Germany – an enigma of a country known for its maniacal dedication to order and efficiency, and a heavy investment in the art of crushing beer. While the French know their wine, the Russians know their vodka, and those from the United Kingdom seem to know their scotch quite well, I don’t think anyone would object if I claimed that the Germans are an authority when it comes to beer.
Many of the beer nerds out there will howl in indignation as they read that last sentence, claiming that German beer is “boring” or “not creative” because it’s not known for a knock-your-face-off or scald-your-palate character – something that the rather insane craft beer subculture in America has become accustomed to. It’s all gotten so crazy that when I worked as a bartender at ChurchKey in Washington, DC, we were actually able to sell IPA brewed with ghost chilies, and some people thought it was good (it wasn’t). Overlooking subtle nuances in beer seems to happen all too much, and I think that might be why I’ve preferred German styles for so long.
Unfortunately, the Germans have recently caught a bad rap regarding their craft beer. Many beer snobs claim that German beer suffers from “simplicity.” This likely has its roots in the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law, which has been in effect since 1516, a year that went down in history, or infamy, depending on who you ask.
Essentially, the law is a bundle of restrictions regarding the ingredients that can be added into German-made beer, so those peppers I mentioned earlier would definitely be a no-go. The law boils beer down to its essential ingredients: water, barley, and hops. Back in the day, this prevented innkeepers from tampering with their house beers to take advantage of their customers. This law is also the reason why so many American craft beer drinkers scoffed at me when I told them my favorite beer was a Mahrs Brau Ungespundet–Hefetrüb (an unfiltered, light lager from the city of Bamberg, fondly referred to as the “U”), because they thought it was boring due to its lack of fish flakes or naval fluff. Consequently, I was all for the Reinheitsgebot, as it was a way of protecting my palate from things that should not be tasted in beer, let alone anything.
None of this is to say that all beer should be crisp, slightly hoppy, and have a solid malty backbone, but these days it’s very refreshing when you find what my father insists upon having in a beer: complexity and balance. What this means is not too much of one thing (e.g. mussel shells, cannabis, etc.), but a complex harmony of various flavors that makes for a more contemplative beer-drinking experience. Most people look to Belgium, which is not only known for its delicious blondes and dubbels, but also for lambic, a beer with tart, fruity, character. Thus, on the surface people think German beers are boring and not creative by comparison, but it turns out they’re overlooking some of the best and most intriguing brewing taking place on planet earth – all happening within the strictures of the Reinheitsgebot.
Sebastian Sauer of Freigeist Bierkultur is leading a sort of old school, and I mean very old school, revival in lager-soaked Germany. Freigeist takes old regional styles no longer en vogue in Germany and recreates them, but without the assaulting pizzazz generally found in most other “creative” beers. Some old/new favorites are Abraxxxas – a more modern take on the classic but rarely brewed East German Lichtenhainer (a slightly sour smoked wheat beer) and the Ottekolong, an unfiltered, hoppy, kolsch – the quaffable, native beverage of Cologne, where Freigeist has its roots. Others include sour porters and hopped-up wheat beers, defying what are otherwise seen as unbreakable German beer-drinking traditions.
Of course, Sebastian and Freigeist are spearheading the anti-Reinheitsgebot movement in Germany, and when we spoke via email, he had plenty to say about it:
[It’s] a ridiculous and annoying thing still to work with. The name sounds great as you have the feeling that it defends something “pure,” but this is definitely not the case. Instead, you can use a lot of different nasty ingredients to clear and stabilize your beer… but you can never filter everything out as there will be always a small share left. Next to that, it’s simply bullshit that German brewers are not allowed to work with spices, herbs, unmalted grains, fruits and other natural ingredients. We are even not allowed to brew bottom fermented beer with anything else than malted barley – so no use of wheat malt, rye malt etc…
Despite these restrictions, brewers have found ways to be creative. One style Sebastian most enjoys working with is the legendary gose. Leading the charge is Ritterguts, a brewery out of Leipzig that exclusively brews gose. A gose is a lactic ale brewed using spontaneous fermentation, similar to the Lichtenhainer mentioned above, but generally without the smokiness. It is brewed with coriander and salt, which one might think makes for a strange tipple, but all the salt does is make you want to drink more! Slightly less tart and fruity than other goses, Ritterguts is anything but aggressive, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I tried a Russian recreation a few days ago.
Gose is a beer that would seem rather unorthodox within the lines of the Reinheitsgebot, but Ritterguts has been operating since 1824. When we corresponded, brewer Tilo Janichen had his own thoughts on the Reinheitsgebot, as he collaborates with people like Sebastian on a regular basis, making “impure” beer. He claims that, “it would be better to make a requirement of naturalness instead of the ‘purity’ law…now chemical additives are allowed in brewing on an industrial scale. On the other hand, certain natural ingredients are banned.” Luckily for Tilo, Ritterguts, he informed me that he has “special permission” from the government to brew his beers, so production continues without any hassle.
Despite using less orthodox ingredients, Freigeist and Ritterguts still produce beers that are approachable, which stays true to the German dedication to balance and complexity in beermaking. Stephan Michel, head brewer and owner of Mahrs Brau in Bamberg, maintains that the Reinheitsgebot is something to be proud of, especially in Bavaria: “The Reinheitsgebot is a sign of quality, like ‘Made in Germany’ and therefore also very important, because it reflects the quality of the beer.” He goes on to confront detractors who claim that German beers are not creative, simply saying,
I don’t believe it. Germans simply drink different beers than Americans and we [Mahrs] brew what most Germans like, and have been doing so since 1670! Do more questions really need to be asked? Why should Mahrs brew an IPA if people love the ‘U’ and my other beers? Of course, I could copy other beers and brew them but I do that by collaborating with my friends. I have always observed the market and if I were to notice that my customers wanted new beer, then I would brew it. But America loves “U”!
Mahrs Brau produces the same styles as Becks, Paulaner, Spaten, and Weihenstephaner but their beers shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence and I’m sorry that I just did. In comparison, beers from Mahrs are on another planet – the Weisse (hefeweizen) for example doesn’t taste like someone stuck a truckload of banana peels in the fermenting vessel most hefeweizens, but maintains a slight hop aroma and a soft maltiness that’s lovely, especially in these early days of summer. The ginger bock was my personal favorite at my family’s annual beer jubilee, The Festival in 2013, and the “U” is the stuff of legends. They all have one thing in common however, and that is the above-mentioned balance, which is often lacking in beer these days.
While Sebastian Sauer wants it to go away entirely, and maintains that the Reinheitsgebot is mostly still around for “lobbying purposes,” Stephan Michel counters that the Reinheitsgebot provides more than enough room for creativity, and asks why fix what’s not broken? However, Tilo Janichen did remark that because of the Reinheitsgebot, many German brewers are going to Austria, Belgium, or Denmark for the leeway to brew more “creative” beers. Frankly, I don’t really know what to think, because these guys all make damn good beer and regardless of their opinions, sharing beers with them over the years has been a rare pleasure. I am always impressed by their knowledge and devotion to their craft.
Reinheitsgebot or no Reinheitsgebot, we can all agree that there is great beer coming from Germany, and if you haven’t tried it yet, you should, even if the brewers disagree on tradition.
Luckily for us, we don’t have to worry about how the beer is made so much as if we have enough in the fridge. All we have to do is sit back, crack a bottle of the good stuff, and watch it all pan out from a distance.
Max Shelton is an American currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (while not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He finished his MA dissertation at Middlebury College in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917–1922.