A Visit to Erdinger, Cantillon, Fuller's, and Cantillon

For the first time in recent years, imported beers have been forced to take a back seat to craft beers in terms of production and sales gains. While craft beers receive much coverage in this column, in a counter-cultural spirit, it seems the right time to focus on four notable foreign brands. We all know that imported beer, once the rage, is supposed to be more expensive. So instead of my regular six-pack of brewery profiles, I am offering a special release four-pack of foreign breweries. Sorry, but the dollar just does not go as far as it used to.

Each of the breweries profiled in this issue boasts an impressive brewing tradition and a marketable story to sell to consumers. The breweries are also each locked in a battle to preserve their traditions in order to secure their futures. Despite their storied pasts, each is feeling the pinch of international brewing consolidation. These breweries must constantly consider the threat of being run out of business by Heineken or InBev.

As Americans, we are so far removed from much of this brewing tradition that we have a hard time relating to or identifying with it. But simply, and perhaps crudely put, it would be a damn shame if the traditions and quality products produced by these breweries were put out of business in order to sell more nondescript, bland “European-style lagers.”

In this issue, I profile four historic European breweries and consider their futures in an uncertain and increasingly competitive industry. In this edition, I feature the (Erdinger Weiss Brewery, Czechvar), (Fuller's Brewery, and Cantillon). With the sole exception of Czechvar (which is state-owned), each of these breweries remain family-owned and operated.

Erdinger Weiss Brewery, Erding, Germany

Located a short drive outside of Munich in Germany’s historic Bavarian brewing region, Erdinger dedicates itself to producing a single style of beer: wheat beer. The brewery, which boasts that it sells more wheat beer than any other producer on the planet, brewed more than 1.35 million hectoliters in 2003. Erdinger offers seven varieties of wheat beer, including a traditional hefeweizen, a dunkel, and a kristall.

The brewery also produces a surprisingly flavorful alcohol-free, wheat beer, called Alkoholfrei. Served in a hybrid pilsner and wheat beer glass, the Alkoholfrei pours with Erdinger’s signature bright, big white foamy head. The aroma is crisp and filled with scents of new, earthy hops. While average alcohol-free offerings generally run in flavor from wet cardboard to something you would prefer even less, I’m taken aback at the flavor of the Alkoholfrei. This only-slightly carbonated product offers a very unusual blend of sweetness, wheat, and fresh hop flavors.

The brewery takes its name from its home town of Erding and counts its history back to 1886, a relative newcomer in terms of Bavarian breweries. In 1935, Franz Brombach purchased the brewery and in 1949, he renamed it after the town. In 1965, Franz’s son Werner joined him at the brewery, which he has managed since his father’s passing in 1975. With his long, flowing white hair, over-sized, thick-rimmed black glasses, and gregarious temperament, Werner fits the part of a German brewery owner. He has also proved to be an astute businessman, transforming his father’s little brewery into an international operation with distribution in more than 60 countries.

With the clouds darkening over the German beer market, however, it is now the son’s responsibility to shepherd the family business through what may be its biggest challenge. Competition in the German market is among the fiercest in the global beer industry. Once storied brands have been consumed by larger concerns and many of Munich’s biggest names now belong to foreign conglomerates, including Heineken’s ownership of Paulaner, Kulmbacher, and Hacker-Pschorr. When his company made its first foray into the German market in 2001, Heineken’s chief executive officer, Karel Vuursteen predicted the future to various media outlets. "The first step into the German market looks very promising,” he said. “Currently the German beer market is fragmented with a large number of small breweries. This situation will not continue in the long run."

Vuursteen was right. Global giant Interbrew (now InBev) soon thereafter began involvement with Diebels, Becks, Spaten-Franziskaner, and Lowenbrau. The face of Oktoberfest has never been the same since consolidations, mergers, and other assorted international business mayhem came to Bavaria.

Instead of selling out to larger entities or taking liberties with product quality, Brombach the younger instead focused on distributing outside of Germany. During our visit, there is much talk of the future of the German beer market. The younger generation of drinkers eschews classic German styles, including wheat beers, which now account for less than 10 percent of German beer consumption, in favor of flaccid, yawn-inducing Euro lagers. During our meeting, Brombach suggests that the dilution of the German brewing tradition is turning drinkers off. “There is no future without tradition,” he notes.

The entire situation lends itself to a frighteningly circular self-fulfilling prophecy: existing German breweries cannot survive without tradition and many believe they cannot survive without merging with bigger, non-German breweries, thus diluting their histories. During the meeting, Brombach questions aloud how long it will take non-Bavarian beers to appear at the annual Oktoberfest celebration.

With all of this on his mind, Brombach remains optimistic about Erdinger’s future. With help from importers, including Colorado-based Distinguished Brands International (DBI), he is betting the company’s future on expansion beyond Germany. He also believes in the old-fashioned and seemingly unfashionable notion that tradition mixed with a dedication to quality should be enough to succeed. He is also betting hard on the company’s dedication to the wheat beer niche market. “The beer is already half-sold when you show the product,” he proudly notes of the admittedly striking, shapely glass of the brewery’s flagship wheat beer. Hopefully, Brombach’s dedication to tradition and the simple beauty of a well-made product will pave the way for the next generation of his family.

