Thursday, March 21, 2013

German Beer: Past, Present, and Future (Part 1)

"We can better conquer Germania with beer than with weaponry." These choice words from Roman historian Tacitus in the 1st century give an indication of just how far back in time the Germans' love for beer reaches. In the many generations and centuries following, beer remained an irreplaceable staple in Germanic society – indeed, as basic as food itself – and still today, it's impossible to think about Germany without thinking about its beloved Volksnahrungsmittel (literally "people's food"). Here, I take a look at beer's long history in "Germania", its roots in the culture of the populace, but also at the beverage's present and possible future(s) – in two parts. The second half will include some first-hand input from the owner of a Berlin beer shop called Hopfen und Malz that's breaking the city's Späti (late-night convenience store) mold. I'll also examine what I think has to happen for Berlin and Germany to best cultivate its rich beer history in the coming years and decades. The world of beer is changing again – as it always has – and I think Germany would do well to ride the wave.

The Ancient Roots of Beer Brewing

Hugubert enjoying some swill from the horn.
(Photo: Ormsheim Re-enactment Group)
The history of beer goes much further back than the Germanic tribes of Central Europe. Many centuries before Aldegund and Hugubert were brandishing battle axes and sculling beers out of animal horns in the longhouse, the Sumerians, Egyptians and Chinese sipped a very chunky version of the drink through filtered straws and made from a variety of grains. In fact, a recent New York Times article "How beer gave us civilization" claims that as early as 10,000 years ago, beer – and not bread – may have actually been the first product rendered from cultivated wheat. The author goes on to claim that beer, and the light intoxication it brought on (early beer had quite a bit less alcohol than today's brews), was likely a key step on man's road toward complex societies and innovation. In a sense, the author claims that beer acted as a sort of social "lubricant" for humans, allowing them to get beyond their basest animal instincts and societal restraints. I have to say I'm a bit skeptical that beer was a necessary prerequisite for novel human creativity, not to mention the fact that alcohol also probably played a pretty hefty role in ramping up interpersonal aggression. But there is no doubt that beer has played a fundamental role in a host of world cultures – none more, of course, than the Germans.

Swiss cloister St. Gall brewed
three different beers in 820 AD.
At the risk of seeming presumptuous or misogynistic, I think most of us today would identify beer brewing as a masculine enterprise; however, the production of beer was in fact a household duty in early Germania, and therefore a woman's job. The brew bore little resemblance to the drink we know and love today; it was also chunky, sour, and probably had less than 3% alcohol, so you'd have to choke down a half dozen pints of the swill if you wanted to get your medieval buzz on. Beer was the drink of choice – or rather, the drink of necessity – in all of the areas of Europe where grapes could not be cultivated, and this beer/wine division remains pretty robust today; try a beer that's actually brewed in 'winophilic' Spain, Italy or Greece and you'll believe me. The big advantage with beer in the Dark and Middle Ages was that, aside from it's wonderful intoxicating properties, the water had to be boiled and was therefore guaranteed to be safe to drink.

The Tipsy Monks

Just as literacy, scientific knowledge, and wealth were centered around the cloisters and monasteries dotting the European landscape, the business of brewing was mainly the domain of the monks of medieval Germany and Europe. Some of the oldest continuously operating breweries in Europe are in abbeys and cloisters. Beer was also a convenient work-around for monks during those pesky fasting periods; because beer was a liquid, monks could still consume it during this time. The way I see it, it wasn't all that bad being a monk during this time, at least compared to the poor sots outside the monastery walls: stable food supply, comfortable and airy robes with optional hood for chilly nights, and although the church made you fast for a while, it actually meant you got to tie one on on an otherwise empty stomach.

One of the earliest proper breweries we have on record is the St. Gall brewery located in modern Switzerland, and it gives us a tantalizing description of its brewing complex that confirms the above. What's fascinating about the St. Gall brewery is that it produced three different grades of beer: prima melior for the monks, secunda for lay brothers, and tertia for pilgrims, beggars, etc. (for more detail see Ian Hornsey's History of Beer and Brewing). Now, the details of exactly how these brews were crafted isn't explicitly laid out in the description, and some even dispute that three distinct beers were produced, but as far as I've read, the general consensus is that they comprised three levels of decreasing quality, where some of the raw materials (malt, hops, etc.) from the previous "level" would be reused to make the inferior brews. Imagine brewing three pots of coffee using the same grounds each time – in a cruel ironic twist, it was the poor and destitute that were given the weakest and sourest brew, thus hindering their ability to drown their collective sorrows. Viewing St. Gall from a more global perspective, Klosterbrauen ("abbey ales") perhaps represent the first clear evidence of top-down control of beer and brewing, and as we shall see, this system of controlling production and distribution continues through to the present day.

