Monday 27 August 2012

Meanwhile in German beer, it's 1971 all over again...

I'm curious – do you think of German beer as aspirational, or worthy of emulation? Or is Germany merely one of the places you go to when you feel like drinking a properly-made lager?

It's funny how things come together every now and then. Just recently I was chatting (on Twitter – O tempora o mores!) with Old Worthy brewer Nick Ravenhall about my experience of beer here in Germany, and in particular how little variety there is. More on that later – I've a fairly long article in the process of drafting – but his comment that it sounded “maybe like the UK 20 years ago” made me think.

I didn't reply straight away though, as I was wondering if 20 was the right number. Then today along came a blog post from Boak & Bailey in which they quote the April 1972 edition of the British consumer magazine Which? on keg beer:

“…none smelled very strongly in the glass — none was either unpleasant or very pleasant. As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg bitters had any very characteristic taste… we also carried out a standard laboratory test for hop-bitterness. These results confirmed how similar the keg beers were.”

It immediately reminded me of another article earlier this year, reporting on a German TV programme which openly said the unsayable: that German beer has become samey, is made to a (low) budget, and has been outclassed by the rest of the world.

Looks rather similar, doesn't it? So perhaps I was right to pause and reflect – and maybe the correct number was 40 years, not 20.

Of course in Britain what changed things was the appearance in 1971 of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, a single-issue pressure group which in its first decade was described as the “most successful consumer campaign in Europe”. These days it may have its foibles, but its influence has been world-wide – including the USA – and I'm absolutely certain that without CAMRA we not have the variety of beer that we have today.

Can something similar happen in Germany, 40 years on? One of the biggest oddities in European beer for me is the fact that Germany, almost alone among great beer-producing nations and unlike most of its neighbours, does not have an equivalent of CAMRA. Check the membership list of the European Beer Consumers' Union if you don't believe me.

So it might look as if the time is absolutely right for a German “Campaign for Interesting Beer”; sadly though I fear it is not quite that simple, for a bunch of reasons that I plan to return to in another article.

In the meantime though I welcome your thoughts, dear reader. German beer: worthy, or dull?


  1. The EBCU link doesn't work

    1. Thanks, bloody Blogger had bent all my carefully hand-coded links! now fixed, I hope,

  2. I've written extensively about this subject over the years. Have a look here:

    Look forward to seeing your views.

    1. Thanks, I think I'd read one or two of your Germany posts in the past, but not the whole lot! I see you've come to some of the same conclusions - brewpubs that produce just the regulation light and dark Pils, declining consumption, pub closures, a shift to cheaper beers mainly sold through supermarkets, a rise in alcopops and trouble related to drunkenness - and yet at the same time beer is still a very popular drink.

      The innate conservatism of many brewers and drinkers has its upside, in that as you say it cherishes tradition; sadly it all too easily runs straight into the sort of chauvinism that insists German is best, and no other beer is worth drinking, despite all the evidence.

  3. Depends where you go. There's plenty of good stuff and variety in Franconia. One of my favourite regions to go drinking in.

    1. True - but Franconia is not Germany, and even there you will need to change pubs for a choice of beer. When we visited Fässla there was precisely one draught beer available, across the road at Spezial there were two. (Mind you, having to do a pub crawl of Bamberg is such a hardship...)

      I was thinking something similar while reading Tandleman's blog praising the pubs of Cologne and Düsseldorf. Elsewhere in Germany things are different - more bars and restaurants as opposed to pubs, and less resistance to (or awareness of) real locally-made beer being replaced by cheaply-made corporate fizz.

      I hope I'm wrong. I hope there will be a backlash, demanding beer that tastes as it ought to. I guess I can live with a bit less variety if what's there is really good!

  4. The issue is that unless a micro brewery has its own pub, its beers won't be distributed much. Most restaurants and pubs have one pilsener and one hefe-weizen on offer - if they think of themselves as innovative they will offer beer cocktails rather than a range of different beer styles. There is also no such thing as matching beer styles and food (well, apart from Weisswurst and Weizen for breakfast). For a country loving its beer so much its a real shame to see that so little is expected of its flavour.