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Spotlight on German brewing

In previous editions of the beer business, there’s been a wonderful witty introduction, one that gently lowers you into a pellucid pool of beery insight with a knowing smile and a cheeky wink.

But, as we all know, Germans don’t have a sense of humour (something they don’t find very funny) so we’re not doing the whole witty thing this month. Sorry.

We’ve got nothing. No sardonic take on lazy national stereotypes, no talk of Teutonic efficiency or replacing ‘the’ with ‘zee’; no clever German ‘Ich bin ein’ wordplay or goose-stepping gags. There are no off-the-wall analogies involving unfeasibly large bratwurst or amusing ‘retro’ references to ‘Allo ‘Allo. Just these words, slowly filling up the first paragraph until it looks respectably full and mercifully free of German clichés. There. That should do it.

So, let’s say you were to kidnap a German beer drinker, blindfold him and encase his head in a block of concrete, leaving just a little hole near the mouth. And let’s say you then drove him around Germany at great speeds on the autobahn stopping off at random towns.

Assuming he was still talking to you, there’s every chance he’d be able to tell you exactly where he was simply by drinking the local beer.

Therein lies the beauty of German brewing. Despite the fact that the vast majority of brewers still adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, the purity law, German brewing boasts incredible diversity and each region has its own particular beer style to which it’s often fiercely loyal.

The Reinheitsgebot stipulated that beer should only be brewed using malted barley, water and hops. They would have added yeast to that list but, well, they didn’t know about yeast back then. They thought fermentation was God’s doing or some kind of magic. Anyway, pen pushing bureaucrats in Brussels repealed the law in 1987, more than 450 years after it had been introduced, declaring that it contravened EU law.

In Bavaria, home to more than 650 different breweries, people drink Bavarian weissbier and dunkels as well as lip-smacking lagers and Oktoberfest brews; the default drink in Düsseldorf is altbier, a malt-driven ale with an auburn hue, while in nearby Dortmund blue-collar beer drinkers down bottom-fermenting Dortmunder-style beers. Franconia is synonymous with Krausener and Keller biers and it’s in Bamberg, a ridiculously picturesque place to drink beer, where the infamous smoked beers reside.

Berlin has its own beer too; an intensely tart interpretation of a wheat beer. Low in gravity with a modest abv, it’s sipped as a summer refresher oftened sweetened with raspberry syrup or woodruff. It’s an acquired taste but one well worth acquiring.

And then, of course, there’s Cologne. A wonderful city yet one that, thanks to the RAF, isn’t much of a looker. You wouldn’t want to kiss her – even if you were wearing beer goggles. But its local speciality, Kölschbier, is a most fragrant and delicate drop.

Brewed like blonde ale yet conditioned like a lager, Kölsch is an “in-betweeny” introduced at the beginning of the 20th century by Cologne’s brewing community who were concerned by the meteoric rise of Pilsner – with which it shares some similarity.

Shimmering a brilliant gold and softer than a mattress stuffed with sheep, it boasts both the parch-slaying powers of a light Pilsner yet the fruity roundedness and dryness of a top fermenting beer, but with an immaculate after-taste shorn of yeasty awkwardness. The hop bitterness, mostly courtesy of Hallertau and Tettnang, is pronounced yet mellowed by small amounts of wheat.

Cologne’s Kölsch bars are governed by kobes, dry-witted waiters clad in blue aprons who are both rude yet welcoming and tear about their traditional wood-clad taverns, alu-kranz (trays) in hand, plonking Kolsch on tables before you’ve asked for it. And the beer, often decanted straight from the barrel, will keep coming until you leave your glass half full or place a beer-mat over the top. It’s marvellous, you really should go.

Alastair Hook, brewmaster at Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, is one of England’s biggest advocates of German beer. After cutting his brewing teeth at Herriot-Watt in Edinburgh, he found further instruction and, crucially, inspiration in Munich. Widely regarded as the home of brewing, it was here he undertook a post-graduate brewing degree at the renowned Weheinstephan School.

“I found that in Germany people had respect for beer, it’s a country where beer masters are as important as lawyers in every town and where they don’t tax their sins,” he said. “It was fantastic for me and it made me decide that I wanted to be a brewer. I went to Germany because I wanted some reverence in my life and I was determined to bring these values back to England.”

There are very few ubiquitous brands in Germany. Until relatively recently, Germany has remained more or less unscathed by the insidious creep of global consolidation and international mergers while the imported beer market, compared with other European nations, is miniscule.

But, sadly, consolidation has begun to get its grubby mitts on German beer. That’s how consolidation works; it gets what it wants eventually. Ownership of German breweries is swapping hands more often than a dog walker on a frosty morning and, sadly, not all are being run with the same level of passion as they once were. Some have even been bought and closed down. It’s not right, not right in any way.

Still, despite this downturn in the number of breweries, Germany remains utopian elbow-bending territory, with more than 1,300 breweries and a level of reverence from which we British could learn a lot. Each German drinks an average of 132 litres (35 gallons) of beer every year and beer culture seeps through the nation’s social and religious fabric.

Yet, despite all this, German beer really doesn’t really get the recognition it deserves over here. Perhaps that’s because the two nations haven’t always been best buddies. Perhaps it’s because in the 1980s, German beers like Holsten and Hofmeister became popular among lager drinkers which hardly helped matters. Perhaps it’s because a lot of German brewers are too small to concern themselves with English drinkers.

Or perhaps it’s because German beers have names that are difficult to pronounce – something that one should never underestimate when pondering what sells in this country.

That said, there’s an impressive array of German beers being brought in by a number of switched-on importers. James Clay champions a couple of Kölsch beers in the shape of Früh and Gaffel alongside two wheat beers: the devilishly drinkable Erdinger and Schneider-Weisse – widely regarded as the Rolls Royce of Bavarian wheat beers.

They also do the dry and hoppy Flensburger Pilsner from Germany’s most northerly brewery; DAB from Dortmund and, catering for connoisseurs, there’s the wonderful weissbock Schneider Aventinus and the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier – like drinking a beechwood campfire through a barbecued kipper that’s been swimming in lapsang souchong all its life.  

Veltins, a classically well-constructed Pilsner, is on the books of Vertical Drinks while Cave Direct offers an array of awesome beers from the Rothaus Brewery, founded by an abbot and renowned in Germany for its quaint retro packaging. The “Tannen Zapfle” is super smooth and dry.

Three excellent Bavarian breweries have also teamed up with Specialist Brand Development too – Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr and Thurn Und Taxis, while Morgenrot recently added Krombacher, one of Germany’s biggest brands, into a portfolio which also includes Kaiserdom, brewing since 1818 and based in Franconia.

Still adhering rigorously to the Bamberg purity law of 1489 which predates the much cited ‘Reinheitsgebot’ of 1516, the Kaiserdom range includes a classic Pilsner, a malty smooth Munich style ‘Helles’ beer, a naturally cloudy, wheat beer and a rich, dark ‘Dunkel’ lager.

Ben McFarland, 20.08.2010

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