Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Duelling Fraternities: the German Studentenverbindung vs. the American Frat

German Burschen, or frat boys, doing some extremely
organized competitive drinking. (Wikipedia Commons)
At first glance, the German Studentenverbindung (or Burschenschaft) couldn't look any more different from the American Fraternity: they wear funny little caps with team colors, sing traditional patriotic songs, use Latin instead of Greek to invoke an air of "tradition," and in some cases perform awkward-looking and ritualistic fencing matches to affirm their membership in the group and "build character." However, a closer look reveals many of the same über-masculine, friend-purchasing, elitist, nepotistic and binge-drinking characteristics that have made fraternities and Verbindungen the object of criticism and curiosity in both the U.S. and Germany. Though they perhaps don't represent mainstream college culture in Germany the way frats arguably still do in the U.S., the Burschenschaft still offers an interesting window into how young Germans continue to try to express "tradition" and find membership in adult society and the working world. This is how I experienced it first hand, as an outsider looking in...

I knew next to nothing about the Studentenverbindung when a German friend invited me and my American buddy to our first event on a cool, grey evening in the former East Germany. As we entered the surprisingly tidy house, we realized we were in for something a little bit different from the typical American frat party. First of all, there were only males present, and all active members either wore a little cap with house colors and/or a monochromatic polo sweater with a house sash. This stood in direct contrast to my experiences at American frat parties, where I was greeted by scantily clad females, ear-splitting hip-hop and sticky floors. Everyone was immaculately clean-shaven, Haupthaar neatly gelled and often slicked back a la the formerly-esteemed Herr Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Rimless rectangular glasses of course also abounded. After meeting a few Füchse - the moniker given to the newest uninitiated members of the house - I noticed that many of these younger members seemed to have bandages over their ears or on their foreheads. Though I had heard through the grapevine about the Schlagende Verbindung (literally "battling fraternity" or "hitting fraternity") and their penchant for fencing, I hadn't realized that the point was to wear real injuries as a badge of honor to mark your initiation into the group. These Mensuren, as they are called, are also supposed to augment your maturity, self-assurance, and bravery, as this Hamburger Abendblatt article quite aptly describes. Before the battle ensues, though, first a brief excursus back into German frat history...
I wouldn't call it "fencing" so much as "waving a blade around
like a flyswatter until you or your opponent's ear is bleeding."
(Wikipedia Commons)

From Yesterday's "Liberal Ideals" to Today's Traditional "Parallelwelt"

The traditions of the German Studentenverbindung reaches back as far as the late Middle Ages for its styles and traditions; mottos of many Corps Verbindungen invoke dramatic, archaic, and sometimes misogynistic concepts like RitterlichkeitVaterland, and the "proper" traditional role of the woman. The German institution as such actually postdates the first Greek fraternities in the U.S., though: the Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded in Pennsylvania at the College of William and Mary in 1776, while the first "modern" Studendenverbindungen, according to the always-correct Wikipedia, appeared around the turn of the 19th century. The incorporation of fencing as a method of initiation, settling of scores, and proof of dedication came around 1850 or so. I was surprised to find out that the founding principles of the Verbindung and its members were actually quite liberal at that time: dedication to democratic ideals including equal voting rights (for men, of course), promoting political engagement and individual initiative, and duzen (use of the informal 'you') among all members regardless of age or social standing. Though the latter may sound insignificant in a modern Germany where use of Sie is limited to fewer and fewer situations, this practice was a major break from social norms of the time.

So these liberal ideals led to the Verbindungen coming to blows with the establishment at several key points throughout German history. The often-authoritarian Kaiserreich, and later the National Socialists, took issue with the independent streak of the fraternities, thus leading to the banning of fraternities during the 1940s, into the 1950s and beyond. The Nazis didn't like the fraternities' opposition to the Aryan Laws, and later, the Allied Powers forbade all clubs founded before 1945 for understandable reasons. This drove the student clubs into the underground for several decades. They never disappeared, though, and they've emerged in modern Germany as institutions who no longer look as liberal as they may have been at their inception. Now, they exist in a sort of tradition-obsessed Parallelwelt ("alternate reality"), as the above-mentioned Hamburger Abendblatt piece asserts.
A typical Wappen for a
German Studentenverbindung.

Scharfe Mensur, Traditionalist Tunes and the Notorious Bierjunge

...meanwhile, back to our Kneipe – which is what many of the organized parties are called – in present-day Leipzig, where we were beginning to learn a little more about Cherman frat life. Our curiosity about the fencing was finally sated when one of the senior Burschen granted us entry into a "Pauktraining" – or practice fencing session – where the "combatants" wear protective helmets over their entire head and neck in preparation for the real deal, the "Scharfe Mensur." In the latter, only the nose, neck and eyes are protected, leaving the scalp, forehead and ears exposed. Standing erect and still an arm's length apart, the two young males jerked into action, mechanically swinging the blades in an arc above their heads, clanging together about a dozen times in more or less the same spot each time. It was all over in less than 10 seconds, and neither had moved an inch in any direction. Standing one's ground is in fact a key part of the Mensur: if the combatant retreats even one step, they must complete a penalty session, or Strafpartie, for their lack of bravery.

A pristine forehead and set of ears ready
to prove his bravery.
The whole scene all seemed very serious to us visitors with all the protective equipment and build-up and whatnot, but we still found ourselves chuckling (inwardly) at the mechanistic nature of the "fencing" and the anticlimax of the whole thing. There didn't seem to be too much athleticism required, and dumb luck seemed to determine whether or not you came out with some mangled cartilage or a marked face. In the end we figured out that the marking bit was really the whole point of the thing: it's the "tattoo" of membership for Burschen, the sign that you've done the Mensur and purchased your way into the club. We would later learn that former members that become doctors are brought in for the Scharfe Mensur so that wounds sustained are treated promptly, but also so that a scar will be left behind.

So while my American friend and I further pondered the curious sporting spectacle we had just witnessed, we filed together with all the Füchse and Burschen into a narrow room containing a long, rectangular hardwood table and dark, wood-panelled walls. Lining those walls were a series of 18th and 19th-century maps of the German Empire, along with various old flags and fancy gilded crests of mysterious origin. It was all very impressive to us young American chaps. A silver-haired Alte Herr (or non-active senior member) then arose to speak. My German wasn't as strong then as it is today, but there were plenty of archaisms and invocations uttered about honor, loyalty, traditional German values and so on. There were also plenty of references to Reinheit (cleanliness), Ritterlichkeit (chivalry) and Vaterland (Fatherland); though quite general in nature, these concepts aren't exactly devoid of troublesome historical associations. But just as I had slipped off into a quiet peaceful place to ponder these things, my repose was broken as all members suddenly broke into song about Lusatia, Silesia and a bunch of other former German territories that now at least in part belong to the Czech Republic and Poland. This all but confirmed my suspicions that the modern Burschenschaft was now really more about traditionalism, conservatism and preserving "Old Germany," and less about supporting the liberal ideals it had originally espoused – that it truly does exist in a Parallelwelt as the Hamburger Abendblatt article suggested.
The American Bierjunge is comparatively chaotic and
unregulated. It is carried out by using the "Octabong".

