Hamburg Is Germany's Most Underrated Beer City

March 23, 2020

By Barbara Woolsey, March 23, 2020

Every year, Hamburg breweries get together and brew the world’s one and only Senatsbock. 

The ritual, in which different breweries collectively produce a bock together, started in the German harbor city during the 1950s and 1960s. Over the last four years, a new group of breweries—now eight in total, including several craft breweries—are bringing the tradition back to life. 

“You’ve got almost every brewer in Hamburg sitting at one table and meeting regularly,” says Sascha Bruns, the head brewer at Landgang craft brewery. “It’s really nice to talk not just about the beer, but how things are going.”

The Senatsbock is a testament to one of Europe’s most friendly, and perhaps most underrated, craft beer scenes. Over the last few years, Hamburg has become a hotbed for creative craft brewing, with several notable players like Bunthaus Brauerei, Wildwuchs Brauwerk (an organic brewery), Buddelship Brauerei, Circle 8 Brewery, Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei, and of course, the award-winning Landgang.

Generally, there’s a lot here to get beer geeks in a tizzy: the Altes Mädchen (Old Girl) brewpub, where a beer sommelier suggests Ratsherrn craft pairings with an impressive array of food options; the Gröninger cellar brewery, opened in 1722; or Landgang’s bar made out of shipping containers. Even the Elbphilharmonie, a state-of-the-art concert hall, has a taproom selling Störtebeker beer.

Food and beer at Altes Mädchen. Photo courtesy of Altes Mädchen.

Despite this, Hamburg’s not on the radar like other European cities from Copenhagen to Bristol—just not yet, anyway.

“In Hamburg, because there hasn’t been so much attention, we’ve been able to develop and grow quietly,” says Sophia Wenzel, a local craft beer sommelier. “We really have developed a little capital, a northern lighthouse when it comes to craft beer.”

The city actually has a brewing tradition going back to medieval times. Hamburg was a port for the Hanseatic League, a trading guild that dominated northern Europe between the 13th and 15th centuries. During that time, there were more than 500 active breweries. In the historic center, Altstadt, hops were even grown.

“Because it was a harbor city, there were always many sailors who wanted their different beer styles,” explains Wenzel. “We’ve always been very cosmopolitan and lived for beer diversity. The craft beer scene has resurrected that.”

Beer sommelier Sophia Wenzel. Photo courtesy of Sophia Wenzel.

The decline of the Hanseatic League saw Hamburg lose its force as an economic capital. But in recent years, the city has invested billions into revitalizing its former port area with modern architecture and in 2015, the Speicherstadt warehouse district was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status, creating a surge in tourism. In 2018, a record 7 million tourists came to Hamburg, a good number of them from neighboring Scandinavia.

“Putting different ingredients in beer is just part of our history,” says Wenzel, and because of this, Germany’s Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law, isn’t taken so seriously here as in Bavaria.

As a result, you’ll find some of Germany’s most experimental craft beers produced here, such as the Bunthaus beetroot ales, beetroot saison, and lemongrass-coriander gose (“Gose Morning Vietnam”), or Kehrwieder’s “Love Me or Die” tripel with tonka sugar, ginger, anise, and wormwood.

Hamburg, which has Germany’s second-highest purchasing power after Bavaria, has a good economy, and many people are happy to spend on regional, sustainable food and drink. There is a high percentage of organic supermarkets, and Hamburg is known for being environmentally friendly; in the last state election, the Greens surged in support, and a recent Fridays for Future protest where Greta Thunberg appeared drew more than 20,000 people.

At Ratsherrn Brauerei. Photo courtesy of Ratsherrn Brauerei.

“A big difference here are the independent supermarkets,” says Landgang’s Bruns. “Up until a couple of years ago, there were three to five bars with a good craft beer selection. For that, you could go into any supermarket and have a whole shelf of only regional craft beer.”

Craft brewing in Hamburg keeps getting more interesting. Later this year, Bruns plans to brew a local beer style from 300 years ago for Landgang and beer sommelier Wenzel offers a monthly “Craft Gallery Tour” with Cramer Wohnvilla, a design concept store decorated with art from a local gallery where visitors can shop while enjoying craft beer. (Due to the impact of COVID-19, the tours have been suspended until May.)

Wenzel believes Hamburg’s “northern congeniality” and the cooperative camaraderie between brewers will continue to help the whole craft beer scene flourish, and put it even more on the map.

“Internationally, we’re an underdog,” she says. “It will still take a while for us to be seen as a beer hotspot. But I think we can change that.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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