Brewer’s Corner: Beer On Demand, But Not in Germany

For nearly 500 years, the Reinheitsgebot — German Purity Laws — have established quality standards for beer, but does it hinder innovations in brewing? Locke McKenzie asks German beer makers and enthusiasts.

When one speaks of people fettered by the chains of society, beer brewers rarely come to mind. In the U.S., craft brewers have all the freedom in the world. They can brew outlandish beers, and consumers will greet each batch with curiosity, if not enthusiasm. In Germany things are different. No matter how badly they want to be free, the powers that be constantly tie the hands of brewers.

As Dick Cantwell, head brewer at Elysian Brewing Company, said, “Incredulity is the first response that I’ve gotten from Germans that I’ve told about my pumpkin beer.”

Within the brewing world, people see the German market as a major part of the canon, but never as a source of innovation. Born in 1516, the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot is the oldest attempt to regulate the quality of beer. Almost 500 years later it is still a symbol of quality assurance worldwide. Reinheitsgebot or death was the sort of mentality I had expected.

When I spoke to Thorsten Krüschel, head brewer at Hamburg’s Gröninger Brewhouse, he initially confirmed this belief. We began by discussing the major benefits of working at a small brewery.

“The smaller breweries put much more value on the final product. It is fresh in comparison to what the large conglomerates brew, and we are more flexible. Here, everything is possible.”

I then asked him what exactly that flexibility allowed, and he said, “We have the freedom to make everything a bit differently. We can, for example, think up a new recipe for our Maibock, and do it a bit differently each year.”

His idea of freedom seemed to be: do it differently, but still within the confines of tradition. It sounded like a prisoner saying he had more freedom than his cellmate because he could exercise in the front or back yard of the penitentiary. It wasn’t exactly, what I considered freedom, and I worried that Krüschel had fallen into some sort of blissful ignorance. Then he surprised me.

“It is, however, so that we lack innovation in some ways. Brewing is a bit confined due to the Reinheitsgebot.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought it was a sacrilege to criticize the Reinheitsgebot in Germany.

“One could also brew something different and simply not name it beer,” he said. Not only was he saying the Reinheitsgebot was confining, he was proposing that we disregard it altogether!

As I began to pursue this topic further, I realized that Krüschel is not alone. There is a relatively strong movement toward more progressive brewing techniques in Germany, and the heart of this revolution lies in the gasthaus breweries.

“Germany is a very traditional country in terms of beer and brewing,” said Lars Seyfrid, head of the Campaign for Good Beer in Germany. “The fight is less about working to demand something new, and more about getting rid of the large traditional breweries. Right now, we see a noticeable movement in which the large breweries are beginning to disappear and smaller gasthau breweries are developing.”

“It’s a countermovement,” said Krüschel, “The bigger and more impersonal the large breweries become, the better the chances for the small breweries to make contact with the beer drinkers.”

It is a grassroots campaign, where brewers from smaller breweries are working together to spread awareness with consumer organizations like the Campaign for Good Beer and small specialty stores. They offer tastings to expand the palettes of a pilsner-driven culture, and they put on brewery presentations to increase their influence. It is undeniably a start, but the movement is still very, very small.

“Our last tasting was quite big. Well, big for Germany,” said Esther Isaak de Schmidt Bohländer, owner of Bierland, a small specialty store. “We had 30 to 50 people come.”

The problem is that laws, infrastructure, and even consumers hinder development. The Reinheitsgebot, for one, is a strong force within the German brewing system. It is a long-standing tradition that has cultivated very good beer. At this point, even most progressives are torn when it comes to supporting the Reinheitsgebot or not.

“Concerning the Reinheitsgebot,” said Seyfrid, “it is a mark of quality. It means that the consumer does not need to think much about how the product is made.”

“It is a good constant that is also good for worldwide marketing,” said Krüschel.

Although it hinders innovation, it also establishes a certain levels of quality, which means, according to Seyfrid, that it’s worth keeping around. But what does this mean for beer brewing?

“Nothing,” Seyfrid says. “We don’t need to get rid of the Reinheitsgebot, because it hardly even exists anymore.”

Changes to the law over the last 500 years have allowed more and more exceptions into the system, and brewers can produce many different beers that do not fall under the original law.

“It’s a very complicated thing, because beer is taxed,” said Seyfrid. “It was a long debate, where the brewer said, ‘We cannot call our beer beer, but we still have to pay beer tax. What’s this about?’… So now it’s possible to produce a product similar to beer, but which according to the Reinheitsgebot is not beer, and call it beer regardless.”

This seemed like the key to freedom, but most brewers still seem to be keeping this key in their pockets rather than using it to unlock the door. I asked Seyfrid why people weren’t experimenting more. He told me that the brewers want to, but the owners of the brewery and the equipment do not.

“What is really highly developed here is the industry that caters to the breweries: the manufacturers of brewing equipment,” said Seyfrid. “Often times people come back from visits to the U.S. and say, ‘This is all very crafty and very quality oriented, but the gear that is used is just too un-automated, and not modern enough.’ They are completely surprised how a craft brewer in the U.S. works under such primitive conditions.”

When the brewing infrastructure itself is highly developed and expensive, the brewers can’t do anything without permission from their financiers.

“Those that control the money are often skeptical,” said Seyfrid.

Even with financial backing, it’s questionable whether the market would accept what the brewer produced. When I asked Krüschel how Germans see beer, he responded, “There is a lot of trust in the Reinheitsgebot.”

“That is the problem with a traditional brewing culture,” said Seyfrid.

Beer has been brewed the same way for a long time, the beer Germany produces is very good, and therefore people do not question it. Due to protectionist governmental policies, it is also relatively difficult to import beer from other countries.

“Our importer is in Berlin,” said Isaak de Schmidt-Bohländer, noting that Berlin is 3 hours away. “There are only about 6 or 7 importers Germany-wide.”

Isaak de Schmidt Bohländer owns a small specialty store that offers over a hundred different beers from all over the world.

“People come in and get overwhelmed. At the end of a discussion, many simply say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll just go get a Holsten.’” (Holsten is the local branch of the Carlsberg beer conglomerate.)

With all of these social strictures in place, is there hope for the future of German beer? Undoubtedly. First, there is nothing wrong with Germany’s traditional beers. Whereas U.S. brewers are concerned with experimentation, German brewers concentrate on perfection. It’s unlikely that anyone could outdo the Germans at brewing pilsner.

Second, not a single one of the people I spoke to about German beer culture was worried it would stagnate. I asked Krüschel if people would accept more experimental brews.

“There is a market for every product,” he said. “You just have to find it.”

“People come in and are initially skeptical,” said Isaak de Schmidt Bohländer, “but it’s all about taking baby steps.”

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.