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")  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Atomkraft? Nein Danke. Energiewende? Ja bitte.

In June of 2011, Germany made perhaps the most significant and gutsy move made by any nation to date in order to boost renewable energy production and (eventually) reduce emissions. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster (which marked its 2-year anniversary just the other day – have a look at this amazing before/after photo series from the Atlantic), and under significant pressure from the German people and rival parties, Merkel's administration pledged to shut down all nuclear power plants in Germany by the year 2022. This move represents a huge step in the so-called Energiewende ("energy transition"), whereby all non-renewable energy sources will be phased out in favor of renewables. In Germany's case, the latter have consisted largely of photovoltaic and wind energy, which at their peak now account for more than 20% of Germany's total energy use. More than any other Western nation, Germany has acknowledged the energy problems ahead of us, and the world will certainly be watching closely as they try to tackle the challenges of rapidly ramping up renewable energy production. They'll also watch Germany take a big lead in implementing these technologies.

In the following, I'd like to take a look at how Germany got here, and why they in particular have stepped away from the status quo in this case. In doing so, I'm hoping to avoid the whole debate on the merits or weaknesses of nuclear power; instead, I'd like to focus on how German culture and politics led to these developments.

Monthly wind and solar power production in Germany
Although the Fukushima event was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, the recent political push toward the Energiewende is actually the end product of decades of activism going back to the 1970s, when Germany' aversion to nuclear power began. As the Wirtschaftswunder (the "economic miracle") rolled on in the West during the 50s and 60s, demand for power rose, and the relatively new technology offered by nuclear science filled the gap. But of course it wasn't long before the first (big) problems arose, and the German people rose up along with them. Back in those days, the spectres of nuclear power gone wrong were the Three Mile Island disaster in the U.S. and the Chernobyl explosion in the Soviet Union. If that didn't hit close enough to home for many Germans, then the proximity of planned nuclear waste storage facilities to people's towns and homes was enough to drum up popular support for the Anti-Atomkraft movement. To this day, this German movement against nuclear power has been stronger, more widespread, and more sustained than anywhere else in the world.

More importantly, however, the Anti-Atomkraft movement was part of a much broader and more fundamental environmentalist movement in Germany that continues to define the country's politics and the psyche of the populace to this day. Though I think many would agree that the environmentalist movement in the United States began much earlier, with conservationist pioneers such as Aldo Leopold (who, incidentally, was just profiled today on NPR) or looking even further back to John Muir, there isn't a shadow of a doubt that environmentalism in policy and practice is far more advanced in Germany than in the States today. There is a significant chunk of the U.S. populace that doesn't see any reason to change daily habits, conserve energy, or modify public energy policy in the face of environmental change.
Anti-Atomkraft protesters

Setting aside the obvious reasons for this development that are certainly rooted in our very different political systems, I think one of the big reasons for this disconnect in public opinion and behavior is the vast difference between the post-war worlds experienced by the Germans and Americans. Before the Wirtschaftswunder really had a chance to take hold in Germany – and of course during the latter part of World War II – an entire generation of Germans grew up in an environment of heavy rationing and shortages that left no other option besides adopting a lifestyle of Sparsamkeit (thriftiness). Nothing was wasted, everything used, reused, recycled and repaired. I think many also forget that much of this generation is still living today, and their offspring undoubtedly retain many of these characteristics in their daily lives simply because it's the way they were brought up.

By contrast, the U.S. came out of World War II as rich as ever, with a young population just beginning to realize the scale of vast natural resources at their fingertips. Combined with a pretty liberal capitalist/expansionist economic model, consumerism boomed, and the conservationist/environmentalist movement that had such strong roots in the U.S. fell into the background. Though books such as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" found a broad readership, a real movement never gained significant political traction. What the Germans call the Wegwerfgesellschaft (literally "throw-away culture") had been born, flourished, and spread out of the U.S. during this period. My favorite statistic in this vein is average per capita water consumption: although Germany is far from the being the best in the world, they still use about 1/3 the amount of water as the average American. Some of this is simple personal awareness of waste, but a lot of it is the availability of products such as water-saving toilets and fixtures, which have only just begun to be commonplace in the States.

Bringing this back to the issue of nuclear energy, the Energiewende and the environment, I think the social climate of the late 1960s and 70s in Germany provided the perfect environment for all of these factors to come together: the confluence of anti-consumerism, anti-materialism, the cult of growth and corresponding disregard for nature, and finally, the nuclear accidents, all served to fuel the movement that resulted in Germany's giant step forward in the Energiewende. I think that one of the most interesting aspects of the phase-out of nuclear in Germany is that it came from the Conservatives. Granted, Merkel's CDU party prior to Fukushima was singing a different tune about nuclear power, but in Germany (in contrast to the U.S.), conservatism is not automatically associated with a reduced interest in pursuing renewable energy. Furthermore, the flexibility and willingness of a politician to change a political standpoint based on relevant events is a place where the U.S. can learn a lot from the Germans.
Wutbürger protesting Stuttgart 21
(Wikipedia Commons)

