Thursday, 19 November 2009

German attitudes to beer and brewing: a minor rant

A friend linked me to a short piece on Spiegel Online about the brewing education provided at Weihenstephaner and in Berlin. I have the greatest respect for German brewing technology and beer, but I couldn't help but feel saddened by the tone of the piece. At a time when big breweries are buying out smaller family-run breweries, and there's a perceived continued blandification of beer in this country, the focus on this piece was on the science and how tough it all is, rather than the wonder and joy of making good tasting beer. They say that 80% is done by computer, and the remaining 20% is lab work, although they do also say that there are more brew pubs/restaurants and such. I wonder is this because you no longer have to hold a Braumeister qualification to open a brewery now, or so a person at Berlin's VLB told me.

The piece goes on to stress the science-heavy parts of the degree, with subjects such as maths, physics, biology and chemistry (fair enough, as brewing as a science is pretty complex), a large drop-out rate, and goes on to say that these people are more often employed in biochemical engineering or pharmaceutical jobs where there's more money.

It also made me grumble that a section is dedicated to comparing the brewing education in Germany to that in the United States, where they say that the brewing courses are not technically comparable. Sure, Germany should be very proud of the technical quality of the brewing process, but it's not helping the apparent decline of what is/was a rich and varied brewing tradition -- even with the Reinheitsgebot limitations. This self-congratulatory attitude around German beer is best is just sucking the life out of it. I try to pretend this doesn't exist, but it does! I'm so lucky with my colleagues who are really open to new tastes appreciate beer for what it is. But there are most certainly a majority who think German beer is pure and good, and that's all they need to know.

There are wonderful German beers, I know because I'm trying as many as I can. They are often an art of restraint and balance, creating beers that just provide simple pleasure, but there are also beers that leap out as they just stand above the German crowd. But there are so many more really bland, or plain bad ones, and the vast majority of people just either stick local or stick with big TV brands, and wouldn't countenance trying anything else. All that technical wizardry and purity law rubbish doesn't help.

This then reminds me of another piece in the German consumer magazine, ÖKO-TEST, that was entitled "Regional schmeckt besser", or, "Regional tastes better". It popped up online, but a colleague gave me a copy of the magazine so I could see the list of beer reviewed. Essentially, they tested 46 beers, some from small, regional breweries (Pott's and Pinkus from my area), and some from the big national/international brands (Beck's, Warsteiner, Krombacher etc...) covering what I would consider a broad and balanced price/quality range. And the test results? Every single one, bar two, came out as Sehr Gut, Very Good. One was downgraded to Good because the alcohol content was 1% lower than stated on the label and the other (Wickuler Pilsener) because it had a bready taste and had a lasting bitterness, unusual in a Pilsener eh?

So, amongst all these Very Good ones were some that had traces of heavy metals, others that had "thin watery flavour" (Reichenbrander Helles), one that had a "very neutral flavour, soft body and mild taste" (Paderborner Pilsener, fairly near to me). The list goes on, and they used bold font every time a beer had a bready flavour. I like a bready flavour in some beers!

What they do say is in favour of regional beers is the lower impact on the environment due to reduced transportation costs, but this is questionable given the economies in scale that bigger breweries can achieve and the other areas of waste in the brewing process (as talked about recently by Woolpack Dave). But it does support local economies, and I do like that. In fairness, the magazine make some more emotive points about supporting local business and ensuring that tradition doesn't die.

But Regional Tastes Better? In this, I think the magazine shoots itself in the foot. At the decimal point level of the scores, the top few are regional, but they state that thay can recommend all the beers testsed. Why is everything Very Good? Is it because it's all good German beer, following the gebot, so it must be good, even if it's thin, watery and contains traces of heavy metals? If a major consumer magazine can do this, there's no hope in honest appraisals of the beers of Germany by the broader German public itself.

Thanks, Kristian, for the link that got me going.


Pivní Filosof said...

What you describe is what is happening or has happened in pretty much every country at the mass produced level. The thing that bothers most about the Germans (and to a certain extent the Czechs) is that they believe they are above the rest. And one of the reasons many believe German beer is the best is because of a legislative relic, how sad is that?

Barry M said...

