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Archive for January, 2011

Nothing elicits the ire of craft beer enthusiasts more than the mere mention of the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Law.  At best it’s seen as an outmoded relic of a by-gone era and at worst the medieval equivalent of capitalistic evil and stain on the history of beer.  One blogger comments that “while it is often portrayed as tantamount to tradition, the famed German purity law is hooey, plain and simple.”  Another blogger simply says that the Reinheitsgebot is an “old load of bollocks.”

On the other side of the fence, many – mostly Germans – regard the decree as the very protector of purity and quality in the brewing arts.  So, who’s right?  Was the Reinheitsgebot merely, as some claim, an attempt to prevent valuable wheat and oats from being diverted away from the production of bread?  Was the decree actually Wittelsbach protectionism designed to preserve a royal monopoly on wheat beer?  Or, could the law have indeed been the Western world’s very first example of consumer protection regulation?  I figured that as my exploration of the beer universe deepened, it would be helpful and interesting to get to the bottom of this controversial piece of history.

As I read contemporary criticisms of the Reinheitsgebot (and, believe me, there is a ton of criticism), I’m struck by how the majority tend to anachronistically project modern prejudices, sensibilities, and beliefs in analyzing the law.  In order to avoid this pitfall, it’s instructive to take a look at the medieval context out of which the decree arose.

The Reinheitsgebot of 1516 entered the scene at the tail end of a dramatic transition in the history of brewing in Europe.  Prior to the 13th century, the main producers of beer in Germany were religious orders who brewed for local consumption.  The emergence of large-scale commercial economies starting in the 1200s meant that beer production began moving from the monastery to the private commercial brewer.  Unfortunately, that transition was not always smooth.  The traditional brewing methods that had been passed down through generations of monks were often neglected (or just plain ignored) to the detriment of beer quality.

Regional differences also played a huge part in the commercial growth of beer in the late Middle Ages.  In northern Germany, where the commercial revolution was most evident, powerful guilds managed to create strict regulatory controls on the production of beer.  In addition, the guilds ensured that good craftsmanship in brewing were well promoted.  For these reasons, the best beer in Europe in the 14th century was coming from northern Germany.  The situation was much different in southern Germany where the feudal aristocracy retained more control over economic activities including brewing.  The feudal lords were slower in adapting to the new commercial realities, which resulted in a lack of competition from southern brewers.

Nowadays we tend to take for granted modern food safety regulations.  We simply assume that no matter what beer we purchase it will be, in the most literal sense of the word, drinkable.  Such was not always the case during the commercial revolution of the late Medieval period.  Aside from various spices that were frequently used to preserve beer like rosemary, caraway, or juniper, more nefarious ingredients were utilized in an attempt to cover up off-flavors.  Cheap fillers such as chalk, soot, and even hard-boiled eggs were thrown into the wort making beer drinking an unpleasant, and sometimes even dangerous, proposition.

In response to these conditions, local lord and city councils all over Germany began passing ordinances in an attempt to regulate the type of ingredients used in brewing.  The earliest known regulation was issued in 1156 by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in his legal code declaring that ” any brewer making bad beer or using unjust measures shall be punished.  Offenders shall have their beer destroyed or it shall be distributed to the poor.”  In attempt to improve their beer quality, the city of Nürnberg in 1293 issued a decree limiting ingredients as well as setting a minimum lagering time.  The city followed this decree with strict enforcement, which resulted in the situation where, by the 15th century, Nürnberg was known for good beer.

Let’s not kid ourselves though.  The lords and city officials of medieval Germany weren’t necessarily working altruistically for the common good.  These regulations were economically motivated.  As southern Germany lagged behind the north in terms of beer quality and production, the beer business in southern principalities floundered.  People wanted the northern variety, creating a situation where exports from the north began displacing local production.  This lack of competition from southern brewers had a tremendous impact on the taxes and duties the princes were able to collect.  The math was simple:  good beer equals full coffers.

