My first introduction to “real” German beer, as in not the stuff available in Ireland at the time, was around fourteen years ago, at a time when I hadn’t yet come to realise the wonderfully varied world of beer. I had been subsisting on a blend of Carlsberg, Miller, Becks, occasional Guinness, Jack Daniels and the odd Bulmers when back from a hot days work in the field (I was an active land surveyor at the time, not a farmer!). I was working with a German girl and we’d become good friends, so I went over with her to visit her family in the south west of Germany for a birthday party. It’s a long time ago now, but I do remember the really hot days and helping her father with some building work and being rewarded with cold beer. Pils usually if I recall correctly. Now, this wasn’t a million miles away from some of the stuff I had been drinking at home, but it was distinctly more bitter, and I didn’t really like drinking lots of it.
But I was also introduced to what I sometimes consider to be the gateway drug of beer afficianadoism; Weissbier! Coming from mid-1990’s Ireland, this was the most unusual looking beer I had ever seen. Those big tall glasses, the big fluffy head the looked like you’d need a spoon to eat it, and that glowing pale gold all combined to impress this young Irishman. But the taste! How was this possible? Looking back I think it’s possible that this introduction was the start of my interest in beer in general, and it certainly made me more open to trying new tastes.
I can’t remember if it was the same trip or a later one -- as these visits became pretty regular – but at some stage I made a train journey to Düsseldorf to visit a friend I had met in Ireland. While she was in college during the day I wandered the Altstadt of Düsseldorf and experienced my first Alt. So different from what I had been drinking down south. Darker, sweeter, but still bitter. I needed to try more! I began trying Schwarzbiers, Dunkels, and Dunkel Weissbier. Could this be the same type of beer as that golden beacon? There seemed an endless landscape of beer, and I was convinced that Germany was the rightful home of beer, and this purity law that everyone seemed so proud of seemed to result in less hangovers!
Returning home I was becoming more adventurous, and my close friends with me. The Porterhouse in Temple Bar became my favourite bar, simply because of the range of beers from around the world. And this is where it really began to get interesting. What the hell were these Belgians doing? How did they create all those luscious flavours? How come English Ale wasn’t warm soapy water as I had been led to believe? I began to seek out new tastes and my friends and I would seldom drink the same beer twice in one night, just exploring, but the poor Germans began to get left behind. With all these taste sensations I began to find Pils and Weissbier boring, and when in Germany I’d tend to go for Dunkels and darker beers generally to get more body and flavour. I began to think this purity law was nonsense, as it just didn’t necessarily mean good tasting beer…
As time went on the girl who first brought me to Germany became my girlfriend, and then the mother of my son and finally, only last year, my wife. And through all this the potential for moving to Germany was always in the background until something interesting came up. It wasn’t in the south west as we had initially wanted, but in Münster, in the west-north-west where there are some interesting brewing traditions. I’m close to Köln and Düsseldorf, whose greatest rivalry is expressed through the loyal following for each city’s brewing tradition, Kölsch and Alt. Two very different beers, but both remnants of the German beer world before the march of the Pils and Rheinheitsgebot began homogenising the beer styles here. I’m also close to Dortmund, the former industrial powerhouse that reinterpreted the Pils and created the Export style, probably one of the great influencers on the “International Lager” style of beer. And my new home itself, which has only one remaining brewery, but which has a nice collection of light, refreshing, and nearly always tart beers to slake ones thirst, including the last Münster Alt which, naturally, the Düsseldorfers will say is not Alt at all!
So here I am in a country I’ve always liked, but which I had become disillusioned with in terms of beer. I remember a wine master once telling me that many wine drinkers start out with white wine, then quickly move on to the deeper, richer flavours of red. But, often, they return to white when they realise the subtleties that were there all along, but they just couldn’t appreciate them. A bit like this, I am learning to re-evaluate the German beer world, and I’m intent on exploring as much as I can! Not because I have to, but because I think I am doing it a disservice not to, and I want to! So, despite the fact that I am bemoaning not being able to find the variety of beers from around the world that I have become accustomed to, without German beer I probably would not have wanted to explore that world at all. That’s one small contribution German beer has made to the world, even if it is just my world.