Almost a year ago I wrote a little rant about the anachronism that is the German Beer Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot). This time, believe it or not, I spring into defense of German beer. Jason Wilson (@boozecolumnist on Twitter – please follow him) published an excellent article about what I would like to call americanocentric craft beer snobbery.
There seems to be a notion among American beer geeks that Germany’s beer culture is in steep decline after dwindling figures of beer consumption and the ongoing death of small breweries. The american craft and micro-brewery trend is usually proposed as a cure for the German Disease.
My own view about this situation is very much in line with Jason’s article. As long as Germans drink far more per capita than Americans, and as long as even the most oridinary German brews kick the US standard beers like Bud, Coors or Miller serious butt, German beer is still in good shape.
The decline in beer consumption is not a typical German phenonmenon. Other countries are suffering from it as well. Regarding the number of breweries, there still is a concentration process going on in the German beer market that in the US has happened decades before. Or to be more exact, this process is much slower in Germany than elsewhere.
So Aren’t There Any Problems With German Beer?
Yes there are. Especially the big conglomerates find it difficult to increase their market share. To a large extent this is due to the fact that mainstream beers (“Premium Pilsner” as the producers like to call them) have become so exchangeable that they only seem to differ by their labels and what kind of sports team they advertise with.
Are We Talking Craft or Industry?
The pessimism explained in Jason’s article is mainly hinted at the industrial side of German beer. Proposing to solve the problems of an industry by “turning craft” sounds strange to me. The per capita consumption is largley due to the output of the big shots in all countries. You won’t be able to raise that figure significantly with a “small is beautiful” approach.
And don’t forget that most of the German breweries are comparatively small enterprises with only a regional distribution. You may well call them “craft breweries”. Ever heard of Falterbräu in Drachselsried? It’s only known in a 20 mile radius but their “Helles” puts the competitors from Munich to shame. The reason why so many of these breweries have to close is that they either deliver sub-par quality or that they can’t cope with the price pressure put on them by the market leaders.
Is There Too Little Variety?
The American craft beer movment takes its spirit from the innumerable types of beers they are brewing. Can this approach help German breweries to survive?
The American beer culture is very different from Germany. Immigrants from many nations have brought their beer preferences with them, ultimately leading to the colourful craft beer scene that exists today. But yet the bulk of beer consumed is the cheap bland stuff pumped out by the Big Three.
It is often overlooked that Germany has always had a large variety of beers. Jason Wilson has pointed it out as well and cited Berliner Weisse, Rauchbier or Kölsch as examples. But I have to disagree strongly with him when he calls them “innovations”. Those types of beer have been around for many decades, if not centuries. In addition to that, there have been many microbreweries in Germany for decades, even back in a time when that concept was still virtually unknown in America.
Does Germany Need Elitist Beer?
So in Germany, the variety has always been there. And the consumption of non-mainstream beers is not restricted to a trendy minority. Kölsch and Alt are drunk in football stadiums and at private barbeque parties, Weissbier is enjoyed nationwide, thousands are celebrating “Starkbier” festivals in Bavaria. And generally the German beers are certainly not worse than the average American “craft” copies.
I do support the abolition of the Reinheitsgebot to allow German brewers to be even more creative. But German beer can certainly also survive by sticking to the traditional rules. The German beer heritage is rich enough to stand on its own feet. Do German breweries really need to copy Belgian trappist beers or imperial stouts to survive? Of course it is always nice to have a bigger choice, but such special beers will always be niche products.The problems of the German brewers can only be solved by finding a good balance between price, quality and variety.
As fascinating as the US craft brewing approach may look, it will always have an elitist touch. A factory worker going to the pub after a hard day’s work will not long for an expensive hibiscus flower infused IPA. He wants a refreshing and flavoursome pint that is good enough to make him want another and affordable enough to make him want yet another.
Yes, there is a place for geeks in this world. But don’t let them take it over.
Picture c/o Wikipedia