German beer dead? Not so much!

on 04/04/11 at 6:33 pm

Beer

Dr. Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse

It’s become fashionable in American beer-geek circles to talk about the dire state of beer in Germany. The story is usually based on this fact: Germans are drinking less beer, about 101 liters per capita last year, down from more than 130 liters in the mid-1990s.

The story usually then leaps to questionable assumptions about why this is happening. Chief among these: German beers have become boring because the big six Bavarian beer producers make exactly the same beers. A conclusion is arrived at: What Germany really needs to regain its former glory is some gosh-darn, rootin’ tootin’ American innovation – namely in the form of American-style craft brews.

Call me an unrepentant Europhile, but I get a little uneasy when I hear Americans talk about how our innovations can save the world’s oldest beer culture. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Coors’ “cold-activated can” also a so-called American “innovation”? And let’s be clear about beer consumption: The United States consumes a little over 80 liters per capita. Even with the decline, Germans are still drinking significantly more beer than we do. Until I walk into the average bar and see everyone drinking barleywine or barrel-aged sour beers rather than Bud Light or PBR, I suggest we should be a little more humble when it comes to commenting on other established beer cultures.

The latest appeared a few weeks ago in a Slate piece by Christian DeBenedetti titled “Brauereisterben” – literally “brewery death,” a term used since the 1990s and named after a term for Germany’s dying forests. One of the few actual Germans he quotes happens to be a brewer who left his homeland to work for a U.S. craft brewer.

The reason for Germany beer’s malaise? According to DeBenedetti, it might be the famed Reinheitsgebot, the 500-year-old “purity law” that stipulates that beer can only be made from barley, hops and water, hamstringing innovation and experimentation. “This taboo rules out trying Belgian, French and New World styles,” he writes. He does mention that a European court repealed Reinheitsgebot nearly 25 years ago.

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