Monday, August 31, 2009

America v Germany

The Atlantic ran an article by Berliner Clay Risen debating the relative respect Germans afford American beer and vice versa. Germans think American beer is crap (but largely are unable to get quality American beer) and Americans think German beer is boring.

I talked about this a little on the WPR radio piece that I did a few weeks ago, and which I'll post later this week so you can listen in full. I think the Atlantic article actually covers the issues pretty well. But, I think the list can be shortened to one reason:
5. Openness/curiosity - Unlike England or Germany, America has no real beer tradition of its own. What is American beer? It's everything and nothing. English ale and Czech pils are both accepted. Americans import their styles, and so beer is nor a national symbol or a part of ist culinary patriotism. You'd never find a German brewery that makes a Belgian beer: The German beer culture is too proud of itself. In contrast, in America such internationalism is the ideal.
You'd never find a German brewery that makes a Belgian beer. And that, I think, says it all. But, Germans need to understand that they don't need to make a Belgian beer. But they can learn from Belgian brewers and incorporate and experiment. And, they can look down their noses at beets and cracked pepper and apricots and blueberries, but they can experiment without violating the Reinheitsgebot.

I don't need a Weihenstephaner tripel, but maybe their dunkel with a tripel-like kick would taste really nice. We'll probably never know. As Mr. Risen says, "Germans are uninterested in innovation or even a wide variety of choice, because they feel they have already found perfection."


  1. Interesting article in the July '08 issue of All About Beer (V.29,No.3) by Sylvia Kopp about how the Reinheistgebot has contributed to the commodification of beer in Germany and resultant lack of creativity. Sure the Germans make good beer, but its soooooo boring. American craft brews are superior in terms of taste and creativity in every sense imaginable.

  2. I think the Belgians have struck a nice balance of maintaining traditional brewing techniques and standards while incorporating influences from innovative breweries around the world. Tradition and innovation need not be mutually exclusive within any industry.

  3. Rico, yeah, I think the Germans (and others) like to blame the Reinheitsgebot. But, as I said in the interview, Ale Asylum follows it and they seem to do pretty well for themselves in terms of creativity and quality.

    Nonetheless, worldwide, the number is probably well over 90%, but the vast majority of beer produced is, essentially, commodity beer. People drink different German beer for much the same reason that some Americans drink Bud and some drink Miller - and it has little do with the taste differences.

    The secondary point of the article I thought was pretty interesting too. As a German, he was pointing out that Germans have a particularly un-informed view of the American beer culture. He blames it on pride, but, frankly, much of the issue is probably access. Germans get Bud and Miller, but how much Dogfish or Stone or New Glarus or Three Floyds or Russian River do you think they drink there?

  4. MBR- doubt the Germans try (or from the sounds of it, even want to try) that much American craft brew. Too bad for them. So access is probably part of the problem, but methinks the Germans need an attitude adjustment as well. If they think Becks is materially better than Bud/Coors/Miller than not only are they being provincial, they are demonstrating their bad taste. German beer is good, but its not that good. I'll take a West Coast IPA (Green Flash anyone?) over a German brew, anyday, anyhow. Have heard much positive about New Glarus, but have not seen it here on the Left Coast. Perhaps I'm just looking in all the wrong places.

  5. What does the Reinheitsgebot laws have to do with this? They are no longer in effect and are only a marketing tool. How many German breweries make a wheat beer which is in non-compliance with the Reinheitsgebot?

    Uncle Rico - So you'll take a West Coast IPA over a German beer any day, anyhow? That comment says nothing about German beer and everything about your parochial tastes. There's no difference between Germans sticking with their lagers and you with your WC IPAs.

  6. Palmer,
    1) Wheat has always (since the 1600s or 1700s or so) been an exception to the Reinheitsgebot

    2) The Reinheitsgebot is relevant because Germans use it as an excuse for non-innovation; as if "creativity" can only be accomplished by adding adjuncts. And, they use it as a reason to see American beer as "inferior" - their "creative" beer doesn't comply with our "purity law", etc. The point of the article is a direct refutation of the latter and my point about Ale Asylum (and Stone in the WPR interview) is direct refutation of the former.

  7. Palmer- my comment certainly does reflect my preference for American craft beers over German beer. That preference, however, is not based upon a parochial belief that Amercian craft beers are inherently better simply because they're American craft beers. Its based upon the subjective factor of taste. The Germans (and others) are certainly entitled to their belief that Germany is the promised land when it comes to good tasting beer. I don't begrudge them that. However, I don't buy off on the notion (perpetuated by the Germans) that German beer is better because its German and is brewed in strict accordance with the Reinheitsgebot.