The Dukes of Bavaria knew they had to do something in order to compete against the flood of quality beer from the north.  By the mid-15th century, there were only 30 breweries in Munich, which is miniscule compared to the hundred or so that filled the small town of Einbeck in the north.  So, in 1447, the Munich city council ordered that only water, barley, and hops be used in the beer brewing in that city.  It was this ordinance that provided Duke Wilhelm IV and his brother and co-ruler Duke Ludwig X the pattern for what would become the Reinheitsgebot.  On April 23, 1516, the legislative assembly of Bavaria meeting in Ingolstadt passed the law at the behest of the brothers.

To gain a sense of the real purposes behind the Reinheitsgebot, it’s instructive to actually read through the decree (English translation of the law).  Interestingly, the question of ingredients only takes up one sentence in the actual ordinance.  The majority of the law deals with pricing regulations.  Specifically, the price of beer was capped at 1 pfennig in the winter and 2 pfennigs in the summer – the difference was to compensate for the increased cost of brewing and lagering in the summer months.  So, aside from regulating ingredients, the Reinheitsgebot had the obvious purpose of providing definitive price controls on the sale of beer in the realm.

Given the context of brewing in the Middle Ages, it seems to me that the quality of brewing as well as pricing controls were forefront in the minds of the Bavarian dukes.  But, the question is then, Why did the Reinheitsgebot exclude all other grains in brewing?  Many point to this fact as evidence that the decree’s main purpose was reserving the wheat supply for bread production.  While this motive certainly was present, I believe that it was secondary to more political concerns.  At the time, there was one noble house in Bavaria that possess a royal license to brew wheat beer.  It just so happens that this family, the House of Degenberg, were rivals to the ruling Wittelsbach family.  Instead of revoking their royal chart, which would have been in bad form, the Dukes could use their purity decree to help stifle the Degenberg’s monopoly.

Attributing a single motivation to the Reinheitsgebot would be fool-hardy.  It’s clear that the quality of beer produced in their realms was of major concern for the aristocratic lords of the day.  Quality in brewing resulted in greater sales, more exports, and, therefore, higher customs and tax revenues.  In addition, the Reinheitsgebot was clearly designed to establish some sort of regulation in the pricing of beer.  You can then throw into the mix various political, personal, and protectionist motivations that certainly played a part in the decree’s passage.

Perhaps what is more interesting in this discussion is not the motivations of the decree at the time but, rather, what the Reinheitsgebot evolved into.  Following its issuance, the decree seems to have had the desired effect.  Bavarian beer quickly caught up to the northern brewers in both quality and reputation.  As the Hanseastic League began to crumble in the 17th century, Bavaria was able to surge ahead to become the center of brewing in Germany.  The renown that Bavarian beer enjoys today can, in many ways, be linked directly to the decree of 1516.

Over the centuries, the Reinheitsgebot has rooted itself deeply into the imaginations of Germans.  When German Unification became a reality in the 1870s, Bavaria made it a provision of its entrance into the German Empire that the Reinheitsgebot would be adopted by the rest of the nation.  This was certainly a blatant example of Bavaria attempting to preserve its beer monopoly from northern competition.  However, its key to note that the decree didn’t come into full force throughout Germany until 1906 by which time much of the medieval brewing traditions of the north had been almost completely supplanted by the Pilsner.

Although the European Court of Justice struck down the German Reinheitsgebot in 1987, the decree still plays an important part in German brewing tradition.  Today, the Reinheitsgebot is almost synonymous with good beer.  This is an unfortunate development.  As critics rightly point out, limiting ingredients to water, malted barley, hops, and yeast does not guarantee a good beer.  Despite this fact, German brewers today use the Reinheitsgebot as a marketing tool in order to provide their brew a seal of legitimacy and quality, which they frequently do not deserve.

