excise tax on their first 60,000 barrels of beer, but that rate is not extended to small foreign breweries that sell in the U.S. state by state, there are also several incentives given to new businesses using local product and labor.) Delicious, and smart.

German beer, for hundreds of years, has dictated what real beer should be. The first American “real” beer pioneers all drew inspiration from European – especially German – beer, and for many years, produced carbon copies of their mass-market beers, primarily German-style lagers, English-style ales and stouts, Belgian-style ambers and lambics.

But let’s not regurgitate the well-established history of how Americans only used to drink Miller and Bud Light until innovators like New Albion’s Jack McAuliffe and Boston Beers’ Jim Koch came along. Suffice to say, between 1980 and 2013, the number of craft brewers in America went from eight to more than 2,800, according to the Brewers Association. During that time, the use of Cascade hops was popularized by breweries like Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada, and small regional breweries popped up, all over the country, developing distinct pockets of seasonal styles with bold flavors and local ingredients, often with limited distribution (sometimes due to limited supplies of the esoteric adjuncts, sometimes due to distribution constraints and simple small-biz growing pains).

Instead, let’s talk about what’s happening now in Europe, how some countries are taking tap cues from America — and structuring economic scenarios to ensure that their land is populated with brilliant small-scale brewers cooking up bold, hoppy, uber regional brews for the local populace, while they’re at it.

Consumption of German-produced beer fell to a 25-year low in Germany in 2015, to about 2.1 billion gallons.

Any alert politico can see that those delectably creamy mousse-like heads, barrel-aged stouts, dry-hopped ales and wild-yeast fermentation projects haven’t just been a boon for drinkers, they have contributed billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs to the American economy ($55.7 billion and 424,000+ jobs in 2014, according to the Brewers Association). In this “challenging economic environment,” those are numbers few vote-hungry politicians can ignore.

A handful of European self-proclaimed beer countries could safely be accused of torpor, but one, in particular, is the perfect example of how not to succeed: Germany.

The German word, bierernst, sums up the country’s approach to beer. Literally, it translates as “beer serious” and the word is imbued with humorless, deadly earnest, methodical plodding. This bierernst should be contemplated in tandem with Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law that is celebrating its 500-year anniversary this year. The decree stipulates that the only things that can be included in beer are hops, barley and water. Yeast was later added to the list.

It’s easy to mock German beer culture’s determination to stay firmly entrenched in their rut of stagnation, but their seismic contribution to the world of beer can’t be overlooked: they’re the first people who thought to add the much ballyhooed hop to beer in the 13th century. Germans were the first – and for centuries, arguably – the best innovators around.

And Germany is hardly the America of the 1950’s producing tepid lagers: more than 100 kinds of hops are cultivated and used, 40 kinds of malt and more than 200 strains of yeast, Jan de Grave, director of communications at the Brewers of Europe tells VinePair. All told, more than 1,300 breweries produce more than 1 million different types of beer.

vagabund

The Tap Room of Vagabund Brauerei, created by three American friends in Berlin.

But … how different are those beers, really – and how excited are the locals? Consumption of German-produced beer fell to a 25-year low in Germany in 2015, to about 2.1 billion gallons, down from roughly 2.9 billion in 1991, according to Germany’s Federal Statistical Office. While the craft beer market comprises less than 1% of the overall beer market, the number of microbreweries is growing steadily – by 30% between 2005 and 2014, according Statista.

And while many of Germany’s breweries are technically craft – of their 1,350+ breweries, more than 900 produce about 5,000 hl (132,086 gallons) per year – most them seemed to miss the boat on the world market’s move toward flavored, specialty beer.

It’s still to be determined how mass the consumption of citrusy IPAs bearing notes of tropical fruits and bubblegum, rounded out with esoteric yeast strains will ever be in Germany, but as sales at major brands like Radenberger, Berliner Pilsner, Loewenbraue, Spaten, even Weihenstephan, stagnate or drop off, there’s real opportunity.

Berlin, where German revolutionaries, cutting-edge artists and rebels of all stripes go to live, create and rumble, is unsurprisingly, ground zero for the country’s small, but growing shift from mass-market industrial German beers to smaller craft beers that aren’t afraid to incorporate (now-standard American) additions that they believe will make an interesting beer: seasonal produce, spices, herbs.

One of the most promisingly rebellious collaborations involve, you guessed it, Americans. Vagabund Brauerei, created by three American friends in Berlin, opened its taps in 2011, with a nano-brewery and small taproom. The burgeoning craft beer community in Germany belly up for their wheat beers, APA’s and IPAs.

There are enough hop-happy nanobrewers (and drinkers) to merit a craft beer festival, Braufest, which was launched in Berlin in 2013. There’s an indie mag, Hopfenhelden (literally it means, Hop Heroes) gaining readership. All signs point toward a slow, but steady (with the younger and cooler doing the pushing) move, inexorably toward the moment when someone decides to throw a barrel of blutwurst or rollmops into a fermenting tank.

But the most symbolic development in Berlin is still in the process of being erected. San Diego’s Stone Brewing, the ninth-largest craft brewer in America, beloved for its unique, flavorful, hop-forward beers, is in the midst of transforming a 43,000-square-foot gasworks complex into a sustainable brewhouse, farm to table restaurant and retail store, set to open this year. The Berlin beers will be kept exclusively in kegs and aluminum cans. Stone’s Berlin beer releases this year will be distributed throughout Europe: Stone IPA, Stone Ruination Double IPA, Arrogant Bastard Ale, Stone Cali-Belgigue IPA and Stone Go To IPA.

