Saving Oktoberfest…

Oktoberfest is an unavoidable tourist trap of a beer drinking holiday in much of the world, with perhaps no greater faux revelry than in the United States. With no ties to any continental or European history or tradition, bars simply stock up on some half-liters (often plastic, ugh), some white and blue checked flags, and maybe even an oompah band, and they’ve got instant fest-in-a-box. Zum what?

And despite being one of the most popular seasonal beer drinking occasions, American brewers sure do make some shitty Oktoberfests. While giving a required nod towards the tradition of Germany, many so-called American versions of this historic style, their resulting beers fall so wide of the mark as to be unrecognizable. Often cast as ales, the trademark smoothness imparted by extended cold conditioning is replaced for a ubiquitous and yawn inducing fruit character. For many U.S. crafts, Oktoberfest beers also just mean a lightly red-hued beer, with no toasted or bready malt character, and little to no soft and subtle beauty. Often brewed without the addition of German or Euro malts or noble hops, the beers offer little if anything beyond the chance to slap an Oktoberfest label on the bottle and score some easy seasonal sales.

In the last decade, Americans have grown quite adept at celebrating if not quite replicating Belgian beer culture, with pubs and restaurants dedicated to all things Flemish and Wallonian. With classy and well-appointed gastropubs popping up in cities throughout America, the future of the Belgian beer bar seems undeniable. These upscale, Belgian themed establishments offer dozens of characterful and diverse styles, distinctive and well-presented glassware, and rough approximations of traditional pub fare. Belgian brewers often marvel at how well-established their nation’s beer culture is here. Between these dedicated pubs and the wide varieties of Lambics, Tripels, and Witbiers available at even your corner packie, Belgian beer culture is arguably more popular now in the United States than in its home country.

The same cannot be said of poor old Deutschland. While the development of the United States market has saved many traditional Belgian beers from extinction, German imports into the country have stagnated. Sure, we’ve got a handful of Hofbrauhaus knock-offs popping up around the country, but few bars let alone American craft breweries look to Germany for inspiration and great beers.

That brings us back to the saddest German beer story of them all: Oktoberfest. Perhaps the world’s quintessential and most iconic beer event, the original beer festival now largely masquerades as a beer selling bonanza for massive, foreign owned corporate behemoths. While some glorious, rich, toasted and malty beers still exist in Germany, they are increasingly difficult to find, having been replaced at the fest either by lighter colored facsimiles or just plain Helles beer.

Oktoberfest is undoubtedly one of the most enticing and saleable beer drinking occasions on the global beer calendar and its charms are appreciated across the world. Despite its obvious appeal, brewers, bar owners, and consumers often just treat it as a German Cinco de Mayo, an excuse to eat vaguely foreign food and get trashed, with a little polka mixed in. German beer culture deserves better and it’s time to start treating traditional German brewing styles with respect and not just as novelty.

That leaves us here in the states with a task ahead of us. As a beer loving nation dedicated to preserving and promoting great and classic beer styles from around the globe, however obscure (Gose anyone?), we need to step up and help resurrect Oktoberfest beer. To date, we’ve sufficed with the production of bland, traditionless Autumn or Harvest Ales posing as Oktoberfests.

-Article appeared in Issue 57 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Man, Nothing Going On Over Here…

Things have been very quiet over here in recent weeks and it’s likely to stay that way for at least another month. I’ve spent most of my time writing the book, a few articles, and taking some ill-timed vacations (including Las Vegas, Maine, and Germany). I still have a long road ahead with the book, which is due frighteningly soon. I’m going to try and post my annual primer on the Great American Beer Festival at some point in the coming weeks before the fest. But until then, enjoy the Matt Steinberg Interview…

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Reflections on the Reinheitsgebot…

Second only to its love of David Hasselhoff, the German affinity for its Reinheitsgebot boggles the minds of foreign visitors. Born as a cross between a taxation law and a means for protecting bakers’ ingredients, the Reinheitsgebot (literally translated as ‘purity regulation’ or ‘requirement’) has long been a dominating influence on the German beer scene. German brewers and drinkers alike proudly point to the regulation as de facto proof that their beer is the best in the world. The history, meaning, and practical effect of the historic regulation, however, are not so clear. In reality, the Reinheitsgebot is a confounding, convoluted, and even antiquated concept, the complexities of which the local German brewers don’t even appear to quite understand.

