Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Reinheitsgebot - A Personal Voyage

Yes, it's that time of year when German Beer Day comes around, but as everyone knows, a special year, with today being the 500th anniversary of the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot.

I'm not going to go into the arguments for and against it. They have been done to death already this year, and most of the arguments are ones I've seen repeated frequently over the past three to four years, especially since the rise of the Craft Beer Scene in Germany. I've attended talks at the likes of Braukunst Live, have read plenty of the new wave of German beer blogs, seen interviews with prominent members of the growing craft brewing community, and enough YouTube recordings of panel discussions to be well versed in the main points against the Reinheitsgebot. At least they are consistent, and indeed, they are arguments that I've used myself, after moving here in 2008 and starting this much-neglected blog soon after. I've also seen enough of the marketing from the Deutsche Brauerbund to know what the pro argument sounds like. So this is more about my own perception of the gebot, and how views seem to be shifting.

At the time I left Ireland, it was a country seeing a surge of interest in good beer from small, local breweries, and I admit, I missed it when I came over here. Not that I wasn't prepared in some way for the relative conservatism, but in a way, I had to retrain my expectations, hitting the reset button if you will, and came to realise that there was plenty to enjoy from the rich German brewing traditions, if you knew where to look.

Sure, I railed against the gebot often enough, while at the same time thoroughly enjoying fantastic German beers, with the odd Belgian, US or English import to add a spark and remind me what I was missing. Then. in 2010, the first Festival der Bierkulturen happened, which was billed as going "beyond the Reinheitsgebot". This was a first peek at a small section of the brewing community doing something different, and I loved it.

But after three years living here, I began to rail less against the instrument of the gebot itself, as it was simply a marketing tool, and instead, more or less concluded it was the German drinkers on the whole that were stultifying German beer culture. What I meant by this was that on the whole, and certainly at that point in time, it was fair to say that the general populace were happy with the status quo. And given that most were happy that way, and with what the Reinheitsgebot appeared to promise, then the impetus for change would simply not happen, the Reinheitsgebot would go unchallenged, and we'd continue ad nauseum.

But I hadn't realised that things really were already starting to change. Hopfenstopfer had started brewing a single hopped pale ale that year, the now classic Citra Ale. Braufactum appeared with incredibly different beers, beautifully marketed. Online stored were increasing their foreign offerings. Something was stirring. And then, in 2012, Braukunst Live started. In a way, this felt like a shift, as it was a big festival in the most conservative of brewing cities, and there was a huge focus on "craft", with the accompanying debates on the limitations of the Reinheitsgebot.

The growth of the craft beer sector has continued unabated since then. In many ways, it mirrors what I saw happening in Ireland, and indeed the UK, also with the eventual existential crisis about what exactly is craft beer? Berlin and Hamburg are thriving centres for this new "movement", and there are new breweries and contract brands, popping up regularly, as more and more want to be part of the action. In the 5 years since I moved to south Germany, two new breweries have opened in my former home town of Münster, one by a friend who has an avid interest in pre-Reinheitsgebot beers. And the arguments against it get louder.

It has now gotten to a stage where my 50-year-old neighbour turns around to me and says "I like that craft beer stuff. I've been buying all sorts of new beers to try. Have you tried this"? The older people at our Stammtisch are no stranger to my own beer creations, often featuring spruce tips, or eldar flowers, and although they sometimes mischievously ask if a given beer is Reinheitsgebot, I know full well they don't give a shit if it is not, and they enjoy it for what it is. There are now two glossy beer magazines on the market that feature the words Craft in their titles. Mainstream much?

Thinking back to that piece I wrote five years ago, and just getting a feel for the mood in the beer community, and articles in even regional newspapers over recent weeks, I get the impression that regular drinkers -- beyond the feedback loop of the craft beer circles -- are on to the Reinheitsgebot. They are beginning to understand that it is not necessarily an assurance of good-tasting beer. They are beginning to experiment and buy that odd bottle that has appeared on the Getränkemarkt shelf. They are lifting their heads above the parapet, just a little mind, but enough to make me think that now might be the time for some practical change..

I wouldn't say throw the Reinheitsgebot away completely. It's too valuable as a marketing tool, and sure, it has historical and cultural significancef. But let's not be stupid by saying this means other fermented beverages based on malted barley, but perhaps with some coffee added, are not allowed to be called beer. Let those who brew according the gebot use it as a seal of sorts, and extend the actual brewing rules laid out in the Vorläufiges Biergesetz (1993) to allow anything brewed with natural ingredients to be called beer. It surely must be that simple!

But for me, the real tipping point is the negative marketing, bordering on propaganda from the Deutscher Brauerbund. That alone is what makes me rail against the Reinheitsgebot. Skip to 2:10 on this video below, published by the Brauerbund. In my poor translation, they say "So, no artificial ingredients, enzymes, colouring or aromas. Brewing beer is therefore more demanding and complex than in most foreign breweries". Reading between the very wide-spaced lines, they are essentially tarring most foreign beers as being riddled with chemicals and being generally awful. And this messaging transferrs to those German beers influenced by foreign styles that are currently in vogue. This is exactly this kind of crap that tips my opinion enough to say I don't like what the Reinheitsgebot represents. With that kind of propoganda, it's no wonder it has taken this long for the blinkers to be shed. Let the brewing traditions of Germany open and grow, to give the beer-drinking public what they want, and see a rejuvenation of  German beer culture at a time when the trend has been away from beer.

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