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OPINION: The German beer industry is failing to live up to its potential

Fetishization of a 500-year-old law is preventing German beer makers from using their profound knowledge to break new ground in brewing, argues Geoffrey Dobbs.

OPINION: The German beer industry is failing to live up to its potential
Photo: DPA

Criticizing German brewing always feels very hard to do, especially to Germans. Because it really is so accomplished. But while there is much for Germans to be proud of in their place in beer history, fetishization of the Reinheitsgebot and layers of red tape will keep German beer from attaining heights they might otherwise reach. Germany has so much expertise that could produce even more great beers if it wasn’t brewing with one hand tied behind its back.

The famous 1516 Bavarian Reinheitsgebot decreed that beer may only be made with barley, hops, and water (yeast was discovered centuries later). The law was enacted in order to prevent brewers from competing with bakeries for wheat and other grains, and so keep the price of bread stable, as well as to regulate away ingredients that might cover up a spoiled beer.

However, the rulers of Bavaria still had a taste for wheat beer, and just four years after the law passed, a brewery on the Czech border was given permission to brew with wheat. That brewery remained the sole producer in Bavaria until a century later, when waivers were given out by Duke Maximilian I to many more breweries across the country.

Over time even more exceptions were granted and recently EU and German courts made several rulings which require a less strict application of the law. The current law only applies inside of Germany, and doesn’t affect beers made for export. Allowances have been made for certain industrial processes, and brewers are also allowed to use natural sugar for flavour and colour.

But the mythos of the Reinheitsgebot has become so powerful in general German culture that it still stifles brewers who want to experiment or even brew traditional German beer styles, many of which do not conform to the law. It’s fine to be proud of the quality that the Reinheitsgebot has come to stand for, but German brewing prowess is not caused by law and doesn’t need it either.

German brewers who want to brew new styles, use creative (natural) ingredients, or even want to try their hand at historical styles, face a number of challenges. Depending on the federal state, brewing these beers might be legally impossible, or require much time and money on paperwork for exceptions, with Bavaria having the strictest regulations.

Photo: DPA

Andreas Seufert, a member of the Vereines Deutsche Kreativbrauer (association of German creative brewers) described, in an interview this year with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, how their brewing of a wheat lager, based on a Bavarian recipe from 1616 was illegal in modern day Bavaria.

Even outside of Bavaria, German brewers must apply for exceptions if they want to brew outside of the modern law, which requires extra time and money, making the decision of whether to brew a new kind of beer very difficult. The well-regarded Danish craft brewer Mikkeller has been known to produce over 50 different beers in a year. While Mikkeller is on the extreme end, a German brewer would quickly find the kind of experimenting Mikkeller does time and cost prohibitive.

Another issue for the development of beer in Germany is the regulation of home brewing. In most of the US home brewing is as easy as buying the equipment and ingredients and going at it. Generally, as long as you aren’t selling it, you are golden.

In Germany, while home brewing also isn’t taxed, you can only produce up to 200 litres in a year. And even then you have to register with the customs office, and inform them exactly when, where and how much you will be brewing. Depending on your regional customs office, they may inspect the site of brewing regularly and require you to provide receipts proving you really are only buying the amount of ingredients you need.

A healthy home brewing scene is very beneficial to brewing culture, since it provides an informal avenue for experimentation as well as allows beer fans to engage with beer on more than just a consumer level.

Making space for more creativity and engagement with beer is even more important when considering global and German beer drinking trends. The generally trend is that total beer consumption is falling.

Even in Germany, consumption has fallen from 150 to 107 litres per capita in the last 30 years or so. People are drifting towards drinking more wine and cocktails. However, the other side of that trend is that the craft and local beer slice of the pie keeps growing larger. More and more the people actually drinking beer care more about the source and the story of the beer.

Instead of glorifying an idea that has contributed little to German brewing excellence, Germans should support brewers who are trying to apply German Fachkenntnisse (know-how) to modern ideas.

BEER

From ‘crisis beer’ to crowdfunding: How German small brewers are getting creative during the pandemic

Beer gardens are beginning to open up across Germany. Yet In order to make up for the losses they have faced over the past year, brewers have had to take matters into their own hands.

From ‘crisis beer’ to crowdfunding: How German small brewers are getting creative during the pandemic
The inside of the 'Kaiser Brewery'. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

Across Germany, brewers have been searching everywhere for inspiration during the coronavirus pandemic, from brewing ‘crisis beer’ to baking beer-infused bread, starting online businesses and even relying on crowdfunding.

This creativity has been a lifeline – the only way for some breweries to survive.

Standing next to a storage tank inside the Holzhauser Brewery, Dario Stieren – brewer extraordinaire and manager of the Munich Brew Mafia – takes a sip of his own freshly-brewed beer.

