The Null Device
Germany's brewing industry, often regarded as a benchmark around the world, is not doing very well, with breweries closing and others cutting their production. One of the factors causing this may be Germany's ultra-traditional brewing culture
, where a 16th-century beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot
), whilst no longer officially on the books, is still widely followed, severely constraining what may be considered beer in polite company:
These days, Germany's celebrated brewing towns and atmospheric old taverns can feel like retirement homes. Visitors to the south of Germany today (where more than half the nation's breweries are located) find few of the ardent young beer lovers that crowd craft watering holes in Copenhagen; Brussels; London; New York; Portland, Ore.; and even Rome. And while it's true that last fall's 200th Oktoberfest was bigger than ever, using Oktoberfest to measure the health of German beer culture is like using Disney World admissions to measure the health of American cinema. Once a decorous wedding pageant, Oktoberfest is a hot mess, with cheesy carnival rides and hordes chugging cheap lager as if it were Hawaiian Punch. Paris Hilton even showed up for the anniversary celebration.
A law enacted in 1516 to control prices and shield the baking industry from supply shortages by excluding rye and wheat from brewing, the Reinheitsgebot stipulated that beer must contain only malted barley, hops, and water (wheat and yeast were written in later). The decree—often described as a the world's first consumer protection legislation—dried up the ancient pre-hops tradition of Gruitbier, which likely included yarrow, bog myrtle, juniper, rosemary, mugwort, and woodruff—all perfectly useful bittering and flavoring plants. It also pulled the plug on Köttbusser, an ancient brew made with oats, honey, and molasses. While the Reinheitsgebot was actually overturned in 1987 as an impediment to European free trade, many German companies adhere to it for marketing purposes, especially in Bavaria. When it comes to beer for local consumers (exports are mostly brewed without the strictures), it's still the de facto law of the land.
Another issue is the hypnotic marketing force of Reinheitsgebot may make Germans less sophisticated tasters by limiting their perception of what a good beer can be. When asked, many Germans—even well-traveled beer-industry professionals—tend to wrinkle their noses at beers of foreign style or origin. They would sooner drink cheap biermischgetränke or mass-produced domestic beers mocked as spülwasser (dishwater) than try anything exotic, such as Belgian ales spiced with herbs or the sort of hoppy, aromatic ales and lagers making waves in the American craft-beer market. If Germans want the taste of something new and exciting, they look to other forms of alcohol.
Gradually, however, things are changing, as a new generation of brewers is starting to explore more adventurous forms of brewing.
Gasthaus-Brauerei Braustelle in Cologne, a nano-brewery that opened in 2002, is also defying national and local traditions with increasing chutzpah: braumeister Peter Esser's latest beers include a dunkel (dark) seasoned with rosemary, an American-style IPA (called Fritz IPA), a 5.8 percent ale infused with hibiscus flowers (Pink Panther) and what's thought to be the first American-style imperial stout ever brewed in Germany (Freigeist Caulfield).
It's interesting to compare this to the situation in Britain, where another tradition (that of "real ale") is accused by some of holding back the local brewing culture
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