Thursday, May 9, 2013

Culture Shocked

This week, Stan put up a post, spurned by a Washington Post article about the ever increasing importation of American beer into Germany. Stan, being Stan, is far more diplomatic in his approach than I'm going to be, but I think we're both on the same page. Americans can be a bit douchey, when spending time in other countries—not all mind, you but a select few. Here's an example from one of those few—Matt Walhall, one of three Americans opening what they've dubbed a community brewery
in Berlin.
“This was simply to fill a void...We feel as if we’re teaching a lot of Germans things about their own beer culture that they’ve forgotten.”
That statement—in any context—is an amazingly pretentious thing to say.

I'm all for trying something new, and I agree that American craft beer leans a bit more adventurous than some other cultures, but c'mon. At what point did Walhall decide that "When in Rome" really means, "impose your viewpoint on another culture, while actively engaging those practicing the norms of said culture." As my grandfather used to say: "That's a good way to get popped in the nose"

On a parallel course of douchebaggery, comes this line from the general manager of Brooklyn Brewery, Eric Ottaway, while in Germany:
“The German beer industry has to reinvent itself in a hurry, or it’s going to be a small fraction of what it is now...”
It's not so much what Ottaway said, but how his statement relates to the next line in the article
...Brooklyn Brewery which has been expanding in Europe and has been exporting its beer to Germany through Braufactum, which sells a 12-ounce bottle of Brooklyn Lager in upscale grocery stores for the equivalent of $4.20 — almost three times its typical American price.
Allow me to translate the whole thing for you that for you.

“The German beer industry can in no way compete with the awesomeness that is American beer—especially Brooklyn Beer—that we will sell to you at an inflated price.

See how the translation helps to cut through the rest of that garbley-gook. This whole statement is about implication and inference.

Truthfully, I hope Brooklyn and Firestone Walker (the other American brewery mentioned in the article) make a great go of it in Europe. Both brewery's beers are fantastic, but I'm pretty sure that the aggregate of German brewers and breweries didn't asked nor particularly wanted to know the opinion of someone outside Germany on how that did or did not run their industry—right, wrong or indifferent.

Would this same conversation have been had in the U.K.? Walhall states toward the end of the article,
“My friends would come to visit me in Berlin, and we would taste beer, and very quickly, I realized, we reached the end. We tasted all the styles,”
First, let me state—more does not equal better, but more importantly, and back to the U.K. question, would any of these conversations have been had by an American brewery to a British audience. Would Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams say to a room full of Brit beer-geeks that 1.) There were not enough British styles, 2.) The British beer industry need to reinvent itself, and lastly 3.) A bunch of Yanks were going to school them on their beer culture.

Probably not.

American beer can be great—with all of its piney, bitterness and potency—but popularity does not denote quality. If it did, Tim Tebow would still have a contract with the Jets. More so, even great American beer doesn't negate German beer—especially in Germany. When it comes to other cultures, sometimes, it's best to heed one American, Abraham Lincoln, who knew that sometime it was better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.


  1. ... and very quickly, I realized, we reached the end. We tasted all the styles.

    Those are the words of someone who doesn't understand the first thing about beer.

    If they had been drinking instead of tasting, they may have been able to notice some differences. Though, they might need to have those differences written on the label as a style to realise they are there.

    It's appalling that the words of people like this are given any credit...

    1. Good thing those guys were setting all those Germans straight, huh?

    2. Let's not forget, too that the only truly "American" styles are Cream Ale and Steam Beer. The rest of our "styles" are bastardizations of already existing beers.

    3. And even Steam Beer may well be a transatlantic take on Dampfbier.

  2. I think it is even telling that you characterize US beer as "with all of its piney, bitterness and potency" which implied DIPAs are the measure. The US craft scene is exporting monotheism (save that idea for the book, Max) plain and simple. No different that the McDonalds in Paris, the incapacity of North Americans (and I include Canadians) to enter into and experience the cultures of others knows no bounds.

    1. Exactly—and I chose piney, bitterness and potency on purpose. There is not doubt, especially in the case of Walhall, that IPA —at the very least—and as you noted more likely DIPA, are the American beers being referred to. Ironically, though Uwe Helmenstein, the barkeep quoted early in the article says: “I don’t think it would work here," because as the piece notes German perceptions run strong that American beers are flavorless and thin.

  3. So we've got Helles, Dunkel, Pils, Weissbier, Doppelbock, Helles Bock, Schwarzbier, Alt, Kolsch and more besides. Maybe not all of them everywhere, but it's a decent number of styles. Some breweries do them well, some not so well, but it's nothing to sneer at as far as beer cultures go.

