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.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Lucky for some

I've mentioned before on this blog, that I have a mixed relationship with our local, independent regional brewery, Distelhäuser. For as long as I have been visiting Germany, whenever there was a family gathering or other party, the beer shopping instruction was usually not to buy Distelhäuser Pils. At our local, people say don't try the Pils, but the Export is drinkable. High praise indeed. In fact, I do drink the Export when at the Stammtisch, but then the only other choices are Bitburger and Paulaner.

However, I fear I am at risk of becoming a Distel fan boy, at least since Spring 2014, when they were showing a stout, a porter and an IPA at Braukunst Live! For the best part of a year, I hadn't seen these beers again, but in the meantime I had begun buying Distel Blonde, a dry-hopped top-fermented golden affair that is now a permanent fixture in my beer cellar, and Spezial, an amber beer supposedly harking back to an old-fashioned recipe, but more on them another time.

So, having thought those three beers were more or less specials done for a beer festival, imagine my surprise earlier this year, when a friend sent me a photo asking "have you tried these beers?", picturing Lucky Hop IPA, Black Pearl Porter and Loch Ness Stout. And he'd bought from a large drinks market only 20km away! Well... what could I do? I went to our local and ordered a crate of each. A crate being the smallest unit of transaction that she'll do for out of the ordinary beers. A week later, two crates of Lucky Hop arrived (the other two were no longer available), and I was the talk of the village. As the crates sat in the drinks markt, waiting for me, people asked what they were, and were told the price. Just over €40 for a crate. I reckoned they thought I was either rich or stupid, or most likely both. I admit, I was a bit shocked, but felt I had to take both (in two installments). But at c. €1.80 a bottle, in hindsight, it wasn't so bad. It's just that people don't normally buy 48 bottles of this kind of stuff in one go!

So, I've had quite some time to consider Lucky Hop IPA from Distelhäuser. I even started sharing it, experimenting on neighbours, as is my wont. And then I met Jonas at Artbrau in Heilbornn last April. Jonas is a friend of a friend, lives nearby (said we met before at a Schlachtfest), and works at Distelhäuser. He told me to look out for a new, improved version of Lucky Hop coming soon. I was thinking, what the hell am I doing with a full crate of the old one!

Fast forward to early June. I'm working in the cellar, and this bloke appears at the cellar door, with bottles of beer in his hands. I welcome him in, but it's 10 seconds before I recognise him as Jonas! Well, of course I'd welcome in anyone standing at the door bearing beer! And what did he bring? The new Lucky Hop, now brewed on the main brewkit in Distelhäuser.

Lucky Hop, both the old and new version, is 7.7% ABV with 77 IBUs. Lucky number 7, I guess. But it "only" uses 5 hop varieties, Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, First Gold and Simcoe, with Pilsner, Munich and Caramel malts. Full marks for listing detailed ingredients. Though I was tempted to do a blind tasting, I opted to just got for a side-by-side comparison, and boy, that really did show differences.

The old Lucky Hop (of which I still have half a crate) is pretty straightforward on the aroma stakes. Classic US-influences worn on its sleeve, with a healthy dose of grapefruit and bitter orange on the nose. It's got a decent enough malty backbone, reminiscent of barley sugar, or perhaps orange barley, now that I think of it, but with a rather interesting tobacco - cedar wood undertone. The finish is uncompromisingly bitter, focussed on that orange pith effect, and long lasting indeed. But it has a rough, twiggy note, that began to grate after the first 20 bottles.

The new Lucky Hop is a tad less hazy than the old version, but with a less impressive head. The aroma is considerably fruitier than the old. It still has the same orangey foundation, but backed with sweeter elements, suggesting tropical fruits and soft caramel. The body is rounder, smoother. It's still got the orange barley thing going on, but with mango sorbet added on top. The overall effect is somehow more refined, and though the rough edges of the former version may have accentuated the bitterness while drinking, this one also maintains a long-lasting finish, with the pithy, gum drying back-end one might expect, but without the twiggy catch at the back of the throat.

Quite a decent effort, and although I really quite enjoyed the original Lucky Hop, twigs and all, this puts me more in mind of some of the classic US IPAs I had when first discovering them in what feels like a lifetime ago, which is no bad thing in my book. Now if only they would produce more stout and porter!

Friday 3 July 2015

The Session #101 - The material culture of brewing

This month's Session is hosted by Jack at Deep Beer, who chose the topic “bottles, caps and other detritus”, a topic that seemed strangely apt for me, as Boak and Bailey kindly pointed out via Twitter, considering some of the stuff I had been tweeting about over June.

I'm not a collector by nature. At least I try not to be, despite a small weakness for beer glasses and bottle openers. When people hear you are a beer geek, they tend to dump their own junk on you, which is fair enough, and I can (and do) filter, and keep what I like, so the “collection” stays manageable.

