Saturday, 18 July 2015

CRAFT Magazine – An embodiment of the German craft beer zeitgeist?

Meininger is a publishing house with a long-established pedigree in the wine industry, with several publications targetted at industry insiders as well as the consumer. CRAFT magazine represents their first foray into beer publications, but it would seem they have had their eye on beer for a while, as this year they already held their second MeiningersInternational Craft Beer Award (though most of the international entries seem to come from the list of imports from Radeberger’s craft label, Braufactum).

So what do Meininger say about their new baby? From their website, here is my poor translation:

“With Meiningers CRAFT, Meininger Publishing House devotes, for the first time, a standalone title devoted to the theme of beer culture. The magazine is published four times a year and is aimed at the entire beer community, so to the brewers and brewing artists, beer sommeliers, distributors, restaurateurs, beer keepers and beer enthusiasts and consumers interested in beer, pleasure and lifestyle.
Three editors take care of exciting content about beer. The focus is on large brewers, small brewers, exotic brewers, crazy brewers, brave brewers, contentious issues, opinions, success concepts, news, trends, events, the international scene and players, tastings, tips and tricks.
In short, it's about makers, markets and brands.”

Of course, as a beer consumer with a little experience behind me, and I hope a broad and open view of the beer world, when I see a beer magazine with CRAFT emblazon on the top, I have some sort of expectation on what this magazine might be about. And with craft beer being quite a hot topic here in Germany, even outside the boundary of the beer geek circle, it seems only natural that other parts of the community would take notice and contribute to the dialogue. I mean, the guy that lives behind our house, probably a couple of years older than me, and most definitely till recently a dedicated Pils drinker, recently confided to me that he likes trying these new craft beers. That in a village of 1400 souls in rural Germany is no mean feat of marketing, so it’s not just the buzz in places like Berlin and Hamburg, where most of the craft beer action seems to be centered.

CRAFT is a meaty-feeling publication, with 114 pages of thick, quality paper. The layout, images and styling are of a standard one might expect for a publisher over 100 years in the business. Plenty of style, but what of the substance?

I have to admit, on first leafing through it, what struck me most was the amount of full page glossy ads from large brewers, which also seemed to correspond to a number of articles or interviews with representatives from the very same organisations. There are ads from Veltins (using the Grevensteiner brand), Köstritzer (Bitburger Group), Erdinger, Monchshof (Kulmbacher) and Radeberger, each of which also have articles. Some, like the Radeberger piece, talk about the history of the brewery. The Erdinger piece talks about the traditional bottle conditioning they use, as well as an interesting sidebar where the Managing Director states that they “exclusively brew craft beer". The interview with the Veltins boss primarily talks about their marketing innovations, but has some rather telling answers on the topic of craft beer that could be indicative of the attitude the large German brewers have of the concept of craft beer. This needs a whole blog post of its own, but Dr. Kuhl basically says that craft brewers are not selling loads of beers, so they’re not interested. Fine by me. However, they’ll keep an eye on it to see if sales volumes start looking interesting. And that’s it in a nutshell. They’ll step into the market brand of craft beer to keep a stake if they can shift units, but it’s not so much about the beer at all, and that’s the big difference to me.

"Craft Beer"
However, I digress. This is a first issue, so I probably shouldn’t be too critical. They are bound to be seeking advertising to cover the costs, and I’m sure these are relationships that were long-existing, prior to this particular magazine.

The bulk of the content, I am happy to report, does focus on stories of brewers and brewing, perennial topics for the German beer industry, both craft and macro, and informative items that educate or entertain.

There’s a fascinating feature on Privatbrauerei am Rollberg, where brewer Wilko Bereit is brewing in the former Berliner Kindl brewery in Neukölln, Berlin. It’s fascinating as this seems to be a man who embodies a craft brewer. He wants to expand, but no more than 4000 HL a year, as he wants to stay micro. He uses only organic ingredients, but does not care for certification for his beers, as he just does it because he feels the beer tastes better, not to gain any marketing advantage. He and his partner talk to every one of their 70 customers selling their beers, as communication and partnership is key. But I do him a disservice. He don’t like using the craft label, at least in the German sense, as he considers it a term that is too, well, unthinking. He just wants to be a craftsman and brew good beer. I’d love to try his beer, but they only keg and sell it locally, so I’ll have to visit Berlin.

