Craft Beer More than Amber Nectar

A flavourful new taste
Photo (detail): © Brent Hofacker - Fotolia.com

For 500 years one of the world’s first traditional food ordinances has been defining beer culture in Germany. But this is changing - Craft Beer has boldly ventured onto the scene.

2016 marks the 500th birthday of what is quintessentially a German institution - the Reinheitsgebot. This was a law passed on April 23, 1516, to guarantee the purity of beer and it stipulated which things could go into the brewing of German beer and which things couldn’t. The only ingredients it actually allowed were water, barley and hops, and not any of the other plants and herbs that medieval brewers often added.

The old Reinheitsgebot gave way to today’s similarly stringent Provisional Beer Law, which also states what is permitted in German beer. The fact, however, that there are still a lot of brewers using the Reinheitsgebot for advertising purposes can be put down to the aura still emanating from the historic regulation. The terms Reinheit (purity) and Gebot (commandment) imply that German beer is pure beyond any shadow of a doubt and a source of national pride. While German brewers, over the centuries, comfortably acquiesced to the basic ingredients, approaches in other countries were more experimental, for example, in the USA, where, in the late 1970s, a movement emerged that took up the cause of redefining the beverage. Enthusiasts who had had enough of run-of-the-mill beers started brewing their first concoctions in their own cellars and later set up the first microbreweries. Their beer, Craft Beer, was characterized above all by its variety of flavours and the brewers’ urge to experiment and it was this that brought about some unusual creations containing such things as pumpkin, orange peel or chocolate.

The thirst for new and old tastes

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Craft Beer – the new brewers (Youtube.com)

A lot of people in the country where the Reinheitsgebot has become part of the national heritage do not, however, like to hear about such creations. This tradition, which goes back hundreds of years, sometimes obscures the fact that the beer market in Germany became more and more concentrated and that quite a lot of beers have disappeared due to the fact that many breweries were forced to close down.

Sebastian Sauer, a member of the younger generation of brewers, is one of the pioneers who is advocating a new beer culture in Germany. He grew up in the area of Aachen/Aix-la-Chapelle, near Belgium and Holland. Sebastian Sauer was fascinated by the diversity of beer tastes on the other side of the border, especially the beer-cafe culture in Belgium with its selection of glasses and beers that go with different dishes. Sauer, whose surname means sour in English, is, as his name implies, particularly impressed by beers with a sour taste. He began to delve deeper into the matter. He first founded a company for the distribution of specialty beers and then, with a few friends, finally started to brew himself. The main focus of his project entitled Freigeist Bierkultur (Free-Spirit Beer Culture) is, above all, on beer flavours that are dying out: “One of the reasons why I started to brew was that in 2009 the Berliner Weisse (Berlin wheat beer) brewery, one of the last two breweries that still produce beer in the traditional way, closed down. So then I said to myself – If all the others are stopping, then it’s about time I started,” said Sauer!

A grassroots movement emerges

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Reportage: Craft Beer in south-west Germany (Youtube.com)

The young brewer is a good example of the endeavours of the German Craft Beer Movement that for several years has been exploring the whole spectrum of beer flavours. These endeavours include experimenting with beer, taking up temporary work as an itinerant brewer in an established brewery to implement their own ideas or setting up their own breweries – all driven by the idea of creating a flavourful new taste or reviving old beers. In the Germany of bygone days there was a whole of variety of beers, for example, a sour beer that contained salt and coriander called Gose, and it is beers like this that these quirky Craft Beer brewers have succeeded in putting back on the market.

For these new beer enthusiasts the emphasis is on brewing-it-yourself in a circle of like-minded people, little value is placed on large gatherings like conventions. Craft Beer in Germany is a grassroots movement that defines itself not as part of the already existing beer infrastructure: “It's all about trying things out and devoting ourselves to taste, no matter how much it costs, and producing exactly what the big breweries do not produce”, says Sauer.

A new German beer culture

Sauer, however, feels that consumers also have an obligation: “In Germany, it is still too often the case that people drive an expensive car and then shop at a discount store.” Nevertheless a rethink has taken place in Germany over the last few years. When it comes to food, people these days put more and more value on the quality of raw ingredients, on whether the goods have been produced regionally and on having confidence in the manufacturer. This culture of epicurean enjoyment is slowly starting to pervade the realm of beer. Craft-Beer Festivals are held at regular intervals in the major cities of Germany and every year new brewers bring exciting beers onto the market.

Although German brewers of Craft Beer have so far not managed to revolutionise the market in such a big way as elsewhere, they have in fact had an impact beyond the domain of the trendy in-bars. The increased interest of consumers in the gustatory diversity of beer has most of all made the big breweries sit up and take notice and prompted them to include more unusual varieties in their program. In well-stocked supermarkets there are now more refrigerated display cases with exquisite beer specialties. Yet Craft Beer is still a niche product and Sebastian Sauer's beer is currently more readily available in New York than in Germany. The young beer-brewing specialist believes that specialty beers are facing a bright future in Germany. The reason – Craft Beer arouses people’s spirit of discovery, heightens their sense of taste, and thus creates an awareness of a cultural asset that has been around for centuries – be it with a Reinheitsgebot or not.
 

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