Ian Sedwell. Photograph: Jessica Weber
Global breweries seem dominant, but Berlin’s craft beer scene looks healthier than it has for a long time, says bars manager Ian Sedwell
Some drinkers have been weeping into their pints over news that AB InBev (which owns Budweiser, Stella and Corona) is taking over SAB Miller (which has Miller, Carling and Peroni). With one mega-brewer producing 40% of the world’s beer, they worry, surely we’ll lose out on quality and diversity?
Here in Germany, though, we’re not worried. Although its bestselling beer is the mass-produced Oettinger – known for cheap prices rather than full flavour – the country that many think of as the home of great beer is in the process of reviving the brewing traditions that go back thousands of years. The total number of microbreweries in Germany has jumped from 300 to around 900 in the past decade. So what’s going on?
The short story in Berlin is that a wave of young, trendy drinkers have moved here from around the world – bringing with them a thirst for niche craft brews. While it’s far from a return to the heyday of the early 19th century, when areas like Prenzlauer Berg used to house between 40 and 50 local breweries, that demand has led around 20 microbrewers to set up in the city.
The long story, of course, is really long – the hipsters are only reviving a tradition that goes back 3,000 years to a time when Germanic tribes trading with the eastern countries brought beer back to Europe. At that time, beer makers were free to experiment with whatever local and seasonal ingredients took their fancy, meaning their ‘beer’ might contain fruits, honey, numerous types of plants, spices or even narcotic herbs. This is probably why there are still so many styles on offer: from helles, a pale lager beer more full bodied than say a Beck’s, to bock, a sweeter, stronger hopped lager from southern Germany. Another of my favourites is hefeweizen, a Bavarian weiss bier (wheat beer) in its traditional form, unfiltered and less hoppy than pale ales with banana and bubblegum notes.
“hipsters are reviving a tradition that goes back 3,000 years”
Wherever you are in Germany, natural ingredients are important. In 1516, a purity law called the Reinheitsgebot was passed, stating that only water, hops and malt could be used in beer-making. While the law was repealed in 1993, the Reinheitsgebot is still a requirement for brewers if they want to call their product ‘beer’ in Germany.
And it’s part of a tradition that’s still felt by modern beer makers. A great beer that sums up the scene right now is Noam, Bavaria’s newest brew. A crisp, refreshing lager with a mild, floral taste that’s great for sunny rooftop days, it’s the work of a young beer enthusiast called Daniel Noah Sheikh, whose aim is “to bring the craftsmanship of traditional Bavarian brewing to the most contemporary international tastes”. While developing the Noam recipe, he teamed up with the guys in the science and research lab of the Weihenstephan Brewery – the oldest brewery not just in Germany but the world, with records going back to 1040AD. (If you’re ever in Amsterdam, try the Weihenstephaner on draft or the surprisingly tasty Weihenstephan 0% alcohol in bottles at Lotti’s).
If you’re interested in discovering what makes German beer special, start a tasting tour with one of the top-notch pale ales produced by the many microbreweries in Berlin. These are similar to British ales but mainly use paler malts in the brewing process, which allows the brewer to be more creative and experimental.
Whether they’re making lager or porter, breweries across Germany are as much pioneers of beer now as they were thousands of years ago. So forget the big brands and try out these five crafty bottles, all on the menu at Soho House Berlin.