Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

ILLUSTRATION: A German beer stein.

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

  1. Eliminate the Competition

In 1978, the US government legalised home-brewing, but what if it hadn’t? Charlie Papazian wouldn’t have founded the Brewers’ Association or written his famous home-brewing manual. A generation of American microbrewers would have had no place to start. Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi might not have learned to brew and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would never have come into existence. By 1990, insofar as there was American craft beer, we imagine it would have been just Anchor Steam and perhaps Jim Koch’s distinctly German-inspired Boston Lager. An entire strand of British microbrewing focused on C-hops, and led by Sean Franklin and Brendan Dobbin, might not have developed — there would be no hopheads! American beer geeks, if there were any, would be drinking mostly imported German and Belgian beer.

  1. A Britain Ready to Listen

What actually happened: one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, Graham Lees, spent a chunk of the 1980s living in Munich where he developed his interest in German beer. He lobbied for CAMRA to recognise and respect good lager throughout the 1980s and later wrote CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide to Munich and Bavaria. But what if he had done more than lobby and had instead chaired the Campaign for a year or two? He might have formalised CAMAL, the Campaign for Authentic Lager, giving Reinheitsgebot-compliant lager the same prominence as cider in CAMRA’s campaigning activities. The culture of disdain for lager in the organisation might have been tackled head on creating a more welcoming environment for microbrewery lagers. Hop Back Summer Lightning, a Saaz-hopped lager as originally intended rather than a golden ale, could have won awards and triggered lager-mania in the fertile environment of the post Beer Orders ‘guest beer’ culture.

  1. A German CAMRA

Consolidation has occurred in the German brewing industry but, unlike Watney’s, Whitbread et al, German firms seem to understand better the emotional importance of ‘local’. Even after takeovers, local brands are preserved, and local brewing plants seem more likely to be kept in operation. UK brewery numbers collapsed in the mid-20th Century but, though the reduced in Germany, the change looks less catastrophic – from around 2,200 in 1960 to 1,800 in 1970. But assume that something had happened to steepen that decline, and that consolidation was handled less carefully – might we have seen a fully-fledged and Bolshy German beer consumer group emerge, alongside a microbrewery boom? And so guidebooks, festivals, awards, and a general culture of grass roots beer appreciation beyond ‘German beer is the best and purest, especially the one from my home town’? Which brings us to…

Das Grosse Buch vom Bier.

  1. A Bard of German Beer

It’s all well and good reading British writers’ tasting notes and travelogues but there’s nothing quite like a native guide. We don’t know enough about the history of German beer writing to say this with absolute certainty but there doesn’t seem to us to be a great tradition of writing about beer there, home brewing manuals and beer garden guides aside, though there’s been a bit more in recent years. But what if there had been? There’s no particular reason the World Guide to Beer had to be written by an Englishman and then translated into German – it could just as well have gone the other way. Historically Germans seem to have been less interested in beer from other countries than people from other countries were in German beer. Heck, many Germans aren’t even that interested in beer from other parts of Germany. Or even from the next town over. A German Michael Jackson might have encourage more conversation about beer — the habits of ticking, of recording more and more varied tasting notes, of comparing German beer with that from other countries. Of discoursing, if you like.

  1. Disciples

Trying to decide their next steps, in 2006, James Watt and Martin Dickie look at the market and see Meantime doing well, Zero Degrees expanding and the recently opened West in Glasgow gaining positive coverage. Keen to appeal to young people, and reacting against real ale culture, they launch their new brewery with a core range of decent, straightforward lagers. On the advice of Michael Jackson (or our imaginary German equivalent) they also experiment with quirkier German styles such as Doppelbock, Gose and Berliner Weisse. Their best seller is Punk Pilsner, an intensely bitter and aromatic lager inspired by Jever, but with a cooler label. A chain of bars inspired by the aloofly-hip Berlin scene soon follows, selling selected German imports, and collaborations with German brewers such as Stephan Michel. BrewDog inspires a wave of new breweries and a generation of young Germanophile beer geeks.