But it’s still to be determined how mass the consumption of citrusy IPAs bearing notes of tropical fruits and bubblegum, rounded out with esoteric yeast strains will ever be in Germany, but as sales at major brands like Radenberger, Berliner Pilsner, Loewenbraue, Spaten, even Weihenstephan, stagnate or drop off, Stone’s has a real opportunity to help rebuild an inspiring community for beer geeks in Germany.

The most notable creation, one that perfectly embodies Icelandic’s national identity, lifted from the American craft blueprint is Steðji’s dung-smoked whale testicle beer.

On the other hand Germany’s neighbors, Belgium and Denmark, have long had incredibly rich beer cultures that have managed to evolve right along with the American craft revolution. (When a country’s major religion has used beer brewing and distribution as a government-approved fund-raising method, and their favorite saint is the patron of beer, you know you’ve found a happy place. Danes, meanwhile, have been drinking and creating some of the best stuff in the world for 5,000 years).

All of Scandinavia – especially Sweden’s Omnipollo, Denmark’s To Øl and Norway’s Nøgne Ø — is on an American-inspired hop high. 3 Floyds, from Indiana, has opened a BBQ brewpub in Copenhagen called War Pigs with Danish brewery Mikkeller.

It’s Iceland, though, that legendary place of darkness, water, mystery, impossibly blonde people and non-ironic techno beats, that seems to be brewing one of the most original beer cultures in the EU. Essentially, Icelandic brewers respect and utilize their country’s terroir, temperament and tastes, while using the model of American derring-do and innovation as their blueprint for success.

The country is especially ripe for a robust beer culture, since they’re starting from scratch. Beer was essentially banned until 1989 (hard alcohol and wine were permitted after a 1915 ban on all alcohol was overturned in 1933, but the beer prohibition remained in place as it had negative political associations with Denmark). Craft brewers began cropping up, utilizing Iceland’s legendary water, local products and unique Icelandic love of all things oddball. (Never forget, Bjork is Iceland’s most notorious and beloved export). Larger breweries dominate the market, but craft still rakes in about 10% of market share, similar to that of the U.S. (our share is about 11%).

The most notable creation, one that perfectly embodies Icelandic’s national identity, lifted from the American craft blueprint is Steðji’s dung-smoked whale testicle beer.

Steðji’s whale beer, Hvalur 1, uses whale meal as an ingredient. The health department was skeptical at first, but upon close monitoring of their production, the brewers were permitted to proceed. It sold out almost instantly. For Hvalur 2, they went even further, using fin whale testicles that have been cured, salted and then smoked with sheep dung. One whole testicle is used in each brewing cycle. (Don’t worry: the beer is pasteurized!) All of their beers incorporate local flavor, from red barley, to pumpkin seeds, moss and seaweed.

Einstök, another major player in the craft beer market with pale ales, toasted porters and seasonal brews, is the largest exporter of alcoholic beverages from Iceland, with 64% of the share in 2015, according to Statistics Iceland. The brewery reports a 250% spike in shipments last year to other European countries and the U.S.

Whale Testicle Beer

The dung-smoked whale testicle.

Countries with business-friendly practices for craft brewers (in England, there’s the Small Breweries Relief Scheme has helped new breweries in London climb 24% to 36 in 2015 and Iceland has a low corporate tax rate, and highly available, cheap energy and space) produce, unsurprisingly, the most interesting beers, and American’s are happy to help. Two of Britain’s most popular artisanal breweries – Siren and Moor – are operated by Americans.

As Europe figures out how to copy American craft style without being too … you know … American about it, independent America breweries are continuing to reach unprecedented levels of growth abroad. Craft beer export volume increased by 16.3% in 2015, to roughly 446,151 barrels, or $116 million, according to the Brewers Association. Growth was seen across the board, especially in Western Europe, with a 33.4% bump. About 80 small and independent brewers are enrolled in the Brewers’ export program.

America’s role in Europe’s artisanal craft-brewing world is analogous to Europe’s role in America’s haute culture world. While American brewers are making, arguably, the most technically superior, daring and tasty beer in the world, Europeans spend and drink more per capita, making them, like it or not, the financial heavy-weights. According to Jan de Grave, the EU is the second largest beer producer in the world (after China). Since 2008, the number of active brewers in the EU has doubled, to more than 6,500, with 650 breweries opening in 2014 alone, an 11% bump from 2013. Craft brewers make up the lion’s share of those opening, with 5,000 in existence in 2014, compared to just 2,000 in 2008.

Stone’s may be the first small American brewery to officially invade Germany, but the 90-member Export Development Program at the Brewers Association, including Left Hand, Dogfish Head and Ballast Point, are also chomping at the bit to market to a beer-loving populace thirsting for their own piney poem to the glory of the hop. Brooklyn Brewery has been quietly doing it everywhere for decades; they shipped abroad to Japan as early as 1989, and now more than 30% (and growing) of their beer is distributed in other countries, with Sweden being their second-strongest market outside of New York.

If Germany wants to get back in the game it invented – fabulous, innovative beer – it needs to rethink the fiscal and aesthetic justice of its purity law.

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