Thursday, 3 March 2011

Maybe it's not the Reinheitsgebot. Or is it?

Last night, a friend on Beoir sent me a link to an article on The Slate, by Christian DeBenedetti, that describes the decline of German beer culture. I think it's fair to say that it's written from an American perspective, at least some of the tone is, how shall I put it, celebrating the US role in the current beer universe. Regardless, it's hard to argue with the figures, tallying as they do with those I read in the regional daily a few weeks ago. Beer consumption is on the decline in Germany, and all sorts of reasons are given in the broadsheets; the changing demographic, with the aging population naturally drinking less, but with the younger people drinking differently, not taking up the beer glass.

One thing about DeBenedetti's piece had me nodding straight away was the concept that the Reinheitsgebot is stifling German beer, much in the same way that it wiped out the rich variety of beers that existed prior to the Bavarians insisting the 'gebot be taken on as a condition of unification in 1871. I've gone on a bit about that myself, with the occasional uncharacteristic rant, but I began thinking, much as I have disliked the Reinheitsgebot (and I do think it's bollox), it's not really the law itself that irritates me, but the way it's used, and the way it has insinuated itself into the psyche of the average, beer-drinking German.

A bad workman blames his tools, and I'm beginning to think that it's easy to point to the Reinheitsgebot and say "Look! It's a straitjacket, and the German breweries are stuck in 1516! There's no innovation, and they're being left behind." For the beer aficionado, it's easy to look to the US, the UK, Sweden, Italy, all sorts of places, stroke one's chin(s) and decide that Germany is a basket case. Maybe it is. The fact is, there's masses of room for innovation, even staying within the strictures of the Reinheitsgebot. Brewers don't even have to stay within the limits if they don't want to. The thing is, they like to, which is fine, but by choice, the majority of small breweries in Germany produce the same thing as every other small brewery. A pils, a helles, a dunkel a weissbier. Why? The Reinheitsgebot doesn't make them do that.

Perhaps it's a more general societal thing. Germany is pretty stable. One might say even boring, where they need the likes of Carneval/Fasching as an almost State-sanctioned reason to dress up, go out, get drunk and make an arse of themselves. Could this stability simply be manifesting in liquid-form as the staple beer types? Are the majority of German brewers simply just playing it safe? What does this lack of innovation have to do with the Reinheitsgebot at all? I'm beginning to think nothing at all. Is it because they are afraid, or because they know the average German beer drinker likes it that way? I know it's hard to sell the idea of non-German beer to Germans, but I found that most people are like anywhere else. Once they try it, they'll be intrigued by different flavours. Without something in your hand to get them to try, you're wasting your breath, and you will get the occasional sneer of "that's not beer".

So, is it the people that are stifling change in German beer culture? Perhaps. Why? Because they believe in the Reinheitsgebot? Maybe. Would a regular person care as long as they have a tasty beer in their grubby paws? Not likely.

There is innovation though, if you know where to look. But perhaps not as much as I'd like to think. I thought it was quite damning that DeBenedetti mentions the likes of the Weyermann pilot brewery and Cologne's Braustelle, and to realise I've tried all of these. In fact, that little event organised by Braustelle  last year had most of them gathered together (and many were quite delicious). I began to wonder if DeBenedetti had been to the same event or read my blog. Is that the limit of "innovation" or rather, reaching out? No, there are others. Andreas Gaenstaller and his wonderful Affumicator, some small breweries in Berlin putting erstwhile verboten ingredients in their beers (no idea if they're any good though), new abbey beers, albeit conforming to the Reinheitsgebot. I'm sure there's more, but even with a declining number of breweries (and that it by no means new, as two decent-sized breweries closed down in the late 80s/early 90s where I live), there's a hell of a lot to get through, and these small breweries don't get the 15 minutes of fame, or longer, that the "hot" breweries of the US and UK get.

Jeff Pickthall made a good point: "at least German mediocrity is of a higher standard than British mediocrity. I'll give them that." A bit strong perhaps, but in the main, and despite the horrendous sameness that at first glance pervades the brewpubs of Germany, this country still provides the world, and the drinking classes, with some damn fine, refreshing beer. Long may it continue.


Tandleman said...

You are right that the innate conservatism of modern Germany is a contributing factor.

Chris said...

I think the article utilized a bit of making a mountain out of a mole hill to make it more interesting:

1. "Berlin, which sustained some 700 breweries in the early 19th century, now counts only about a dozen firms." This can be said of pretty much any city in the world.

2. As for the 2010 World Beer Cup, American brewers also took gold in Belgian categories. Plus, German brewers won a boatload of medals at the 2010 World Beer Cup including gold in the Helles and Maibock categories, all three medals in Dortmunder/European-Style Export or German-Style Oktoberfest/Wiesen

Bavaria has the best beer culture in the world and I would hate to see it change.

Mark said...

Really interesting post!

Why are less young people drinking beer in Germany now? What are they drinking instead?

If brewers made big IPAs or stouts then would there be a market for them in Germany? Do drinkers want them?

Barry M said...

One of many, Tandleman, topics like this can't be simplified really, can they?

Chris, yes, you're right. And Stan makes some other good points about some of the statements.

When you say Bavaria, do you mean Franconia? :D

Thanks, Mark. The papers and figures suggest young people are drinking less beer. As to why, that's another matter. The likes of mixed drinks (or even the biermix drinks) are often given as one reason. Tonight, I'll be in the Mosbacher Brauhaus, and I know there'll be a bunch of young people (even younger than me! :D) there, like last time, drinking beer. But if I pop over to Ludwig, a "trendier" spot, it's more likely to be cocktails and mixed drinks. I love asking for a Schwarzbier there and getting offered Guinness :P

As to whether there's a market for different beer styles in German, I would of course say yes! But I think the brand loyalty and conservatism of many drinkers would be hard to overcome. It would be slow, and local, and would need hands-on action to build a local clientele. However, my experiments on neighbours and colleagues in the last place I lived proved to me that behind that conservative exterior, the average German is as interested in good and interesting-tasting beer as anyone else.