Czechvar, Ceska Budejovice, Czech Republic

In the quiet town of Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic lies one of the greatest litigants in the history of the global beer industry. Seemingly from time immemorial, the Budweiser Budvar brewery has been locked in an international legal battle with Anheuser-Busch over its namesake lager brand. While both have racked up a variety of wins and losses in courts around the world, international distribution of the flagship brand accounts for some 46-percent of the brewery’s total production of around 1.2 million hectoliters per year. It is the number three selling imported beer brand in the United Kingdom and boasts its success as the number two imported brand in Germany. After an absence of more than 60 years due to its legal woes, the brand reappeared in America in 2001 under the name Czechvar. With the new brand name also came a new brewery name. The Budvar brewery is known as BBNP in America.

At its facility, Budvar mixes tradition and modernism. With its gleaming copper brewhouse, Budvar is the classic image of a European brewhouse. Green duffel bags bursting with fresh, aromatic Saaz hops surround the tanks simply itching to be pitched into a fresh batch of the brewery’s celebrated pilsner. Only if you look off to the sides, however, will you note the computers controlling the entire process. Peer inside the brewing vessels and the stainless steel interiors reveal their quiet existence.

While the copper kettles may be all show, the rest of the brewery is all out in the open. The enormous bottling and kegging lines are a complicated jumble of machines working in a order and at a speed that is hard to comprehend. The passages between the brewery’s more than five hundred 200 hectoliter tanks are tight, wet, and cold, providing a quiet environment for the lager to age properly.

While a menacing slew of lawyers from Saint Louis keep the brewery busy, Budvar also sees considerable challenges in its home market. No stranger to consolidations, several local breweries have fallen to foreign, mega-brewers. SABMiller own’s Plzensky Prazdroj’s storied Pilsner Urquell brand, while InBev owns Staropramen. With near saturation of the big-drinking Czech beer market and the strong-arming business practices of its much larger competitors, Budvar has been forced to look elsewhere for growth opportunities. While 40-percent of its export is to Germany, the company is also enjoying volume growth in the American market.

During my visit to the brewery’s ornate and attractively appointed restaurant, I had the chance to sample Budvar’s new dark beer. Served in a handsome half-liter mug, the beer boasts a huge, billowy off-white head that perches in a meticulously precarious measure over the rim of the glass. It possesses a deep, dark color with some reddish hues at the edges. The aroma is slightly sweet, but makes no mark as either aggressively sweet or noticeably bitter. It is in part astringent, with some hints of Saaz hop, which is very light and fresh in its influence.

When the beer is served cold, the roasted malt flavors explode on the palate in a most unexpected manner. While bitterness is the flavor most often found at the extreme edges of temperature, here the beer boasts a real wallop of roasted flavors upfront. The roasted flavors are a welcome break from the average, boring European dark lager. Though they boast impressive and foreboding colors, most such lagers lack any punch in the roasted malt profile. Not this beer. The Budvar Dark is not your typical, cloying East European lager.

The Budvar Dark is a very delicate beer. Despite its big roasted flavors and dark hue, it remains light bodied. As it warms, the beer predictably gains sweetness. It eventually develops some nice creamy flavors but the beer's wonderful roasted flavors never fail to play on the palate. The brewery uses the same yeast for this beer as it does with its Budvar pilsner product. The Budvar Dark is available in select export markets and only in draft.

Fuller's Brewery, London, England

Tightly crowded into a section of the mainly residential neighborhood of Chiswick in London, Fuller’s Griffin Brewery began as a partnership between three families. In 1845, John Bird Fuller joined with Henry Smith and John Turner to form Fuller, Smith, and Turner, PLC. Before this, the company claims that beer has been continuously brewed on this site since the 1630s. While many family-owned breweries have come and gone, descendants of the three founders remain involved in the company.

While the company heavily relies upon its grand traditions and history in selling its products, it also promotes itself as an aggressive company focused on the future. Last year, I traveled to this brewery, along with Czechvar and Erdinger, as part of a press and distributor familiarization trip sponsored by DBI, their American importer. During a press meeting and tasting of the brewery’s offerings, however, the company’s executives make clear they do not entertain notions of world domination. “We do not delude ourselves into thinking we will ever be the biggest brewery,” says Sales Director Richard Fuller.

With this said, Fuller’s is strongly pushing its products in the US and international markets. As DBI’s de facto flagship brand, Fuller’s is seeking to exploit the lucrative American impulse towards all things foreign.

