German Craft Beer at the Crossroads? Beer Observations 2015
The face of craft beer in Germany will change in 2015. And occasionally it’s going to have to try harder, because the honeymoon may be over soon. Peter Eichhorn makes a bold prediction.
What a scorcher of a beer year 2014 was. Innumerable new brewing start-ups enriched the scene, international specialties became far more easily available and the quality of Germany’s craft beers seemed to improve with each new addition. Craft beer and beer in general has also expanded its profile beyond the sole realm of insider publications. These days, popular media is increasingly boarding the bandwagon and spreading the word to new target audiences and interested gourmets.
But watch out all you true craft beer buffs, because there’s good news and bad news. And they’re both the same message: Handcrafted beer will become a real market in 2015. And that will bring new, broader ramifications.
Playtime is over
Germany’s craft beer is growing up. Yesterday’s cozy kindergarten collective is now producing uppity adolescents finding their wings. And they’re going to face a changing environment of increased competition that’s heating up at home and abroad. To survive 2015 some of them will have to roll up their sleeves even higher. Beer has become a serious matter. Oh right, it always was…
For now, every new start-up is still celebrated by the craft fan base. “Great, the brand is small, ‘crafty’, we love you!” But what does it taste like? Often enough that doesn’t seem to matter much at first. 2015 will be the year when the diversity and therefore the comparability between craft and pseudo-craft beer styles and breweries grows so fast that finally, we can honestly say, “This beer is badly made and it tastes awful”. If it’s true we have to say so! But that’s fine, because it also means we’ve learned to spot a well-crafted, genuinely tasty beer.
2015 will also be unforgiving: Craft doesn’t always mean “good”
The number of new beer products continues to grow. And increasingly these new beers are not the inspired creation of dedicated brewers, but instead the brainchildren of calculated market researchers who recognize that the time is right for a beer venture. Consumer acceptance of the products and prices has grown, i.e., there’s money to be made. Many of these products are legitimately good. They have an engaging taste, a classy brand image and a catchy background story.
Beers like these will be an asset to the market. But if I’m sucked in by an intriguing label and story only to have my taste buds and my wallet insulted by inferior taste and subterranean carbonation, then those bottles are welcome to vanish from the shelves as quickly as they appeared.
Beer in the wrong hands?
I’d rather gaze longingly at the good ones! Many acclaimed creative brewers are consistently expanding their expertise, improving and fine-tuning their beers from one brew to the next. More and more new brands are joining them with outstanding blends of inspiration and talent to fill our glasses with pure joy. Anticipation is high in the new year for the next creations from Heidenpeters, Brewcifer, Kuehn Kunz Rosen, Kehrwieder, Ale Mania, Mashsee, BrauKunstKeller and Hanscraft & Co.
These companies have nothing to worry about in 2015. If they’re smart they will cooperate with each other to jointly run filling operations and optimize distribution channels among themselves. Their brewers know the qualities of international craft brews, and they also know that Germany isn’t yet eye-to-eye with its contemporaries in the USA, Norway, Italy or Japan, all of which have a head start of a few years and hundreds of craft beers on Germany.
[Slideshow]Stone Brewing Stone Brewing in Berlin. Stone Brewing Opening 2014
KuehnKunzRosen Brewcifer BrauKunstKeller
I was deeply impressed by a beer tour of Israel the Israeli Ministry of Tourism invited me to take in the summer of 2014. Israel has also been involved in creative brewing for a good five years longer than Germany, and you can clearly taste the difference this experience brings. I listened in on the presentations from the brewers with a mixture of pride and embarrassment as they expressed their great admiration for the excellent training brewers receive in Germany. During the tour I tried the magnificent light bock beer from the Golan Brewery, the lively brews from Dancing Camel and the inimitable Alexander Black, by far the finest, most complex porter I have ever tasted.
The game’s gotta change!
I love to drink beer, and I also write and talk about it with great passion. Happily, the number of my like-minded colleagues is on the rise, and this means more and more print and online magazines and blogs are reporting on beer and those who make it, often in a sophisticated, entertaining way. That’s a good thing. And it may help to pique the interest of a broader range of bar and restaurant industry people in the art of beer.
At present the lion’s share of craft beer publicity remains in the hands of self-appointed experts, a wannabe elite treating beer more like a geeky fan obsession than the discerning delicacy that it is. Brands are collected and posted like trophies. Blogs and Facebook are bursting with proclamations like “Look! I just Instagramed a new beer! And here’s my review in full: ‘It was really delicious!’”. Some self-styled craft critics even go so far as to unwittingly display their own amateurism in quirky Podcast tasting sessions lasting for hours.
None of this is particularly helpful in transporting today’s brewing world into the kind of luxury-minded circles that are likely prepared to buy more than just one bottle and soon welcome beer to the dining table as a valued gourmet item. The only future for the craft revolution with this crowd is if more restaurateurs and chefs finally recognize and apply the potential contained within the diversity of the new beers. New, creative beers will have to carve out a position staking their claim to be treated and consumed with the same respect as wine.
Beer labels & beer labors
What else can we expect in 2015? Craft beer will continue to grow as an urban phenomenon. Hamburg is steadily approaching equal footing with Berlin quantitatively, and in qualitative terms may even have already nosed ahead. In the midst of the craft beer siege, Germany’s Franconia region remains a stalwart Gallic village brewing up an array of preeminent potions.
Diversity in the range of beers will continue to grow internationally. Dedicated importers like Dérer in Berlin and Brausturm in Hamburg will increasingly supply the growing number of retailers and beer specialty bars with an ever-widening choice of options. Breweries from around the world recognize Germany’s market potential. Stone Brewing is building a brewery in Berlin, Urban Chestnut is conquering the local market from its base in Bavaria and it’s entirely possible that the initiatives from BrewDog and Brooklyn Brewery will soon move from rumor status to reality.
What will it mean for Germany when foreign brewers, especially those from the US, heat up their attacks on the German market? Many of their beers are notably more sophisticated, and their label designs, brand images and storytelling are more fun and memorable. New distribution channels will ensure that there’s no significant price difference between these beers and domestic German brews. Brewers Stateside are often vibrant visionaries, not taciturn loners without a decent graphics program or a clue about smart publicity and sensible multipliers.
Enjoyment or ethos
A recent news flash from Braufactum perfectly illustrates just how quickly major changes can come in attitude and on the marketplace. Braufactum will now be the exclusive distributor of the beers from Denmark’s insider-tip gypsy microbrewery Mikkeller. Just like that, lickity-split. It seems like only yesterday that craft beer fans were tripping over themselves to praise this infamous team of Copenhagen brewing rebels.
Now the cries on the craft scene sound more like “Shock! Sell-out!”, “High treason against the craft community!” and “We don’t want beer from companies that also sell frozen pizza!” The latter is a reference to the Oetker corporation, owner of the Radeberger group and subsequently also Braufactum.
Mikkeller and Braufactum will officially present their newly-forged partnership at the Braukunst Live! international fine beer festival in Munich this March 6th to 8th. In any case, this news tidbit is 2015’s first true tectonic shift on the craft beer landscape.
This has already been a long article, and we haven’t even touched on the ambitions and developments among mid-sized brewers, family-run operations and major companies. I hope you’ve at least enjoyed a delicious beer or two during your read. For my part, while I wrote it I knocked back a Firestone Walker Double Jack, a Kentucky IPA and a Hofstettner Granitbock. I’ll Instagram them all later…
How did Edgar Allan Poe put it again? “How care I how time advances? I am drinking ale today!” In this spirit, Happy New Beer 2015!
Original article by Peter Eichhorn. Translated by Jeff Collier.