I've had some other thoughts on attitudes to beer here since posting this. Need to think a little more, preferably with a beer in hand.

Ron Pattinson said...

The number of breweries in Germany has actually increased in the last couple of years after more than a decade hovering around the 1250 mark.

Barry M said...

That's good to know, Ron. Do you know what kinds of breweries are opening up the past couple of years? More brewpubs, or micros?

Chris said...

I just wish those Belgians would stop brewing those Wits, Dubbels and Tripels... they all taste the same

Pivní Filosof said...

I'm 100% with you here. One only needs to look at the Czech Republic to see that a legislative relic from the 16th century has nothing to do with the lack of innovation in German brewing. Is the market. Brewers are happy brewing their two or three boring styles and people is happy to drink them. People don't demand something "new", brewers can't be arsed with trying something "new". And who can blame them? A brewery is a business and if things work the way they are now, why bother to change?

On the other hand, sometimes I believe "innovation" is overrated. I prefer a brewer that only makes a couple of "classics", but consistently well than one that one that comes out with a new invention every few weeks just for the sake of it.

Gerrit said...

There are two very different attitudes I'd like to see more German brewers adopt:

One is exemplified by Schneider Weiße, who acknowledge that people outside Bavaria may know a thing or two about brewing and so collaborate with Garrett Oliver (of Brooklyn Brewery, of course) to come up with things like the super hoppy Tap5, “Hopfenweiße” -- for Germany, an almost revolutionary beer.

And the other attitude is Unertl's, whose catch phrase translates as, “we may only make one beer, but that we make really, really well”. (And they do.)

I can see both approaches succeeding -- it's the ones in the middle, the big, industrial commodity breweries that are going to struggle because there will always be somebody who can offer dishwater at a lower cost.

Ed said...

What's happening to beer consumption in America? 'Craft beer' sales may be rising but I suspect overall consumption is in decline. Perhaps if the mainstream lagers were made to the reinheitsgebot this wouldn't be the case!

red dave said...

"Could this stability simply be manifesting in liquid-form as the staple beer types? "

Are German products boring? The cars seem no more boring than any other countries. Is the food boring? You rarely hear of German restaraunts.

If anything the German supermarkets in Ireland have a wider selection that the Irish supermarkets.

Barry M said...

Max, I take your point about innovation. Sure, if every one was innovating it'd also be boring as hell (and my indecision would be killing me!) :D

Gerrit, I like the sound of those two approaches. I'd be quite happy with one really good beer from my local, regular-haunt brewpub. I don't need crazy out-there beers all the time :)

Ed, I was also wondering if beer consumption is down generally/globally. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is in many of the "usual beer-drinking nations", but I haven't been arsed looking at numbers.

Dave, the Aldis in Ireland seem better than the Aldi's in Germany. Well, that's only half true. Aldi Nord is shit. Aldi Sud, is good. In my humble opinion/experience, of course. But I still miss Superquin for the range of products. And who doesn't like German engineering? :D

Pivní Filosof said...

Beer consumption is down in many countries, I've heard of the US, Spain, Czech Rep, Slovakia (I think), England. The reason, at least in the European countries is mainly demographic changes coupled with some people adopting what they believe is a healthier lifestyle and also the fact that people are going out less. It has little, if anything, to do with the overall quality of beer.

Liquid Rubber said...

Great reading, I am really glad after reading this post, this is really what that can bring a good change in the community, i only want Belgians would stop brewing those Wits, they are really irritating. :S

Beeron said...

At work I've tried many times to turn my German colleagues on to other beers; I've found that women are far more susceptible and willing to have their tastes challenged than men. The most frustrating and predictable response is that any beer which has a taste is "womens' beer".
I agree 100% that blaming the Reinheitsgebot is a red herring. Braufactum, Hopfen-Fluch etc show it can be done; the problem is that most German drinkers are simply not interested.

Barry M said...

Thanks for the additional perspective Beeron. I got some more local views from a friend (Philipp Overberg, who is deeply interested in the historic beer styles of Germany and is also a brewer) who mailed me the other day. He gave me permission to simply and copy and paste his mail, as I think it's interesting:

"I just read your post about the Reinheitsgebot and I think you are very right about the asumption that it's not the Gebot what keeps German brewers from taking the next step. It's a vicious circle of assmuptions and anticipations about consumers.

I experienced the same in advertising. In Düsseldorf I had the chance to talk to one of Germany's top creative directors (10 years ago!). At that time they were responsible for the highly acclaimed campaign for Früh Kölsch (that was actually quite lame). He told me he admired English advertising for being smart and ironic and at the same time he told me you could never do these things in Germany. He said the agencies were ready, the industry as well, but neither the agencies nor the industry can imagine customers accepting a change in advertising style. So no-one dares. And so everyone in advertising becomes frustrated and cynical about their jobs and think in England everything is better an Germany just isn't ready. And never will be.

In consequence, German consumers in general, and German beer drinkers as well, really are not ready for innovations. I assume it will - as always - be the same development as in the US. The mainstream beers have to become even worse (the decline within the past 10 years was significant, so there's hope!) to give way to microbreweries who try better. The existing brewpubs definitely don't help. In contrary, I condemn them all for making bad beer acceptable to concious (well, half concious) consumers."

Interesting views!

The Beer Nut said...

Great piece. And
"masses of room for innovation"
"there's a hell of a lot to get through"

Barry M said...

Thanks! Only a Pun-meister like you could spot that! :D

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