One final point in connection with this issue is that public demonstration and public opinion are heeded in a much more real sense in Germany than in the states. It's not that protest is dead in the U.S. – quite the contrary, and on both sides of the political spectrum – both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are strong evidence that Americans are as actively political as ever. The problem is that politicians in the states don't answer to the public any more. The German word of the year in 2010, "Wutbürger" (angry citizen), was coined to describe people acting in response to controversial public projects and initiatives, and in many cases their actions have led to real change (see Stuttgart 21, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, and the Gorleben nuclear waste storage facility). Although these demonstrations can become tiresome at times, and their efficacy is far from perfect, they are a sign of a healthy democracy, where a real interface exists between public opinion and the actions of politicians.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Notes from the German Underground

The Chermans love David Hasslehoff...and Alf.
(Photo: Notes of Berlin)
There are many fascinating written genres in the German language, but one of the most fleeting and briefest also happens to be the most amusing and informative of them all: the Zettel, or Zettelbotschaft – in English, the posted note, announcement or sign. These little notes appear in countless different places ranging from an apartment building foyer to the walls of a shared flat to street lampposts. If you take a moment to consider their content, they actually say a lot about German culture, and I have come to discover that the Zettel serves as a rare outlet for an even rarer form of expression in Germany: sarcasm. I'd venture to say that I've read more sarcastic commentary in the several hundred notes I've seen than I've heard in my 15 or so years of German conversation. Needless to say, the sarcasm often comes in the form of passive-aggression, but that's beside the point.

Classic passive-aggression: "You know, that I know, that you
know, that I know, that you took the thing once again...
so cough it up!!" (Photo: Oonagh O'Hagan)
So without further ado, I'd like to take a little journey through Berlin's "World of Notes", paying particular attention to what they might tell us about German interpersonal interaction (notable in this case is the fact that the interaction is not face-to-face) but also just appreciating the hilarity of the subject matter and style of language. Like many other things in Berlin, the world of notes here has taken on a life of its own to become the most interesting and colorful in all of Germany. This reality is evident in the rising popularity of a newish website with the goal of spotting these fleeting little notes in the wild and recording them for posterity. It's called "Notes of Berlin" (also on my "All Links Cherman" list to the right), and has recently eclipsed 5 million page views; the site founder was also kind enough to let me use some of his content, so thanks to Notes of Berlin!

The classic WG kitchen note with art
accompaniment: "You swine! Clean up
your shit already!...(small print: "Thank you")
(Photo: Oonagh O'Hagen)

The WG  note:

The Wohngemeinschaft, or WG (shared flat), is fertile ground for posted notes. Place a group of 5-10 students or young people in close quarters with a shared kitchen area and you're bound to have some good old fashioned aggression; but often, this aggression is not expressed in person, either because the aggressor cannot find the aggressee at that moment, the aggressor wishes to express his/her thoughts to the whole Gemeinschaft (community) and is unable to arrange an all-hands-on-deck WG meeting on short notice, or because the author opts in this case for the 'passive-aggressive' note. Our first example (see photo) comes from a wonderful book by Oonagh O'Hagan called "Ich brauch den Schinken. Wirklich! – Ein Bilderbuch aus dem ganz normalen WG-Wahnsinn" (I need that ham. Really! – A picture book from the totally normal world of shared-flat insanity), and is a great example of the avoidance of face-to-face confrontation. I couldn't be more for it in this case, though, because I think we can all agree that a simple "Hey, can you give me that thing back, thanks" would have been a lot more boring than this. I'm also quite curious as to what "that thing" was, and why they couldn't just name it in the note. One wonders...

Any current or former WG resident also certainly knows the kitchen note, and they're very rarely about something positive. I didn't live in a WG when I studied abroad, but I remember seeing the exceedingly complex charts of scheduled tasks and regular duties to be done in the flat, with each resident neatly penciled in for each area in successive weeks. I also remember that those charts were almost never obeyed, and that conflict and hijinks ensued. The composer of example 2 (photo) has obviously taken some time to include artwork along with his/her aggression. After just two examples, it's also already patently clear that nearly all Zettel contain at least a few exclamation points, often in a row (which, incidentally, are exceedingly rare in other written genres of German). Another favorite of mine from O'Hagan's book: "Warum ist mein Bett so feucht?"

The passive-aggressive/formal hybrid note trying to catch the
mystery pooper. (Photo: Notes of Berlin)

The Mehrfamilienhaus note:

The Mehrfamilienhaus (apartment building) note is a relative of the WG note in that it also addresses issues of living together with others; but here, there is even more distance between the writer and the readership. They tend to be pretty harmless (like the carefully-penned one directed at us the other day announcing that somebody had mistakenly received our mail), but now and again you get an interesting one, like two months ago in our apartment, when a neatly handwritten note hung in the hallway with the following bulletin: "Would you all be so kind as to close the front door until it latches so people don't shit in our entryway? Thank you, your neighbors." Amazingly, not more than a month or so later on Notes of Berlin, I spotted the gem to the right: "Which dirty sow is crapping in the entryway? Where are we living, anyway? You dirty pig, clean it up! Just don't get caught while you're doing it...." And then there's this fantastic shift in style on the second sheet: "It would be very nice if the party responsible for the fecal matter lying in the hallway would promptly remove it. This is an imposition on the residents as well as the cleaners." I love this note because you can almost see the process the writer went through: first, the unbridled anger as the hallway stench still lingered in his/her nostrils; and then, as they had a little time to cool down a bit, they taped on the more measured, prudent response using immaculate and sober formal German. The two poles of German-note style captured in one example.