With the sporting and singing portions of the evening concluded, all members dispersed to grease the proverbial social cogs with liquid libations, and engage in what I in hindsight like to call "formalized informal socializing." The beer began to flow freely, and I quickly realized that German frats don't differ so much from the Americans in their love, infatuation with fermented beverages. Junior members stood out as they proudly displayed their bandages and fresh blade wounds. I observed quietly, Beck's in hand, as the young 'uns were deliberately incorporated into the conversations of the older members. We two Americans, equally identifiable as foreign visitors, were also a curiosity for the Burschen. It wasn't long before we were introduced to the concept of the Bierjunge, the alcoholic counterpart to the Mensur described above. Conflicts or personal scores – real or manufactured – can also be settled at the frat with a little competitive drinking. The Germans were jumping at the opportunity to challenge the inexperienced North Americans in their midst.

In true German fashion, this institution has a complex and meticulously laid-out set of rules (see the Wikipedia page for the complete and convoluted rules list). I was confused at first when a member I hadn't even met yet approached me and rattled off some prescribed phrase to challenge me to one of these so-called Bierjungen. After a few awkward moments of silence and me giving this guy a very confused look, an onlooker explained to me that I had to respond with some other phrase to accept the challenge. Next, an Unparteiische (disinterested party) would preside over the duel, rattle off some more prescribed phrases and announce the start of the duel and judge who won the race. There are obviously rules in place to break the tie as well: residual beer left in the glass or spilled onto the duellist's clothing or the floor are measured by the Unparteiische. In the end, I lost my first Bierjunge, but I'm proud to say the American upstarts swept the following five. My companion even vanquished their 'ringer' – a 6-foot-6, 250 pound beast of a man – decisively. We may not have proven our bravery in the Mensur, but at least our ears were intact and we had a decent buzz.

By the end of the evening we had learned a whole lot about how fraternities in Germany work, and I think the most striking thing I realized once I had time to step back and see the big picture is that the German Verbindung and the American fraternity have uncanny similarities in their cultures, events, and behaviors; but they also differ in very specific ways that reflect the countries' respective national characters. Below are four big ways in which German and American frats are simultaneously alike and different:

-- while the Germans hark back on the Middle Ages and Latin symbolism to justify their rites, the Americans paste Greek letters on their houses but retain few of the rites and practices of centuries past

-- while the Americans are competitive drinking among the complete chaos of the beer pong and flip-cup tables, the Germans are formally initiating, performing, and assessing their competitive drinking in the form of the Bierjunge

-- while the German fraternities are singing about more chivalrous times and many now-ceded German territories in wood-panelled rooms, the Americans are belting out profane chants and fight songs at a football stadium

-- while new German members are undergoing the meticulous process of initiation via Pauktraining and eventually a series of Mensuren which often results in members' permanent 'marking', the Americans are undergoing any number of disgusting and often dangerous initiation rites that I thankfully know very little about

All of these points aside, the two institutions remain 100% congruous in at least one respect as far as I can see: they both make use of oaths of loyalty and lifetime membership to exploit advantageous relationships in the academic and working worlds. This is really the true essence of the international fraternity; if you're headed for college, you (or your parents) have some cash to spare, and you're willing to endure some mildly to seriously painful initiation rites, then the German/American fraternity is the place for you.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Germans are Coming! Mallorca

Intrepid Balearic Island traveler Greg Gottsacker breaking
the all-inclusive mold. Photo: G. Gottsacker.
Though the Chinese recently dethroned the Germans as top cumulative spenders on tourism, they remain the top per capita spenders on the planet when it comes to travel. In true German fashion, their vacations also tend to be extremely organized, and often pre-packaged. So with 2013's Urlaubsaison in full swing, there is no better time for us to go on a blog-cation and take a journey to perhaps the most Cherman place outside of central Europe: Mallorca and the Balearic Islands (they even have a site-specific newspaper called Mallorca Zeitung!). As much as I wanted to write an assumption and stereotype-filled post based solely on second-hand experiences and hearsay, I decided it would be a much wiser (and funnier) idea to invite the first guest writer to All Sinks Cherman. The esteemed Greg Gottsacker is a long-time friend, a fellow German enthusiast, and has been living and working in France for well over a half decade. He has also experienced first-hand the beauty – but also the Teutonic resortification – of Mallorca and the Balearics. So without further ado...

(enter stage right, Herr Gottsacker)

My first experience with Germany and its fascination with proximate travel destinations like the Balearic Islands came when I first arrived in Germany in February 1999. I had already studied German for 3 years in high school, and I turned up in Stuttgart at the age of 16 with a language tool box full of adjective endings, limited vocabulary and pretty decent grammar. My host family immediately began discussing the ensuing months of my stay and clearly stated that we needed to decide very quickly on our May holidays. They asked for my input and asked where I would like to go. The options all started with 'M' and were less than 1000 km away from each other as the crow flies. They were Mallorca, Minorca, or Morocco. As if a 16 year old from the States knew any of these? Without sounding too overly stereotypical and like a naïve American, I think I was able to figure out that Morocco was a country of some kind in Africa, but that Spain had mini-holiday colonies planted in the Mediterranean...I was frantically looking at a map. It is honestly not every day that Ami teens are planning two-week holidays in exotic places, or that we are even aware of Spanish islands. Spain is like Mexico right? “Greg, you don’t know Mallorca?? – it is ze 17th state of Chermany!” joked my host brother. It’s funny how you can study German language and culture in a classroom in Wisconsin for three years, but you lack the cultural reference points that are ever so pertinent to becoming a functioning human in that host country. We opted for Morocco on this trip and spent two weeks driving around the desert in a coach bus with diarrhea, listening to our guide Mohamed speak flawless German to a pack of culture-hungry Swabians and Bavarians. Oh the imagery. Ever since that trip, I was determined to discover our other travel options in the Balearics.

That entire semester, I became fascinated by these not-so-mysterious Spanish islands. Further “Mallorca” cultural references spilled out during the course of the year. The release of the film “Ballermann 6” in 1997 continued to have its effects on the German nation, and no doubt on my classy demographic—the 17-year-old boy. Cheap booze, sun, bikinis, beach-party, and freedom were the eye-popping themes of the movie, not to mention a major critique of the German and allgemein – or mass – tourism boom of the Balearic Islands. Hordes of graduation groups flocked to Palma de Mallorca each year to celebrate their hard-earned Abi (high school graduation), and party one last time with the boys or schoolmates before the ambitious youth ran off to their obligatory Zivildienst or Military Service. However, it was not only high school seniors traveling for their class graduation trip, but young families, college students, people on package tours, and sport tourists that inundated the Spanish islands. The accessibility of the islands was and still is astonishing. Direct flights from Stuttgart to Palma, twice daily? (Think Milwaukee-Cancun-direct!) These images of party, party, party stayed in my mind for many years and it became, unfortunately, yet another stereotype that you can group in with Hasselhof, Bier, Lederhosen, and fancy Autos. Germans love Mallorca.

Germans awaiting their morning Animator to tell them what
activities they have to do. Photo: G. Gottsacker.
It is evident that Germans love to travel, and there certainly was a boom in the late 90s. I returned again to Germany in 2002 for another year of studies, and the destinations hadn’t changed dramatically. The proof was in the newspaper promotions, travel agency windows, and the then-growing Internet sites. The Balearics were still the #1 hot-spot, and the centerpiece of sub-cultural jokes and references of Bild-Zeitung-reading Germans going to “Spain” on holiday. My curiosity and desire for a week-long, sun-soaked German-Spanish jag continued to heighten. In fact it probably peaked as I was 20 years old, however that nasty cultural voice inside me told me to avoid Mallorca and engage in a more rounded and enlightening experience. I went to Amsterdam instead.

