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Challenging the German beer palate

Sabine Devins · 6 Mar 2015, 16:00

Published: 06 Mar 2015 12:55 GMT+01:00
Updated: 06 Mar 2015 16:00 GMT+01:00

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Go into any North American pub or restaurant to order a beer and you will likely be presented with half a dozen choices of what's on tap. Walk into a German pub and order a beer and you're more likely to be asked what size.

"We have excellent beers in Germany, but the innovation is missing and variety is lacking," Sylvia Kopp told The Local.

Kopp is one of the world’s best beer sommeliers after coming in fourth at the 2014 World Championships for beer tasting in Brazil.

She is Germany's only independent professional beer sommelier and founder of the Berlin Beer Academy as well as author of Barley and Hops: The Craft Beer Book, which is also available in German as Das Craft Bier Buch published by Gestalten.

Kopp isn’t a lifelong beer lover, though when she fell for it during a trip to Belgium as a journalist, she fell hard.

"I learned about other beers and a completely different culture of beer than what I had so far encountered living in Bremen," she said.

"I was so impressed that it tasted so different from what I understood to be beer."

That trip to Belgium took Kopp on a longer road that led to her becoming a certified beer sommelier and a champion for new beers in Germany.

Today, through the Berlin Beer Academy, Kopp has positioned herself at the crest of a new wave of craft beers infiltrating the German market, with many being inspired and influenced by the American craft beer movement.

Better drinking 

"We get a lot of men in here who say they love beer, but have not experienced variety in beers because they only drink German beers," Kopp says.

And it's the case on a Friday night class, where Kopp's colleague pours beers for a room full of men. All call themselves beer lovers and while some know an ale or two, most drink the German way.

"I almost always order pilsner. Sometimes a wheat beer if I don't like the pilsner being offered," says one participant.

“Light-coloured and always a big one,” jokes another.

Classes at the Berlin Beer Academy are designed for people to discover the variety that German beers have to offer.

In one evening, I drank six different kinds of beer ranging from tangy to smoky to fruity, across a range that went increasingly darker.

For the record: Four of the seven were noted as "would drink again" on my score sheet.

"Most of the people who take a class know nothing about this new world of beer – they are totally uninitiated," said Kopp. "But they leave here impressed simply because it's a very exciting subject and a door is opening and they have experienced something."

Classes are in German, but Kopp also does group events in English, when asked. 

Down with the purity laws!

Kopp says it's not the German beer drinker's fault his pallet is so narrow, and instead blames the German beer purity laws (Reinheitsgebot).

The laws, originating in 1487, declared beer could only be made up of water, barley and hops, as well as setting the price at one to two pfennig per Maß (those giant one-litre beer glasses you see people swigging from at Okotberfest).

Today, the average price of a Maß at Oktoberfest is €10, but the definition of beer as being brewed from barley, hops and water remains.

"These purity laws put us in blinders. The consumers decided that Germany has the best beers and declared anything that comes from everywhere else as impure. They thought beer should taste like a light lager beer and said this was real beer and everything else was not," explains Kopp.

Kopp isn't against a good pilsner.

"Brewing a pilsner is like wearing a speedo on the beach: Everything has to be in the right place," she quotes an American brewer.

Brewing change

But at the same time, she thinks German beer drinkers are ready for more and brewers are responding.

Fritz Wülfing has been brewing the cleverly named Ale-Mania for the last five years. In Munich, Crew Republic is setting out to “change the world of German beer” with its German Pale Ale. In Berlin, three Americans used crowdfunding to start brewing at the Vagabund Brauerei, which they serve at their brew pub in the Wedding district. Altest Mädchen/Ratsherrn and Kreativ-Brauerei Kehrwieder are all catching on.

In pre-war Berlin, there were more than 200 breweries in the city with each Kiez, or neighbourhood, having its own local tap at the watering hole. After reunification of Germany in 1990, there were only two.

Twenty-five years later, the German capital boasts 20 breweries and counting. 

Beer enthusiast Aron Ferguson has been sampling many of the beers Berlin bars are starting to put on tap.

“There is really almost no bad German beer, but they do tend to all taste very similar. High quality but, still, similar tastes,” the American told The Local.

“But as the craft beer scene is taking hold here, you have this really rich German beer tradition mixed with the creativity and ingenuity of the craft beer movement. It’s really exciting.”

Kopp says Germans just need a nudge in the right direction to get their tastebuds to hop on board, which is why she founded the Berlin Beer Academy two years ago with her friend, brewer Olav Vier Strawe.

"People have forgotten that beer is a craft and there are people behind it and there is creativity in the business.”

Kopp is just the woman to show people how and where to get started.

"It's still a little bit based on insider info, but we have yet to see it come to supermarkets and pubs, and I think that's coming," Kopp said.

She points again to the Reinheitsgebot as what is to blame. But as deregulation comes, the taps will open and the bigger brewers will notice.

“The big brewers are already noticing, I think they are just watching to see how the small brewers do first.”

And in the meantime, it just takes a little bit of effort to find a different mug of suds.

That’s something we can all drink to.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Sabine Devins (sabine.devins@thelocal.com)

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