MUNICH — At a simple café near the main street, a group of mountain bikers comes in, and they're thirsty. "What kinds of beer do you have?" one of them asks the server. He starts reciting: Amber Ale. India Pale Ale. Summer Ale. White Ale. Porter. Stout. Then he adds Lager — a little sheepishly, as if lager doesn’t quite cut it. As if anybody’s going to order that lame stuff brewed by the big brands.
Welcome to the land of beer: the U.S.A. The food on offer at this place in the Alaska mountains is nothing special. Nor is the choice of beers particularly exotic. In many U.S. establishments, there’s a variety of draft beer to choose from. A large selection of unashamedly good beers is normal.
The idea of the United States as the country of dishwater beers has been out of step with reality for a long time. In fact, it only exists in the minds of German beer drinkers.
And how does the picture look in the Pale-Pilsener-White-Beer country of Germany? Things at the tap are finally starting to move. For a long time, brewers in this erstwhile famous beer country were just producing more of the same, ever more efficiently, ever more inexpensively, and ever more boringly.
But now, just as American beer enthusiasts rose up against big-brand sameness 20 years ago, resistance is now growing to all those lame TV beers in Germany. The craft beer (or microbrew) movement has finally made it to Germany. It’s not mainstream yet, but it’s here.
Back in Munich
At a high rise in the eastern part of Munich, start-up firms rent offices along with software companies and PR agencies. Timm Schnigula and Richard Hodges’s start-up is one such enterprise. Both men have beards and are wearing trucker caps. Among some computers, boxes and crates, there’s a refrigerator where they keep their product samples — beer.
"If people only knew how awesome beer can be, there would be a lot more enthusiasts," says Schnigula, co-founder of the small brewery baptized CREW AleWerkstatt ("Crew Ale Workshop"). And that’s really the problem in Germany, he adds. The average German beer drinker firmly believes that the beer world ends with Pale, Pils and White, that there’s nothing besides Augustiner, Astra and Krombacher.
So selling craft beer in Germany is first and foremost a question of setting the record straight. Customers must come to see that craft beer is not liquid poison, nor is it impure, and they need to understand why a 0.33 liter bottle costs at least double as much as a half liter of pale. Getting this across can require some or all of the following: unusual bottle/label design; high alcohol content; many different kinds of hops listed on the bottle, the way grape varieties are listed on wine bottles. The hops varieties have names such as Cascade, Simcoe and Amarillo. Sometimes they are very exotic. Sorachi Ace, for example, has notes of ginger and lemon grass, which are originally Japanese and are now only grown worldwide by one company in Oregon.
Out with the pint glass
The new trend also has accessories that strike many traditionalists as off-putting. Beer is served in Teku glasses that look as if they’re meant for red wine. Companies like Spiegelau produce expensive series with a different glass for every type of beer, a practice that has worked just fine in the wine world. But is it a sin to drink Pale Ale from a stout glass? These beers can also be consumed straight from the bottle thus bypassing all the gastronomic hoopla. On the other hand, beer called "Hopfen Royal" that costs 10 euros per bottle is also available in Germany, offering beer snobs the perfect opportunity to wax expert about first sips through the finish, not to mention all the caramel notes.
Gourmet beer? — Photo: CREW Republic
The craft beer trend is livening up Germany’s sorry beer selection and bringing with it some pleasant side effects. "The movement has re-awakened enthusiasm in brewers," says Wolfgang Stempfl, managing director of the Doemens Brauakademie (Doemens Brewing Academy) in Gräfelfing. "Once again it’s about creating unusual products, not just efficiency and technical issues."
The big beer brands are discovering variety as well. The Radeberger Group has long been selling special beers under the label "Braufactum," Bitburger sells their Craftwerk brand, and companies like Veltins and Schneider are also addressing the craft beer market.
On the other side are brewers like Schnigula of CREW AleWerkstatt. He's a former management consultant who discovered he enjoyed beer more than he did meetings. Or take Thorsten Schoppe, who has been brewing beer since 2001 in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Among his brews is "Holy Shit Ale," and for two years now customers and journalists have been beating a path to his door. In Nesselwang im Allgäu, sisters Kathrin and Stephanie Meyer have breathed new life into their family’s brewery cum restaurant, thus rescuing a family brewing tradition that seemed to be on its way out. Their beer is a Pale Ale called "Braukatz."
All of these brews are Pale Ale or India Pale Ale, so is this merely a replacement of one beer style by another? "The craft brew movement tends to base itself on India Pale Ale," Stempfl says. That was the case in the U.S. too. And now something similar to what happened in the States is happening in Germany: Brewers are exploring the boundaries of this style of beer. This means that they are producing beers with higher alcohol content, or more hops, and playing around with International Bitterness Units (IBU) that indicate on a scale just how bitter a beer is. These beers are then called Double or Imperial IPAs and do raise the question: Who’s supposed to be drinking them? Is the craft beer scene in Germany headed in the direction of extreme beers?
No. What’s happening is that a number of beer styles are proliferating that perhaps can only come into their own in the wake of the IPA, hops mania. For example, beers that mature in wooden barrels, like those produced by the Camba Bavaria brewery in Truchtlaching am Chiemsee. These beers are stocked in whisky, bourbon or rum barrels and take on aromas of oak and spirits both.
Cologne-based Sebastian Sauer of Freigeist Bierkultur (Free Spirit Beer Culture) is on a different path. He combs archives and old books to find historic beer recipes. The German purity law (Reinheitsgebot) only came into force nationwide in 1906, so these recipes often have more ingredients than malt, hops, yeast and water. His Prussian White is, for example, a wheat beer spiced with ginger and juniper to which sugar beet syrup has been added. At first it tastes strange, then delicious. The brewer also produces what’s known as "Gose-Biere," made in a sour beer style that originated in Goslar.
"In my opinion, these beers are the beers of the future," says Stempfl, admitting that it will take time before German beer drinkers accept that. It’s different in the United States, where an American investor recently bought a whole batch of sour beer from Germany and exported it, Stempfl relates. It’s easier to sell sour beer in the U.S. because beer drinkers there don’t require as many explanations as thirsty Germans do.
Still, things are finally happening in Germany too. Hopefully in 20 years’ time servers in Bavarian mountain pubs will be rattling off as varied a beer selection as was available at that little place in Alaska.