Finally, 13 years after finding out about Mallorca, I made it down there. Ultimately, I didn’t go down there with the “lads on tour” for a giant piss-up and the hopes of frivolity, but rather by myself with a desire for serenity. In 2011, I booked a 5-night, 6-day trip (hotel, flight, and transfers included) to Mallorca for 389 Euros. To be fair, I was neither in the heart of the party scene in Palma nor the famous beaches of Ballermann, but rather chose a quieter, northern bay called Alcudia. The hotel was still packed with Germans (and Brits), but the region was much more family-focused than the stereotype to which I had become accustomed. In fact, this hotel was probably filled with more Brits than Germans; however, I must note that every staff member’s first foreign language was German if they were not already German themselves. I had found some kind of compromise between the single inebriated party-life and the calm, organized family vacation. The peace and quiet was there if I needed it, yet there were bars and restaurants at a stone’s throw for social interaction. The bars and restaurants offered “English Breakfast, German Frühstück,” and several thousand menu items to satisfy any Anglo traveler. No Tapas here my friend: only burgers, pizza, nuggets, and pommes frites.

The hotel was even staffed with real live Germans. The Animators and organizers – tasked with doing all of the strenuous activity planning the Germans and Brits had paid good money to escape – were all German (see photo above). I decided not to partake in Pool-Aerobics taught daily by the sun-burnt animator Lydia from Köln, but managed to fill my days autonomously by exploring the northern coast and some of the interior villages. I even managed to golf 36 holes that week, all by myself in the hot Mallorca sun. I brushed up on my Spanish with a short-hand cook from Morocco (Spanish Morocco, so my French failed me here) while watching Barcelona and Madrid battle in 3 Classicos in one week. After all this exploring, I realized that Mallorca offers a lot more than the stereotype story shows its viewers. However, I was the hotel rebel, the guest who refused the breakfast buffets, open bar, and daily events organized by the staff animators. In fact, the only time I took full advantage of the hotel’s amenities was daily at about 8pm, when I hit the open bar for a full hour before picking up Lydia the sun-burnt animator to go to a British bar and meet Mohamed.

8 am poolside, just before the "Towel Drop"
So maybe I was not the standard guest at the hotel, taking advantage of every item detailed in the all-inclusive package. I mean, I already got a flight and hotel room for 389 Euros—can’t I splurge a bit and try some local cuisine and cross the threshold of the gates of Hotel Lagotel? There is indeed some comfort provided for the masses that wish to remain safe within the confines of Lagotel, however. The fact that you don’t even have to reflect each morning on what activities to undertake is already half the battle. Already at 8am you can see little zombie families lining up at the animator table as if to say: “Tell us what we have to do today.” This process seems automated and sans emotion. “Why don’t you just tell me what I am doing today?” I admit, I couldn’t refuse the 9am pistol shooting with the English dads (with pints of course).

8 am poolside: breakfast finished and the chaise
lounge safely reserved for a strenuous day of
German news in the shade. Photo: G. Gottsacker.
For those that wish to just lounge and read by the pool without leaving the hotel or…well moving, there is the now famous process which I call the “Towel Drop”. After observing Brits and Germans at this hotel in Mallorca and another in Ibiza, I can now empirically say that this phenomenon has its origins in the Germanic peoples. In order to reserve your chaise lounge poolside, hotel guests will actually skip the snooze on the alarm clock, go drop off their towels and Bild Zeitung on a chaise lounge, all before they go eat breakfast. I heard more than one argument “Nein, Ich war hier zuerst, schau mal meine Zeitung da, Handtuch ist da!” ("No, I was here first, look at the newspaper there, and my towel!").

After visiting Mallorca and Ibiza, it is obvious that these islands have been developed by German tourist developers. It is however more interesting to ask the question why the Germans, and why the Balearics? Why had not the French, the English, Dutch, or even the Spanish developed these islands? One particular argument is the fact the Germany has no colonies (or fewer comparatively to other said countries) to exploit. History students can attest to the fact that Germany was never a colonial powerhouse due largely to an undeveloped Navy in the 1800’s and a very consuming occupation with unifying its own nation.

The Indian Ocean is the Mediterranean Sea
of the future, says Herr Bismarck.
Also, the infrastructure in the airline industry of West Germany was ripe for export. Dozens of small, yet operational and busy airports litter Germany close to clusters of large populations with disposable income, for example Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Köln, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Bonn, München, Berlin, Basel. R.J. Buswell's "Mallorca and Tourism: History, Economy and Environment" traces this Germanification of the Balearics.

This might be oversimplistic; however, there is much truth to Germany being late to the colonial game. Bismarck was notorious for having little colonial drive and allowing other nations to occupy themselves “down there” in Africa and Asia while his idea of nation-building and reform remained internal within the geographic territory of a (finally) unified Germany. Other eco-political reasons behind the development of the Balearic Islands stems from the 1970s during the economic crisis that brought increasing oil prices, a weak stock market, and the death of El Generalisimo Franciso Franco in 1975. All of these factors shocked Spain with declining tourist numbers and some serious concerns about their English tourist investors, forcing hotels and travel agencies to hedge their risks and turn to West Germany as a second option. It wasn’t actually until the 1990s that German visitors actually surpassed the English in Mallorca.

Whatever German recipe worked in the Balaeric Islands seems to be working elsewhere as well. A newer, secondary wave of the German mass tourism formula has proven successful in Croatia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. (I have personally been to all). There are German speaking animators at all destinations to greet you and organize your day, as well as cheap booze and sun to help you forget the long, gray springs of the Ruhr. But if you decide to escape from Lagotel and explore on your own, you certainly won’t be disappointed in Mallorca or [insert destination here]. One important piece of advice: never trust clichés. One tirelessly repeated cliché 
These activities weren't on the Animators' lists, but they
were still enjoyable. Photos: G. Gottsacker.
about the “Ballermann 6” beach is that it is an exaggerated party on a concrete beach; a swirling meeting point for sun-burnt Lydias and Fabians to drown themselves in cheap booze and dance to David Guetta. Some of these aspects are true of course, but do not forget that Mallorca is attractive in its own right. I climbed a mountain, golfed, and learned Spanish from a Moroccan man all while being surrounded by fifteen years of presumptions and bias. So drop your towel on the beach, but make sure you do it before breakfast.

Story by Greg Gottsacker

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Leading You Down the Kleingarten Path

One of Berlin's many Kleingartenanlagen (allotment garden complex). You
might find peace and quiet, but only if you follow the myriad rules and
regulations! (Photo: Christoph Diepes)
She (or he) who seeks the quintessence of Germanic order and practicality, but also wishes to savor the flavors of its bureaucracy and bourgeois culture, need look no further than the over 1 million Kleingärten (allotment gardens; literally "small gardens"). They dot the landscapes of Germany's city outskirts, line large thoroughfares and stretch along the parcels of land abutting railroads and airports. Their history begins in the 19th century, and their use has evolved from beginnings as children's exercise areas, later became crucial vehicles of food production for the urban poor, and now mostly serve as mini weekend homes for older middle-class Germans looking for a weekend escape.

