Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"You'll Be Hearing a Lot About the Reinheitsgebot This Year."

You'll be hearing a lot about the Reinheitsgebot this year. In fact, you'll be reading at least a few articles that begin with the sentence, "You'll be hearing a lot about the Reinheitsgebot this year." I will probably write at least two of them.

Anyway, it's the so-called purity law's 500th birthday. That's right, I said "so-called," even though Reinheitsgebot literally translates to "purity law." It's because the popular name is a misnomer. I hope to explain more about that in an upcoming piece for DRAFT. That piece might even start with the sentence, "You'll be hearing a lot about the Reinheitsgebot this year." You've been warned.

Especially here in Germany, the R-word seems to invoke a lot of feels. Proud feels. Thirsty feels. Angry feels. Some people really like it. Others really hate it. I find a healthy like/hate relationship to be the most professional approach, if in doubt.

Some of Germany's newer/smaller/edgier brewers are organizing an "Anti-Reinheitsgebot" night, on April 23. Their goal, I would say, is not to be jerks about it but to promote creative freedom for brewers. Sebastian Sauer of Freigeist -- a beer commissioner that revives and revises some weird and forgotten German beer styles -- posted a thoughtful screed about the whole thing on Facebook yesterday. But I don't like to send people to Facebook, since I often avoid going there myself. So he gave me permission to post the whole thing here. Warning: my attempt to avoid posting links to Facebook includes links to Facebook. I am weak.

That's all. Here it is, unedited:

You'll be hearing a lot about the Reinheitsgebot this year...
No, no. That was a joke. Here is the real one:
Let's talk about the "Reinheitsgebot" (German purity law) today. Yes, of course, we talk about the "Vorläufiges Biergesetz" which is the official name for it, but to also talk about it's symbolic character, I will stick to the name "Reinheitsgebot". As quite a few of you already saw, I wrote a posting these days and created an event for the day of the 500th anniversary of this document for more liberation in the German beer scene and for celebrating brewer freedom. For everyone who didn't checked it out, here it is: https://www.facebook.com/events/1549997495290780/ 
Well, I didn't mention too much, yet, and just wanted to see the first discussions and actions on its own. It's great to see how many people reacted and to see how controversial the whole subject is. In Germany and especially in Bavaria, the subject feels like you are talking about something forbidden and I'm sure many people - breweries, shops and gastronomy - would love to join, but don't want to get opressed and want to deal with being uncomfortable. It's part of our freedom to be able to want this brewer freedom in Germany and everyone should be able to get informed about the facts of the situation in Germany. 
There are many discussions going on about the Reinheitsgebot and everything about it. The fact is that it was not created as a consumer protection in first place and that it's not constantly in power since 500 years. Many international people think that the Reinheitsgebot doesn't have any relevance in Germany anymore which is wrong - especially in Bavaria, brewers have to follow it very strictly. The important parts about it is that for top-fermenting beers, you can use all different type of malted grains and can also use sugar while you can't use other normal ingredients then water, hops and yeast. For bottom-fermented beers, you can only use water, barley malt, hops and yeast and no other malted grains. Of course, there are many other obscure facts that the original document doesn't mention any wheat malt, but it's still used and everybody is completely fine with it as they explain the use of wheat malt would be logically included and it's within the expectation of the consumer. Why they think that the consumer never changes and would never expect any other natural ingredient in his beer isn't clear to me. But I don't want to bother too much talking about that as there are plenty of information about all those obscurities around already. 
There are discussions of the Brewer Association and other people to modernize the Reinheitsgebot for the future. Their goal is to update the rule to allow certain natural ingredients, but to keep the whole general idea and not to drop the rule. From my perspective, that's just a slow, tiny little step and wouldn't stop further discussions for the very close future. In general, it should be clear that brewer should be able to use any natural and not health damaging ingredient for their beer like all other food and alcohol producers - no matter what. This is the situation in the whole world and only in "the country of beer" (from German view), we are happy to limit our own creativity so much. Just go out there and see what you can find - so many wonderful things just waiting for interested people to try. And yes, you can create great things with the basic four ingredients and yes, I don't add anything else to certain beer types as well because it's not necessary, but using all the other fantastic ingredients is multiplicating the positive possibilities thousands of times. The whole conservatism from many, not only German brewer and associations is rooting in unreasoned and self-loving chauvinism about their own products and a xenophoby and disrespect for other products. Well, I don't have a problem when people have their own view and are so in love with the Reinheitsgebot that they don't want to brew and don't want to taste anything else. There are also people out there who don't want chocolate with spices and bread without nuts and fruits. But it's a problem for me when it's touching other people's and in this case also my own personal view and is forbidding something which shoudn't be illegal and is nowhere else illegal in the world. 
The law situation in Germany is telling the German consumers what kind of beer they should drink and that is manipulative and patronising. People in Germany should have their own choice within the legal frame (which is obviously not touched with beers brewed with fruits, spices etc.) to pick the beer they want to drink. That's one of the main philosophies behind the "Aufklärung" of Immanuel Kant and I can't believe we still have to fight for it after that long time.
I also saw some discussions in an Italian forum after I posted about the campaign and there were voices saying that they don't like Germans to use American hops because then the prices are getting even higher. Well, the use of American hops doesn't touch the Reinheitsgebot, so...... 
Other voices said that they like the classic way and the normal beers and they wouldn't need new beer styles in Germany. That's fine if that's their view, but German brewers are not only their for brewing the classic styles over and over again without a change just because tourists like it. Italians also wouldn't care if Germans would think (and trust me, there are plenty of people of that type here) who think that Italians shouldn't brew beer and should focus on what they are famously known for - making red wine and baking pizza. But that's an ignorant way of viewing things. 
The development of the German beer scene will make it's own way and it will take time.... a lot of time. But I'm very optimistic for it. 
Please join the event. It's enough for joining if you just drink a beer non-conform to the Reinheitsgebot on the 23rd of April 2016. If you have a bar or a shop or you are a brewer, please feel free to join in whatever way you want to show how great the beer diversity can be and to inform your visitors and customers. Let's finally liberate the German beer scene!!
* Sauer, before he was Freigeist, once crashed at my house after we tasted some rare fancy beers and watched music videos for most of the night and he brought a pony keg of smoked bock that blew up on my front porch but my dog Truman just lapped it up like the bacon juice it was. True. That's a disclosure of sorts.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bopping Around Friedrichshain. Or, Berlin-Style Surrealism.

