‘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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
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.