Exactly. Ireland is where it's at now because of one large company using it's strength to make competitors,large and small, disappear, literally, in some cases. All diversity vanished by the early-mid 20th century (the decline probably began mid 19th) and the beer culture and traditions have never recovered. Germany and the Czech Republic still have a rich, vibrant tradition, and to a degree that pride is a good thing, as it makes people want to be proud of their beer culture. The danger is that they do so blindly, while it all slips quietly away. Less choice, less, less flavour, less soul.

There's a certain amount of pride in local (as in really local, small breweries) beers here which I both like (because it supports local business), and am dismayed at (because it's often blind loyalty, much as some have to the big brand beers). I often wonder is it enough to prevent them all becoming part of one monster group. It's bad enough, too, that the big monster groups are also gobbling up the smaller monster groups! Makes it hard to know where your beer really comes from sometimes.

But my pissed-offness right now is this apparent belief that it's the science and technology and purity that's what makes a good beer. What's happened to the soul of good beer here? I know it's there. Perhaps it just needs a little polish.

Laurent Mousson said...

Well, there's an old quarrel between "test" (i.e. Stiftung Warentest, which was crated by an act of parliament in the 60s) and "Öko-Test" (which does not have that official sanction).
"test" are very thorough, very systematic, very technical, their processes are as watertight as can be. Their focus is very much consumer security in every sense of the word, without being too paranoiac about it : at the time of the acrylamid scare, they were pretty much the only german-language media which did issue moderate, complete and untimately reassuring information about how acrylamid occured in food.
But "test"is seen by some as not radical enough on environmental issues.

"Öko-Test" has more of a political/ecological agenda, pushing such notions as carbon footprint, organic produce and lack of heavy metals etc. every time they get the chance. But they are also seen by their detractors as not really very thorough, and have noticeably screwed up in the past, recommending products that have then been found by "test" to be seriously lacking in terms of security or freshness.

Rather interestingly, "Öko-Test", here, are pushing a carbon footprint agenda and coming up with a "local tastes better" headline, even if it means bending the facts a bit.

Last time "test" had a go at beer, and it's been a while (Weizenbiere in 2002 or sth), they clearly stated that they would not judge taste, which was a matter of individual preference, but concentrated on labelling, remaining solids, nitrosamines (or rather lack thereof) and such.

Cheers !


Barry M said...

Thanks for the context, Laurent! Very interesting. It sounds like the Test people have a lot of common sense. Taste is most certainly a person thing (one reason I don't try to score beers)

This is also what irked me. The claim in the headline does not come out in their "sensory test" scores at all! And as our friend, TheBeerNut, said, brewing is not environmentally friendly at all anyway.

I guess the clue is in the title of the magazine, and they want to push their agenda. Caveat lector applies!

Knut Albert said...

This is all very interesting, but let me focus on the education part. I have the same feeling about the Scandinavian College of Brewing or whatever it's called, it is located in Copenhagen. Sure, their graduates know how to make an idetical can of Carlsberg wherever they might be on the planet, and they have labs and computers that help them out.

It's mechanical engineering all the way, the most important is to keep the machines running. The beer is more or less a by-product, its stable quality is just an indicator that the process is going smoothly. And the machines and their engineers can make any product that the bright young things in the marketing department tell them to.

The contrast? The craft brewers. Who dare to go in new directions. Who know enough about the science to make a consistent product - as far as they want to - but who will not let this knowledge be a straightjacket for creativity and the possibility to try - and fail.

Barry M said...

Well said, Knut, and that's exactly illustrated by the fact that these graduates pop off into process/bio/chemical/mechanical engineering jobs that have nothing to do with brewing beer. I wonder what attarcts them to the subject? And maybe the high drop-out rate is more to do with people realising that the large institutional brewing education is more an engineering one.

Bring back apprenticeships! :)

Anonymous said...

I've spoken to several graduates of the UK's premier brewing school (they indelicately nicknamed it Hairy Old T***!) they seemed to agree that they too were being groomed for a life of big brewery management work.

They said they had almost no use of the college pilot brewplant (3 or 4 times in total on a 4 year course).

I think they would say however that it did prepare them for overseeing a process, but not one based just around engineering, but also some skills & knowledge which gives you a really useful basis for a career in craft-brewing. (i.e. you know why things happen, how flavours are formed, what to do to resolve problems & how to stop them happening again, QC techniques, lab work, etc, etc).

I once read a quote from Sean Franklin (Roosters) that in terms of flavour training, formal brewing education in UK taught people solely about recognising flavour faults, and while this is very important in a brewery, the appreciation & understanding of positive flavour is vital in making good beer.

