The only authority for all things beer…
With the Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law that just celebrated its 500-year anniversary, the decree stipulates that the only things that can be included in beer are hops, barley and water (yeast was later added to the list). It’s easy to mock German beer culture’s determination to stay firmly entrenched in their traditional “rut” of beer making, but their contribution to the world of beer can’t be overlooked. German brewers are arguably the best beer innovators around. These are the same people who introduced hops to beer in the 13th century, shaping the general flavor that Europe, and eventually the entire world, would come to associate with the drink. Germany launched the oldest continuously operational commercial brewery, Weihenstephan, one thousand years ago. Germans pioneered the techniques and equipment necessary for modern brewing. So, the country can be forgiven for sticking to their guns, even as the rest of the continent. But, alas, the inertia of the American craft movement is proving too massive for even the staunchest of traditionalists to avoid. And now a slow, yet determinedly seismic swing is underway, from Munich to Berlin. After informing beer-drinking sensibilities stateside for generations, German brewmasters are now taking cues from their New World counterparts.
With that being said, one of the most promisingly rebellious collaborations involve, you guessed it, Americans. They have contributed quite a bit to Berlin’s craft beer scene. For starters, my buddy and I joined his cousin and lovely wife to the new Stone Brewpub in Berlin. San Diego’s Stone Brewing, the ninth-largest craft brewer in America, beloved for its unique, flavorful, hop-forward beers, transformed a 43,000-square-foot gasworks complex into a sustainable brewhouse, farm to table restaurant and retail store, that opened just this year. Stone’s Berlin beer releases are now distributed throughout Europe particularly the Stone IPA, Stone Ruination Double IPA, Arrogant Bastard Ale, Stone Cali-Belgigue IPA and Stone Go To IPA.
“From my perspective, the American craft beer scene has a huge impact on our local beer scene,” concedes Marc Gallo, of Hopfmeister. Gallo was emboldened by a younger generation of German drinkers in their mid-20s to mid-30s, turning to flavor-forward expressions from across the pond; hop-heavy IPAs of San Diego, barrel-aged stouts of the midwest. The cultural shift, as is so often the case, was borne of the city. “I guess craft beer is an urban phenomenon,” he reasons, noting that his typical clientele are creative types, cooking, home-brewing, creating their own goods, keen to explore different beer styles and flavors.
Still, even among this crowd, a learning curve persists. “The Germans have to accustom themselves to the more intense beers, concerning bitterness and aromas,” Gallo explains, “That is why they start with medium-intense beers; door openers that connect them with their drinking [preferences].” As Gallo capitalizes off of migrating palates, he plunges into an exploding German marketplace that was nonexistent as recently as 2010. “Up until maybe a year and a half to two years ago, you still had to really search for the craft beer scene,” says Katharina Kurz, brewmaster for BRLO, a Berlin-based microbrewery. “Interestingly, the German press and media picked up the topic way earlier, whereas the restaurant and bar scene was, and is, still seriously lagging behind.”
In October of 2015, Bar Convent Berlin—Europe’s largest bar and beverage trade show—declared its craft beer section (Brew Berlin) to be the fastest growing segment of the annual event. The daring spirit of German beer’s new guard is represented in their dismissive attitude towards the Reinheitsgebot. “Today it’s heavily discussed by the craft beer scene as it limits German brewers working with various natural ingredients like fruits, grains, malts, lactose, herbs and spices,” explains Gallo. “This whole discussion would not have escalated that way if the American craft beer scene wasn’t there. So we are pretty thankful for that.”
Trailblazing is at the core of American identity. Our craft beer movement traces its impetus to the innovative brewers who weren’t afraid to tinker with sacrosanct Old World styles—styles that had been perfectly acceptable to Europeans for hundreds of years. Before this recent wave of adventurous ale-makers, the U.S. was perennially ridiculed for their bland beer approach. Not that long ago, as recently as the late 90s, Germans would have found it equally laughable that American beer would soon be influencing one of their proudest traditions.
If there’s a poster kid for America’s craft beer revolution, it’d be Southern California’s Stone, which was why I tried to make it a goal to visit the brewery with my buddy and his family. We made it and while the facility was more than beautiful along with plentiful beers on tap, I suffered my second hangover over the course of two weeks of my European trip (the first was after Oktoberfest in which I had a valid reason: jet lag as I flew in literally the day before in Zurich). :p
Bottom line: It used to be that American craft brewers took cues from Belgium, Britain, and Germany. Now the industry has come full circle, and breweries worldwide are looking to the U.S. beer scene for inspiration. On the other hands, American drinkers need to continue their respect and appreciation for European beers. Afterall, it is the Europeans, particularly the Belgians, Germans, and Czechs, that began the beer revolution as we know and embrace today.
I have mixed feelings about this whole thing — whether I’m traveling around America or the world, I hunt out local beer. Much as I skip chain restaurants, I want to taste what the natives have cooked up, how they’ve utilized indigenous ingredients and ingenuity to foster a unique beer culture. For instance, I don’t want to eat McDonald’s in Germany or Poland. Why would I want a Brooklyn Lager in Czech when I could have a cold, super fresh and frothy Pilsner Urquell for a dollar and fifty or a delicious Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier in a cavernous monastery cellar with friendly strangers sitting next to you telling stories of yesteryear as if you were one of their own?
So, pick your own revolution… served cold.