The history of the Kleingarten in Germany stretches back to the age of Industrialization in the 19th century. As rural populations flooded to burgeoning urban centers, newly bloated cityscapes housed increasingly poor, crowded and unhealthy citizens. Air pollution, malnutrition and poor working conditions were just a few of the factors contributing to the ample suffering of the German city dweller of the 1800s. Enter Dr. Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, who observed the deteriorating health of young Germans and proposed that the government set aside parcels of land as "green oases" where children could exercise, cultivate gardens, and generally profit from some time away from the soot and pollution of the cities.

A collection of Dr. Schreber's curious
anti-masturbatory exercise machines.
(Graphic: Wikipedia Commons)
This all seems very positive and well-intentioned from the Herr Doktor S. aus Leipzig, but beneath the surface was a much less benevolent philosophy: Schreber was also a big proponent of the strict repression of sexual desires. He vehemently opposed the idea of masturbation (not to speak of its frequent practice), and believed that his oases – in combination with a series of machines he had invented – could help "purge" the excess energy that he thought drove the urge to pleasure oneself, and thus (re)form the child into a productive, hard-working German citizen (see graphic). We probably shouldn't be surprised that his own unfortunate son ended up writing memoirs about his substantial psychological illnesses which, according to Sigmund Freud and several of his colleagues, stemmed from his father's draconian parenting style. Perhaps unsurprisingly, children outside of Schreber's domain went on masturbating at approximately the same rate they did before, and also showed less interest than he had intended in mindfully cultivating these "small gardens". Maybe they were too busy putting in their 80 hours a week in soot-filled factories.

So of course it ended up that adults were actually more interested in caring for the garden plots, at which point the so-called Schrebergarten developed into an important means of food security for the urban poor, perhaps the most useful and positive consequence of Schreber's master plan. Other urbanizing countries in Europe also developed some form of allotment gardening with this goal (London famously set aside allotments in the aftermath of World War II), but Germany led the pack then and now in terms of organization and prevalence of these plots.

Some 150 years later, today's Schrebergarten really has nothing to do with the health of German youth, and little to do with feeding the poor. In fact, the current average age of the Schrebergärtner sits at 60 years of age. Today, aside from providing the originally-intended escape from urban concrete jungles, the million-plus German Schrebergärten (70,000 of which can be found in Berlin) now serve in large part as an outlet for the well-known German penchant to over-organize, over-regulate, and over-tidy anything and everything they can get their Teutonic hands on. The typical plot consists of a small, immaculately stained wooden shelter, a nice little section of perfectly groomed lawn, a few lounge chairs of varying quality, and of course a garden with neatly arranged rows of vegetables and flowers. Weeds are nowhere to be found, as they are meticulously exterminated well before they are able to spread. File all of this under "irony" that Schreber's original plan for allotments to help purge children's sexual urges has now resulted in an outlet for old people to be super ordentlich and spießig (and we of course know nothing of their sexual urges).

Speaking of spießig, this concept is actually one of my favorite German words, and it is of those concepts that is nearly impossible to translate into English. "Bourgeois" is the most common translation but doesn't quite work, and "square," as in "be there or be square," isn't a very useful translation either, especially now that the 50s are over. In a way, the Kleingärtner might just be a living, breathing translation of the word spießig: the following video (in German) from the Deutsche Welle series "Die Wahrheit über Deutschland" ("The Truth about Germany") does an amazing job of investigating a typical German Kleingärtnerkolonie to give us a little taste of what spießig really means. A small dose of perfectionism, a spoonful of nerdiness, and a healthy swallow of being extremely tidy. This is spießig:

The particular Kolonie featured in the video has a 73-page booklet (!) of rules and regulations, including the 4-chapter, 22-legal-paragraph long Bundeskleingartengesetz. Lovely summer reading, I assure you (feel free to take my word for it). For the top three examples of Spießigkeit in the allotment gardens, skip forward to 2:35!

Our own little backyard Schrebergarten, complete with
improperly spaced veggies, not-so-straight crop rows and
an inadequate flower-to-vegetable ratio.
All of this is quite amusing, but the Schrebergarten is actually a real and practical way for modern city-dwellers to obtain some semblance of balance in their lives, grow healthy food, and also make very good use of land that would often otherwise lie vacant or unused (such as the area near train stations and tracks). We Americans have been reading articles for several years now about how urban gardens are booming in U.S. cities, but it still remains a niche activity reserved for hipsters and environmental activists who want to eat brown eggs and a whole lot of kale and Swiss chard. I think American city centers that have experienced urban decline and have large tracts of dilapidated and unused land – such as Detroit or Cleveland – could really benefit from a healthy dose of the aforementioned German regulation and land-use laws (perhaps 20 pages instead of 73). Vacant or degraded lots could be set aside for use as Kleingärten, with set lot prices much like they were in post-war Britain. They could even be used by inner city schools to introduce kids to foods that don't glow bright orange, contain mysterious animal parts or stay fresh on the shelf for upwards of a decade. The benefits would be many-fold: a happier, healthier populace, green gardens instead of scrap heaps, eroding buildings and weeds, and generally a more attractive cityscape.

Whether or not such a plan is a realistic undertaking in the U.S. is another question. For one, Americans as a rule aren't afforded nearly as much time off to spend working on a garden (nor would they necessarily spend it there if they had it!). I also think fast food and processed food culture is much more deeply seated in the States than in Germany. In the end though, we don't have to copy Germany's model exactly (in fact, I think we'd be well-advised not to). I think the simple idea of setting aside urban land for gardens is a no-brainer, especially in U.S. cities where that land is already lying fallow.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Solstice-to-Solstice with the Berlin Fernsehturm

Some would point to the Brandenburg Gate as the most prominent Wahrzeichen (emblem or symbol) of Berlin, but in the post-Berlin Wall period, I think more and more people would point to the fantastically pointy Fernsehturm – or TV tower. Love it or hate it (I love it), this icon of the DDR-Zeit reigns supreme over Berlin's otherwise-modest skyline; like nearly every aspect of Berlin's landscape, it has an interesting history that begins with a 300-million-dollar mistake about 20 miles to the southeast. I decided last December that a little Ode an den Fernsehturm was in order, and over the past six months I had the perfect office window to compose it.

Starting in mid-December, with the sun merely skirting the horizon over the course of a day, I decided to take a picture from the same spot in my office window each work day (with a barely-noticeable move one room to the east about halfway through) between 11:30 AM and noon – admittedly I did take a few shots up to an hour late when I was forgetful. As it turns out, this winter was also one of Berlin's (and Germany's) greyest on record, with a grand total of 67.5 hours of sun for the entire winter season. April got a lot sunnier, and those trees absolutely exploded with green at the first opportunity. I particularly like to watch the sun migrate upward over the course of the video as we pass through the equinox toward the summer solstice. I first loop through slowly, then again much more quickly, and finally I end with those precious few days of sun between December and late May. There are 95 photos in total, and the music is "Murs Beat" from RJD2. You can also find the video here on YouTube.
There's a strange beauty in the simplicity of
the Fernsehturm. Maybe it's more beautiful
because of all the hideousness surrounding it.