* * *

This is, of course, just a bit of fun, but a couple of those suggestions are plausible. On the whole, though, it seems obvious to us that traditional lager alone could never have kicked off the last decade of craft beer in Britain in the same way as those easy to like, easy to ‘get’ big beers from America. Most German beer, like most British beer, is about subtlety and balance, which is a hard sell to newbie beer geeks and youngsters.

But, actually, we’re not sure Germany hasn’t dominated the discourse, or at least had a fair shake, language barriers permitting. Germany and lager were given almost equal billing with Belgium in the early works of Michael Jackson. Among the earliest ‘world beers’ enjoyed by British proto-beer-geeks back in the early stages of ‘world beer’ in the 1970s and early 80s were reassuringly brown Altbiers and much-admired ‘proper’ lagers. For a time in the early 1990s German wheat beer was the focus of British beer geekdom centring around festivals at the White Horse in West London. If it went out of fashion, it’s because there’s only so much of it you can drink before it starts to seem like a beginners’ beer — training wheels for the palate. (It is a style that divides this household.)

Even today, those glossy guides to world beer invariably include substantial sections on German beer, and Bamberg, Munich, Cologne and Dusseldorf are still must-visits for any budding beer geek. (Albeit sometimes couched in critical terms – German beer is getting blander, the Reinheitsgebot hampers innovation, etc.) Watching chatter within the so-called craft beer bubble on Twitter we see an awful of lot of respect for, and interest in, German beer.

The first flowering of ‘craft’ (definition 2) in Britain was led by Alastair Hook who had a German stepmother, spent summers there as a child, studied in Bavaria, and made his name brewing studious recreations of German beer in one setup after another. Camden Brewery, so successful it got bought by AB-InBev, is first and foremost a lager brewery whose flagship beer has a punning pseudo-German name and, indeed, was literally being brewed in Germany at one point. And — no alternate history required — BrewDog and others of their intake have consistently brewed lagers and other German styles, often without much messing about.

And, finally, a lot of what comes our way from the US is in itself a digestion of the German tradition. Earlier this year we tasted two ‘rustic lagers’ that weren’t frilly or silly in the slightest (1 | 2), and Brooklyn Lager, among the first self-proclaimed craft beers many Brits ever tasted, is also an homage to the German (well, Austrian) tradition. And then there’s the controversial Gose thing which, however distorted through amplification and processing, is about as specifically German in origin as it gets.

Perhaps you think some of our generalisations are off the mark, or that we’ve misunderstood how Germany works — we are observing from afar, in a different language, after all. If so, suggestions and corrections, especially from Germans or those who know Germany well, are welcome.

18 thoughts on “Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?”

  1. Very interesting, thanks for this.

    Do have to ask, is “Das große Buch vom Bier” a true German translation of the title or your own? IMO you could use the lovely umlauted “über” here.

  2. Many scenarios were possible. Had big brewing, ironically, not encouraged Cascade’s development, a lager-focused craft business probably would have emerged. That hop is much more suitable for ale than lager.

    Some early craft operations were very much lager oriented, as Gordon Biersch. Anchor Steam isd a lager but its ales tended to draw more attention as the years went by.

    If Ken Grossman had been a Dortmunder fan instead of pale ale…

    Certainly lager has the inherent quality and sub-divisions to warrant a broad craft path of its own.

    Maybe it will come in time.

    Gary

  3. A key difference is that lager, even the very best ones, is by definition a subtle beer that is intended to be “easy-drinking”, whereas IPA, especially the heavily-hopped US variety, is deliberately “in-your-face”. “A bit more of the same” is never going to grab the same attention as “this is completely different”.

    1. Don’t agree. All malt lager hopped to 1800s levels, as US pale ales have been, are plenty impactful. And the factor all the variations: Dort, helles, Czech pils, German pils, Vienna, the Oktober versions, bock light and dark, Mai-and other, Keller, zoigl, mein Gott.