A further consequence of this deeply rooted tradition is the lack of innovation.  For centuries, the Reinheitsgebot has, for better and for worse, defined the character of German beer.  Today, there is little desire among German brewers to innovate beyond the Pilsners and pale lagers that dominate the market.  Even in Bavaria where quality beer is still the order of the day, tradition shackles brewers keeping them from developing their craft beyond the bounds of the narrow precepts of the 16th century decree.  As long as German beer continues to be limited by the Reinheitsgebot, neither an American style craft beer revolution nor Belgian ale tradition will ever be possible.  The alternative is growing irrelevancy in the beer world.

Looking back, however, I believe that the Reinheitsgebot were a positive development for the time.  Although dubious motives such as greed, politics, and personal rivalry certainly were present, the spirit of the decree was the promotion of quality, affordable beer.  Such a goal is something both critics and supporters of the declaration can agree on.

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The beer market in Germany today is slowly becoming a monopolistic beast.  The dominance of the top ten brewing companies in the country effectively limits the availability of smaller, regional breweries anywhere else besides their particular area.  Living in Cologne where the undisputed king of beer is Kölsch makes it even more difficult to acquire brews from other parts of the country.  Because of this limitation, every time I make a trip to another area of Germany, I try to find a good Getränkemarkt in order to pick up a few bottles of the local speciality.

Last month, while my parents were visiting us from the States, I took a day trip with my father up to Lower Saxony to check out my family’s ancestral castle (yeah, that’s right…we have a castle).  Now, Lower Saxony isn’t known nowadays for its beer.  In fact, outside of Bavaria, Franconia, and few other isolated pockets, the German beer landscape is surprisingly dull and monochromatic.  But, there is one brewery in Lower Saxony that has a good reputation, a rich history, and the beer to back them up – I’m talking about the Einbecker Brauhaus.

This modest regional brewery has a rather outrageous boast.  On the back of each of bottle they claim that the sleepy town of Einbeck is the home of Bockbier.  Their official slogan reinforces this boast reading “Without Einbeck there would be no Bockbier” (Ohne Einbeck gäb’s kein Bockbier).  In light of Bavaria’s well-known association with Bock, especially the delectable Doppelbock, such a claim seems a little far-fetched.  But, in actuality, the lineage of the beer we today call Bockbier can be traced to this small community.

The area that is today the federal state of Lower Saxony was not always a beer wasteland.  Long before Oktoberfest and the Reinheitsgebot, the region extending inland from the North Sea was the center of the brewing world.  Varieties like Hamburg’s wheat beer or Mumme from the city of Braunschweig, known throughout the Western world, were exported far and wide.  Much like Belgium today, every town had their own unique style of brewing.

Einbeck brewing at the time was actually a collaborative effort of almost 100 breweries in the city who were organized into a powerful guild which made it the most significant economic force in the region.  Fortune smiled on this small town in two ways that helped propel it to such prominence.  In 1368, the small town of Einbeck entered the Hanseatic League.  Membership into this powerful trading bloc guaranteed that Einbeck’s most important commodity became a household item by the 16th century.

On top of that, Einbeck was located in a region known for hop cultivation.  At a time when hops were replacing spices as the primary preservative in beer, Einbeck found itself uniquely situated.  The intense hop profile in Einbeck beer made it easier to preserve and therefore able to be exported great distances.  By the 16th century, Einbeck’s beer could be found as far as Jerusalem.

The Einbecker art had one particularly interesting patron.  Martin Luther was known to be a big fan of beer.  He once jokingly wrote that, “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”  It is said that on the evening of Martin Luther’s fateful meeting at the Diet of Worms, he received a special gift from the Duke of Braunschweig – a pot of Einbecker.  Although he preferred home-brewing (apparently, his wife, Katharina von Bora, was a heckuva brew master), Luther had a special fondness for Einbecker beer (great article on Luther and beer).

