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A Craft Beer Wake-Up Call for Germany

Harris King, May 28, 2014 -   

In June of 2012, the German television channel ZDF produced a report on the state of German beer entitled “Hopfen und Malz verloren” (Hops and Malt lost). We here at Beergraphs have only recently been made aware of the show, and it is my pleasure (trying not to use Schadenfreude) to summarize it as we look to expand coverage of American craft beer within a global market.

What is fascinating about the two-year-old report is only once in the 30-minute show is an American IPA mentioned, and that only briefly and with little context. Instead the focus is on the most German of beer styles – Pilsner. That is, American brewers can beat German brewers at their own game, as well with newer exciting styles of beer that the Germans haven’t even thought of yet.

The lead scene as the show gets underway challenges the viewer with the question: “Wo gibt’s das beste Bier der Welt?” (Where is the best beer in the world). The next scene takes the viewer to San Diego for the 2012 World Beer Cup, where we quickly learn that German brewers are no longer taking home gold medals, even in such categories as Märzen, Weizen, Kölsch, Alt and, as mentioned above, Pilsner. The clear indication is that German beers have fallen behind, and the reasons for this outlined throughout the show are as follows:

  • The breweries haven’t kept up with changing tastes and no longer make exciting beers using new varieties of hops and other ingredients
  • German breweries have instead focused on low cost beer, but have failed to recognize the double meaning of “billig” or cheap.
  • There is a disconnect between taste and the desire for growth and profits.
  • German breweries are content to get by on reputation alone, but their complacency has been catching up to them.
  • Consolidation and price wars have led to many smaller breweries either going out of business or being bought up.
  • While the number of American breweries has exploded to over 2,000, Germany has seen the same number drop from 600 to 400 over the last 20 years.
  • German beer is brewed now to main stream tastes and there is very little left of regional differences.
  • The Germany purity law or Reinheitsgebot ultimately acts as a barricade to innovation, while at the same time having little influence on beer quality as is believed.

 

This ominous telling of the state of the German industry is then contrasted with Sierra Nevada on site in Chico, Ca, home to the 2010 Gold Medal Beer Cup winner for German-style pilsner. As the camera makes it way to the front door of the brewery, the viewer is asked to ponder the questions of how a country with no Reinheitsgebot and without centuries of a brewing tradition can now be the world leader in brewing.

Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman explains that the Germans, despite their great heritage, haven’t been looking at the new trends in the industry, are just brewing what they have always brewed and haven’t bothered to look into new brewing techniques or varieties of hops.

Germany is further contrasted with and ultimately compared to the USA with a trip from Northern California to St. Louis, Mo. The reporter makes a quick stop at the front doors of Anheuser-Busch InBev to inform the viewer that not only is the most macro of macro beers home to Budweiser, but also owns such German breweries as Diebels, Spaten, Franziskaner, Löwenbräu und Beck’s.

Back in Germany, a taste test is undertaken using the five most popular German beers: Oettinger, Bitburger, Beck’s, Warsteiner and Krombacher. In the taste tests on the street with passer-bys, the result is that most cannot tell the beers apart. This is confirmed in the lab. All five have an original wort between 11.3 and 11.6 with a range of 26-32 in IBU. Sierra Nevada’s gold medal winning pilsner is then tested and clearly comes out on top with 12.2 and 42. The lab result is then confirmed by the German beer sommelier Sebastian Priller, who, with the flair usually reserved for wine enthusiasts, describes how his senses are being excited by the American creation.

Back in San Diego at the World Beer Cup, the viewer is confronted with the fact that no German breweries won gold medals in the most popular German beer categories. The 2012 winner for pilsner was Brio from Olgerdin Egill Skallagrimsson in Iceland.

Once again, the clear indication is that German breweries need to wake up or be left even further behind. And things potentially do look up in 2014. Germany took home both the gold and silver medals for German-Style pilsner. Schönramer Pils led the way with Alpirsbacher Pils following close behind.

Overall, the report was very informative and created a lot of online and social media debate within Germany. The focus was clearly on Germany’s largest breweries as they clearly dominate the market much like the American macros did up until only recently. However, there are increasing reports of smaller breweries disrupting the market in Germany, and it would have been nice to have seen one or two of those examples presented in the 30-minute show.

As an American who has spent 12 years of his adult life living in Germany, I learned how to be a beer drinker across the ocean. It has been a real eye opener for me to slowly but surely realize what many of you know, namely that we have the best beer in the world right now, and it is maybe not even close. Nonetheless, I lived for nine years in Bamberg, Germany, where many smaller breweries still exist in the town and the surrounding villages of Upper Franconia. Beer is important in Germany and despite the problems the country is facing due to an extremely mature market, I feel like their pride has been awoken. Germany’s beer consumers are more than likely in for a surprise in the coming years. 

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