The earliest version of the Reinheitsgebot first appeared in the city of Munich in 1447 when the city council issued an ordinance asking all brewers to use only barley, hops, and water in brewing. Forty years later, Bavarian Duke Albrecht IV compelled local brewers to pledge support for the ‘purity’ ordinance. By 1516, the Reinheitsgebot had been extended to all of the then-defined state of Bavaria and it (with the addition of the newly discovered ingredient of yeast) would later be extended throughout the nation. The purity law dominated the German brewing scene until 1987, when the European Court of Justice struck down the provisions of the law which barred foreign brewers from marketing their non-compliant offerings as ‘beer’ in Germany.

While the landmark decision allowed foreign brewers to freely move their beers inside of Germany, the case was not the last word for German brewers. When you ask whether the purity regulation still governs their actions, German brewers tend to give mixed responses. Almost all brewers claim that the Reinheitsgebot remains the governing law, with some even suggesting that there are criminal penalties for violating it. While a handful of the republic’s more than 1200 brewers might privately tell you that the purity law no longer governs their businesses, none would dare speak such blasphemy in public.

A debate over the Reinheitsgebot can raise the ire of ardent German beer enthusiasts. Supporters point to the glory of a zesty German-style pilsner or the grandeur of a luscious maibock as proof of the value of the purity law. To these dedicated souls, anything that suggests tampering with these brewing treasures and their traditions is heresy. And there is no denying that the country’s reputation for excellent beers and its revered brewing traditions have in part been preserved by the country’s identification with and dedication to the purity regulation.

Despite its ties to tradition, the purity law has also served to stifle German creativity and provided harbor for some unfortunate misconceptions about beer. The uniform party line approach of German brewers has led both locals and foreign drinkers to propagate the myth that the Reinheitsgebot is what makes German beer ‘good’ and that any beers not made in accordance with its rigid rules are somehow inferior. Brewing in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, however, is no guarantee of quality and as any imbibing traveler in Germany can attest, the country has its fair share of flawed beer. German brewers are not immune from the temptation to cut corners on maturation times or ingredient qualities, all while staying within the four corners of the purity law.

At its core, the purity law is built upon a faulty premise, namely that quality beer can only consist of three to four standardized ingredients. Strict adherence to this errant brewing ideology has caused German brewers, known for their technical savvy and innovative dexterity, to largely miss the craft brewing revolution. The explosion of brewing creativity spreading in countries, including Japan, Denmark, and Italy, which are unencumbered by such restrictive and outmoded regulations, has near completely bypassed the historically handcuffed German brewers.

In all fairness, the Reinheitsgebot is not the only obstacle to a revolution of new flavors in Germany. The nation’s beer drinkers are notoriously parochial in their selections and their reluctance to try new styles is legend among German brewers. A pass by a café during the lunch hour or a beer hall after work leaves you with the distinct impression that the German people like their just as it is. While German brewers could certainly produce a tongue blistering IPA safely within the confines of the Reinheitsgebot, they resolutely believe that their customers wouldn’t drink the stuff.

It is impossible, however, to ignore the irony of the Reinheitsgebot’s role in shaping the brewing nation’s hardened views. In the days before the spread of the purity law, the less politically powerful brewers of Northern Germany are said to have created dozens of once popular but no extinct beer styles, including spiced and fruit-flavored offerings. While paying homage to German brewing history is an honorable pursuit, expanding the brewing flavor palette beyond mere hops and barley would actually bring German brewers closer to their roots.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue I of BeerAdvocate Magazine

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