Das Fehlgeburt auf dem Müggelberg

There is a subtle irony in the story of how the Fernsehturm ended up being built in the center of Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin, and how it later became the icon of a modern and united Berlin. The DDR party leaders wanted to trumpet the architectural prowess and power of their Communist utopia, but also wanted to improve their miserable radio and television broadcasting reach (something something two birds, something something stones). They chose the highest point in East Berlin, the Müggelberg near the southeast corner of Groß-Berlin, so that their new tower would imposingly lord over the plains of Brandenburg and the plebs obediently working the sandy soil. At the same time, though, they wanted to bite their collective thumbs at the capitalist naysayers of the West. Alas, only after they had laid a 300 million dollar foundation did they think to consider whether the planned 160-meter spire might interfere with air traffic. Sure enough, it did. And it's a wonder they didn't think of it sooner given that Schönefeld Airport is well under 10 km away (as the plane flies) from Müggelberg. Apparently, foresight was about as abundant as luxury consumer goods in the DDR. So before anyone noticed, Walter Ulbricht and Co. dreamt up a much more grandiose plan...

A more typical, and greyer, view of the tower.
Berlin's Third City Center, and a Thumbed Nose to the West

The tower was to be placed at the center of Alexanderplatz, thus putting the finishing touch on the new center of East Berlin. As far as I'm aware, Berlin is the only world metropolis that has three distinct city centers pointing to three very distinct aspects of its history: the 800-odd-year-old city center in and around the Nikolaiviertel (which is now little more than a curiosity and secondary tourist destination), the center of the East at Alex, and the epicenter of West Berlin that was artificially established around Kurfürstendamm and the Gedächtniskirche. So Ulbricht's tower plans grew from 160 to over 300 meters, and they even threw in a rotating restaurant to impress the Muscovite Comrades during state visits. The West had the consumer mecca at the KaDeWe, but Ulbricht one-upped them with a massive silver ball that was visible to all Berliners, East and West. The game was far from over though, as the West soon thought it would have the last laugh: the Fernsehturm's architects formed the tower's sphere such that it reflected the sunlight perfectly into the sign of the cross, and it didn't take long before the more pious Westerners named it the Rache des Papstes ("the Pope's Revenge"), referencing the godlessness of the Eastern and Soviet regimes. Before Reagan single-handedly brought down the Wall with one simple turn of phrase in his famous speech, he jeered the East and their massive 'becrossed' sphere. Piety, however, was not destined to define the future Hauptstadt, though. Today, the Fernsehturm has become the symbol of a re-united, modern, increasingly cosmopolitan, and very much secular Berlin; in the end, the last laugh goes to the Fernsehturm itself, because it managed to transcend its builders, and later its detractors to represent a much better version of Berlin.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dubbing Trouble and the German Kino

Das Kino, Berlin style.
When I moved in Berlin for the first time in 2010, I met a guy who had set the lofty goal of visiting every Kino (movie theater) in Berlin at least once. An ambitious and time-intensive undertaking to say the least, given that there are no fewer than 275 movie theaters within the city limits (about 1 in 7 movie theaters in all of Germany is located in Berlin!). With this high number of theaters, along with the increasingly popular Berlinale Film Festival, the film business is alive and well in Berlin, and indeed in Germany at large.

I haven't had a chance to meet up with my Kino enthusiast acquaintance since 2010, so I have no idea whether he's on the home stretch or whether he's given up on his Kino-quest (if I remember correctly he was working on his 40s when I met him), but I have had the chance to poke my head into a few of Berlin's many interesting film houses myself. Being a major European capital, Berlin of course has the typical massive and sterile theaters located at Potsdamerplatz and the Sony Center. These 15-plus screen behemoths often host major premiers and shamelessly bombard you with up to 45 minutes (!) of advertisements. This might be the one rare case where Germany actually trumps the U.S. in unabashed consumer capitalism – though the U.S. has ads at movies as well, they've never exceeded 15-20 minutes in my experience. Apparently the ad men and women at the Cinemaxx think that everyone who watches 007 films is obsessed with cars as well, because they were hawking everything from Fiat 500s to Fords to Porsche 911s until we were almost ready to walk out and waste our 12,50 entry fee and purchase any kind of transportation vehicle that wasn't a car. The most painful thing of all, though, is that you can generally forget about seeing an American or non-German movie in Germany without subtitles or dubbing, unless of course you want to support one of these behemoth cinemas.

Despite appearances and the prominent signage
suggesting otherwise, this is in fact a Kino.
Hippies and History in Berlin's Small Kinos

So once you've developed the advanced skill – as I have – to resist the temptation to verbally abuse the distracting subtitles gracing the bottom of the screen at your favorite film, you can begin to discover the best side of Berlin's film scene: the host of small venues that have fewer than 100 seats (and often fewer than 50) and fewer than 5 screens – places where Hollywood blockbusters live peacefully next to art-house and independent films in an interesting and organic environment. I remember in particular one of my earlier experiences with Berlin's small movie theaters. We cycled down to the self-styled "oldest Kino in Germany," Moviemento in Neukölln, to see Gaspar Noe's Into the Void (which ultimately turned out to be about 2 hours too long and a tick heavy on the gratuitous porn scenes but that's beside the point). The foyer and ticket counter reminded me more of my grandma's living room than a movie theater, and the pierced, tattooed and moderately medicated cashier sold us our organic colas and Gummibärchen with a subdued smile. The screens aren't all that much bigger than the biggest flatscreens at your local electronics store, the plush 70's-style seats are bolted into carpeted concrete floors with a .003% grade, and I think my home speaker system just might be better than theirs. But I can say with full confidence that I enjoyed the experience far more than the impersonal, cavernous atmosphere at the commercial-happy Cinemaxx. You can find these little gems in virtually every district in Berlin if you're willing to wait a bit for the latest releases to come out. One of my other favorites is Central-Kinonestled into a grungy alley near the otherwise-posh Hackescher Markt.
The DDR's Kino International, lording over the pavement
desert that is Karl-Marx Allee.

For a more palpable sense of history, though, Kino International might be the most interesting theater in Germany for my money. It was the movie theater of the GDR that hosted all of the glorious premiers jenseits der Mauer (although one would imagine famous east-of-the-Iron-Curtain stars strutting along a red carpet to be particularly fitting at Kino International, I personally imagine a more spartan and egalitarian grey one). All of these interesting old theaters in Berlin – and their continued success – just confirm for me though that the newest, most advanced theater technology (I'm looking at you, disappointing 3D-tech) isn't necessarily what movie-goers are always looking for. These quirky spots offer much more of a movie experience.

Randy Marsh, video rental entrepreneur.
Death of a German Movie Salesman?

At first glance, the home movie experience also seems to be alive and well in Germany, or at least in Berlin. As far as I'm aware there is no equivalent to Netflix or Blockbuster's online service in Germany that is killing the brick-and-mortar establishments. I've also heard from many that torrents and illegal downloading is pretty strictly monitored on German networks.  As we strolled around the city, we also couldn't help but notice that Videotheke seemed to be on every corner and were often full of customers. This is starkly different from the U.S., where independent movie shops, Blockbusters, Hollywood Videos and Family Videos disappeared in a matter of months after online services and downloading exploded. Just ask Randy Marsh from Southpark: he bought a Blockbuster franchise in hopes of making it big, and instead promptly went insane while pacing the empty aisles in his rental shop. While Germany's shops seem to be hanging on a little longer than those in the States, a closer look at Berlin's video scene reveals that there really is only one major player (Video Center) in the city's rental market, and that the larger market is also experiencing an inexorable decline. In other words, I'm not looking to pull a Randy Marsh here in the Hauptstadt anytime soon.
Video rental is still hanging on – for now – in Berlin.

