The German Beer Purity Law—known to Bavarians as the Reinheitsgebot—celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. In it, the region of Southern Germany codified just three permissible ingredients for use in beer production: water, barley, and hops. Although it historically established the country’s legacy as one of the preeminent purveyors of suds, in the modern era, the dictate exists as something of a cultural stumbling block. At a time when craft beer is incorporating increasingly brave, unexpected adjuncts into the bottle, German drinkers, as a matter of pride, have largely held true to their rudimentary lagers, brewed according to centuries-old tradition.
And why wouldn’t they? These are the same people who introduced hops to beer in the 13th century, shaping the general flavor that Europe, and eventually the entire world, would come to associate with the drink. Germany launched the oldest continuously operational commercial brewery—Weihenstephan—one thousand years ago. Germans pioneered the techniques and equipment necessary for modern brewing. So, the country can be forgiven for sticking to their guns, even as the rest of the continent—notably Denmark, and their Nordic neighbors to the north—absorbed a modern approach over the past decade. But, alas, the inertia of the American craft movement is proving too massive for even the staunchest of traditionalists to avoid. And now a slow, yet determinedly seismic swing is underway, from Berlin to Munich. After informing beer-drinking sensibilities stateside for generations, German brewmasters are now taking cues from their New World counterparts.
"From my perspective, the American craft beer scene has a huge impact on our local beer scene..."
"From my perspective, the American craft beer scene has a huge impact on our local beer scene," concedes Marc Gallo, of Hopfmeister. Last year, the graphic designer-turned-brewer boldly opened an anti-establishment brewery in Munich, ground zero for grog traditionalism. Gallo was emboldened by a younger generation of German drinkers in their mid-20s to mid-30s, turning to flavor-forward expressions from across the pond; hop-heavy IPAs of San Diego, barrel-aged stouts of the midwest. The cultural shift, as is so often the case, was borne of the city. "I guess craft beer is an urban phenomenon," he reasons, noting that his typical clientele are creative types, cooking, home-brewing, creating their own goods, keen to explore different beer styles and flavors.
Still, even among this crowd, a learning curve persists. "The Germans have to accustom themselves to the more intense beers, concerning bitterness and aromas," Gallo explains, "That is why they start with medium-intense beers; door openers that connect them with their drinking [preferences]. A medium-bittered pale ale is a great start." And one of Hopfmeister’s most successful releases is just that: Irish Road Trip, an IPA with a floral, resiny bouquet, reminiscent of American offerings, but with a decidedly more European malt flavor. The beer is clearly intended as a gateway entry, suggestive of hoppier trails on the horizon.
As Gallo capitalizes off of migrating palates, he plunges into an exploding German marketplace that was nonexistent as recently as 2010. "Up until maybe a year and a half to two years ago, you still had to really search for the craft beer scene," says Katharina Kurz, brewmaster for BRLO, a Berlin-based microbrewery. "Interestingly, the [German] press and media picked up the topic way earlier, whereas the restaurant and bar scene was, and is, still seriously lagging behind."
Not for long.
In October of 2015, Bar Convent Berlin—Europe’s largest bar and beverage trade show—declared its craft beer section (Brew Berlin) to be the fastest growing segment of the annual event. BRLO joined some twenty other German breweries in attendance, doubling the number of 2014 participants. A trend common to them all? Hop-heavy ales, inspired by West Coast breweries such as Stone—the San Diego, California craft pioneer that's opening its own hotly-anticipated brewpub and production facility in Berlin later this year.
"American-style IPAs are hugely popular in the beer scene, and they are slowly also making their way into well-curated bars and restaurants in the big cities," Kurz observes. Parallel to Hopfmeister’s approach, however, BRLO avoids over-the-top bitterness in their own version of a pale ale. Dry-hopped with a handful of Pacific Northwestern varietals, the beer both smells and tastes of pine and grapefruit.
The daring spirit of German beer's new guard is represented in their dismissive attitude towards the Reinheitsgebot.
But, all too often forgotten, especially in the States, is that there’s much more to making craft beer than simply unloading sacks of super bitter hops into brewing vessels. American expat Richie Hodges recognized the more meaningful indicators of a lasting movement when he came to Germany to brew for Berliner Berg: "I noticed that the scene is really, for the first time, developing into a community; communicating and helping each other out."
Hodges continues, "One of the best known brewers in Berlin is Thorsten Shoppe of Schoppe Bräu. He opened his doors to us and I brewed some of Berliner Berg’s first batches on his 10hl system. He is always helping out people trying to enter the craft beer scene ... It’s kind of all coming together right now. We are growing and everyone is helping everyone. We all know each other too. It’s very encouraging and exciting." Hodges’ admiration for that community is palpable, particularly in the wake of Berliner Berg’s successful crowdfunding bid in 2015.
The daring spirit of German beer's new guard is represented in their dismissive attitude towards the Reinheitsgebot. "Today [it’s] heavily discussed by the craft beer scene as it limits German brewers working with various natural ingredients like fruits, grains, malts, lactose, herbs and spices," explains Gallo. "This whole discussion would not have escalated that way if the American craft beer scene wasn’t there. So we are pretty thankful for that."
Trailblazing is at the core of American identity. Our craft beer movement traces its impetus to the innovative brewers who weren’t afraid to tinker with sacrosanct Old World styles—styles that had been perfectly acceptable to Europeans for hundreds of years. Before this recent wave of adventurous ale-makers, the U.S. was perennially ridiculed for their bland beer approach. When pressed to name his favorite American beers, Gallo sarcastically quipped: "Coors, Millers and Bud Light." Not that long ago, as recently as the late 90s, Germans would have found it equally laughable that American beer would soon be influencing one of their proudest traditions.
"The signs are already there," Hodges states. "I think this a great direction. We should end up with a little bit of everything in Germany and that should be very exciting. On the other hand we are young, and we will definitely have some growing pains. It’s going to be a fun ride the next two to three years." How far it goes is anyone’s guess, but when it comes to geography, at least, the craft beer revolution knows no boundaries.