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Monday morning musing: German brewers’ woes

Paulander brewhouseI think I need to talk to New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey, and finish a conversation started 11 years ago.

He was jet lagged but wired at the time, having just returned from Germany, where he bought a beautiful well-used and bargain-priced copper brewing system that would be the centerpiece of New Glarus expansion in 1997. He also looked a little sad. “We’re 50 years ahead of the Germans,” he said.

This wasn’t nationalistic boasting, a claim that American beer culture had surpassed Germany’s. This was history. He was speaking about how the number of breweries in Germany was (and still is) shrinking in the wake of consolidation. Something the United States went through during the last century.

I thought of this last week when reading stories about how German beer sales continue to shrink.

Is there an antidote? One story suggested, “Micro-Brewers Hope to Fight Sinking Beer Sales in Germany.”

What brewpub entrepreneur Oliver Lemke of Berlin has to say will sound familiar to American beer drinkers.

“There used to be 100 breweries in this neighborhood alone. They died out in the 1970s with the trend toward mono-breweries. The big breweries – for example Warsteiner or Licher – said: ‘We’re only going to make one sort of beer, a premium pilsner, and we’ll market it nationwide.’ And that inevitably leads to a dead-end. At some point, even the world’s biggest idiot notices that there’s virtually no difference between a Warsteiner and Licher.”

And also a little startling.

“The German beer drinker thinks he knows a lot about beer, but most of them know very, very, little.”

Perhaps they don’t know as much about beer as those deep into beer geekdom, but let’s be honest — they’ve still got a stronger beer culture. We talk about differences between the Northwest and the Northeast and argue about America’s best beer city (kind of silly if you let Portland, Oregon, participate). Well, they’ve got Köln and Munich and Bamberg, and scores of villages in in Franconia and . . . It is a different league.

Does that mean even more will be lost if the heartless consolidation continues? Or that the strength of the culture will keep German beer from tumbling into a monoculture as American beer did in the U.S. did during the twentieth century?

I’d like to take the optimistic view.

13 Responses to Monday morning musing: German brewers’ woes

  1. Spencer February 4, 2008 at 9:51 am #

    Speaking of Lemke, I really enjoyed his brewpub during my visit to Berlin last year. If you find yourself in Berlin, do yourself a favor and visit it.

  2. SteveH February 4, 2008 at 11:19 am #

    We were discussing this at RealBeer last week and many of the Bavarian members took serious umbrage with the quote of the German beer drinker knowing very little. Some went so far as to say there is a definite line between Bavaria and the rest of Germany when it comes to a slipping beer culture and the knowledge that comes with it.

    OTOH — as I was drinking a Spaten Premium yesterday, searching as hard as I could to find that smooth, melanoidin character I loved so well (it’s in there, just not as solid as it once was), I couldn’t help but think that the Spaten reminded of something else — another beer? Another German beer? Oh m’gosh — yes, it’s become Warsteiner!

    A sad sign, but according to the Bavarians we heard from, the smaller breweries in and around their towns are still carrying the brewing craft high.

  3. brewer a February 4, 2008 at 11:21 am #

    I think I have to agree about the average German not knowing a lot about beer. It holds true at least in my experiences. (I realize there are blanket statements in here) They certainly know about the beer or brewery that is close to them, but almost in spite of their monumental brewing culture, many Germans drink “Ein Bier” and it’s a pils or a helles. There are certainly Weiss beers and the seasonal bock or doppelbock, but I see a similar situation as here in the States. Stick to one brand or style and don’t deviate from it too much. I won’t argue that if you travel around Germany you can find great, outstanding, mind-numbingly delicious beers, but more often than not, you have to hunt for something special or different from “ein bier.”

  4. Stan Hieronymus February 4, 2008 at 11:59 am #

    Steve – I’m certainly looking forward to drinking in Bavaria this fall, but I also know that Franconia has lost its share of small breweries.

    I recently had a conversation with a brewing industry member who said he prefers Franconia to Belgium, BUT he also came home with the impression that olders brewers were less careful (more diacetyl, for instance) and that often smaller family operations were on their last generation.

  5. Boak February 4, 2008 at 2:11 pm #

    You get a lot of weird looks in most of Germany if you insist on trying different beers from the same place. Franconia is an honourable exception, where we’ve seen a number of places do “tasting platters” (and where we’re not the only weirdos trying them)

    But you do get the impression in a lot of Germany (and I would include most of Bavaria in this) that beer is a staple, like bread – essential to everyday life, but not something you talk about, blog about or even mess around with that much once you’ve found your favourite.

    Stan, on your last point – is more diacetyl such a bad thing? I know the style guidelines say it’s a bad thing in lager, but the best lagers I’ve had have been in Franconia, and they’ve been so good because of these minor “imperfections”. They taste fresh and interesting. Could be my tolerance for diacetyl flavours from drinking real ale for years.

  6. Stan Hieronymus February 4, 2008 at 3:14 pm #

    A good point about diacetyl. Americans can be bigots about D. Quite short-sighted.

    I’m a fan of “imperfections.”

  7. Lew Bryson February 4, 2008 at 3:53 pm #

    “A good point about diacetyl. Americans can be bigots about D. Quite short-sighted.”

    Thank you, Stan. An opinion I’ve had for years. Decades, actually.

  8. Mark Tichenor February 4, 2008 at 7:30 pm #

    I returned from six days in Hamburg and Cologne last summer and could not find anything resembling a craft brewery, just the uniformly delicious products of large breweries (except Astra Pils- not so delicious).

    There was, however, one exception. Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht, a Gordon Biersch-like brewpub chain brings their take on Bavarian styles to the center and north of Germany. The beer is excellent, worthy of Munich, and the Schweinehaxen are dead-on authentic too!

    This is a very American-style operation. I think Germany’s saving grace might be to pay more attention to how the craft beer business has struggled to life and thrived in the USA.

  9. Ron Pattinson February 5, 2008 at 6:17 am #

    The number of breweries in Germany is not declining. It’s been remarkably constant over recent years. Between 1994 and 2006 it varied between 1,234 and 1,298. In the last year I have figures for, 2006, the number was 1,284.

    Brewpub openings are about exactly cancelling out the closures of mid-size breweries. The industry is being polarised between very small and very large breweries.

  10. SteveH February 5, 2008 at 6:23 am #

    “A good point about diacetyl. Americans can be bigots about D. Quite short-sighted.”

    I love a little diacetyl in my ESB, not so sure about it in my Helles or Okto, though.

  11. Stan Hieronymus February 5, 2008 at 6:31 am #

    Thanks, Ron. A reason I need to update that 1997 conversation.

    Do you have numbers for Franconia?

  12. Jeff February 5, 2008 at 5:15 pm #

    We talk about differences between the Northwest and the Northeast and argue about America’s best beer city (kind of silly if you let Portland, Oregon, participate).

    Did you throw that in there just for me? Well, in any case, I couldn’t agree more. (Take that, Denver!)

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