Another Zettel that shows some serious artistic dedication. Note again the use
of multiple exclamation points: "To the doormat-thief: This doormat only
costs 2.99 at the hardware store. Buy one for yourself!!!"
(Photo: Notes of Berlin)
Artistic flourishes can also be found in the apartment complex (after all, WGs are located within apartment complexes when they're not part of exclusive student housing). In this example, I don't hold out too much hope for the artist successfully reacquiring their pilfered doormat – after all, I don't know too many doormat thieves that are likely to return to the Tatort, much less heed the demands of a posted request for the return of the stolen goods. This aside, I'd like to recognize the courtesy of the composer in including the approximate purchase price of a new mat.

One last, and very concise, Mehrfamilienhaus favorite of mine that was posted next to a long, unsightly smear on the wall of the stairwell: "Bitte keine Nahrungsmittel gegen die Wand schmeißen" ("Please refrain from throwing food products against the wall").

Love the detail in the right-hand panel.

The "so-was-tut-man-nicht" note:

This particular Zettel species isn't defined by the place in which it's posted, but rather by its purpose. The "so-was-tut-man-nicht" note (or the "we-just-don't-do-that" note) makes a statement about appropriate behavior – and more importantly, it's about imploring others to follow suit. Being a culture where orderliness and stability is a highly valued thing, this is one of the most common types of Zettel in Germany, and of course in many cases these are properly manufactured signs, but they also exist in Zettel format. I think the first SWTMN note I encountered long ago during my first stay in Germany was the infamous "Bitte im Sitzen pinkeln" (Please potty while sitting) note, which in the ensuing years has become so popular that myriad commercially produced signs can now be purchased and posted (just google 'im sitzen pinkeln' and enjoy the ride). This behavioral nudge of course is necessitated by the ubiquitous German shelf toilet, which requires precision accuracy in the standing position to avoid unsightly spray on your clothes and all bathroom surfaces. This note is understandable enough I guess, though I personally don't feel the need to post a sign above our own trusty shelf toilet. I figure if my guests feel they've got sharpshooter aim, then have at it, and hopefully they'll be mortified enough to clean up their own mess in the event of a misfire (I'm beginning to reconsider my words even as I type, though, because precise aim and Party machen don't exactly go hand in hand). The Chermans don't risk this eventuality though.

In the restaurant sign on the right, the SWTMN takes aim at the widespread pet peeve of food photos in public. I love this one for a variety of reasons: first, 'instagrammen' as a verb. Verbing nouns is twice the fun in your second language as far as I'm concerned. Then of course there's the irony of the closing remark forbidding the instagramming of the sign itself. Admittedly, I don't know where the creator of this note came from, but if they are in fact German, this is about as good as German humor gets.
"Please don't instagram the food...or this note."
(Photo: Notes of Berlin)

My other favorite in this category is far too long to post a picture of on here, but it's a tome left near the mailboxes lamenting the fact that postal package traffic has increased exponentially of late because everyone shops on Amazon and the Net these days. A quick side note for context: if someone isn't around to receive their delivery, the package is usually delivered to a neighbor who's home. So clearly, this person works from home or doesn't work, and is constantly receiving and doling out packages to his/her neighbors. Though I sympathize to some extent with this person, I can't really imagine feeling the urge/need to post all of these thoughts in the hallway, much less wax philosophical about the evils of online shopping and my own personal hostility toward modernity.

So what's with all the notes?

To some extent, all cultures post hand-written announcements, notes, signs, etc., but in my experience, the German note is particularly prolific and a lot more interesting. More art, more creativity, and more exclamation points in more situations. When I sat down to think about it, it seemed to break one of my primary preconceptions of the Germans; namely, that they are quite direct and honest, often to a fault. In the case of the note, they seem to be eschewing face-to-face contact and directness in favor of the impersonal request or expression of disfavor. I think a German friend of mine put it best: "The Germans are direct, but they also tend to avoid face-to-face contact..." (think here about dead-silent U-Bahn cars and the utter lack of smiles or greetings among strangers on the street) " in this case, they avoid face-to-face contact to prevent conflict." In sum, they can fulfil their desire to express their innermost thoughts and preferences without all of the discomfort and possibility for intense argument and conflict that come with face-to-face interaction with strangers or semi-strangers. Maybe German directness applies primarily to friends and acquaintances?  Lately though, I think they also just enjoy getting a little creative and funny, even when they're angry. At least I like to think so.    
Notes of Berlin's 'note of the month' winner.