Sunday 10 August 2014

When is a beer not a beer?

Earlier this year, Hamburg's Ratsherrn Brewery commissioned a new 4hl pilot brewery with the aim of expanding its ale range, under the stewardship of brewmaster Ian Pyle, who trained in Bavaria and the US. I recently tasted one of its fruits – Belgisches Wit, a Belgian Witbier flavoured with coriander, orange peel and camomile blossom.

It's only when you look closely that you realise there is something strikingly absent from the label: the word Bier. Instead it is a Brauspezialität, a Speciality Brew, with 'Witbier' appearing only in the fine print – Ian says this was actually a mistake, as it could make the label illegal.

Yes, this is a non-beer.

It feels almost Orwellian. Thanks to the modern-day version of a medieval law enacted to create a cartel for the megabrewers of the day, the presence of herbs means this cannot be called beer in Germany, unless the brewery goes through an appeal process to obtain an exemption.

(These exemptions are possible and I believe the modern law is more relaxed than the old one, especially for top-fermented beers, but I guess that it is too expensive and time-consuming for a one-off or low-volume product. For example, it took 10 years and a court case for Neuzeller Kloster to win the right to put Bier on the label of its historic sweetened Schwarzbier.)

The Belgisches Wit itself is very nice – lightly floral and spicy, over a refreshing fruity yet dry body. Apparently it has a good chance of graduating from the microbrewery to volume production on Ratsherrn's main 50hl plant.

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