Outside of the occasional beer festival, including an annual celebration at The Falling Rock during the Great American Beer Festival and the New England Real Ale Exhibition in Somerville, American drinkers rarely get to enjoy Fuller’s ales on cask. In an initial push to capitalize on its tradition, Fuller’s made a lamentable stumble in a popular Manhattan beer bar. In trading upon the tradition of the eye-catching service of cask-conditioned ales, the brewery provided the bar with proper hand-pumps. Unfortunately, the Brewery did not also provide the fragile, living cask beer necessary to complete the experience. So for pubgoers, there exists the illusion (one that is both culturally and legally frowned upon in Britain) that the beer being served is a true cask-conditioned ale.

Enjoyed at the source, Fuller’s line of cask ales is top-notch and cask ESB provides a quintessential beer experience. From its dull orange color and sticky, lightly foamed white head, slightly grassy and spicy British hop notes, the beer is the classic representation of the traditional cask method of presentation. With a substantial malt backbone that tends towards toasted notes, the off-setting Goldings hop aroma and flavor balance makes the beer. The brewers describe this beer as having basically the same recipe as the company’s flagship London Pride ale, only more so. While I personally find the buttery aromas and flavors of the London Pride to be overwhelming, the richer, fuller flavors of the ESB offer beer drinkers a truly traditional experience.

Visitors to the Griffin brewery can enjoy a tour of the facility along with a viewing of the historic Hock Cellar, where a variety of breweriana and historical items are on display. The brewery also recently purchased land adjacent to the brewery on which it plans to increase the overall area of the facility.

Cantillon Brewery, Brussels, Belgium

It is simply hard to believe that a place like Cantillon exists. To beer geeks, it is nothing short of Mecca. To visit Cantillon is to literally breath in beer and its history, to bear live witness to ancient brewing techniques, and to sample the most extreme of beers. To the true beer lover, to enter Cantillon and watch Jean-Pierre Van Roy and his son hand-craft an otherwise dying breed of lambic beers is to experience the exultation wine felt over Warren Winiarski’s ability to win over the palates of Parisian wine snobs or the sheer thrill of baseball fans watching Jackie Robinson’s game saving, over-the-shoulder catch against the Cleveland Indians. It is simply a thing of remarkable, indescribable beauty and power.

During the recent Zythos Beer Festival, Cantillon scheduled one of its widely celebrated open houses. Twice every year, Cantillon opens its doors to the neighborhood and welcomes the world’s beer drinkers to come visit and watch the brewing process from start to finish.

Walking from Gare du Midi station in Brussels for the brewery’s recent open brew day, a curious aroma in the early morning air peaks my attention. The aroma is purely of freshly brewed beer. From a half-dozen blocks away, and without otherwise knowing the proper direction, I simply follow the enticing smell to the brewery’s front door.

The day starts early at 6:30 in the morning with a mash-in, and continues all the way through to the pumping of fresh wort into the brewery’s famous fermentation tuns in the afternoon. To say Cantillon is traditional is to engage in needless repetition. The Van Roy’s produce a scant 1000 hectoliters of beer every year and rely upon the ancient and curious method of spontaneous fermentation by airborne yeasts to achieve their decidedly unfruity results.

To step in to the brewery is to step back in time. The depth of the brewery building is initially masked by its surprisingly residential location. As you step deeper into the brewery, you become surrounded by a seemingly endless string of large, wooden casks. In these vessels lay a variety of mouth-puckeringly sour ales simply waiting to be bottled. Run by a series of belts, pulleys, and rollers, the brewing process is delightfully outdated.

Like a scene from Willy Wonka, everything about Cantillon seems backwards. While other breweries often fail to meet demand for production in the lucrative summer months, the brewers at Cantillon do not produce any beer at all between April and September. The brewery also uses an enormous amount of hops, but the beers are uniformly not hoppy. By the time the brewers get around to adding the three-year-old hops to the boil, the bitterness qualities have long since left the building, leaving only their mild preservative agents. And the boil, it’s three times as long as any normal brewery’s process. Add to that the brewery’s insistence on letting its beer cool exposed to the elements of the local air, and Cantillon is clearly unlike any other brewery.

The very things that give this brewery its visual charm and the beer its striking character give snooping Belgian health inspectors fits of bureaucratic delight. Cobwebs abound throughout the cellar, which is wet, dank, and smells of vinegar. The Van Roys suggest that to change anything in the brewery, to push a broom or remove a web, is to threaten the very ecosystems which help produce Cantillon’s distinctive products. With the secrets of spontaneous fermentation, no one can say for certain what elements contribute to the brewery’s house character.

Despite my stubborn fondness for continued existence, I experience an acute and disturbing lack of concern for self while in the spell of Cantillon. Everything about the place screams ‘health quarantine’ but still the glow from the finished product is overwhelming. Despite their inviting colors, the beers are uniformly sour. In a sea of sugar-influenced competing brands, the brewers at Cantillon remain resolutely opposed to producing such products or reducing the lengthy periods their beers age in a variety of wooden barrels. At the traditionalist brewery, a simple sign lords over the casks announcing Cantillon’s guiding principle: “Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui." Roughly translated, it provides that “time does not respect that which is done without him.”

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Article appeared in the June 2005 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.

All materials, content, and articles remain under copyright held by Andy Crouch.  2002-2006 © Andy Crouch.