By Bryan Betts
When you think of good German beer, Bamberg and Munich are probably the first places that spring to mind. It is not all southern though—there is great beer in the north too, where Hamburg and Bremen were brewing powerhouses of the medieval Hanseatic League trading empire.
Historically, northern Germany’s beer culture was at least as strong as the south’s. It had much in common with its neighbors and trading partners—fruit, spiced and wheat beers as in Belgium, hoppy ales and even IPAs as in Britain, Baltic Porters and Stouts along the coast of course, and local specialities such as Mumme, Lütje Lagen and Broyhan.
Then came the “Bavarian colonization,” as beer historian Ron Pattinson has described it. In 50 years from 1860, almost the whole of northern Germany’s ancient ale culture vanished—first drowned in a northbound flood of lager, then finished off by a combination of the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, imposed nationwide as a condition of Bavaria joining a unified Germany, and the social turmoil of industrialisation.
Northern Germany wasn’t exactly left as a beer desert, but fruit beers and spice beers were banned, sour beers were reduced to a few hardy hold-outs such as Berliner Weisse and Leipziger Gose, and its top-fermenting traditions were almost completely wiped out. Many old styles were lost forever, while others survived only in forms altered to suit the palates of new generations brought up on the myth that beer=Pilsner.
Now though, innovative brewers are starting to rediscover and reinvent those lost traditions. Unlike the big brewers, who implicitly use the Reinheitsgebot to dismiss all foreign beer out of hand (they have no purity law, so it must be full of nasty additives, right?) these innovators are happy to borrow from America, Britain and elsewhere. Often they simply want to make something different from Pils, but in doing so they are also restoring Germany’s lost brewing traditions.
The beer-equals-Pils myth remains strong, however, says Boris Georgiev, whose iconoclastic nanobrewery Zeugenbräu is northeast of Hamburg. “It’s like fifteen years ago in the US,” he sighs. “People here think beer is all the same—maybe it’s not as extreme [as in the US], but still…”
“I have to make Pils to get into the shops—everybody knows Pils, they get it from TV,” agrees Torsten Schumacher, the brewmaster of nearby micro Grönwohlder Hausbrauerei. He prefers to brew other beers, such as his lightly spicy Spezial and rich northern-style Dunkel, but they are unfiltered and don’t have the shelf-life the supermarkets need.
Ironically, what might finally crack that myth is that bottled Pils has become increasingly generic, with the big breweries selling it on price and via lifestyle adverts. This has helped inspire a craft beer movement, driven in part by the very German desire for something locally and traditionally-made. Unfiltered and hand-made beer is in vogue, and hops and darker malts are back in fashion, along with new versions of old northern varieties of pale ale, Baltic Porter, spiced gruit ale, wheat ale, and of course Dunkel.
Small breweries and brewpubs are in fashion too. Many focus on localism and quality, rather than doing something new—it is quite common for a German brewpub to offer just a Pils and a Dunkel or seasonal. A few are more innovative, and are proving that rural customers can be just as open as beer aficionados to fantastic new flavors: Klindworths in Lower Saxony, Ricklinger in Schleswig-Holstein, Eschenbräu in Berlin, and Finsterwalder in Brandenburg, for example. “It was hard to start with, but now people are looking for new tastes,” says Finsterwalder brewmaster Markus Klosterhoff.
Other inventive small brewers, such as FritzAle, Kreativbrauerei Kehrwieder, Propeller Bier and Zeugenbräu, are taking the bottling route. Germany doesn’t really do guest draft beers or have many specialist beer bars (yet), so if you want something different from the house draft, that means a bottle.
So what makes a beer northern? “The traditional brewers of the north were the Hanse, and the beers are very hoppy and very strong, like English IPAs,” says Christoph Puttnies, the brewmaster at Störtebeker Braumanufaktur on the Baltic coast. He says though that while micros can target niches, it is tough for a medium-sized brewer to make such beers when the average drinker is constantly fed adverts stressing that beer=Pils.
“There’s beer for the masses, and beer for special drinking,” he says. “We are in the middle, it is very difficult but we are trying to brew different beers.” He has several wheat beers, for instance, plus a sweet Baltic Porter and a rich and bittersweet 7.5% Stark-Bier, or strong beer. This latter highlights the challenge of working in overlapping traditions—to some, it is a Doppelbock, to others it resembles an Imperial Stout. Which is it? Puttnies shrugs: “In Germany, Baltic Stout is not so famous, but everyone knows Doppelbock,” he says.
Axel Ohm, who handles marketing for Hamburg’s Ratsherrn Brauerei, agrees that it is hard. He says breweries like Ratsherrn are torn between the desire to do something special but risky, and the temptation to play it safe and brew craft Pils for the masses. For now, Ratsherrn is trying to do both—as well as Pils, it also brews hopped-up weizenbiers and a crisp Pale Ale, and it has opened Hamburg’s first specialist craft beer restaurant and its second specialist craft beer store.
That northern hoppiness has fed through into “foreign” styles too—ask a northerner what is northern beer, and they will likely suggest Jever or Flensburger, two examples of the extra-bitter coastal variety of Pils. Even large breweries such as Holsten and Warsteiner have attempted this Nordisch Pils, albeit with limited success.
Bock is a north German invention of course, and tends to be a little hoppier here. However, even in its home city of Einbeck the versions brewed today are the bottom-fermented Bavarian clones, not the original top-fermented northern ales.
And the dark lagers, whether Dunkel or Schwarzbier—the latter is claimed as a northern style—are typically more bitter and roasty than Munich Dunkels. Good examples are Dithmarscher Dunkel, Lüttjes Schwarzbier and Vielanker Schwarz. There are even black Pilsners, but then German micros and brewpubs tend to be more concerned with brewing what their customers will enjoy drinking than with style guidelines.