Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

March 8, 2011

The Culture of Beer:

The Decline of German Bierkulture

The reasons the storied beer culture of Germany is dying, and why there is still hope for a rejuvenation.
by Rings

Rings is an equal opportunity imbiber. He can also be found sampling his way across multiple continents, or wasting time at and Prost!
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I posted this link the other day, a very good article, and a topic that is near and dear to me. It had my wheels turning. While I disagree with some of the causes and conclusions he cites to a degree, the situation is certainly as dire as he mentions.

I lived in Germany, mostly in and around Munich, from ‘89 to ‘96, studying brewing and doing my apprenticeship while I was there, and I still visit at least annually.

Many locals lament that four of Munich’s “Big Six” are now foreign-owned, with only Hofbräu and Augustiner still owned by Bavarians. Paulaner, Hacker-Pshorr, Spaten/Franziskaner and Löwenbräu are all owned and controlled by foreign multi-nationals. The small town I called “home” was once host to 4 breweries … today there are none.

In my opinion, there are a number of additional factors, in addition to “lack of non-Reihenheitsgebot brewing” cited in the article.

1. Homogenization of styles
Many brewers became “tired” as the attention to quality (and certainly creativity) waned a bit, in my opinion, over the decades as styles became very similar, and usually lighter and more palatable to the “masses.” This is not unlike what happened in the U.S. over the last century—and particularly after Prohibition and WWII—and is actually a process that’s evolved over hundreds of years in Europe. In Germany, all the Kölsch breweries were pretty much making the same product in recent decades. Helles, pilsner, weissbier (I’ve complained about this in some of my weissbier reviews) all became similar from most of the large players, and I think this process accelerated a bit in an effort to stave off the wave of imports that flooded the market after the EU struck down the Reihenheitsgebot, which had previously kept most imports from being sold in Germany.

2. New marketing tactics
There was a portion of young people “rejecting” classic beer with exposure to new marketing tactics beginning in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s as expanded TV offerings and the Internet led to exposure and marketing from outside brewers. Television was awful when I first moved abroad as a college student with limited channels and programs. Radio was nearly as bad. This changed with the advent of satellite systems and expanded programs around this time, which segued perfectly with the ability of foreign brewers to sell their wares in this huge beer market. In the early ‘90s, I would be shocked to see young Germans drinking MGD (especially in the North), Bud (called “AB”), Corona and Sol (with a lime) from the BOTTLE—which was unheard of in German traditions of “proper” glassware. For many, it was “cool” to drink these trendy new imports and many turned their attention to a wider European Union and world, rather than just German producers. At the same time, consolidation and takeover of many German brewers and weaker producers burned hometown loyalties and furthered rejection of their “father’s beer” and loyalty to their hometown pour. As mentioned in the article, spirit and energy drink producers also blasted young people with new marketing tactics, events and ideas, which further diversified the drinking interests of those who would otherwise be local beer drinkers.

3. Stricter “sin” rules
There has been a new emphasis on drinking and driving over the past 20 years in most nations, Germany included, which has reduced consumption of alcohol overall. Penalties are severe in the land of the Autobahn for operating under the influence. Recent anti-smoking laws have further reduced restaurant and beer hall patronage. Many German brewers, in fact, are turning their attention to Asian, Russian, African, and American markets in search of new customers as the German market itself becomes smaller.

4. Tied houses
Most bars, restaurants and beer halls are under contract with brewers, who may supply full taps, lines, and coolers in exchange for rights to sell their beers exclusively in that location. Some are owned outright by breweries. These tied houses led to a lack of consumer choice. With the above-mentioned similarities of major styles, most patrons in Germany order their beer by style, not brand. One would order a “helles,” for example, not a “Paulaner,” and take whatever brand of that style was poured in that locale. As mentioned above, foreign imports and marketers took advantage of this to create their own identity as they became widely available in the early ‘90s.

There is hope, however, as there has been an uptick in small and gastro brewpub startups dotting the landscape, much as we’ve seen in this country, and many regional and smaller breweries are once again pushing the envelope with more traditional and full flavored interpretations of German styles. I’ve reviewed a couple of them now available in the U.S. with Unertl and Plank. There are many others, of course, most of whom are regrettably not available here. Chefs are fusing food and drink and their IS an effort to emulate the successes of the American beer market. In fact, many small brewers and independent producers have banded together in associations for purposes of marketing, tourism and mutual assistance.

I had always noted that formally educated brewers, as seen in Germany and England, were wonderful at what they did and very consistent … but often lacked the creativity of the largely self-taught American brewer, who was willing to experiment, compromise, and innovate. The new U.S. brewers have made a million awful beers to be sure—we’ve all had a few of them—but they’ve also created fabulous new interpretations of old styles and, arguably, come up with more new styles and techniques in the past two decades than the world has ever seen. They are only recently turning their attention to German styles, however, as very few are producing true lagers, pilsners, or even authentic weissbier. As for German brewers themselves, they’re still the best at what they do and certainly learning their lessons as the beer world is changing and I look forward to the next chapters as they’re written.

Today is the feast day of St. Arnold, patron saint of beer.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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