German Stadt- and Hofbräuhäuser

The German Purity Law of 1516
Eventually, the populace and nobility noticed that they were being shut out of a lucrative business; as a result, myriad Stadt- and Hofbräuhäuser (city and court breweries) were established, in effect democratizing the beer-making process. Sounds great on the surface, but this development also led to a rapid decline in beer quality. Many producers began using strong spices and herbs such as stinging nettles, cloves and juniper to mask poor taste, and materials such as soot – and even the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom of Alice in Wonderland fame – were used as preservatives. In addition, wheat and grain supplies were being increasingly depleted as brewers and bakers competed for often-scarce ingredients, especially wheat. These were the two main factors that led to the world-famous Reinheitsgebot of 1516 (German purity law), stating that only barley, water and hops could be used in the production of beer. To this day, it stands as the oldest continuously implemented food regulation (and I think it's fitting that this title belongs to the Germans).

An interesting consequence of the adoption of the at first only Bavarian Reinheitsgebot – especially after it was adopted by all of Germany upon the 1871 unification of Germany – was that, along with curbing poor and tainted products, it also reined in a lot of the variety in German beer and cleared the way for the pilsner beer to dominate the German beer market. The Pils is a bottom-fermenting lager that became possible and gained in popularity in the 19th century as refrigeration became more available. It also had the added advantage of being more transportable because of its higher hops content. Today, bottom-fermenters (mainly pilsner and export, the latter of which is a higher alcohol version of the former) account for over 73% of beer sales in Germany. Though dark beers, Franconian-style Helles, and others are gaining in popularity, you can basically say that Germany is a two-type beer market: the Pils, which is popular basically everywhere, and the Weizen, which is particularly popular in the south (see figure below).
Market shares of various beer types
(source: Aktion Gutes Bier)

A Decline in German Beer Culture?

This fact brings me to the article that actually spurred me to write these two posts: namely, a Slate article by Christian DeBenedetti entitled "Buzz kill: Why German Beer Culture is in Decline", which reports that overall German beer consumption is in decline for the first time in a very long time. DeBenedetti claims further that German beer culture is declining along with it. I wanted to know whether this was true, and if so, why it was happening. The author first cites the exodus of talented young German brewing school graduates to the United States that are looking to become part of the craft brew market boom there. I'll elaborate more on this in the following post, but the U.S. beer market is now in the midst of a pretty big renaissance; craft breweries are popping up left and right and offering a wide range of products of superior quality. Over the past several years, beer consumption in the U.S. has also stagnated, but craft breweries have shown strong growth and consistently chipped away at the market share of the big three (Anheuser-Busch InBev, Miller and Coors). In short, despite flagging overall consumption, U.S. beer culture is as lively as ever. Jumping back to Germany, DeBenedetti later cites the decline in the number of breweries in Germany, and Berlin in particular, as an indicator of Germany's beer culture slump. The city did once house over 700 local and regional brews, but now has a total of just 20 (19 of which are brew pubs or very small production). The author paints a decidedly dour picture for German beer culture, but given the depth of Germany's relationship with its Volksgetränk outlined above, I don't think the Germans need to fear the long-term decline of their beer culture. Indeed, I think what I've observed and heard confirms that German beer culture may well be in transition, but I don't think it's in decline.

Correction: der Staubsauger has informed me correctly that Miller and Coors are MillerCoors since 2007. I guess they couldn't just stand around idle while Anheuser Busch got even bigger by teaming up with InBev. So it's now the "Big 2".

(to be continued in part 2 of "German Beer: Past, Present, and Future")  


  1. The "Big Three" are actually just the big two these days. Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors. Oh well, the bigger they are...

    1. Thanks for the correction, Mr. Vacuum Cleaner!

  2. When I think about German beer, the first thing that pops into mind will be pale-straw colored German Pils. The casual beer drinker can be forgiven for thinking that German brewers exclusively produce the same stuff. But the German beer scene is vastly more complex than that. There is a huge range of lagers and ales brewed there. Here are ten examples that can give you a taste of the many beers of Germany.

  3. When I think about German beer, the first thing that pops into mind will be pale-straw colored German Pils. The casual beer drinker can be forgiven for thinking that German brewers exclusively produce the same stuff. But the German beer scene is vastly more complex than that. There is a huge range of lagers and ales brewed there. Here are ten examples that can give you a taste of the many beers of Germany.

    irene of Pinky's Plumbing