Sunday 24 February 2013

Guest beer in Germany

I've seen something rather rare in a German pub: a guest tap, by which I mean a tap allocated to guest beers. I'm keen on the idea of guest beers for two reasons: they contribute to a growing awareness of beer that could help stem the decline on German brewing, and because it reminds me of home, where a shifting range of beers is common.

It's in a new pub in Hamburg called Barley & Malt – so new that Google Maps doesn't know it, and still shows the address as being occupied by the cocktail bar that was the previous tenant. It's on mediaeval Deichstrasse, with its touristy shops and restaurants, not far from the Bundesbank and the historic Speicherstadt free-port with its bonded warehouses.

Although it's an Irish-themed pub, there is more than just Guinness on the bar. For the lager drinkers there is Pilsner Urquell, and for anyone missing their cider fix there is Stowford Press. For bitter drinkers there is Hövels Original – this delicious amber-brown bitter Altbier from Dortmund is quite widely available now in its unusual flip-top bottles, but I'd never had it on draught before.

And there is a fifth tap which has been allocated to guest beers – currently this means Grimbergen Dubbel from Belgium, and yes, that means only one of the five taps serves a German product. This is a tad unusual in my experience, though it's possible this is because I tend to avoid themed pubs... It might also be a sign that a lot of the clientèle is non-German, or at least Anglo/Celtophiles! Gastbier for Gastarbeiters?

The Grimbergen was served too cold, but once the chill had lifted it was rich and tasty, with a winey plummy nose and a fruity dry-sweet and tart body with notes of treacle toffee, green apples and faintly of strawberry. The very helpful manager said he still had a couple more kegs of it to sell, then he would put on something else – he added that he has no particular policy, it's a case of what his supplier can get him that's interesting. Sounds good!

It's a nice friendly pub too – pretty quiet when I arrived before 7pm, but heaving by 10pm – though the karaoke that started at 9 was at least partly responsible for this. And while it was loud, it was not oppressive, which was just as well as I was there for a meeting of the new Hamburg home brewers group, Hobbybrau Hamburg. Some of the others had brought samples or recent brews to share, and several of them were really very good.

Anyway, if you're in Hamburg and looking for something beyond than the regulation North German Pils, then Barley & Malt is well worth a try. There's food on offer too – bar snacks, plus pizzas and their even tastier tomato-less German cousins, Flammkuchen.Yum yum!
Part of Speicherstadt

Friday 15 February 2013

Royally confused, yet very drinkable

As I think I might have mentioned before, winter and seasonal beers are somewhat in vogue here in Germany. And also as mentioned, the multinational brewers aren't shy of spotting trends and jumping on them.

It was no surprise then to find the supermarkets selling a new weizenbock from AB-InBev, namely Franziskaner Royal Jahrgangsweissbier, or Annual Vintage Weissbier. Just to confuse things, it was labelled “Edition 2” - they also brewed a Royal Jahrgangsweissbier in 2011, but that one was a 5% blond hefeweizen and carried no edition number. Presumably the marketing guys failed to imagine that the brewers might want to do – shock, horror! - something different for next year.

A bit of fun ensued on Untappd, as I and a couple of others tried to unravel the strands in the support forum. Somehow the site had acquired three separate listings for Royal Jahrgangsweissbier – 2011, 2012 and Edition 2 – and to make it worse, each of them also had at least one rating for the 'other' version, put in by confused (or careless) drinkers.

Until recently I’d only tried the Edition 2 that was released late in 2012. However, I happened to be in Hol’Ab! a couple of weeks ago shopping for our trip to England, and I spotted a crate which had some of the tell-tale black foil caps as well as the red ones that were more familiar to me – this and the label colour make it easy enough to tell the two apart – once you know what to look for, of course, as the confused Untapprs had demonstrated.

So what are they like? To be honest, the first edition is fairly run-of-the-mill. Yes, it's a good Kristalweiss, but there is not a lot to mark it out from other good Kristals – and there's certainly nothing Royal about it.

The second edition is a different kettle of fish. Gone is the megabrewer mundanity and in is a spicy and tangy dark Weizenbock, somewhere between an amber and a dunkel. It certainly has a bit more character than the average Dunkelweiss – worth a try, I'd say.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Are Germans losing their taste for beer?

That's certainly the implication of recent statistics from the Federal Statistics Office here. They show a continued downward trend in production during 2012, as well as reporting that national consumption is now at its lowest since reunification. German breweries produced 96.5m hectolitres last year, down from 107.8m a decade ago.

People commenting on the news via The Local suggested a variety of reasons - health consciousness and neo-Puritanism perhaps, or a shift towards wine, or the limited variety of beers available compared with the US.

The news follows a report compiled by business students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school which suggests that “the German brewing industry is at a crossroads", and that unless something changes the country will continued to lose breweries - they cite numbers from the Bavarian Brewers Federation, which says that more than 230 breweries have closed since 2000, nearly 20% of the total.

How could this happen? The Wharton students rightly cite German brewers’ conservatism as part of the problem. Wedded to the Reinheitsgebot - a puffed-up piece of loophole-filled medieval law - most have done little to innovate, or indeed to actively seek export markets.

Along similar lines, they note that while Munich’s Oktoberfest is an important part of Germany’s beer culture, it is closed to 99% of Bavarian breweries - only six out of 600 are allowed to sell their beer there. They also mention that Oktoberfest has a less than favourable reputation among some locals, although they don’t seem to notice that this might be because it’s a festival of quantity, not variety - each tent might only have one or two draught beers to choose from.

So what’s to be done? The only thing on which some of The Local’s readers and the Wharton students agree is that there could be more variety and innovation - German beer is “good but boring”, as one of the former put it.

Not too surprisingly, the business students also suggest developing strong global brands and a corresponding export push. However, given that they note elsewhere how much of the industry is already in the hands of multinationals - including five of those six Oktoberfest brewers, by the way - and that there "may be over-capacity", it’s not clear to me how much that would benefit the real locals.

Oddly though, they fail to mention the role of the consumer and consumer groups in building awareness and interest, and also in combating Germany’s endemic price-sensitivity. This is a country which expects its beer to be both 'pure’ and cheap - as little as €1 or even €0.50 a litre in the supermarket (though €2/l is more typical). Sadly, low price also means it is often perceived as a low-end drink - hence the Oktoberfest focus on quantity over variety, and the guys I see toting whole crates of generic Pils out of the Getränkemarkt.

Hat-tip to Tandleman for a couple of the links.