So is formal brewing education in UK perfect for craft-brewers? - No. Coupled with this, many microbrewers lack basic training entirely, and they or their employers seem to lack the will or the funding to much improve this situation.

To me the result of this is the massive range of quality to be had from UK breweries (exaggerated further by the perishable nature of cask beer & the paucity of training in some parts of the pub trade).

I'm drinking the Devil's Advocaat a little, but to an extent this mix of factors (including the tied house/pubco situation) leaves us with the worst of both worlds - a fair few badly made microbrewed beers, dull regional/national beers & good beers going bad in pub cellars!

From the little I've heard or read, I think US craft-brewers have more & better training than most UK craft-brewers (their training seems to be more craft-focused but also rooted in science & good practice).

In speaking to several German / German-trained brewers - I think their formal training is very good, but perhaps it would be missing a lot for those wanting to go into craft-brewing & ale production as it lacks diversity & focus on the wider world of beer.

Barry M said...

Some very good points, Anon. I think it is important to have the science, or at least enough to be able to identify and resolve problems, as well as ensuring some sort of process quality. As you rightly point out though, this is not enough to produce good beer. If you want a factory job or a process management position in a large brewery, it might suit, but I suppose the real learning is getting down and dirty with a mash tun, and this is where the real love of brewing, and the drive to make really good beer comes from. They're closer to the ground in many ways.

It is expensive to go through a full programme though, and I can see why small breweries may forego some of this training. Doesn't Hairy Old T*** provide a short craft brewers course? I know the VLB in Berlin does (well, it's a week long), and it sounds like attendees may get more practical work out of it than a 4-year-graduate!

You paint a grim picture when you say "a fair few badly made micro-brewed beers, dull regional/national beers & good beers going bad in pub cellars", but at least there appears to be some diversity in the UK scene. You're dead right, the German brewing scene is very much inward looking with only a few notable exceptions. Well, I can only think of the Schneider/Brooklyn collaboration, but maybe I don't get out often enough. Oh, and I haven't seen any of it for sale in Germany :)

Nick said...

Ok guys, we probably should get a common ground. VLB offers different 2 brewmaster courses. The one with nearly no hands on are the graduates from the Technical University Berlin, like me. But, to get into that course you need to have an apprenticeship in brewing, which in Germany is 3 years of hands on learning. Or you must have worked for a year in a brewery and have the Abitur (a-levels?). Most of my fellow students worked for several years in a brewery before they start studying. The question now is: When we have already a good qualification, as we are qualified brewers, why do we study brewing and where are we guys working then? Most of us just want to know more about the brewing process, the biochemistry behind it, the microbiology (which is in every middle sized brewery very important – imagine products sold in the store and not have checked against micro organisms; could be a disasters from the insurance side of view), To understand new technologies, like Merlin, crossflow filtration, falling stream evaporation you have to learn the physics, and chemistry behind it.

So… why do we not brew our own beers? Yes we do, when we can, but most of the times we simply get other jobs. We run the Microbiology lab of mid sized breweries, are into quality management, have to manage the production process, consult small size breweries, like the White Gypsy for example. I suppose most of us are simply over qualified to just stand in the brew house and brew beer, which doesn’t mean we can’t brew beer. The most lovely beers come from educated brew masters running their own business once the have the money together.

Barry M said...

That's interesting, Nick, thanks for the perspective. So, it sounds like there may be many people who have already been brewing in a practical way for a few years and then see the qualification as a step up to a new career path? And that path may or may not be related to brewing? I can see where, if there are few graduates, then entering consulting or engineering roles centered on brewing makes sense, and it's really useful for the industry to have well educated technical people to support the many.

So, till relatively recently you had to hold such a qualification to run a brewery, or a brewery had to at least have a Braumeister to sign things off (at least that's what i have been told). Do you think the recent changes (2006?) have made it more attractive for graduates to go elsewhere, or has this change reflected that it's hard to afford/get a qualified graduate involved in a smaller brewery? (This is assuming what the chap at VLB told me about not requiring a Braumeister qualification to start/run a brewery is correct, maybe you can confirm this).

In your experience, do you think that the majority of graduates are over-qualified in such a way as to be unaffordable to smaller breweries, unless a graduate sets up on their own?

Sorry for the questionnaire, but I find this really interesting :)