However, last month, while visiting a garage sale, when I mentioned I was interested in beer glasses, the owner's daughter asked if I would be interested in a box of beer mats (coasters) from the 60s and 70s. Normally I would say no, but what a box! She said around 1,400 beer mats, and lying on top was a Double Diamond mat, so I said sure I'd take it! She offered to give it away for nothing, as her parents were trying to clean out before moving down to Lake Constance, but with her Dad looking on, I felt a bit bad about that, so offered a tenner for the lot plus a Distelhäuser Maß Krug. I promised to look after them well, and with that, we were off home.

The box was filled with bundles of mats wrapped in newspaper, mostly dating from 1964, which suggested we were dealing with slightly earlier mats than suggested. My wife, being the archaeologist with archiving experience, pretty much took over at this point, and has since sorted the collection into groupings by country then city/town. Of course, the majority are German, with a few hundred international examples, a large portion of which are from Alsace. But the total number was also higher than expected, with circa 2,200 mats, mostly from the late 1950s and early 60s.

But what to do with them? My son says this means I have to open a bar, though all agree at least a portion should be put on display somewhere, but for the moment, they will probably reside, neatly sorted, in old, stackable plastic mushroom boxes, waiting for their moment, however, the act of sorting and looking was already a fun excercise.

I said I was not a collector, but my wife is. I am a beer afficiando, my wife is not. But a collection like this overlaps both interests. I would stand, looking at these mats from breweries long gone, some of them quite local, wondering what  the beer was like. Meanwhile, my wife was constantly pulling up facts about the towns where the breweries were located, how many breweries they once had, when they shut down, when they became better known as another name, or when they got taken over. Real, living history, all laid out on our guest room floor.

There's lots of ways to filter and consider such collections. The obvious is of course the breweries themselves. Indulge me a moment, and we'll taker a look at a local example.

In the 19th century, my wife's home town of Mosbach had up to 13 breweries in operation. Now, it’s almost hard to believe, as there’s only one in operation now, and it’s a brewpub.

The biggest one was Brauerei Hübner, which began operation in 1878 when Heinrich Hübner bought out the former Brauerei Heller. In 1896 there were further consolidations, and they subsumed Brauerei Schifferdecker, to form the Mosbacher Actienbrauerei. With that latter takeover, the Deutscher Hof inn was added to their holdings. This building, which I believe was attached to the brewery complex proper, is the only part of the brewery that still exists, now as the restaurant/bar Ludwig, at the end of the pedestrian zone in Mosbach.

A set based on a road sign theme.
The fronts of the two series above.
One of the newspaper wrappings had a Hübner ad.
By the early 1900s, the Hübner family was clearly doing well. Between 1900 and 1902, they built a large sandstone villa overlooking the town, with large gardens behind it. In 1908, the massive malthouse was constructed. This remained in operation till the 1960s, when it was producing up to 4000 tonnes of malt annually.

20th Anniversary celebrations at Hübner. Heinrich Hübner is 2nd from left.
In 1928 they renamed back to Brauerei Hübner, and continued operation till 1983. After the closure of the brewery, the malthouse was abandoned, and since 1997, this protected structure has been used as a cultural and conference centre. The villa is still standing, although the gardens are now part of a shopping centre, and the brewery site has largely been replaced by a multi-story car park, apart from the Ludwig bar, as mentioned above.

Hübner is certainly not so long gone that it doesn’t survive in living memory. My wife has clear memories of them as a teen. But now, it’s just those memories, and the physical remnants. We've plenty of documentation to sieve through, so I hope to find out more about what they brewed, and how much of it.

Another way to filter the view on such a collection of beer mats was discovered when we unwrapped one particular bundle, where most of the mats were from the 1958 World Expo in Brussels. This little package was like a time capsule, capturing a distinct moment represented by several breweries and indeed other companies like Sebena Air, that were most likely all exhibiting at this world event. It was like a horizontal tasting of beer mats, as opposed to the vertical view given by a single brewery over time.

A bunch of mats from the 1958 World Expo in Brussels.
These mats – and the glasses and signs that still decorate bars around the world – all represent a material culture of breweries, many long gone. They have a permanency that the beer, the lifeblood of the breweries that they represent, could never have. Thinking about it this way, they are definitely worth keeping and documenting. If nothing else, it's just a wonderful way to learn the story of breweries, past and present, and it's down to individuals to help preserve the knowledge of their local breweries.

The next time you are sitting in a bar with the walls festooned with signs, labels and beer mats from old breweries, just consider the heritage that forged them, where they came from, and the giants upon whose shoulders our current beer culture stands.

Postcard beer mat from the 1958 World Expo

Another postcard beer mat.

*Addendum: the collection currently represents 501 breweries