Professor Ludwig Narziss wrote the book on German brewing. Literally. His two-volume work (with Werner Back) titled simply Die Bierbrauerei is one of the standard textbooks for brewers, so much so that it is referred to just as “der Narziss”. He was already teaching brewing science at Weihenstephan in 1964.
So when the veteran professor, now 89, got up to sharply criticise the decline in standards in German brewing last week, it should have been a big deal.
As news site Biertäglich.eu reports, Narziss spoke at a seminar run by the Austrian Brewers' Federation at the end of October. His remarks were about the development of flavour in German beer in the last fifty years. And when you have been around as long as Narziss has, you can demonstrate long-term change with data.
Before 1993 the German beer duty regime was based on strength categories: Schankbier, Vollbier, Starkbier, etc., with a flat rate within each category. The move to taxation strictly on the basis of alcoholic strength brought with it the possibility of shaving off a couple of points to save some tax. Narziss showed that this was precisely what had happened in recent years, with a significant drop in the original gravities of beers. Even half a degree Plato has a discernible effect on the beer’s flavour, said the Professor.
Boiling and fermentation too have been compromised for the sake of efficiency; the decoction mash of the past largely abolished, and in some cases the wort is not even boiled vigorously enough to drive off the DMS which gives beer that sweetcorn aroma.
A slight acidification of the mash before brewing has many advantages and has therefore become widespread practice, said Narziss, but this has also meant convergence of flavour.
The development over the last 50 years has been toward ever more similar, more and more neutral beers. Distinctive house flavours from esters, higher alcohols, resins have been reduced, and the use of high-alpha bittering hops and hop extracts have robbed beer of the complexity that the other components of hops give it. Narziss finished by challenging the assembled brewmasters to return to beers of character, with a proper three-addition hopping schedule; to experiment with different hopping techniques and new varieties.
Narziss’ critique is in line with what other observers have been saying for several years. This 2012 documentary has not been the only TV programme on the subject. A couple of weeks ago the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine too ran an article on the same topic, focussing on the closure of the once proud Iserlohner brewery.
All have come to the conclusion that beer is being dumbed down to compete at the unsustainably low prices forced on the brewers by supermarkets. When the brewers formed an illegal cartel in defence, they were pilloried in the press. Three out of every four crates of beer are now sold at a promotional price as low as eight euro.
Eight euro for a crate of 20 half-litre bottles: it may sound like a paradise for beer drinkers, but the consequence of such low prices is that the beer itself must be bastardised – and there are, as Professor Narziss points out, plenty of ways to do that within the constraints of the Reinheitsgebot.