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.
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.