Sunday 11 September 2016

Balancing insular vs international on a German island

Two of Insel-Brauerei's regular brews
I finally realised what’s been puzzling me about the beers from the Rügener Insel-Brauerei, a new brewery opened in 2015 on the German Baltic island of Rügen. The Insel beers are very consciously Craft – they are available in both 33cl and 75cl sizes, with attractive and unusual paper wrappers instead of labels, and they are pricey, at almost €10 a litre.

To top it off the beers are all top-fermented* and bottle-conditioned, in a country where making an IPA alongside your half-dozen lagers is still considered a bit adventurous, and Insel produces almost nothing that most people would consider a traditional German beer style. Instead there’s stouts, pale ales, a witbier and several Belgian styles.

What puzzled me though was that the Insel beers I’d tried didn’t seem terribly interesting. Oh sure, they were well made – the brewery was founded by Marcus Berberich, an experienced brewmaster who was formerly managing director at Störtebeker Braumanufaktur in nearby Stralsund, so I’d expect nothing less. (He really does need to sort out their yeast though, as it doesn’t settle well enough and the beers are too gassy, so it’s hard not to pour them cloudy.)

The thing was that they lacked the depth I would look for in a beer in this price bracket, plus they didn’t seem true to style. I wasn’t alone in thinking this – the beers get low marks from quite a few of the serious tasters on Ratebeer. Others seem to love them, however, and they look to be selling OK.

Now though, I think I may have a mental handle on what’s going on here. These are products designed to appeal to gourmets and the fashion-conscious, in a country where beer drinkers have been conditioned by the big brewers (via their disgraceful manipulation of the Reinheitsgebot) to be suspicious of anything different and/or foreign.

So if these foreign-styled beers still seem rather German to me – a Belgian Tripel that reminded me of a Maibock, to give the most recent example – perhaps that is deliberate. A case of taking a subtle German-friendly approach: “Don’t frighten ze horses” and all that.

The odd thing is that once I started thinking about this, my enjoyment of the beers increased. It just goes to remind you how much our impressions of a drink are affected not just by aroma and flavour, but by expectations, price and all sort of external factors, such as where we are actually drinking it.

Will I buy more Insel-Brauerei beers? It’s a slightly unfair question because I’m pretty sure I’m not their target market. I certainly don’t plan to buy more of the pricey big bottles, but if I see 33cl bottles of their sours, say, my curiosity may well take over – it does a lot of that!

*This must make life a lot easier for a German brewer, because the rules are significantly different for top-fermented beers – in particular, what most people think of as the Reinheitsgebot does not apply. (It is of course rather more complex than this, but this will do for a summary!)

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