    I think when American beer geeks criticise German beer they lump all the breweries in together, good and bad, but when they think of American beer they probably think Bud and Coors don't really count.

    1. I think they need to take into account that beer is far more regional in Germany than in the U.S.

  4. This is not at all unique. In the UK we already do get people saying 1.) There were not enough British styles, 2.) The British beer industry need to reinvent itself, and lastly 3.) A bunch of Yanks were going to school them on their beer culture.

    But it’s mostly not Americans to blame. It’s a bunch of loudmouth Brits who've been drinking beer for about six months and have no idea of their own country's beer culture, never mind anyone else's.

  5. I agree that it is mostly not Americans to blame. Occasionally out of hubris or limited information, expansive claims will be made about the greatness of the U.S. beer scene, but in general, North Americans are well aware of the European roots of their own styles and endless sub-styles. This is why Jackson's books were so avidly received. I never met a brewer who hadn't dreamed of visiting English pubs and breweries if he/she hadn't done so, or Belgian ones. German too. People (mostly) know the history.

    Sure you get the odd rah-rah statement, but it's not all that common and really doesn't bother me anyway (beer eencourages enthusiasm by definition!).

    All this said, the Munich beer scene, which I looked into a few years ago, struck me as rather jejune. There were some excellent beers, but they tended to be similar in style and sometimes there were disappointing (e.g. Paulaner's helles was rather bland I thought, the dunkel too). It was hard to find draft dunkel in the city centre and one of the ones I did try was off (in December), due I'd gather to relatively little demand. And yet a penetration into deepest Franconia, say, would I am sure uncover countless great beers, based on accounts I've read which I believe reliable.

    The same really is true of North America. There may be ostensibly greater variety in the larger cities, but a lot of those are American-style IPAs which do tend after a while to taste similar. There can be good variety apart from that but how many of those are really first-class? Britain is similar, for different reasons (you need to search for the breweries more than the regions but even in London there is great beer at many doorsteps).

    My take: it's good to cut slack on both sides of the issue. Go out, taste, read, think about it, but general comparisons usually have limited value, IMO.


  6. I don't think it's most Americans—just those wanting to sell their beer in other markets. The problem is, the Washington Post doesn't pick up stories about most Americans. Hooray for the attempt, I just think they could have made a more tactful approach.

  7. As a Brit (and a beer blogger) living in Germany, I have a lot of sympathy for the Washington Post article. Yes, the attitudes it reports smack of American arrogance, but the truth is that many German brewers have indeed grown complacent. And yes, there are many different styles, but if you go into any beer shop outside Franconia, the main feature will be an aisle lined with stacks of identikit Pilsner and Weizen. The other stuff will be relegated to shelves at the back or along the side wall.

    That's part of the problem, by the way - people like me and the WP reporter write about Germany, meaning the whole country not just Franconia, while people who once spent a happy week in Bamberg assume we're fools.

    As Gary says, get outside Franconia and the scene is remarkably bland. In the North German town where I live, I only know of two bars that regularly sell a dunkel, and one of those is run by Franconians. (I'm not counting Duckstein as a dunkel here!)

    Yes, the beer is generally well-made and the first couple of Pilsners are still refreshing, but even the Germans have started to notice that it's become samey and less flavoursome, as the big brewers cut costs and strive to make their brews more inoffensive. If you can follow German, check out the ZDF TV programme "Hopfen und Malz verloren!" - loosely, "where have all the hops and malt gone?"

    It is changing, under pressure from outside - not just from the US though - and as a new generation of brewers grows up, but slowly, and those old attitudes remain. Talking to a brewer recently, he confirmed that there is still a widely-held prejudice that no-one else's beer is worth looking at because they don't have a purity law. Never mind that the purity law was only forced on the rest of Germany by the Bavarians 150 years ago, and that most real ales or craft beers would meet it anyway.

    Then talking to my 30-something neighbour today, he expressed great surprise that I thought American beer could be good - to him, a Pilsner drinker, it's all dishwater. Not that he has actually tried any, I suspect...

    And no, most Germans don't know much about their beer heritage. They don't know that Pilsner is not much more than 100 years old in this part of the world, that ales were once the norm, that Hamburg once exported IPA, that there were spiced and fruit beers before the purity laws, and so on and so on.

    Still, as I say there are signs of change. It's a very locally oriented country, so there's still lots of brewpubs and micros. While most of them cautiously produce fresh and well-made identikit Pilsner and Weizen for their mainstream consumers, many are also doing more and more minor styles as seasonals, and a few are really pushing the envelope. And even some cautious and conservative mainstream micros are discovering they don't have to be afraid of innovation.