Beer wars in Germany

As a sequel to our earlier post on how American-style craft beers are catching on in traditional beer cultures, I offer this account of what is happening in Germany.

By Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post:

Almost 65 years after Allied planes flew Western supplies into blockaded Berlin, a new American import is arriving by air: craft beer.

The beer is being flown in as part of a new surge of German interest in American brewing, upending a centuries-old relationship in which German beer defined the golden standard for brewing and Americans emulated it.

Now, with craft brewers in the United States capturing an ever-greater share of their home market, they are expanding in Germany as well. German consumers, intrigued by unfamiliar flavors, are purchasing more imported beer and are increasingly copying American efforts with their own small-scale brewing operations.

In the last year in Berlin, high-end U.S. beer — including one from California that is flown over in coolers — has become available in some grocery stores, and several U.S.-style craft breweries have opened. The efforts are aimed at challenging the dominance of plain-old pilsner, the mild lager that dominates more than half of beer sales in Germany. Beer consumption is slipping in Germany, and some brewers say their only salvation lies in fostering a drinking culture less constrained by a 1516 purity law that they say crimps innovation.

“What we’ve found in the United States is this amazing variety of styles and the openness of customers to new things,” said Marc Rauschmann, who is importing beer from California-based Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in airfreighted coolers. Other beer is shipped by sea. “We were really impressed.”

Keep reading:  In Germany, a U.S. beer invasion – The Washington Post.

I would just like to say that those Germans who think their classic pilsners are “boring” and so are all excited about those hoppy and fruity craft beers do not do themselves credit.  There is a place for the latter, I am willing to admit, but the German beers, thanks to the purity law, cultivate the essence of beerness, approaching the Platonic ideal.   As, I believe, Chesterton has pointed out, those who think something is “boring” betray a failure of sensitivity.

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  • Pete

    “The efforts are aimed at challenging the dominance of plain-old pilsner, the mild lager that dominates more than half of beer sales in Germany.”

    Plain old pilsner for me – these Germans know their bräu and are voting with their wallets. Dr. V is right – pilsner is the iPhone of brews. The blue jeans. (I know – I look too young to drink. A friend told me this.)

  • Sharon Philp

    Here is the irony: when the Budweiser empire was invaded by the Belgians, it caused an uproar in the city of Bud (which is another story for another day), and the Busch heir began Kraftig Brewing. The ads clearly state it is brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516.

  • “some brewers say their only salvation lies in fostering a drinking culture less constrained by a 1516 purity law that they say crimps innovation.”

    Not necessarily so. I drink as many different craft brands as I can get, and I’m amazed at the range of flavors that can be achieved with just malt, hops, and yeast. German brewers have a long way to go just exploring those possibilities.

  • Julian

    As Dr. Veith said, a good pilsner is far from boring, but is the quintessential beer. Crisp, clean, refreshing, and the flavors are well-blended. It is even hoppy (though in an Old World way, not using the piney, resinous American varieties)! No adjuncts like coffee or chocolate or bacon or mango (I’ve seen it) to act as gimmicks.

  • I have always enjoyed a good Pils. But let’s be honest, the Germans in no way perfected that art. If you want a good Pils you go to the Czech Republic. Now a good Dunkel Weiss, or a Krystal Weiss are fun. But what sense is there in having a purity law if everywhere you go Germans are adulterating their beer with coke, lemonade and other fruit juices and sodas? This is a culture that has never respected the purity of their beer.

  • Kirk

    A good pilsner takes a ton of skill to brew simply because it’s so simple and, I guess, naked. Flaws can’t be masked by huge amounts of hops or additives. Plus, lagering is harder than making ales. Cold brewing takes more equipment and more time. Frankly, this is something I think Americans can take away from German brewing. Brewing shouldn’t always be a creative race. Maybe we should take a step back and do simple things better.

    Plus, I’d love to see craft brewing reclaim the lager. I think there’s a hesitancy because lagers are the territory of the watery, mass produced brews. But just because there are bad lagers, not all lagers are bad.

  • SKPeterson

    I agree that pilsners can be very good beers – in fact, Urquell is still a pretty good choice. The problem with the weak American brands is that there is no flavor to them – there seems to be little hops or malt left after all the water has been added. German craft brewers could reinvent a good pilsner perhaps with some prodding from the Czechs and still adhere to the Reinheitsgebot as Kirk @ 6 suggests. Why not a super hoppy pilsner equivalent to the IPA? Or a very malty pilsner that would compare with a darker beer? Claiming the beer purity law is holding you back is ridiculous excuse making. Too many people have unfortunately been ill-served by the mass produced beer makers in making us associate a golden hued beer with overcarbonated tastelessness.

  • I’m glad SK mentioned Urquell. It has a body to it that is just wonderful, a range of aromas and flavors that others like Bitburger just can’t quite match. Quite a bit “wilder” than a lot of German beers as well.

    And glad to hear as well that the Germans are going to start to have even more fun with their brews. There are sad things in this world, but this is not one of them.

  • Joe
  • Steve Bauer

    I loved him on Family Matters.

  • Kirk

    @9 Victory Prima Pils is a great one.

  • kempin04

    Arguing about the superiority or inferiority of beers is like choosing a favorite from among your children. It doesn’t make sense. More children in the family only makes for a happier family, and more beer varieties in the world is a happy thing.

  • J Moyer

    I’ve been slowly trying my hand at homebrewing. I’ve got a Black IPA carbonating right now, which is really nothing more than a stout with an identity crisis in hops. There is something about the way simple ingredients can be configured and produce such varied results. And it’s even more surprising and rewarding when brewing one’s own. Yes there are some terrible American style lagers and “boring” Pilsners, but I enjoy that there can be a wide variety of beer that is fun and creative (and taste good too!) without being pretentious. I’m looking at you, wine.

  • Julian

    @Bror, Actually I do in fact prefer a German Pils to a Czech one, even though the Czechs invented it. Don’t mess with Pinkus Organic Pils. Victory Prima Pils, Sly Fox Pikeland Pils and Rogue Good Chit are the only American ones I’ve tried that come close to it.

    But yes, there are plenty of other awesome German styles:

    Kolsch (not a lager)
    Hefeweizen (also not a lager)
    Berliner Weisse (soured with lactobacillus)
    Gose (does not comply with Reinheitsgebot but is exempt)
    Weizenbock (not a lager)
    Altbier (not a lager)
    …and many such others.

  • EGK

    Bauer @ #10: “Did I brew that?”

  • Nils

    Julian @15: Isn’t Gose made with salt brine, or am I making that up? I remember seeing that Sam Adams was trying to make one a year or so ago when I was “getting into beer.”. An ancient Saxon-type, if I remember correctly.

  • Julian

    Nils, that’s correct. It also has a sour element from lactic acid (and early on it was spontaneously fermented) and a very low ABV so at the same time it’s thirst quenching and creating thirst. Definition of a session beer. Whoever thought of the salt ( it’s said that it was naturally occuring in the water where Gose was first brewed) was a genius. Actually the karaoke bar I was at last night had Leipziger Gose on tap!

  • I think the best german beer is the Flensburg Pilsner first brewed in 1988 and what a top place for holiday too Flensburg is.