Unlike many European countries these days, Germany does not have a consumers’ organisation which looks after the interests of beer drinkers. This is astonishing for a country where beer is not only such an important drink, but also a vital part of the national psyche.
Here in the UK, the rights of beer drinkers are of course looked after by CAMRA, and following the obvious success of the campaign, similar organisations have sprung up in other parts of Europe. For example, the Netherlands has PINT, Belgium, has XYTHOS, Norway has NORØL and even a small country like Ireland now has its own consumer organisation in the form of Beoir representing the interests of its beer drinkers. So why hasn’t Germany?
The situation is partly historic; Germany was not united as a single nation under one flag until 1871, relatively late compared to most other European nation states. Before that it was a motley collection of independent states ranging from powerful Kingdoms such as Bavaria and Prussia, to much smaller principalities and city states. Then, just 75 years later, the country was again divided, this time into the two unequal halves of East and West Germany for over 40 years, following the end of the Second World War. Even today, the country has a strong federal structure, with the various states which make up the country having a fair degree of autonomy from central government. This situation has led to the market remaining very local, with few, until fairly recently that is, national players.
A federal structure consisting of large, complex and often highly diverse states has led to a highly localised German beer market which is inherently conservative in nature. The existence of the Reinheitsgebot hasn’t helped either. Described as the oldest provision still enforced to protect the consumer, Germany’s famous “Beer Purity Law” is almost 500 years old, having been enacted in 1516 by Duke William I V of Bavaria. Although designed to ensure consumers were only sold beer brewed from malted barley, hops, water and yeast, in more recent times the Reinheitsgebot has stifled experimentation by preventing other adjuncts and flavourings from being added to the beer.
Bavaria insisted on its application throughout Germany as a precondition of German unification in 1871, to prevent competition from beers brewed elsewhere with a wider range of ingredients. The move encountered strong resistance from brewers outside Bavaria. In the decades that followed unification, the Reinheitsgebot led to the extinction of many brewing traditions and local specialities, and the disappearance of dozens of non- compliant beers by restricting the ingredients allowed in beer. Brews such as North German spiced beer, cherry beer and Leipziger Gose completely vanished, and the German beer market became dominated by pilsener style beers. Only a few regional beer varieties, such as Kölner Kölsch or Düsseldorfer Altbier, survived its implementation.
Although there are of course, notable exceptions and centres of brewing excellence, many German breweries seem content to churn out variations on the same trio of Helles, Dunkles and Weiss Bier. This particularly applies to the new generation of brew-pubs which has sprung up in recent years. Part of the problem is that many of the larger brewers in particular seem to think that hop extract is the same as whole flower or pelleted hops. The original proponents of the Reinheitsgebot would not have recognised the syrupy gloop that is hop extract, and to claim that this material meets the strictures of the “Beer Purity Law” really is pushing the envelope. No one would question the technical ability of most German brewers, but the use of hop extracts really does remove much of the character from a beer, that would have been present had whole or pelleted hops been used instead. If you want to know what I am talking about, think back to Whitbread during the 1980’s. All their breweries, even the older, more traditional ones such as Fremlins, Flowers and Nimmo’s used hop extract; I remember being shown a tin of the stuff on a trip round the Fremlins brewery in Faversham, and thinking what were the company doing using this stuff?
Sticking with the same argument, if hop extract is ok under the Reinheitsgebot, then why not malt extract as well? You know what I am talking about here; that brown, sticky, syrup-like, almost resinous material which forms the basis of most home-brew kits, and produces beers that are appallingly bad. No self respecting brewer would dream of using this stuff, and yet many of them in the Federal Republic are quite happy to use hop extract!
There are encouraging signs that things are slowly changing, and that consumers in one of the world’s leading brewing nations are waking up to the fact there is a whole new world of beer beyond Germany and are increasingly keen to see some of these beers being produced on home turf. Because I am continuing my language studies, I receive various online German news items and updates, many of them beer-related. They all point to a growing awareness of craft beer, and of the many and varied beer styles available elsewhere. All this points to an exciting future for German drinkers, and means that beer hunters will soon have many new and interesting beers to seek out when they visit the Federal Republic.
Before ending, I need to return to the Reinheitsgebot for a moment, and pin my colours to the mast. So far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with Bavarian beers. I have enjoyed numerous holidays in this colourful and picturesque region of Germany, and love both the place and its beers. Even in the capital Munich, the products of the city’s large, industrial breweries are still pretty good, and when they are enjoyed in the setting of one of the city’s many beer gardens, they take on a quality all of their own. Having said that, beers from Munich’s two smaller breweries – Augustinerbräu and Hofbräu (both independently owned), stand head and shoulders above those of their larger neighbours, such as Paulaner, Spaten and Löwenbräu, (all now owned by multi-national corporations). Müncheners think so too, and it is no surprise that it is the latter conglomerates who are the most ardent users of hop extract in their beers.
I’ve also enjoyed excellent beer in Regensburg and, of course, that jewel in the brewing crown, Bamberg. The area of Franconia surrounding Bamberg contains the greatest density of breweries per square kilometre of anywhere in the world, with most towns and villages boasting at least one brewery. It is also home to some of the world’s finest beers – all brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, but using quality ingredients and time-honoured methods. (This just shows it can be done!). Many of these beers have a very limited distribution, meaning a trip to this unspoilt region of Germany is necessary to track them down and enjoy them in their native surroundings.
I am more than happy to do this (time and money not withstanding), and it seems that many visitors to Franconia, along with those lucky enough to abide there, feel the same. I have physical evidence of this in the form of a weighty tome I purchased on my recent visit to Forchheim. A 672 page, handsomely-illustrated, full-colour publication entitled FRANKENS BRAUEREIEN (und Brauereigästatten), gives details of all Franconia’s 230 odd breweries and forms an invaluable guide to anyone wishing to sample the beery delights of this rural region. The same two authors have also produced a sister guide to the region’s Bierkellers and Biergärten.
The existence of these guides proves that in Franconia at least, consumers as well as beer connoisseurs are starting to take much more of an interest in local beers. If this can happen in a very conservative area like Franconia, there is now every chance that similar guides to other parts of Germany will also prove successful. I have another publication, this time available in English as well as German, which is a guide to privately-owned brewery guest houses. Titled “Gerne Gast in Privaten Braugasthöfen und Hotels”. There are 69 establishments listed; all members of “The Private Brewing Inns and Hotels Association”. They are scattered throughout Germany, but with an obvious bias towards the southern half of the country, and there are even a handful of entries from Austria, Denmark and Switzerland.
Unlike the Franconian Brewery guide, which is produced by a couple of obvious beer enthusiasts, the latter publication is a trade one. However, whilst the emphasis is more on the hotel and restaurant side of things, there is still a strong beer thread running through the guide, especially as all the outlets featured brew their own beer on the premises, or very close by.
With guides, such as these, now readily available, and a growing appreciation of Germany’s rich brewing heritage, it hopefully won’t be too long before a Teutonic equivalent of CAMRA arrives on the scene. Then Germany can take it rightful place as a fully paid up member of the European Beer Consumers Union.