Many – some might argue too many – articles and blog posts have already discussed the definition of “craft beer”. I don’t want to add to that, but I also don’t want this article to be misunderstood. So for the sake of the argument I will stick to the classic “small startup breweries wanting to offer more variety than the ‘macrobrews’ ” definition.
As we know, the American craft beer movement was sparked by homebrewers who were frustrated about the ever-diminishing variety on the American beer market and the dominance of a handful of industry giants focussing on bland lagers and light beers.
The wave of innovation has been sweeping over large parts of the world, and with a few years of delay it has also reached Germany. Other than America, Germany is one the motherlands of beer culture, so the situation on the Germen beer market has alway been very different.
Traditional German breweries come in all sizes, from globally distributed Beck’s over the “TV pilsners” omnipresent in supermarkets nationwide to tiny village breweries with only a handful of employees. And even the larger ones are not really a match output-wise for Bud, Miller or the likes.
Furthermore German beer has traditionally been of fairly high quality. Of course there are also many breweries whose beers are not exactly splendid, but the overall level of quality certainly is higher than that of your typical US macrobrew. It would be tempting to philosophize about the influence of the German beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot) here, but I’ll refrain from that.
But even so, there have been a lot of German craft breweries launching their businesses in recent years. The reason for their success (so far) certainly lies in the increased variety of beer types they are offering. While German beer does have quite a variety of traditional types like Schwarzbier, Kölsch or even Gose, German beer culture is largely centered around lagers. Pilsner and “export”/helles dominate the market with the strong help of Weissbier.
So German beer geeks understandably were more than happy to finally be able to also enjoy stouts, tripels or all kinds of ales without having to source them abroad.
And then something very interesting happened.
Among traditional German brewers there is a strong “We have always been craft brewers” sentiment. Which brings us back to the definition of “craft beer” because for them traditional small scale production equals “craft”.
But instead of arguing over semantics, more and more well-established German breweries are actively embracing the modern craft beer concept by expanding their product ranges to include all those “new” beer types that have never been part of German brewing tradition.
A very good example is Riegele from Augsburg, This brewery can trace back its history until 1386, and until not very long ago they foussed entirely on the traditional Bavarian beer styles. But now they have included a well-made craft beer range with IPA, imperial stout and others.
During a recent trip to my hometown Mannheim I visited the local Eichbaum brewery that was founded in 1679. When I was still living there Eichbaum had the reputation of a decent but fairly boring middle-of-the-road brewery. Now I was suprised to find that they have launched a small range of “crafty” brews as well.
There are many more examples like these. And I think this is very good news for the consumer because the variety on the German beer market has never been so large before.
But logically this also means that the “proper” craft breweries in the sense of the definition above have to face some very serious competition. German brewers know how to make good beer. A degree in brewing from Weihenstephan is one of the greatest assets any aspiring brewer can have. And with their stronger position on the beer market, established breweries have a definite economical advantage over small startups.
Of course this move must also be seen in the light of the continuing decline of the traditional German brewing industry in terms of numbers of breweries. There has been a strong concentration process for many years that has been going along with a fierce competition about shelf space in supermarkets and specialised drink stores. Many small breweries had to close and many others were bought by competitors.
It is very understandable that many German breweries see the current craft beer trend as an opportunity to fight against this development, and one can only hope that the cut-throat competition will not just shift to another level.