Rub-a-dub Dub, Dubbing is Rubbish

Though I've really enjoyed exploring some of these unique spots to see movies and am happy to see that rental shops are at least giving it the old college try at surviving, I don't view all aspects of the German Kino experience through rose-colored 3D glasses. The continuing scourge of movies (and television!) in Germany is Synchronisierung, or dubbing, whereby the original actors' voices are replaced with ill-fitting and vanilla German voice-overs. While I'm sure these are all very talented individuals, it is enormously frustrating to hear the same voices, accents, expressions applied to the vast variety of amazingly talented actors in world television and film. My latest scream of frustration came when watching the trailer for the latest Star Trek film, where the venerable Benedict Cumberbatch is reduced to an insipid Hochdeutsch (see video) that I swear I heard on the Simpsons at some point. I grew up thinking of dubbing as something of a joke, having been exposed to some of the classic kung fu films and their hilarious sound-video mismatches. However, when I saw my first television shows in Germany, I realized it was actually a serious way of watching foreign shows. In fact, most of the countries in central Europe – with the exception of the Netherlands and Scandanavia – still dub a large portion of their video entertainment, and Germany is king of them all.

Dubbing is a huge industry employing thousands, but the actual number of voice actors is surprisingly limited. The more prolific voices can be heard voicing a host of famous actors from all over the English-speaking world. For example, Gert Günther Hoffmann dubs Sean ConneryPaul NewmanRock HudsonLex Barker and William Shatner. Even more ridiculously, Thomas Danneberg plays Sylvester Stallone (American), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austrian-American), Dan Aykroyd (Canadian) and John Cleese (British). My immediate question was, what happens when two of these people happen to play in the same film, but fact is, I don't think people would necessarily even notice. Second thought is, how the hell do they choose the same guy to play the quintessentially American actor Paul Newman and the quintessentially Scottish actor Sean Connery?! John Cleese and Arnold Schwarzenegger, seriously?

I asked a German friend at one point how people can tolerate the mismatched mouth movements, poor translations and lack of variety in the voices. They replied that because they grew up with it, they barely even notice it. I've also met people who say they heard Bruce Willis' real voice and were quite disappointed because they had grown used to his German doppelgänger's voice. I'm no huge Bruce Willis fan, but it's all pretty sad, really. To boot, all this dubbing means that Germans always have to wait months before new releases make it to market. Seems like a lose-lose-lose-lose to me. Maybe I'm just being a selfish English native speaker by demanding less interference in my movie experience in a foreign country, but I think the case for subtitles over dubbing even for non-English-speaking Germans is a pretty strong one. The good news is that younger generations have had far more exposure to international languages and original versions of film and television via the Internet, so original versions (OV) and versions just with subtitles (Original mit Untertitel, OmU) are becoming more and more popular. Maybe those German-dubbed English language films will eventually be the jokes that dubbed kung fu movies have become in the U.S.

Update: Another topic that I consciously left out for brevity's sake – but had to tack on to the end here after stumbling across this great little movie blog – is the ridiculous translation and renaming of movies in the German market. I'll let the "Madmind" blog speak for itself, but basically, the Germans are obsessed with the "Title: this is a pointless phrase" movie title format. My favorite: American movie "Signs" becomes "Signs – Zeichen". In other words, "Signs – Signs" (!). Doing this in virtually every case results in some pretty solid (and tragic) comedy. Enjoy.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Spargelzeitgeist: the German Penchant for Seasonal Food and Drink

The sun is shining in Berlin, winter jackets are being stowed away, city park lawns will soon be trampled into dirt, and all that means it's Spargelzeit in Germany! I can still remember my very first Spargelzeit as if it were yesterday. As Spring sprang in Freiburg im Breisgau, I heard whispers of the beloved Spargelzeit among the public, and soon I started spotting small stands throughout the city selling bundles of the thick, phallic white stalks stacked precariously high on foldable tables. Then, I noticed that every restaurant in town that wasn't hawking Döner was making appetizers, main courses, soups – and yes, desserts – using what appeared at the time to me as unripe or poor quality asparagus that had been allowed to grow for far too long. As far as I was concerned, asparagus was green, the best ones having a very tender quality and being only about a half centimeter thick. How much I had to learn about the world of asparagus. This is the obsession that is Spargelzeit in Germany (which could be translated as "asparagus season", but I think "asparagus-time" better encompasses the child-like excitement surrounding it), and it turns out it's actually just one of many seasonal food and drink "events" in Germany throughout the year.

Aside from being a bit put off by this different brand of asparagus that's exceedingly rare in the States, and reportedly had to be peeled before consuming, I was flummoxed at the sheer enthusiasm the Germans had for the vegetable. Many even religiously adjust their schedules and eating habits in the Spring to maximize Spargel consumption, and I'd bet big money that there's an annual hollandaise bubble around late April-early May, as it is the Spargel sauce of choice. Many lands tout their scenic wine or beer routes, but I reckon few can say that have a designated Spargel-route; Delbrück in northeastern Germany can make this proud claim, and they advertise their veg-specific cycle tour route on the Internets with the slogan "Pure cycle and asparagus pleasure." If I loved white Spargel as much as I love cycling, this would be a dream come true for my inner hedonist...but I don't, so it really isn't (to boot, there is nary a hill in the region, rendering the cycling equally marginal). Although my home province of Berlin/Brandenburg doesn't have its own Asparagus Pleasure Route as far as I'm aware, it does have its own epicenter of asparagus production located in and around the town of Beelitz, just southeast of city limits. In other words, if you're in Berlin and your asparagus didn't come from Beelitz, you've been had.
After 50 total hours of sunshine all Winter, Spargelzeit finally
shines its light on Berlin.

For those hard-to-convince readers needing more evidence of just how serious (or rather, giddy) the Germans are about the mighty asparagus stalk, the Spargelzeit phenomenon has also reached into the realm of television: one of the longest-running and most popular series in Germany was and is the crime show Tatort, and the 2010 episode called Spargelzeit (if you love Tatort and Spargel and have an hour to burn, you can watch the whole episode on YouTube) racked up the highest ratings for a Tatort show in 13 years (about 10.5 million viewers and a 29% share!), which puts it high in the running for the most watched show Germany-wide.

In search of some sort of concrete reasons behind this Teuton-Vegetable love affair, I found some information at that points to the history of asparagus as a "luxury vegetable." Back in the day, it was almost exclusively available to the medieval rich and famous, and was therefore a rare treat for the humble plebs, who were drinking chunky-style beer and living in the otherwise-monotone culinary world north of the Alps. I think there could be something to this history playing a role on modern Spargel-eating habits, but I can think of two possible additional factors: first, Spargelzeit comes right at the glorious moment when the cold, grey winter of northern Germany gives way to blossoming flowers and trees and chirping birds. Asparagus, in other words, is just another happy indication that winter has come to a close. Second, and probably more importantly, I think Spargelzeit is really just the most popular example of the larger phenomenon of ingrained seasonal eating and drinking habits in Germany that emphasize the beginnings of a particular food or drink's harvesting season.