  8. Looking around the Net, I see that Paulaner, Thurn und Taxis, and Wolnzacher brew rye beers and Hoepfner brews a German variation of the porter.

    So, do you have any posts about your travels in Germany talking to German brewers? Or is one article by an American journalist in Berlin full of unsubstantiated generalizations enough to make you an expert on a whole country's brewing industry? I haven't listened to your WPR segment so perhaps you detail your extensive experience with German brewing companies there.

  9. Palmer,

    Fair enough. I haven't been to Germany. But are any of those available here? No.

    Much like Germans' experience with American beer (Budweiser) we have relatively limited exposure to German beer. So, a lot of this is cross-talk and we simply don't know what's going on at the micro levels (though Paulaner isn't exactly "micro").

    It was an article that talked about a lot of the biases that Americans and Germans tend to have about each other. I, in no way, make a claim to finality or conclusiveness as to arguments.

    Maybe you should listen to the WPR segment ;)

  10. Please tell me what the narrow selection of German beers here has anything to do with what I wrote because I am obviously not smart enough to understand. How does having access to such a limited selection of German beers here justify your sweeping generalization of the attitudes and motivations of brewers of an entire country? Just because you can't get your hands on a Paulaner rye bier somehow justifies your idea that every brewer in Germany is impotent in face of the Reinheitsgebot and your unquestioning agreement with Risen that "Germans are uninterested in innovation"? You explicitly stated that Germans don't innovate because of Reinheitsgebot and now you're trying to excuse yourself by saying that you have only a limited access to German beers. Are you seriously telling me that your ignorance justifies your generalization?

    Where in the article or in your post is the issue setup as US micro vs. German micro? Take the bit you quoted: "You'd never find a German brewery..." Where is the word "micro" or the implication that it is only microbreweries that are the subject? I agree - the Germans appear to be very ignorant about US microbrews and we are likely ignorant of German microbrews. But again, so what? Both you and Risen speak only of Germans and German brewers which means micro, macro and all between. Nowhere did you or Risen discriminate between the two. I fail to see how our ignorance of what's happening at the micro level in Germany is relevant as both you and Risen generalized about the entire country, i.e. - all German brewers, not just the microbrewers therein.

    Risen may very well be correct - I honestly do not know. What irritated me about your post was how you just agreed with what he said unquestioningly. If you don't claim conclusiveness to the arguments, fine. But why quote Risen as if his were the words of God and do nothing whatsoever to indicate that you are approaching the issue as someone with very limited experience in the matter?

  11. OK, I listened to you on WPR. So, despite the limited selection of German beers that you've had, you knowingly go on the radio and pronounce that Germans brew only boring lagers.

    You seem to have nothing but contempt for German brewers. No wonder you just jumped on the Risen bandwagon and started talking out of your ass.

    Perhaps you can inform your readers about your exceptional bias before you go about pretending to be an authority on the matter and sleighting the brewing industries of entire countries despite being incredibly ignorant about their beers.

  12. Palmer,

    Geez man. Did I kick your dachsund or offend your homeland or something? I love German beer. Period. There's plenty of German beers that are some of my favorite on the planet. I have no bias for or against it.

    But, having said that ... Name one innovative thing available on the shelves here that is German-brewed. Thus, I am left with the conclusion that Germans are not innovating. Couple MY experience HERE with Risen's experience IN GERMANY, and I am left with the conclusion that Germans are simply not innovating at the level and pace that Americans are. It's not better or worse and I've never made a claim that German beer is bad because of it. It just is.

    And before you go around claiming that Paulaner Rye is the greatest thing since sliced bread, compare that one example that you were able to come up with against the number of rye beers available just in the state of Wisconsin. Do I know what's available in the brewpubs surrounding Munich? No. But I know my own experiences and the experiences of professionals in the industry that corroborate my own opinions. But, here's an article, far from conclusive, that suggests that the local beer there is at least as non-innovative as what is represented on US shelves.

    I never made a claim that every brewery in Germany is non-innovative; only that the beer can be generalized as 'non-innovative' and that this article, written by someone that I don't know, but who lives in Germany and seems to be able to put two sentences together to make a coherent thought, seems to confirm my generalizations. We can generalize German beer in the same way that Stone can be generalized as 'hoppy' and New Glarus as 'safe' and the South as 'a wasteland of decent craft beer.' It's not true in the absolute but we can generalize.

    The fact is, the vast majority of what is on the shelves here from Germany are boring (stylistically), even if well-crafted, lagers (and wheat beers).

    If you'd like to write a counter-post about how awesome and innovative German breweries are, I'd be more than happy to post it.


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