Other items cover topics such as a discussion between Oliver Wesseloh (Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei, Hamburg) and Holger Eichle (Deutschen Brauer-Bundes) on the Reinheitsgebot, and what is it good for (resisting to break into Bruce Springsteen’s War here!), and general interest pieces such as that about the Köbes of Cologne, or one on a new craft beer shop chain, Bierothek, with branches in Bamberg, Nurnberg and soon Erlangen.

For those interested in the small, new brewers, there is a profile of the four women behind Holladiebierfee, a self-described “Frauenbier” (I don’t believe in assigning gender to any beer), an interview with the three behind BRLO, a beer brand based in Berlin currently contract brewing 80HL per month, a sadly short article on Johannes Heidenpeter, the man behind Heidenpeters, obvs, and a lovely write-up on Philipp Brokamp’s Hops and Barley Hausbrauerei, also in Berlin.

There are a few more “technical” pieces about raw ingredients: an insight on the effect of yeast strains on the finished product, and a spread on how the development of the craft beer market has led to a structural change in the German hop industry, as demand increase for more and new aroma hop varieties, as well as an article about canning beer and a fluff piece on correct glassware. I enjoyed a thought-provoking piece on Maibock by Sepp “Biersepp” Wejwar, and how it could undergo a renaissance with the craft beer movement (their words), breathing new life into a style that seems to be fading, and indeed, it is perhaps to beer styles like this that the craft brewers should be turning their attention, instead of making another IPA.

The Bierpabst
The magazine closes off with a wrap-up on Meiningers International Craft Beer Award 2015. 554 beers entered, 50 Biersommeliers and brewers judging and 216 medals awarded. Riegele was named as National Craft Brewer of the year and the Boston Beer Company as International Craft Brewer of the year. There’s a nice photo of the Bierpapst (beer pope), in character and presumably deep in tasting.

On balance, once I got past the big brands, there’s a lot of good content in this magazine, and plenty to read. There are factual pieces like those on ingredients, and interesting stories about the people who have thrown their hearts and souls into brewing stuff that they believe in. There is food for thought, along with fluff pieces that entertain. I’m far from fluent, but I found this easy to read, so that’s also a bonus, encouraging me to improve my language skills!

My only gripe is that by naming the magazine CRAFT, it is clear that Meininger are trying to tap into what has clearly become a live topic in the German beer industry. However, by having a relatively large proportion of articles, not to mention most of the ads, coming from very large producers, that are far from what even I can accept as craft breweries, they are further clouding the already contentious topic of what German craft beer is. It’s only about four years since this trend (some call it a movement) started in Germany, and I can see the struggle to define what exactly it is repeating, much as I have seen it happen in the UK and Ireland, not to mention the goalpost shifting, or as Mr. Curtis diplomatically put it, evolution of the US Brewers Association’s definition. The large brewers here have been well prepared, and are reacting quickly and decisively, while the number of small brewers proclaiming themselves craft seems to be rapidly expanding.

To answer my own question posed in the title, I think no, it's not currently a true representative of the German craft beer industry. Having said that, I am however very pleased with my subscription and the scope and variety of the articles, just not with the naming of the magazine. I'm looking forward to the second issue, sometime around September, to see what comes. But in the meantime, I will be keeping an eye out for other German publications that keep the conscientious beer consumer in mind.


Bailey said...

Thanks for the write-up -- interesting stuff.

We subscribed to a similar mag from Belgium for a bit but got frustrated at the lack of transparency re: advertising/advertorial/editorial. Buying ad-space shouldn't guarantee editorial coverage in a serious magazine -- it's the kind of thing we associate with those awful regional lifestyle publications you get in hotels and waiting rooms -- but, if it does, that should be absolutely clear. (But, funnily enough, we're told advertisers don't want that...)

Barm said...

Meininger have been trying to make craft beer a thing for absolutely ages – I assumed they already had a magazine. I suspect that, as in the UK, such magazines provide an extremely superficial and tendentious reflection of what is actually going on.

Barry Masterson said...

Bailey, it's not stated specifically, of course, but given the ad space is almost 1:1 with mentions in articles, I cam only assume so. I have subscribed forhe next three (and mut cancel 6 weeks before the end ofthe period, otherwise I'm in for another year), so I'll be watching to see if that trend continues.

Rob, I have to admit, Meininger never really touched my radar till now. Given there seems to be so much going on, particularly in Hamburg and Berlin, not to mention what feels like a general shift, even in places like my former home of Münster (2 new breweries and now a specialist bottle shop and tasting room!), such a quarterly magazine can only ever scratch the surface.