Erdbeerzeit is still the best Zeit of them all
as far as I'm concerned. (Photo: Hölker Verlag)
Case in point: On the heels of Spargelzeit comes Erdbeerzeit (Strawberry-time), and then as summer hits its peak (that is, if summer hits any kind of peak at all, which is far from a sure thing in Berlin lately), out come the Pfifferlinge for Pfifferlingszeit (chanterelle mushrooms), and of course any imaginable dish that involves mushroom cream sauce. In other words, lots of deliciousness. These seasonal events also stretch down to the southern reaches of the German-speaking world: When I first arrived in Styria, Austria, I quickly learned about Sturmzeit, which is centered around the grape harvest and the production of Sturm, a young and cloudy wine often drunk at the famous Heuriger (farm-to-table operations that serve meats, cheeses, wines, and vegetables that are all legally required to be produced on the premises). Along with producing prodigious hangovers, the drink represents a sort of a swan song for the friendly Fall weather in Austria. In the words of the Austrian, "Sturmzeit ist Herbstzeit!"

All of these Zeiten underline the much more prevalent tendency of Germans to eat seasonally. This tendency is part by choice, part out of habit, and part by general availability of produce. Any American who has lived in Germany or wandered into a German supermarket on vacation has probably noticed that the breadth of produce is far narrower than that found in its American counterparts (I've also read blogs complaining about the barren supermarkets of Germany). For many years in the U.S., I grew used to year-round strawberries, avocados, grapefruits and almost any other seasonal fare that was flown in from opposite hemispheres, so it took me a while to get used to the comparably sparse selection at the typical Rewe, Edeka and especially the increasingly numerous Bioläden (organic grocery stores). But when I got beyond this initial frustration, I realized that seasonal eating and the Germans' various food obsessions are actually one of my favorite aspects of German (and really, European) culture: it really is a wonderful way to enjoy the passing of the seasons and forces you to enjoy those foods even more when they're available and fresh. It also minimizes the shipping of food across hemispheres and oceans (see this article from the Local on this topic) or inefficient production in giant greenhouses. So enjoy your Spargel thoroughly (for now), and the strawberries will be here in no time flat.

Monday, April 15, 2013

German Beer: Past, Present and Future (Part 2)

Ludger Berges' Hopfen & Malz shop in Berlin-Wedding.
(Photo: Philip Husemann)
"Berlin was waiting for good beer" – this was shop owner Ludger Berges' reply upon being asked why he decided to open his Berlin-Wedding beer shop Hopfen & Malz in February 2012. Before exiting the pharmaceutical industry that was failing to float Berges proverbial boat, he began researching the German beer market and sifting out the best brews across the country (see Aktion Gutes Bier). Today, his shop carries about 300 different brews, and his selection mainly comes from within Germany, but he also stocks beers from the U.S., Belgium and a few other countries. I think the above quote from Mr. Berges – and the success of his shop – is symbolic of a nascent change going on in Berlin's (and maybe Germany's) beer world. I think it's also a development that has the potential to affect all stages of the life cycle of German beer – how it's produced, distributed, sold and consumed. Much like the United States during the mid-20th century, the German beer market has seen a consolidation and monopolization of the beer production, distribution and sales processes, resulting in less variety, less choice, and less quality in a country where beer is a cultural – and of course a nutritional – staple. The question: Can Germany reverse this development and rediscover the great variety that's always been present in its beer culture? And perhaps more importantly, how?  

The U.S. Beer Renaissance

I'd like to start by having a look at how America's beer world has changed, and is changing. The number of breweries in the U.S. steadily declined well into the 1980s as conglomerates swallowed up smaller brewers, which resulted in a boring beer "monoculture" – beer drinkers basically had the choice between regular or light lagers (Miller/Miller Lite; Bud/Bud Light; Coors/Coors Light, Busch/Busch Light etc.). A more apt description of this choice: high-calorie dishwater versus low-calorie dishwater. In the late 1970s, the number of breweries bottomed out at 89 nationwide, which had a number of fundamental effects on beer culture and business in the U.S., many of which persist today:

1. The business of brewing is only about the bottom line, and quality inevitably suffers:
For example, Anheuser-Busch InBev (A-B InBev) brews with cheaper grains (such as rice) to save money, and fewer or poor quality hops are used because the plant is expensive. Much more recently, A-B InBev has been fighting claims they've been watering down their beer to save money. The way I see it, it makes zero difference whether they watered their beer down or not; their beer still tastes like rubbish (or in the best case, nothing) to anyone who knows anything about beer, and it's because all they really care about is a better bottom line and a growing market share.

2. Brewing conglomerates move to control distribution and shelf space in stores:
The American brewery 'pinch' in the 70s, and the subsequent
explosion of microbrews. (Graphic: Brewer's Association)
This issue is crucial, and as we shall see, it's also crucial in Germany's beer market. As in any business, more market share means more control over the means of distribution, and it also means you can impose more pressure on the retailers to prominently display your product. In Beer Wars, a 2009 documentary about the beer business in the U.S., we learn about the so-called three-tier system in the U.S. (Brewers, Distributors, Retailers), which successfully helps to curb vertical integration, which allows the corporation to control all stages of production. But in doing so, the three-tier system actually encourages horizontal integration (acquisition of, and/or merging with competitors to form huge conglomerates). In short, the big boys can muscle out the runts by: a.) getting distributors to not deliver for the competitor, and b.) providing retailers with dozens of 'brands', thus occupying more and more shelf space (Check out this fantastic overview from the Washingtonian).

3. An ignorant consumer is a good consumer for the brewing juggernauts:
In creating a beer market where there is little difference between competitors' products, the battle is shifted away from the arena of product quality toward the marketing arena, and this is exactly where the big fellas want to fight their war (A-B InBev spent $1.42 billion in 2011). If consumers spend their lives in a market dominated by boring swill, they'll be less likely to notice or develop a taste for a higher quality product if it does manage to enter the market.

All the pesky little flies in AB-InBev's soup (Graphic:
Here's the good news: Americans are developing a taste for higher quality beers and a more diverse product; the result is more choice for the consumer, the emergence of American brewers as some of the best in the world, and a "democratization" of the beer-brewing market. As Herr Berges at Hopfen und Malz informed me, home-brewing was actually not even legal in the U.S. until Jimmy Carter legalized it in 1979 (it still isn't legal in Alabama, and will finally be legal in Mississippi as of this summer), and if you cast another glance up to the Brewer's Association chart, it's no coincidence that this legalization lines up nicely with the explosion of craft breweries after 1980. Today, there are over a million homebrewers in the U.S. and over a thousand homebrew clubs. In the past decade, new U.S. breweries have consistently competed at the World Beer Awards, and often won, against the "traditional" country of origin for a given beer type. Since 1980, over 2,000 new craft breweries have been established, and although the U.S. beer market overall is declining – a development that is now mirrored in Germany – craft breweries producing fewer than 700,000 L per year saw a robust 13% increase in sales (U.S. Brewer's Association). As shown in this NPR piece, they continue to chip away at their total share of the market. All stats aside, I think the development of the American beer market is part of a more general and growing movement of buying local, avoiding chains and conglomerates, and being more aware of the source of one's food and drink. Although craft brewers still only account for a small fraction of the overall market, they've succeeded in greatly widening the horizons of beer drinkers in the states and reminding people what beer can and should taste like.