      Gary

  4. I’ve visited Germany most years since around 1981 and soon found that asking for ‘lager’ brings blank stares from bar staff – why should a customer want to see their cellar? The reality is that in Germany much of the beer is made using the lagering process which basically comes down to conditioning (historically for months) in a cool environment such as cellars or caves. Thus in Autumn, especially in the warmer southern states, beer for the summer would often have been brewed and then laid down for months to condition. In Britain brewing evolved in a different way so that conditioning time at the brewery could be minimised and the publican could finish the job off in the pub cellar. It must also have meant that the brewer got their money earlier and had less cash tied up in stock. This is of course a very generalist view and I would be fascinated to know more about how it developed – for instance, when Whitbread built the Porter Tuns, how long did the beer spend in them before going into barrels?

    ‘Proper’ pilsners with a long conditioning period would not fit the British economic model but a lot of brewers seem to have twigged by the 1980s that selling what were basically keg bitters (often with lower strengths and cheaper ingredients) with foreign sounding names could be done at premium prices and thus boost profits even after allowing for heavy marketing spend. Brewers like Wrexham Lager and Anglo-Bavarian had previously tried to replicate the German brewing process but don’t seem to have managed economically in British conditions (Wrexham has been revived as a micro but the website says little about the brewing processes). Micros doing barrel-ageing appear to be using a process akin to lagering, but it is no doubt uneconomic to use this for other than speciality products.

    Of course, if we had the same tax rates as in Germany then a genuine pils might be financially more practical.

    1. Ian, modern lagering ie. increasingly since 1900 has dispensed with long lagering. It’s a matter of weeks almost everywhere now. The UK has been able to make good lager for a long time now. The large-selling adjunct lagers there are a variant on the same product everywhere except where the Pure Beer Law applies where all malt still obtains.

      Porter was aged in the 1700-1800s for 12-24 months but was often just a part of a blend where the base was mild beer (short conditioning). Pale ale was basically similar although not typically blended.

      Both lager and beer then converged in the sense of abolition of extended conditioning times.

      Gary

    2. While Lager just means a storeroom or cellar, you can ask for a Lagerbier in Germany. The one thing you *won’t* get that way though is a Pilsner. It’ll usually be a relatively lightly-hopped malty blond beer.

  5. those easy to like, easy to ‘get’ big beers from America

    What, like Arrogant Bastard, which marketed itself as being so extreme it would only appeal to the enlightened few? Obviously you can’t judge a beer by its marketing, but I know I found new-wave IPAs and pales the very opposite of easy to ‘get’ – I’d drunk them (reluctantly) for the best part of a decade before enlightenment dawned (also note Bailey’s comment on that post). For years the only really pale beer I drank with any pleasure was Summer Lightning – that is easy to get, if you’re coming at it from a brown malty bitter background. (Which, in your alternative timeline, most of us would be – so Summer Lightning: The Lager should clean up.)

    1. We were thinking of SNPA, Goose Island, Jaipur (American derived, if not American), etc. — beers which, back in 2005, really tasted (and smelled!), to us, startlingly different and exciting, without being scary. Think of that Pete Brown line about things seeming like they were in black-and-white before then.

  6. The whole point of American pale ale is that it’s immediately distinctive and accessible, a much easier drinking option then your standard hard going traditional brown bitter. Their remarkable success with new young drinkers over the past decade is a testament to this fact.

    IPA – more interesting then lager but more accessible than bitter

      1. There’s a distinction to be made here between accessible (Greene King IPA was my gateway into ale) and exciting, i.e. the kind of think that makes people get T-shirts, buy beer books, start a blog, go to obscure festivals in Scandinavia, and daydream about jacking it all in to open their own bar or brewery.

      2. This is the thing though, for most people, it is, and recent trends in beer consumption very much bear this out.

        Its only older folk who have got so used to the strong taste of bitter because they have been drinking it for 40+ years that don’t see how inaccessible it is to younger drinkers who haven’t got used to that woody, muddy, bitter, twiggy, (describe it however you like) flavour.

        A young lager or cider drinker will find a pint of Punk IPA with its clean sweet grapefuity overtones far more friendly and accessible than a pint of Landlord, as excellent as that beer is.

        1. You may have a point there. I remember my wife & I having very different reactions to Pictish Citra, a few years back: I hadn’t yet got the pale’n’oppy memo at the time & found it really extreme; she, an occasional & unenthusiastic lager drinker, thought it was easy-drinking & full of flavour. (Which it is, of course.)

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