The months-long closure of restaurants and bars during the pandemic has hit the industry hard, and small breweries have really felt the impact. 

READ ALSO: Can Germany’s small breweries survive the coronavirus crisis?

Perhaps surprisingly, business is actually going better for the Munich Brew Mafia than before the pandemic, all thanks to the launch of their new line of beers named Impfstoff (vaccine) that they developed in response to the crisis. This novelty beer is available in ‘easy dosage’, ‘double dose’ and ‘overdose’. 

The brewers had not expected their ‘pandemic beer’ to fly off the shelves so quickly, but the first round of bottling sold out in just six hours. In June they will be bringing the fifth batch of their innovative creation to the market.

The pandemic has definitely not all been smooth-sailing for the Brew Mafia; the three brewers who produced the crisis beer have had to become much more flexible and creative over the pandemic, and each of them has had to work a separate job alongside the brewing.

‘We have to stand together’

The opening of beer gardens around Germany is undoubtedly an important step forward, but the Association of Private Brewers in Germany does not think that this alone can lift the brewers out of the difficulties brought by the pandemic. 

The Nuremberg Schanzenbräu brewery is a prime example of innovation under trying times. In a normal year, every weekend between the end of May and the start of September would be a celebration, for which the Schanzenbräu brewers would provide beer on draught. 

Last year the summer party season was basically non-existent, explains Stefan Stretz, the managing director of the brewery, and this year is not looking much better. 

Between 25 and 30 percent of the beers sold by Schanzenbräu come from the tap. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis Stretz, like most brewers, has been trying to sell more and more bottles of beers. “The market is now pretty cut-throat”, says Stretz. 

READ ALSO: Why German beer day is celebrated on April 23rd

Along with his fellow brewers, Stretz developed and brewed a Zusammen Halbe beer. “The idea behind the beer is that, in a time of crisis, we have to stand together”. A full 40,000 bottles of the beer were produced, and most of these were snapped up pretty quickly.

Stretz will not reveal the extent of the losses suffered by his brewery during the pandemic, but he says there is no way the company’s new ventures can fully compensate. What the beer did do was bring attention to the brewery, which is hugely valuable given the competitiveness of the brewing industry in Germany. 

Somewhat surprisingly, some brewers are actually doing well in the crisis. The Störtebeker brewery in Stralsund has seen a rise in sales.

“With this rise we have been able to compensate for the losses caused by the closure of the restaurant industry”, says the brewery’s spokesperson Elisa Raus. Offering their products online has also played a part in the brewery’s increased sales, and helped to win over new customers. 

Like many other brewers, Christoph Kumpf, manager of the Kaiser Brewery in Geislingen, Baden-Württemberg, faced another problem dealt by the pandemic.

“The persistent lockdown of the restaurant industry meant that a lot of our draught beer was approaching its sell-by date”.

In order to avoid having to pour it all down the drain, Kumpf had to get creative, using the beer to make gin, installing a ‘beer drive-thru’ in front of the brewery and selling any remaining product to local bakers.  

‘Beer-saver bread’

Six bakeries in the region are now producing ‘beer-saver bread’, for which they replace the water in the dough with beer. According to Kumpf, 1,500 liters of draught beer have been used so far to make over 3,000 loaves of bread.

An employee of the Kiene bakery holds a Bierretter bread in her hands. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

Through these forward-thinking approaches, the brewery has at least been earning back the cost of producing the beer. Other breweries across the country have come up with similar ideas and you can now be on the lookout for Altbierbrot (old beer bread) in Düsseldorf. 

Kumpf is pleased with the success of his campaign, but he stresses that his brewery cannot survive without restaurant sales and private events. “The support from the state has been a real lifeline, no doubt, but the crisis has simply lasted too long”. 

A further problem of the pandemic is that breweries have no money to invest in their futures. The Viechtach community brewery in the Bavarian forest had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to counter this, from which they raised €500,000 within a week, according to the brewery’s manager Markus Grüsser. 

Grüsser, who comes from the Cologne area, took over the brewery at the end of 2018, at which time the business had an investment backlog of fifteen years.

He now wants to use the money raised by crowdfunding to invest in new refrigeration systems and increase the brewery’s social media presence. 

According to the German Association of Brewers, effective media campaigns like those in Nuremberg and Viechtach can help to alleviate the damage for their own individual brewing companies, but are not representative of the situation facing the majority of breweries. 

“What we are talking about here are a few exceptions”, says Holger Eichele, the association’s spokesperson.

The union’s surveys have shown that the future of one in four brewing companies in Germany is under threat. 

READ ALSO: ‘We thought we’d be closed for a month’: How Berlin’s bars are surviving the coronavirus shutdown

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