The Craft Beer Movement in Germany

By Dakota Lum

Posted On November 6, 2018

Germany – the land known for its bratwurst, pretzels, and of course beer! One can only assume this when the country draws in a huge amount of tourism for events like Oktoberfest.

The outside world’s perception of German beer culture is very superficial in this respect. Although people have been brewing for nearly one thousand years in the area, just over 500 years ago Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria enacted the Reinheitsgebot or Purity Law. The law stated that beer could only be made with barley, hops and water; yeast was later added to the list, according to the Old World History website.

The Reinheitsgebot is credited as the reason why German beer is seen as superior. It created a simple, yet high quality standard for beer. Thus, it is still regarded as an important law in Germany, especially in the region of Bavaria; which is the region where Oktoberfest takes place.

However, with the craft beer movement booming in the United States and now spreading worldwide, it is safe to say that Germany’s traditional beer culture is going through a bit of a transformation.

What is craft beer exactly? Well there is no “official” definition, but essentially it is brewing beer in small volumes, doing so independently or without a large corporate owner, and being innovative.

According to Axel Jany, the International Customer Consultant for Weyermann Specialty Malts, even though craft beer has seen a big growth in Germany, the Reinheitsgebot is still in place and very important to German culture.

“If a beer does not follow the Purity Law then it cannot be labeled a beer, but instead must be called a malt beverage,” Jany said. However, when I toured Stone Brewing Company in Berlin, my tour guide Johannes explained that they had to receive special permission from the government to label their non-Reinheitsgebot beers as actual beer. Judging by the numerous craft beer labels I have seen, it seems that a lot of breweries are getting this “special permission.”

It appears that it is not clear to everyone if the Reinheitsgebot is still in place or not, “but most Bavarian beers don’t want to be known as non-Reinheitsgebot, so they will adhere to it, at least on the surface. But there are many, many ways around it, and all are being widely deployed,” brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett Oliver said.

It is 2017 – about 30 years since the craft beer industry began in the U.S. but it is only now starting to take off in Europe, and in Germany it is a hot topic for debate.

American born, yet living in Germany, brewmaster and beer professor Christopher McGreger is sympathetic to both sides of the argument.

“The only way to get a decent beer in America is to drink craft beer,” McGreger says but in Germany it is much easier to find high quality beers anywhere you go.

Like most craft brewers, McGreger was inspired by others like those at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company who really respect traditional beer, and make similar products with their own twist.

“The problem now with American craft beer is that it is too extreme. Brewers are only trying to make the hoppiest, or the most sour, or the booziest beer out there,” McGreger said.

As McGreger puts it, a German brewery is a big brewery scaled down, so it has a high quality process and products, while an American craft brewery is a home brewery scaled up so it is not as refined.

McGreger concedes that there are great American craft brewers and beers out there, but unfortunately the traditional Germans do not seek them out.

To a typical German, American beer is Coors Light or Budweiser, the only beer ever advertised and sold everywhere. Unfortunately, this low quality beer and the companies that own them run a monopoly on the beer industry in the U.S.

Companies like the San Diego craft brewery Ballast Point Brewing sold to Constellation Brands, the corporation best known for making Corona. And the popular Phoenix craft brewery Four Peaks Brewing sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is best known for making Budweiser.

This sort of thing does not happen in Germany. 

“The German beer market is highly fractured, with no producer controlling more than 10 percent of the market,” brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett Oliver said.

In 1994, Garrett Oliver took the position as brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in New York. Over 20 years later and Oliver is in that same position, but now with a large amount of achievements to add to his resume.

Oliver and many other craft brewers have a huge respect for traditional beer. Oliver himself was inspired when he spent a few years living in Europe, and he is even fluent in German.

“Traditional German beer is wonderful, and I hope it doesn’t change at all,” Oliver said, however, “no young person wants to be told ‘here are the four approved beer flavors’ when there is an entire world to explore.”

Beer has become an art form almost, much like baking or cooking. Not everyone wants just chocolate or vanilla cake when you can make colorful creations like funfetti. And no one wants to eat the same meal with the same four ingredients every day. It would get old very quickly.

The same goes for beer. Craft brewers like Oliver are testing the boundaries and adding ingredients like chocolate, coffee, and coriander to name a few, to spice up the flavors of beer.

Much to the traditionalists dismay, “Germany has seen a 30 percent increase in craft brewing in the last decade, while industrial beers have trended downwards,” according to the CBS news piece, “Bringing Craft Beer to Germany.”

CEO of White Labs, Chris White, can attest to this data. White Labs is a company that is dedicated to testing and creating products to produce higher quality goods such as yeast so brewers can make better tasting beer. “What’s funny is, those original orders [from Germany] from 15 or some years ago, were always the longer strains plus like the kolsch yeast, but now it’s completely different, the market has diversified” White said.

The most notable arrival in Germany is Stone Brewing Company in Berlin. Stone Brewing Company is a craft brewery that began in San Diego in 1994. The company is known for its gargoyle logo and “Arrogant Bastard” brand beers.

“Some would feel that Stone came to Berlin with a disrespectful tone, and I know that many German brewers including young craft brewers, resented it,” Oliver said.

Even while on my tour of Stone Berlin, my tour guide Johannes began by telling us how the owner, Greg Koch, invited all the media to come to a special reveal. There they witnessed Koch drive through a wall in a forklift and drop a giant stone on a pile of industrial German beers. That type of publicity may be acceptable in America, but a lot of Germans immediately took offense to the act.

Oliver believes that the German craft beer scene should be immaterial to Americans. German craft brewers will make their market, not Americans.

“The real question is ‘can traditional German beer survive in the modern world – alone?’ And the answer is ‘no,’” Oliver said. Because of this, the average German brewery declines in sales by one or two percent a year.

Although Koch’s reveal of his opening of Stone Berlin was a bit over the top, the squashing of the German industrial beers did foreshadow the changes that are happening in German beer culture. Craft beer is on the rise, while industrial beer is slowly sinking into its grave.

“Brewers like Eric Toft at Schaunraum have proven that you can really pay attention to traditional beer and brew fantastic versions of those styles and still grow – there is a place for that. But if you’re going to make your beer cheaply and compete on price in the supermarket aisle, you’ll never make it,” Oliver said.