Not many countries have managed to acquire their own month. But everyone in the beer drinking universe agrees that Germany owns October. Serendipity had a role to play in this, but the ever expanding juggernaut that is the global beer industry has had an influence on this too. Their world famous Oktoberfest has successfully managed to rivet itself onto the bucket list of beer enthusiasts everywhere, but it has also firmly anchored “brand Germany” in the minds of beer consumers globally.
This, like most things, has its advantages and its disadvantages. The Oktoberfest, for example, is really a show put on in Munich (in September) by the Big Six Munich or Bavarian-based brewers, all producing similar styles of beer (mostly lager and some wheat beer), and at least four of which are owned by either Anheuser-Busch InBev or Heineken; themselves owners and producers of an enormous share of the world’s mass-produced, pale lager beers (and even more so now, after the intended merger between AB InBev and SAB Miller). No wonder then that the original Oktoberfest found itself over the decades experiencing some quite impressive brand extension from Brazil to Beijing! Throw in some great atmospheric history like the 16th Century German Purity Law, the “Reinheitsgebot”, which all the brewers involved very prominently advertise, and the beer-appreciation prism has narrowed even further.
Despite their reputation for being one of the world’s largest quaffers of mass produced, identical looking and tasting beers, very few people other than a German could confidently tell you the difference between a Helles, a Lager, and a Pils. Probably because of the deeply embedded Germanic need to classify, qualify and catalogue! And yet, the differences are real, and to true beer-aficionados, they matter. Do a bit more digging, and you’ll actually uncover a wonderfully diverse range of beers, across the country, and even within smaller regions. There are the northern Bavarian beers of Franconia, in particular their Rauchbiers, or smoked beers, where the malt has been kilned over beechwood before mashing. Or the dark, earthy Altbiers, literally “old beers’ from around Dusseldorf, made with top-fermenting ale yeasts but cool-conditioned, like lagers. Head a bit further northwest to Cologne, and you’ll find the proudly local, pale, subtle Kolsh, served not in the huge 1L Bavarian ‘Mass’, but in tiny 20cl glasses. It’s strange, and rather refreshing that so many of these actually quite wonderful beers haven’t been packaged up and thrown at the world with some made-up marketing tagline. It leaves plenty of room for the enthusiastic beer nomad to wander and explore.
Outside of Germany, the best known traditional styles might be the Schwarzbiers – the dark, strong, but cool-fermented Bocks, and Dopplebocks, Paulaner’s Salvator probably being one of the best known. Their wheat beers too have become note-worthy with their characteristic citrusy notes and banana-like estery character.
A German friend of mine, who also happens to own a local German ‘brauhaus’ selling brews from one particular Bavarian brewer, loved to tell a joke every time I ordered an alcohol-free beer at his bar. His joke was that buying an alcohol free beer was like going into a brothel, and asking for a hug. Imagine this being told, with extensive pauses for chortling, in a strong German accent. And he always finished with genuine, raucous laughter! The joke itself, especially after the umpteenth telling, wasn’t that amusing, but his enjoyment of the telling certainly was. In fact, I sometimes used to buy the beer just to watch him crumple up with laughter. But then he’d sit down with me and talk like a scholar about the beers of his country, both of which he obviously loved.
Never underestimate the depths you can find in simplicity. The same can be said for German beer.