(Update: I was unaware of this recent story from BBC about how the British beer scene has been influenced by America's craft beer boom.
A Similar Story in Germany – with a similar outcome?

When I sat down to talk with Hopfen und Malz owner Mr. Berges last month, I was curious if the state or development of the German beer market in any way resembled that of the U.S. I was vaguely aware of a similar consolidation of brewers in Germany (i.e. that Becks, Spaten and several other big German names had been snapped up by InBev back in the day, and German companies responded in kind), but I had no idea how similar the picture actually looked...

I was probably one hill-climb away from the
Schwarzer Keller in this photo.

Mr. Berges discovered the true variety of German beer in the same place I did: in the rolling hills of the east central region of Franken (Franconia). This area boasts the densest collection of breweries in the world, with nearly 300 of Germany's 1,400 or so breweries. Berges assured me when I listed the breweries we had visited on our beer/bike tour that we had missed the best place in all of Germany to drink a beer: the Schwarzer Keller in Weigelshofen. Most of Franconia's breweries are located in small towns, and are small-production Privatbrauereien with long histories. Helles, Dunkles, Kellerbier, and Rauchbier are the leading varieties in Franken. But Germany's beer diversity isn't just robust in Franconia: there are hundreds more small breweries from Bavaria in the south, to the Danish border in the north, where some of the world's best pilseners, Weizens, and Kölschs in the world are made. So why is it that so many of us beer-lovers – despite our appreciation for the superiority of the German Pils and Weizen – find ourselves growing bored in a country with so much good beer? Three words, according to Mr. Berges: "Distribution, distribution, distribution"...

Why German Beer is so Damned Cheap

Much like the U.S. companies, German brewing companies began swallowing up smaller breweries one by one in order to gain more market share. The largest brewery in Germany, the Radeberger Group, owns some 40 different brands and controls about 15% of the beer market by itself. A company called Brau Holdings International (BHI) and AB-InBev round out the top three. Though it's perhaps not as extreme as in the U.S. in the 1980s, the top 8 companies in Germany controlled 52% of the market in 2009 (see Aktion Gutes Bier).
Some of the names you'll see in Getränkeläden and Spätis.

But here's the real kicker: Germany doesn't have a three-tier system to stop these conglomerates from vertically integrating, and thus controlling all steps in the process. For example, the Radeberger Group brews the beer from its 35+ brands, distributes them, and then sells them in warehouse-like Getränkeläden or Märkte (drink stores – see also my earlier post "Into the Drink"). This kind of vertical and horizontal integration has the positive effect of reduced production and distribution costs, such that beer is quite a bit cheaper than most water in Germany. I always thought it was just because Germany likes beer more than a friend, but it's really all about capitalism: the conglomerates can produce, distribute and sell beer extremely cheaply while still profiting, and want to keep it cheap, but not too cheap (either legally, or illegally by means of price collusion) to maintain their dominance.  The end result, as Mr. Berges put it: "If you go to Getraenke Hoffmann (owned by Radeberger Group), they have 200 Getränkemärkte in Berlin and Brandenburg. And they all belong to this [Radeberger] Group. So if you go there and look at the variety, 50% comes from the same brewery. You do not see it because of all the different labels, the colors of the boxes, but it's all the same company...that is why people think it all tastes the same." The real clever bit on the part of the conglomerates was keeping all the regional labels they had swallowed up so that the vast majority of consumers would remain ignorant to the fact that all the variety is in fact illusory. I imagine most have no idea that their beloved local brand they grew up with has been bought out by a multinational corporation. In cities like Berlin, this means that the hundreds of small Spätis (convenience stores) can source all of their beer from two or three distributors (i.e. Radeberger, AB-InBev and BHI) and still offer what appears to be a wide selection of beers for rock-bottom prices. And the same goes for the supermarkets.

The Plight of the Beer-Lover's Beer Shop in Germany, and the Light at the End of the Tunnel

You'll have a clear sense of Germany's
beer variety at Hopfen und Malz. (Photo: Philip Husemann)
So because of all of this, as Mr. Berges explained, "Germans have only three major sources from which to buy beer: the Getränkemarkt, Supermarkt, and the Kiosk/Späti, and none of them focus on small-production brewers." This of course was the impetus for Berges' Hopfen und Malz, but unlike liquor stores in the States, he has no easy method of getting beer to his store. He had to laboriously establish personal contact with dozens of breweries and distributors one by one, and currently works with 30 (!) different distributors in order to maintain his current stock. He focuses only on the top-rated smaller suppliers and displays them clearly by beer type, the best of the best residing at eye level. It's a refreshing new way to experience and shop the Vielfalt (diversity) of German beers. But Berges doesn't just carry the traditional German beer types from Franconia and Bavaria: he also stocks the newest pilsners, porters, and yes, IPAs, APAs, and XPAs (!) from Germany's newest microbrews, which are popping up at an increasing rate all over Germany.

An IPA and a Märzen from Pax Bräu, one
of Germany's new promising microbrews.
(Photo: Philip Husemann)
So despite all of the aforementioned factors working against them, these new microbrews and brewpubs are beginning to breathe new life into the German beer market. Berlin now has 20 breweries and brew pubs, only 1 of which is large-production (unsurprisingly owned by Radeberger Group). Berges believes this number will grow to 30-40 in a few years, including the first American-owned brewery to open in 2013, called Vagabund-Brauerei. Founders Tom, Matt and David started as humble home-brewers, but are now crafting a set of ambitious beers in hopes of broadening German beer taste and bringing some much-needed variety to Berlin's beer market. It's interesting that the homebrewing craze that helped kick-start the U.S. microbrew market is not quite as prominent in Germany (Berges reckons there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 people who are homebrewing in Germany); one of my theories is that even the mass-produced pilseners are still top-quality products compared to the Buds and Millers of the U.S., so perhaps there was less impetus for exploration. But maybe it was also just that something that was long forbidden in the U.S. had suddenly become legal, so people went hog-wild on it.

In the end, it's clear to me that there are two big keys to Germany (re)discovering the quality and variety of it's brewers: until shop owners like Berges have a less burdensome method of stocking products from quality, small-production breweries, they will remain needles in the haystack of Spätis, Getränkemärkte, and Supermärkte. The big players will definitely fight this tooth and nail, but I think craft brewers in the States and the new ones cropping up in Germany have shown that if you brew it, they will come. However, I think the demand side might be even more important: The German consumer must wake up, smell the hops, and realize that they've been duped by the beer behemoths. Nobody expects the majority to drop everything and never buy an AB-InBev beer again, but some of the energy Germans put into buying organic foods can certainly be shifted over to more conscientious beer shopping. Hopefully they can also overcome their often rigidly traditional mindsets to explore some of the plethora of wonderful beer types that didn't originate in or near Germany. I, for one, am optimistic.
Germans are still serious about brewing:
give it a few years and Germany will also be
crafting top-notch pales. (Photo: P. Husemann)

(If you'd like to travel back in time to beer's past, have a look at Part 1. Also, another big thanks to Ludger Berges and Hopfen und Malz for his insight into this blog post. Also, if you're interested in getting updates on the newest promising pilsners, pale ales, and porters in Germany and beyond, the Hopfen und Malz Facebook feed is a great resource!)