The destruction of the Thirty Years War and the subsequent downfall of the Hanseatic League ensured the end of Einbeck’s dominance.  Without the powerful backing of the League, the ability of Einbeck to export its brand quickly diminished.  But, they had one more part to play in German beer history.  When Duke Maximillian I of Bavaria realized that his supply of Einbeck’s finest was running dry, he brought the city’s chief brew master, a man by the name of Elias Pichler, to Munich in 1612 in order to develop the Einbecker speciality for himself.  Within a few years, the brewhouses of the city were churning out a decent version of the Einbeck original.  The word bock is, in fact, derived from the Bavarian pronunciation of Einbeck, or Ainbocker.

While the bock name grew to be associated with Bavaria, Einbeck and her beer sunk into relative obscurity.  By the end of the 19th century, only two breweries were operating in the town having only a modest reach in the region.  In 1920, these two breweries merged to form the modern Einbecker Brauhaus that we have today.  This is not all that changed either.  The modern Einbeck brewery eventually adopted the Bavarian lager method of brewing Bock.  The original medieval version, which was probably more akin to a Belgian Abbey Ale, has been lost to history.

So, what about the beer?  Right up front, I’ll say that none of their beers are going to win any awards.  That being said, their Bock offerings are really nice brews that certainly hold their own.  Along with their Bock beers, Einbeck also brews two types of Pilsner (of which, their Premium Feinherb is decent) as well as a Dunkel lager, all of which are not really worth going into.  So, for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the beers that were truly noteworthy – the Bock.

In harmony with the Heller Bock style, Einbecker’s Ur-Bock Hell has the best hop profile of their Bock line up.  It pours a pleasant crystal clear, golden color with a medium, off-white head.  The aroma really stands out with this beer.  Full of herbal hops and sweet malts, it hit my nose before I even finished the pour.  The flavor profile of this beer was pretty straight forward – nice malty sweetness with notes of cereal and citrus which is balanced very well with a dry, grassy hop bitterness.  The only compliant I had with this one was that there was a little bit too much alcohol flavor for a beer clocking in at only 6.5% ABV.  Regardless, this was my favorite of the batch.

Einbecker’s Ur-Bock Dunkel is the brewery’s nod to the original Bock beer.  This brew pours a very nice dark brown color with medium head.  The nose is a little weaker than the Heller, but pleasant nonetheless with a nice roasty sweetness.  The taste is fairly sweet with a significant dose of roasted malts and flavors of cereal and caramel with only a slight floral hop character to back it up.  The medium- to full-bodied palate leaves a nice and long-lasting sweet aftertaste.

Finally, I had the pleasure of sampling Einbecker’s winter seasonal beer, the Winter-Bock, which is their sole Doppelbock offering.  With a rich, dark brown pour and a hefty nose of fruit, caramel and roasted grains, this beer has a lot in the initial presentation beckoning you to taste.  Where it counts though – the flavor – it doesn’t match up to its famed Doppelbock cousins from Bavaria.  The taste is fairly simple – almost like a amped up version of the Dunkel.  Sweet roasted malts and caramel dominate the flavor along with a slight nuttiness and grassy hop bitterness in the finishing.  This is a great beer that is exceptionally drinkable.

Like I said, these beers are probably not going to be winning any awards.  But, what they lack in complexity, they make up for in essential quality and drinkability.  They are wonderful beers in an ever-growing sea of mediocrity.  The overall quality behind their brewing combined with the rich history of the city makes Einbecker one of my favorite German breweries.

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In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing some arduous research as part of an in-depth look into a renowned German brewery.  By “arduous research”, I mean drinking a lot of  beer.  It’s a tough assignment, I know.  So, I probably won’t be able to publish my next major post for another week or so.  In the meantime, I figured this would be a good opportunity to put together another Mash Tun.  This edition will include a look inside the ingredients end of the brewing process as well as a lament for the German beer industry.