I could write thousands of words trying to give you a feel for Berlin's indie beer scene today. Maybe a few photos (and a few words) would do just as well for now.

I found this sticker on the wall of a restroom in trendy Friedrichshain. This is a lively neighborhood colonized by a cosmopolitan mix of twentysomethings with enough time and money for things like locally roasted coffee, interesting beer, and street food. I try to avoid the H-word or any labels that marginalize. In my late thirties I live a quieter life on the quieter and decidedly less cool side of town, shuttling kids to soccer or preschool and not always choosing to splurge on sitters so I can go explore pubs out in the eastern districts (although I do, sometimes). So I am a bit jealous and I hold nothing against friendly people living exactly where I often wish I'd been living in that time of my life.

So this particular sticker was in a café called Szimpla. It features good coffee, belly-warming Hungarian snacks and lunches, some sofas, layers of concert posters, a kicker table, attractive people, and sometime in the past year it added nine taps and the subtitle "Craft Beer Bar." Often the beers are from small Berlin outfits; when we visited last month there were several from Poland. I drank a Polish stout and a tasty German lager... but I lack notes since we were engrossed in conversation after a visit to the nearby Stasi Museum. Fascinating place. But I'm pretty sure that dry, hop-forward lager was Pilsz from the Spent Brewers Collective -- a beer firm that hires its brews from various places. There are several of those in Berlin.

That sticker comes from Berlin's Bierfabrik (not to be confused with Amsterdam's Bierfabriek). This was until recently another beer firm, hiring various breweries to make its Wedding Pale Ale and other varieties. Now Bierfabrik is an actual brewery in Friedrichsfelde, about six kilometers east of Szimpla. So you can be pretty sure, now -- if you care about such things -- that a Bierfabrik beer is a Berlin-brewed beer.

Trying to drink local beer in Berlin is a shell game. There are firms with offices in Berlin, and they market their hired products as Berliner, but a bit of research often finds that they are brewed in Bavaria or Lower Saxony or Denmark. If you know me then you know that this annoys the piss out of me, on your behalf. I often know where the breweries are, but I also get the idea that when people pay to drink something local they actually want to drink something local. You are paying extra for specialty beer, and its origin story -- is it a true one? -- might well be part of why you pay. (Whether that's a good reason to pay more for beer is another discussion.) The firms are often honest about this if asked directly, but to regular drinkers the information is typically missing from tap lists and beer labels, occasionally confined to fine print on the website. If it is there at all.

Oh, I've digressed.

If you like park bench drinking -- who doesn't? -- or if you're staying in this neighborhood, or maybe you're just thirsty and want to walk around sucking from an open bottle, which is perfectly OK here by the way, then I should tell you about the shop across the street from Szimpla. It's called Boxi Kiosk. It looks like a typical corner convenience shop until you walk in and see two walls of refrigerated beer -- some novelties and imports, but also plenty of good traditional German beers in half-liter bottles too. There are other beer shops and bigger selections and better selections, but rarely do you see so much refrigerated beer in Germany. And this one is open until 5 a.m. Anyway, who needs summer beer gardens when you have Boxhagener Platz?

Oh and there is a brewery a couple of blocks away. Hops and Barley is a smallish brewpub and underrated, depending on who is doing the rating. I think a generation of samey '90 era German brewpubs trained us to overlook them as nothing special. This one is different though. Yeah, OK, there is a pils, a dunkel and a wheat beer -- I know it sounds boring but they're pretty good -- plus meanwhile there is a rotating choice of seasonal that tends to be boldly hopped. I drank a strong, brown lager smelling and smacking of fruity hops, bitter but stopping well short of resinous. They called it Bohemian, but if I described it as an Indian Brown Lager, would you get the gist? Nice people too. No secret where the beer comes from. The kit is right there. Cozy corner dive atmosphere.

Back to the sticker. I like to think the irony -- "Don't believe the craft beer hype" -- is intentional. I want to believe this is the "ceci n'est pas une pipe" of Berlin beer. But marketing is marketing. Ultimately we'll judge it by what's in the container anyway. And whether that liquid can compete for a place in our short, busy lives, and in our limited budgets. Sitters cost money, you know.