Who makes the best beer in the world? is the provocative question which begins this report by Peter Ruppert shown on German TV last week. Although his discoveries and conclusions will be unsurprising to knowledgeable observers, I think it’s significant to have the status of German beer put on the agenda in mainstream media.
What follows is a summary in English to make the programme easier to follow. I’ve done this because I think the programme is well worth watching for beer lovers elsewhere.
He starts by showing us the award ceremony at the World Beer Cup in San Diego. For years the gold medal for the beer styles thought of as typically German have gone to brewers from elsewhere.
One thing is certain, says Ruppert to camera: the best German style pilsener is not brewed in Germany. He takes us to the place it is made: Sierra Nevada, where he talks to Ken Grossman. In America, the land with no purity law, no beer culture, no centuries of tradition, where almost nobody even knows the word pilsener.
Grossman started as a homebrewer with two cooking pots, and now has coppers made in Germany.
We Germans thought we were the world champions in brewing, he confronts Grossman – what happened?
Grossman replies that although German brewing tradition is superb, German brewers did not pay any attention to what was happening in the rest of the world and fell behind. They all brew the same beer and have not kept up with the development of new hop varieties or techniques. He had been in Germany three weeks previously and encountered no beer that had wowed him. The development is towards a monoculture such as previously existed in the USA, less hop, less aroma, less malt, less distinctive beers.
German drinkers think American beer is all like Budweiser and Miller, says Ruppert. Yes, says Grossman, we had a situation of commodity beer with no real identity, so we stood up and wanted something better.
Ruppert moves on to St Louis. To camera, he lists the German brands that are now owned by A-B InBev. Hasseröder, Diebels, Spaten, Franziskaner, Löwenbräu, Beck's.
Florian Kuplent is a brewer from Upper Bavaria who worked at A-B and has now set up his own microbrewery, Urban Chestnut. Why did he stay in the US rather than return to Germany? Because the German beer market is currently marked by consolidation and price wars. Small breweries are closing because German drinkers will not support their local breweries and buy the discounted big brands instead. The trend is the opposite in the USA where the number of small breweries is growing.
Back in Germany, Ruppert goes to Dortmund to meet Karl-Heinz Schmeissing, former chair of the works council at Dortmunder Aktien-Brauerei (DAB). The pair walk around the city to the sites of closed breweries. This is where the Stifts brewery was, this was the Kronen brewery, this was the Ritter brewery which later became Brinkhoff's, this was Thier, this was the Dortmunder Union brewery.
Dortmund was once the biggest beer producing city in Europe. Then corporations moved in with a strategy of cheap beer in cans. Over a plate of Currywurst, Schmeissing speaks of the heyday of Dortmund: 6800 people worked in eight breweries with a combined production of over 7 million hectolitres; it is painful to see the decline. DAB, Dortmunder Union, Brinkhoff's, Wicküler now all come from the last remaining beer factory, owned by the Radeberger Group. Radeberger in turn is owned by Dr. Oetker, a food conglomerate whose name is still most associated with baking powder.
Even the boss of the Radeberger Group is forced to admit on camera that quality and diversity have suffered as a result of price wars. Albert Christmann says brewers have not been enough concerned with what makes their product stand out among the competition. He thinks they are turning a corner and will concentrate more on regional roots. Yes, they still make cheapie brands, because they do not want to lose the consumers. Asked directly if beer will become more expensive: Consumers in Germany take very cheap beer for granted, but in the long term brewers have to make money, says Christmann.
The next interview is with a former brewery manager. He was one of the tough rationalisers who helped to close breweries and make workers redundant – until the axe in turn fell on him. He is afraid of former colleagues and wants to speak anonymously. Of course diversity suffers when breweries close, he says, even if consumers can still buy a beer under the same brand. Cheapie brands brewed to their own recipe and premium beers come from the same copper. The ingredients are generally identical. He sees this process likely to continue for some time to come. Growth was the priority, not creativity or diversity. So the mass-market beers grew to resemble each other more and more.
A blind test with members of the public is set up, featuring the five best-selling German beers: Krombacher, Oettinger, Beck’s, Warsteiner, Bitburger. The punters have great difficulty telling the beers apart, and none are able to correctly identify all five.
Analysis in the laboratory at the brewing school Doemens Institut confirms the similarity: all five beers have a similar gravity and level of bitterness.
But the Sierra Nevada Pils also goes through analysis and is both maltier and hoppier than the best-selling German brands.
|Brand||Original gravity in Plato||Bitterness in IBU|
|Sierra Nevada Pilsner||12.2||42|
Wolfgang Stempfl of Doemens is unsurprised by the results – the dumbing down of beers is an ongoing process to cut costs. Today's beers are also more heavily filtered to increase shelf life. The lagering time for a Pils can be as little as two to three weeks.
Beer sommelier Sebastian Priller is next to subject the beers to sensory analysis. None of the beers are convincing – too little hop aroma. Asked straight out if they are bad beers, Priller equivocates: they have no character, he says. Does the average drinker even recognise a beer with character, asks Ruppert. No, says Priller.
“Now that’s hops!” exclaims Priller delightedly when presented with the Sierra Nevada beer. “Like when you rub hops between your hands – you should get that in a Pils.”
The tasting continues with a wheat doppelbock that tastes of bananas and fruit salad and a Märzen redolent of tropical fruit.
Food chemist Udo Pollmer is next to explain what processing aids are permitted in German beer. Many brewers are no longer even capable of using whole hops, he says. Because hop pellets and hop extracts are still 100% hops, they are completely pukka by the Purity Law. PVPP, a clarifying aid made of plastic (“smells of UHU”, says Ruppert), is no longer present in the finished beer and hence doesn’t have to be declared.
The trade has completely failed to communicate with its customers and hides behind the Purity Law, complains Pollmer. “They hope they gain an advantage over the competition by being cheap, but they do not understand that they are all collectively sinking for this very reason.”
Finally we are shown how the lazy brewer can create a whole range of beers, simply by adding colouring beer to a pale beer.
What can the consumer do? Before reunification the average German drank 142 litres of beer a year. Now it's only 107 litres – 25% less. The declining choice in German supermarkets could play a part in this.
The president of the “Free Brewers”, Georg Schneider of Schneider Weisse, thinks beer should become an article consumed for pleasure again rather than a commodity. In the sixth generation the Schneider family also sets its store on New Zealand hops and barrique-aging. We see the bottles of Schneider doppelbock being aged in the catacombs. “Are there bats here?” asks R, “Yes”, replies Schneider. The aged bock goes to America; the export market is growing and the German market declining.
“Brewers have failed to make interesting and exciting beers”, says Georg Schneider.
Cut to San Diego, disappointment as the gold medals for German styles from Pilsner and Kölsch go to American, Australian and Icelandic breweries. German breweries do pick up seven golds, but German honour is saved not by the big brands, but by small and speciality brewers, whose beers are rarely found in German supermarkets, is the conclusion of the programme.