Tettnang
For our vacation last summer, my wife and I spent a week relaxing along Lake Constance in southern Germany.  While we were out and about one afternoon, we drove past a whole bunch of farms that had these strange vines on massive wooden trellises. For the life of us, we just couldn’t figure out what they were growing on these things.  Our best guess was that it was some sort of grape-vine, but it was unlike any grape cultivation we had seen before.  For months, it remained a mystery.

Well, the mystery was solved this past week.  While browsing around on the internet, I came across this picture.  It turns out that these farms were growing hops!  The Lake Constance area is a major producer of the Tettnang variety of Noble hops.  The region exports this valuable commodity to breweries all over the world.  Because of its rich floral aromas and low bitterness, this hop is most commonly found in German Pilsners, wheat beers, and many American lagers.  These puppies are the ultimate aroma hops producing a refined, flowery aromatic.

In retrospect, I’m a little bummed that we didn’t realize what we were looking at.  It would have been cool to explore a little more while we were in the area.  I found out later that there’s even a hop museum near the town of Tettnang that’s supposed to be pretty amazing.  As I grow more interested in the subtlties of the beer world, it’s seeing stuff like this that really fascinates me.

Poor German Pilsner
In recent years, the German beer scene has been in decline.  Sure, there are still amazing breweries in Germany that are making some of the world’s best beers.  But, for the most part, the trend in Germany since the 1990s has been consolidation with an accompanying decrease in quality.  Most major German brewers have abandoned brewing starkbier in favor of flavored products such as lemon beer (Radler) or the awful Cola-beer mix.  You can’t blame them though.  They are simply following their market research which says that their most important consumer – young people – are moving away from traditional beers to sweetened varieties.

No other style has taken more of a beating than the Classic German Pilsner.  This once proud tradition was the unquestioned conqueror of the entire beer world.  However, the unfortunate consequence of this dominance has been a gradual decline in the overall quality of Pilsners that are produced.  Most German Pilsners barely fit the traditional characteristics of the style being mostly generic, pale lagers.

A few months back, I set out to find  brewers in Germany who were still brewing quality German Pilsners.  I sampled most of the national brands like Warsteiner, Bitburger, Radeberger, and Krombacher as well as some regional varieties.  Most of the national producers – beers we normally associate with German imports in the States – were rather disappointing.  However, among all of the weak, watered-down Pilsners, a few national brands stood out as brews that were upholding the Pilsner tradition.  I specifically enjoyed the offerings from Jever and Flensburger both of which had a really nice malt character balanced by a light but fine herbal hoppiness.  Despite these two decent showings, the real German Pilsner is nowadays found among the local and regional companies – breweries like Rothaus, Schwelmer, and Waldhaus.  It has given me impetus to continue my search for authentic examples of this much-maligned style.

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Driving through southwest Belgium, one is easily enchanted by the rolling hills, dense forests, and small quaint villages dotting the landscape.  This rugged region is known as the Ardennes.  Nestled in this magical landscape is a valley called Vallée des Fées or “Valley of Fairies”, and within this valley is a small town named Achouffe.  This fantastical locale is the home of and inspiration for a relatively young brewery on the Belgian beer scene – Brassiere d’Achouffe.

The Ardennes is a place that in many ways has escaped the touch of time.  While the consequences of modernity are, of course, ever-present, the people continue to hold on to the values and traditions that have marked this land for centuries.  Folklore still grips the hearts of those who live here – tales of fairies, dwarves, and gnomes flavor the local imagination.  In this milieu of fantasy, inspiration for a distinctive local take on the Belgian brewing tradition emerged.

In 1982, two local brothers-in-law set out to make their mark on the Belgian beer world.  They founded the small, independent Brassiere d’Achouffe naming it after their beloved hometown.  Naturally, the face of their new brewery drew from these same fairy tales and folklore that stamped their cultural surroundings.  It wasn’t that far of a leap either – Achouffe is very similar to the local word for gnome, which is chouffe.  The gnome became the symbol of the fledgling brand.

