It must be something about the Reinheitsgebot. This ancient and hallowed document, scribed onto goatskin, the symbol of all that is Germanic brewing, has intimidated us all into keeping to the straight and narrow—even though it technically doesn’t even apply to Germans themselves anymore. While we Americans seem willing to twist venerable British styles into unrecognizability, we have much more of a worshipful attitude regarding Continental lagers. Let’s see if we can change that.
It is our right as Americans to seize on tidbits of history, jumble them up and put together whatever kind of story sounds best.
First, we need to defuse the Reinheitsgebot. Despite the hype, it was not designed as a consumer protection law. It’s a tax-enforcement law. When hops and malt are the only brewing ingredients taxed, you have to force the brewers into using nothing else, pure and simple. Wheat beers were excluded because they were the exclusive right of royalty, and you don’t think they would be paying taxes would they? I’ll wait while you thumb your nose at the whole mess.
Second, it’s important to know that the Reinheitsgebot was a Bavarian law, not a German one, until 1878, some time after Bavaria joined the Union after Mad Ludwig bankrupted the state coffers building silly castles. The North had a rich tradition of beers more along the lines of Belgium before the great tide of Bavarian lager swept all into obscurity. A few—the wit-like gose comes to mind—have been revived, but for the most part the Germans are pathologically uncurious about their brewing past.
It is our right as Americans to seize on tidbits of history, jumble them up and put together whatever kind of story sounds best. So let’s get on with that and start thinking about the beery possibilities. Note that the quantities suggested are for five-gallon batches. All of these should be fermented conventionally with lager yeast and given a cold conditioning commensurate with their strength. Don’t forget the diacetyl rest, a couple of days at cellar temperatures to allow any excess diacetyl released by the yeast to be reabsorbed.
Namibian Pale Lager
The Germans never had the kind of colonial empire the other major European states had, but did hold some African territories late in the nineteenth century. It’s interesting to think what they might have done to a pilsner style beer to make it hold up the to the rigors of a sea voyage. To a base of 100 percent pils malt brewed to a gravity of 1068 (16.6°P), I’d add a boatload of fine Hersbruck or Hallertau hops. Let’s say 60 IBU, which comes out to 3 ounces at an hour for a five-gallon batch, plus another three or four ounces right at the end of the boil. Feel free to dry hop this batch as it lagers. You could give the same beer the Czech treatment by using Saaz hops instead of the German varieties.
When England was kicking the world’s butt in terms of industrial development, the rest of Europe saw porter as the Next Big Thing and rushed to brew their own versions of it. Here I’m imagining doppelbock-strength 1075 (18.2 °P) beer brewed from a half-and-half mix of pils and Munich malt, topped off by a pound of Carafa II, the very smooth röstmalz. A pound or two of dark Munich or melanoidin malt can add an extra layer of flavor. You can hop this as you see fit, but since the English were hopping the Dickens out of their porters back then, that might be a good thing here. Northern Brewer will lend its chocolatey charm as a bittering hop (1.5 ounces gets you 47 IBU), topped off with Mt. Hood or Crystal, two German-inflected North American varieties.
Picture a rich, creamy Oktoberfest dialed up a notch for the chillier winds of November. A bit stronger and darker, it is reminiscent of descriptions of the famous erntebier (harvest beer) of Westphalia. We’re shooting for 1063 (15.5 °P). Start with Munich (and a little pils if you like), but add about 10 percent dark Munich or melanoidin, and a couple ounces of Carafa for a little extra color. A half-pound of molasses will add a layer of complex flavor and lighten the body just a little. I’d keep the hopping relatively light on this one.
I love the malty aroma and hop-tinged taste of maibock, but I am often underwhelmed by this style. What if we take a page from Belgian brewing and add some sugar for a crisper palate and double up on the hops? I would add 10 percent high quality pale ethnic sugar, perhaps Thai palm (sometimes called coconut sugar) sugar, which brings this full circle to the excellent maibock, Singha. Gravity should be in the tripel range at 1080 (19.3 °P). Hop using Perle for bittering (1 ounce will get you 30 IBU), and finish with massive amounts of Saaz or the American Ultra. I’d definitely recommend dry-hopping with more Saaz.