Searching for a Pale Ale in Germany

April 24, 2017

By Michael Clearwater, April 24, 2017

It’s early January and I’ve just stepped out of some very unpleasant frozen rain and into the industrial-yet-homey space of Ale-Mania, Fritz Wülfing’s small brewery near the Rhein in Bonn, Germany. For all the lore of precise and efficient German brewing practices, this place offers something that feels distinctly more DIY. Wülfing – a chemical engineer by day – has cobbled together his mash tun and kettle from old dairy equipment, and a re-purposed canoe oar serves as a mash paddle.

As we walk around the space, Wülfing hands me a glass of Ale-Mania’s Pale Ale. The gesture is an expected bit of hospitality, but the bright, mango allure of Cascade hops balanced against the familiar bittersweet backbone of an honest-to-goodness pale ale takes me completely by surprise.

It feels melodramatic to fall back on such a well-worn simile as “like oasis in the desert,” but the American craft brews I’ve come to miss since moving from California to Germany – unabashedly expressive and sometimes a little weird – are melodramatic in their own own ways, so I’m going with the expression.

Of course, Germany isn’t a beer desert. People literally stroll down the street drinking beer here. But if you want something distinct or unexpected – something like the craft beer so many Americans take for granted – the German beerscape can feel a bit arid.

When I announced I’d be moving from Northern California to Germany for a year, some of my more snobbish beer loving friends explained to me that once I experienced the restrained, subtle purity of German beer at its source, I would no longer be swindled by the tackiness of an American IPA. And these friends told me that it was all good, that even the bad beer in Germany is good. And it is good, they said, because it has to be because Germany has the Reinheitsgebot!

As my departure date neared, I looked forward to re-educating my palate under the auspices of the now 501-year old Reinheitsgebot (it turned 501 on Sunday), the so-called purity laws that limit German beer’s ingredients to only malt, water, hops and yeast, and that many proud Germans assume to be a mark of quality, integrity, and tradition.

Chris SchaarschmidtThe canoe paddle that moves the mash at Ale-Mania.

Shortly after arriving in September, I walked down the street to a local beer and wine festival and sat down with a picturesque liter (a liter!) of whatever Reinheitsgebot Lager they were pouring. In the evening sun, in this lovely park, I felt as though I were in a Disney-made beer wonderland.

Accordingly, I was prepared for a magical beer moment like when I caught my first dank whiff of Pliny the Younger, or when I took my first delightfully perplexing sip of a barrel-aged sour from Almanac. Yet when I drank this very first German beer, I found all the purity, all the tradition and history to be… pretty good? Inoffensive? Suitable for drinking outside on a warm evening?

Obviously, this first innocuous brew was just one beer among so, so many in a country that sees beer as an important part of its national identity. I’ve since learned where to find more interesting and satisfying German beers, but it’s not as easy a task as I was lead to believe.

The reason for this, ironically, might just be Germany’s reputation as a place with a rich beer tradition. That’s why I’m visiting Ale-Mania: to get a sense of how the craft beer movement in Germany deals with the sometimes frustrating ways German beer drinkers understand their national tradition and the Reinheitsgebot.

Wülfing goes on to debunk for me the fictions perpetuated by the Reinheitsgebot.”

Wülfing describes the German beer scene as “a very protected world with absolutely uneducated consumers. The breweries are able to sell very neutral, boring light lagers with the consumer thinking that it is all traditional and that it has to be. Nobody thinks about what they are drinking. The consumers are not critical in Germany. There are a lot of breweries in this country, but they all brew the same beer.”

He goes on to tell me that the Reinheitsgebot itself is “a lie. It is a fallacy because German Brewers say this is the purest beer in the world, but [the breweries] have tricks to bypass the law, to color the beer, to filter the beer with chemicals [like polyvinylpolypyrolidone or PVPP for short]. The bad thing is they don’t make pure beer. They use the protection of the Reinheitsgebot to make ugly things.”

Wülfing goes on to debunk for me the fictions perpetuated by the Reinheitsgebot. While certain regulations have been in place in Bavaria since before 1516, the laws have only applied to all of Germany since 1906, and the specific contours of the law vary from one region to the next. The laws now allow other ingredients like wheat, sugar, hop extract and fining agents like PVPP. Trace amounts of herbicides and pesticides have also recently been found in Reinheitsgebot beers, suggesting an implicit tolerance to the seemingly practical impurities of industrial agriculture.

If all this isn’t enough to make you suspicious of this application of “purity,” you could consider that this association with “purity” is the result of a 1918 marketing campaign.

Chris SchaarschmidtPutting those Gaffel Kölsch boxes to good use at Ale-Mania.

