When I did my two junior years — high school and college — in Germany, I had to get used to the repeated observation by the locals on how lousy American beer was. Not that I viewed myself as carrying any brief for the American brewing industry, or that I entertained any chauvinistic opinions that nothing about Home could possibly be second-rate to anything, and in no event objectively bad, but it still rankled. It rankled because the observation was perfectly true, and because of the sheer repetitiousness of it. The favorite pejorative was “Spülwasser” — dishwater.
And they were right.
As Inspector Clouseau famously said, not any more.
From today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, we have a report on the American craft-brewing phenomenon. The report is that the number of breweries in the U.S. is now over 4,000; since 2007 the number of micro-breweries has tripled. All this since the 1970s, when fewer than a hundred enormous breweries shared the market. Germany has, in contrast, “only” 1,400 breweries. Poor dears; you could drink a different beer each day for almost four years and not have to repeat.
The report points out — truthfully — that American brewers are working with much more flexible rules than the Germans, bound as they are to the Reinheitsgebot (the purity law which dates to the early 16th Century; Brussels in recent years decreed it unenforceable for beer imported into Germany, because allegedly protectionist, but just try selling a beer in Germany that doesn’t comply with the Reinheitsgebot . . . and more power to them for it; the law still, it seems, applies to German domestic beer). One unnamed American craft beer advertises itself as having <sound of throwing up in mouth> raisin skins mixed in, to give it a fruitier taste.
On the other hand, and demonstrating commendable fairness, the article also points out that in many cases, the novel tastes don’t rely on adulterations like raisin skins, but rather on entirely new varieties of hops. Thus the craft beers produce a wondrous tapestry of new beer tastes (assuming that’s what you’re after) without violating even the letter of the Reinheitsgebot. The German firm which is the world market leader for hops — the Barth Gruppe — warns that this trend, which until recently simply wasn’t recognized or which was dismissed as a “bubble,” is now “irreversible.” Because the so-called “flavor hops” are predominantly grown in the U.S., if current trends continue the U.S. will soon surpass Germany as the world’s leading producer.
“In fact: American beers taste good.” That sentence would never have been even whispered 30 years ago, when I was last living there, let alone written in any reputable publication (because as of then it just wasn’t true). “The world is turning away from German beer,” the article observes. And the final sentence, more in sorrow than in anger: “A changing of the guard is underway.”
They may have signed the articles in May, 1945, but when one of the flagship German newspapers writes the above sentences, that’s what surrender looks like. You can bomb their cities into rubble; you can slaughter their soldiers and sink their sailors. That’s just a trial of raw force, after all. You can make cars that are bigger, faster, cheaper, cleaner <cough, cough!>, or safer; all those are just trade-offs among the physical constraints of motor vehicle design. But to beat them on quality? In beer? Do that and you jerk away one of the German’s central pillars of his self-image.
Here I must say that I do not particularly enjoy all this fruity-beer nonsense. I prefer the German taste; I also am something of a Guinness fanatic. Back in the day I drank an enormous (does the expression “enough to float a battleship” mean anything to you, Gentle Reader?) amount of Weizenbier — wheat beer — in both its Hefeweizen and Kristallklar variants. The only American wheat beer I’ve ever found that tastes even remotely like the Real Thing is Yuengling’s “summer wheat,” which is truly awesome, but which those lunkheads only brew, as the name implies, during summer. Ummm . . . . guys: Weizenbier is a year-round pleasure; just ask the folks from Donaueschingen. But de gustibus non disputandum est, I suppose; as long as you can produce that taste within the confines of the Reinheitsgebot, more power to you.