What beer culture?

Last night I went to a party here in Germany where most of the people were around 30 years old, in other words a year or two younger than I am. It was great fun – everyone was eating, drinking, chatting and dancing and the mood was relaxed and friendly. All in all very civilised, except for one thing: the beer selection.

It is quite common for the person hosting a party in Germany to also provide drinks – typically wine, a bit of bubbly, beer and various soft drinks. The worrying thing is that young Germans, despite being brought up with some of the best beer and greatest beer traditions in the world, seem to regard beer as just ordinary plonk, to be bought in bulk and required only to taste as little or as awful as possible. Quite often, the beer of choice is Beck’s, a beer which originates from Bremen in the far north of Germany, but which nowadays is owned by the world’s biggest brewing behemoth, namely AB InBev, or whatever they’re called this month after the latest round of mergers and acquisitions.

Beck’s is well-known for its pilsner, which is sold worldwide in small green bottles at ridiculous prices, but in Germany Beck’s also sells numerous other beer concoctions, including Beck’s Gold which is Germany’s attempt to emulate the tasteless big-selling brands from the USA, and some diabolical mixtures such as Beck’s Lime. The latter tastes so awful I wouldn’t even want to flush it down my toilet, since I think my toilet deserves better.

This saddens me a little bit. Germans are very conscious about environmental issues, and are in general a very illuminated lot who ought to know better. There are approximately 834 breweries in Germany that are closer to Konstanz than Beck’s, and although not all of these beers can easily be bought at the local supermarket, there are a few good local ones that are readily available. Why, then, is Beck’s so bloody popular down here in the south despite having travelled the best part of 1000km to get here?

I think the answer is twofold: first, there’s the ever-important marketing aspect and second, there’s the fact that despite Germany’s strong beer traditions there’s a distinct lack of beer culture, at least in this particular part of Germany. Beer remains an integral part of daily life here, but it’s a bit like a staple such as milk or bread – you buy a crate of beers which taste like beer and you drink it without thinking much about its taste and aroma, nor its heritage or whether it comes from a local family-run brewery or a big industrial plant outside Düsseldorf.

A typical local brewery making excellent beers
This is also reflected in the fact that Germany has a strange lack of beer festivals and associations that concern themselves with the preservation of beer traditions and styles. In Britain, for example, there’s the national CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) group with more than 130,000 members which has been phenomenally successful in first saving and then steadily increasing the popularity of the traditional British ales. CAMRA also runs the Great British Beer Festival as well as hundreds of local beer festivals where the focus is to showcase the range and variety of British beer on a local and national level. Germany, on the other hand, has the Octoberfest – certainly the most famous and biggest event in the world that is associated with beer. However, the focus is not the beer itself, but the drinking of it whilst slapping your thighs and singing drunken songs together with about five thousand other people in an enormous tent. In fact, only the six big traditional Munich breweries (three of which have merged anyway) are allowed to sell their beer at the festival, and they all taste more or less the same. It can be great fun to take part in this, but it is not a beer festival.

So what’s the conclusion? Germans are, I think, a little complacent. They still have a phenomenal variety of interesting beers and some of the best breweries in the world, but my impression is that this is just taken for granted. Meanwhile, many medium-sized local breweries that for centuries have served their local villages, towns and cities are giving up because of increasing costs and decreasing sales – not least, I think, because young Germans buy the trendy beer brands with added lime or grapefruit rather than the boring, local beers that their parents used to buy before they started drinking wine instead.

Founded in 1793, the Hirschenbrauerei serves just one tiny village, but for how long?
There is hope, though. Just like elsewhere in the world, new micro-breweries are opening up and starting to brew tasty and interesting beers, some even trying to resuscitate or improve traditional recipes. Sadly, there are none of these near me yet, so until one opens (or I open one myself) I will seek out the best local beers and bring them with me to parties, even if other people think I’m the biggest weirdo south of the Rhine for doing so. Well, I’m Norwegian, I’m weird, and I don’t care. At least I can enjoy a beer full of flavour and aroma, and perhaps even spark some interest amongst the other partygoers who notice my pleasurable slurps and  accompanying smile while they try to force down some god-awful mixture of beer, gunk and cauliflower invented by the marketing people in Bremen.

That’s it for now. Until next time, drink the local stuff. It might be good. Prost!