Yet Wülfing is blithely unconcerned with the Reinheitsgebot’s effects on his own beers. Ale-Mania brews beers in flagrant violation of the laws, producing a Milk Stout and a Gose. “Outside of Bavaria,” Wülfing explains, “it is very easy to brew outside of Reinheitsgebot. It is no trouble. You get a license.” In Bavaria, however, the regulations are a bit more stringent, yet many craft breweries are producing bold and exciting beers from inside the confines of the purity laws.

The legal restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot don’t pose much of an obstacle to brewers outside of Bavaria, but the problem remains that most German consumers honestly believe the Reinheitsgebot guarantees them the purest, best beer in the world. Why should they want anything else?

Nonetheless, the demand for craft beer here is picking up. In fact, Ale-Mania has plans to add a taproom and growler-filling station to the facility to accommodate what they hope will be growing crowds. Wülfing is encouraged by the 2016 arrival of Stone Berlin, calling it “a very good thing because [Stone co-founder] Greg Koch is provocative and can reach a lot of people.”

He is surprisingly sanguine about recent craft beer inspired offerings from Beck’s, admitting that while he thinks Beck’s Pale Ale “is a shitty beer, it informs the market. People drink this beer and they say ‘Pale Ale? I don’t like this too much, but let me Google it.’”

Going forward, however, craft brewing in Germany is going to have to be about more than introducing Germans to international trends in craft brewing. The obvious problem with brewing American inspired Pale Ales and IPAs is that in order to make great hoppy beers, a brewer needs to have access to lots of great hops. Because of their place near the end of the hop supply line, most small German craft brewers are not in a great position to acquire the best hops at reasonable prices

It is clear that Wülfing has both curiosity and reverence for many of Germany’s more obscure traditions.”

This isn’t to say that these German offerings aren’t good. Ale-Mania’s DryPA is a fantastic example of how the style has been adapted to the realities of the supply line. Riegele’s Amaris 50 is a bewitching Pale Lager that showcases German – rather than North American – hop varietals. And Hanscraft & Company’s Backbone Splitter IPA does a nearly dead-on impression of a West-Coast IPA. There are plenty of good options if you need a fix.

As an American living in Germany, I'd consider the presence of beers that approximate and interestingly revise my favorites from home as good news, but perhaps my biggest reason for excitement and optimism about craft brewing taking hold in Germany is that a culture with a rich brewing history is becoming curious about its beer again. While the Reinheitsgebot represents the tyranny of tradition, it also serves as a reminder about how easily traditions get lost. A renewed interest in the styles, methods, and traditions obscured by the Reinheitsgebot is a promising development for beer culture in Germany and beyond.

When I ask Wülfing if he is interested in German brewing traditions that don’t fit neatly into the Reinheitsgebot narrative, he gestures to a large patio outside and tells me that this is where they plan on experimenting with an old method of boiling beer by dropping very large and very hot stones into the wort. Impractical and terrifyingly barbaric, this method causes the sugars in the wort to instantly caramelize on the hot stone, essentially encasing it in a dark candy sugar that slowly dissolves back into the beer.

It is clear that Wülfing has both curiosity and reverence for many of Germany’s more obscure traditions. He wistfully tells me about the strange persistence of communal, wood-fired breweries known as Zoigls on the German-Czech border. Once a wort is brewed in these communal spaces and cooled in the open koelschips, it is fermented and aged in the beer cellars of the local residents. Houses with six-pointed stars displayed outside will readily sell the beer to those who ask.

While Ale-Mania’s IPAs, Milk Stout and Gose are all worthy offerings, I was most enchanted by the Bonner Wieß. “The German people,” Wülfing admits, “drink beer from a very political point of view: I love my beer; I love my town. It has very little to do with the taste.” The Bonner Wieß is Wülfing’s loving attempt to give the people of Bonn a homegrown beer that they can love for reasons beyond its geographic location.

I am about to get a history lesson. In the North Rhein region, Weiß (pronounced in the local dialect as VEEZ rather than VIZE, which is reflected in the beer's intentionally 'mis-spelled' name) is not the typical wheat beer so often associated with Germany. It refers instead to a style of top-fermented, unfiltered ale brewed in the region in the 19th century.

In Cologne, just to the north of Bonn, this style evolved to become Kölsch. Since 1986, Kölsch has been a protected name – like Champagne or Port – that can only be applied to beers brewed in Cologne. Located in Bonn, Ale-Mania can’t make a beer by this name even though it has a regional claim to the style. But Wülfing feels Kölsch as it appears today is generally a corrupt and homogenized version that generally resembles the bland Helles Lagers available everywhere more than its historical predecessor, “weiß.”

The Bonner Wieß, on the other hand, is a beautifully cloudy amber brew – darker than I expect. It has a bit of pleasant yeasty funk accompanying notes of white pepper and apricot. On the tongue, the beer is bright, fruity and a little creamy with a curious umami finish.

This is a peculiar and exciting beer that represents, I hope, Germany’s brewing future as much as its past.

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