It is inspiring that this small brewery could make an impact on the beer scene so quickly.  To put it mildly, Belgian craft brewing is an intensely competitive market.  It surely wasn’t easy developing new and original ideas among perhaps the most sophisticated beer-drinking public in the world.  They carved out their niche by developing unique brews that combined the best of the Belgian tradition with ideas borrowed from beer offerings from around the world.

Their aggressive expansion beyond Belgium also helped their cause.  Today they are an anomaly in their home country having over 60% of their production destined for foreign consumption.  Achouffe is the only Belgium brewery that actually has more sales in the Netherlands than in Belgium itself.

In 2006, the two brothers-in-law sold their interest in the brewery to the Belgian beverage conglomerate, Moortgat.  It was disappointed learning that this traditional, family brewery had some time ago fallen into the corrupting influence of big business.  That suspicion was quickly allayed when I realized that Moortgat is the same company that controls Duvel and Maredsous.  The brothers still continue the day-to-day operation of the brewery ensuring the continuation of their exceptional craft.

So, what about the beer?  All of the offerings from Achouffe are firmly in the Belgian brewing tradition – top fermented ales that are unpasteurized and bottle conditioned.  However, this brassiere also has found inspiration from other brewing styles from around the world that they have incorporated into their beers, creating some original and innovative brews.

The flagship beer of Brassiere d’Achouffe is their La Chouffe, a Strong Belgian Pale Ale consisting of a classic Belgian pilsner malt with Tomahawk and Saaz hops spiced with coriander.  The brew pours a lush orange-yellow color with a light, foamy head.  What stood out immediately in the taste was tropical citrus like pineapple.  There was a definite herbal hop flavor in the middle which is where you get a sense of the coriander.  The taste then moves into a strong grassy hop finish.  The brew is a complex beer and a strong contributor to the Belgian ale style.

The great mystery of the bunch was their Mc Chouffe.  The mystery was, namely, what exactly is it?  RateBeer.com lists Mc Chouffe as a Scotch Ale whereas BeerAdvocate.com has it down as a simple Strong Belgian Ale.  According to the story, the brewers at Achouffe were inspired by a Scottish friend of theirs to bring a Scotch Ale flair to a traditional Belgian ale.  The result was the brown ale called Mc Chouffe.  Dried fruits, caramel, and earthy hops dominate the flavor of this beer.  Although it has a robust 8% ABV, you hardly notice any alcohol, which makes it one of the easiest beers from Achouffe to drink.  Think of this one as a Scotch Ale with a spicy Belgian take on it.

You wouldn’t be a Belgian brewer if you didn’t have a seasonal winter ale, now would you?  Achouffe, therefore, gave us their brew N’Ice Chouffe.  In this one, you find all of the usual suspects: nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon.  This spicy profile is supplement to a malt flavor centered around notes of dried fruit and caramel.  I’m usually not a big fan of Christmas beers, but this one was nice.

For me, the All-Star of the lineup from Brassiere d’Achouffe is their Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel.  The idea behind this beer was to combine a strong American style Imperial IPA with the Belgian Tripel.  With this beer, the story is the hops.  The brew has an amazing hop profile which is achieved mainly through their use of the American Amarillo variety, which passes on a very strong aroma and bitter flavor character.  This beer has it all.  Right out of the bottle there is a fresh aroma of floral hops and orange citrus.  The taste has the big malt body found in the best Tripels which then shockingly moves to a pronounced hop bitterness leading into a dry finish.  This brew is easily one of my top 5 favorites of all time.

When you’re talking about Belgian beer, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed with the vast amount of quality brews that come out of that small country.  Although Brassiere d’Achouffe only has 5 offerings (their fifth beer, Chouffe Bok 6666, is only sold in the Netherlands), they consistently produce amazing beers that are hard to match.  They have honed their craft well.  I hope someday to make my way over to the Ardennes to visit the small town and its brewery.  Until then, I’ll just have to rely on Deutsche Post to bring me bottles from this magical maker of beer.

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