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Why Budweiser Lost

(Ed. Note: Periodically, I’m called upon to do an interview on the radio or in print about Craft Beer. The question that comes up most frequently is really two questions: “Why Craft Beer? Why now?” I do not think that I have ever been able to properly answer that question to my satisfaction, but I’ve got an analogy that I feel will explain a lot.)

If you are my age, you will probably have heard from one or other of your parents about seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in February, 1964. Everybody watched Ed Sullivan. 73 million people in the United States saw that show. This is because there were three national broadcasters that produced content. Sure, you had a regional affiliate station that might have had its own material during the day or just before the test pattern aired, but they carried popular programming. ABC, NBC, CBS.

"Right here, on our very big show, right after Topo Gigio we'll have the Flying Zambezi Tribesmen and the World's Biggest Nun."

“Right here, on our very big show, right after Topo Gigio we’ll have the Flying Zambezi Tribesmen and the World’s Biggest Nun.”

Watching TV was a passive act. The total extent of your choice was between three content providers.

After Prohibition in the United States there were not a lot of breweries left. You have probably seen the chart from the Brewer’s Association. In fact, here it is.18qfbm2tf864mjpg

The number of breweries dwindled and dwindled, but what was really happening was that you were left with three breweries that counted on a national scale. Oh, sure, there were regional brewers that produced beer, but for the most part people drank the national brands right up until they saw the test pattern and heard the national anthem. Bud, Miller, Coors.

Drinking beer was a passive act. You had a little more choice than you had with TV stations, but probably less in terms of content. It was going to be pretty standard lager.

In 1976, Ted Turner started the first Cable TV channel. Suddenly Americans all over the country could get programming from Atlanta. Jack McAuliffe started one of the first modern era microbreweries in the form of the New Albion Brewery. Both of these events alerted people to the possibilities and alternatives that were available.

By 1982, there had been a small shakeup in the beer industry. 1977 saw the advent of Miller Lite and by 1982 Budweiser had responded with Bud Light. The competition had provided what would be the peak years for alcohol consumption in the United States. In 1981, Americans consumed 2.8 gallons of ethanol per capita. The 1982-83 TV season set a record as well. On February 28th, 1983, 121.6 million people tuned in to watch Goodbye, Farewell and Amen, the final episode of MASH. When that episode aired, better than half of the people in the country watched it.

When you have success like that, you don’t forget it. Both beer and television became obsessed with the high water mark.

Not only was this acceptable in the 1980's, I knew middle schoolers who had this poster. This is no longer acceptable, even for craft brewers

Not only was this acceptable in the 1980’s, I knew middle schoolers who had this poster. This is no longer acceptable, even for craft brewers

There was a statistic released the other day in the Atlantic Monthly that states that 44% of people aged between 21 and 27 have never tried Budweiser. If you’re 27, you were born at the peak of Budweiser’s sales. In 1988, between Budweiser and Bud Light, they shipped 61 million barrels of beer. Everyone seems genuinely shocked by the loss of market share for the Budweiser brand, but they shouldn’t be.

The curse of network TV is the fact that it is a top down non participative media. It broadcasts, but it doesn’t involve the audience. Any system of that kind must by default believe the following about the content they produce and about the audience watching at home: “They will watch it because it is on.” Because of the practical cultural monopoly network TV had before the advent of cable, there was a period of time where they were right to think that. It was the reality. The sheer number of eyes watching the screen deluded networks into thinking that they were making a quality product, but prime time was never about quality. Prime time was about number of viewers watching. It was about the medium and not the message.

Take a look at this ad from Budweiser in 1995 that ran during the Superbowl. It involves three frogs each mouthing a syllable of the name of the beer. They are performing this unnatural behaviour because they are facing a giant neon sign for Budweiser. People complained because they said the frogs appealed to children. In truth, they should have complained because the advertisement is an exercise in recursion. The subtext here is that we are the frogs and that we will buy Budweiser because we are staring at the giant neon sign. At no point is beer shown. At no point is the quality of the beer mentioned. At no point are we told anything about the product. We are merely told that when faced with advertising for Budweiser, we will become obsessed with it and purchase some Budweiser. It is a complete abstraction. This was considered by many to be the high point for advertising, by the way.

Network TV was selling the idea that on Thursday at 8:00 PM there is a show that everyone will want to see. It will define your life. It will be talked about at the office the next day by the water cooler. You better not miss that show if you want to be perceived as normal by your colleagues. The original shows that you had to see in the 1993 lineup? Wings and Mad About You, for God’s sake. The important thing wasn’t the content. It was that you were watching

.

They were promoting normalcy as a standard in an era of increasing complexity. It’s one of the reasons that so much of the advertising around beer was done during the Superbowl. It has the largest audience of any annual televised event. Consider this 2000 ad campaign for Budweiser. Within the context of the ad there is an unspoken tautology: If you are watching the game you must be having a Bud. What is a game without a Bud? It is apparently not a Whassupable moment. The role of the beer drinker in the commercial is that of an automaton programmed for consumption.

“What up B?”

“Watching the game, having a Bud.”

“True.”

It is the jargon of the group, but it’s also a binary evaluation of a statement. It does not matter that the beer is any good. It only matters that there is beer and that the beer is Bud. Normalcy is achieved by the meeting of these criteria.

Craft Beer and Cable TV were busy in the 1980’s. We got Sierra Nevada and the Boston Beer Company out of the microbrewery movement and we got MTV, FOX, UPN, A&E out of Cable TV. In a sense everything done by Craft Beer and Cable TV is alternative programming. Their larger counterparts were able to be dismissive of them.

Consider a major network’s view of MTV. It was started by that guy from the Monkees who wore a toque! We tried Mike Naismith on TV and he didn’t work. We can safely ignore MTV. It’s practically the same with Sierra Nevada. They’re brewing a Pale Ale! We tried Cascade hops in our beer and it didn’t work. We can safely avoid Sierra Nevada.

One of the failings of a major network is that it is locked into the power structure that brought it to the dance. NBC must compete with ABC and CBS. Not only does the network have to fill the programming, but they’ve got to compete against the other networks. If NBC has Friends, you’d better believe ABC and CBS are looking for an equivalent. If CBS has a procedural police drama, NBC and ABC are going to look for something with even more blacklight. At some point in TV history some executive said the following sentences: “What? They’ve got Scott Baio as a babysitter/housekeeper? Get me Billy Connolly!” Eventually, what you end up with a series of television properties that have nothing in common except for the fact that they all somehow involve Richard Belzer as detective Munch.

Here’s a short list of the properties that Budweiser launched between 1982 and 2014. The other brewing companies had equivalent properties or quickly struggled to find them.

1982 Bud Light
1989 Bud Dry
1994 Bud Ice
1994 Bud Ice Light
2004 Bud Extra
2005 Budweiser Select
2008 Bud Chelada
2008 Bud Light Chelada
2008 Bud Light Lime
2008 Budweiser American Ale
2009 Bud Light Golden Wheat
2012 Bud Light Platinum
2012 Bud Light Lime-A-Rita
2013 Budweiser Black Crown
2013 Bud Light Straw-Ber-Rita
2014 Bud Light Raz-Ber-Rita
2014 Bud Light Mang-O-Rita

 

If you’re a major network, you’re not allowed to care that Fox has The Simpsons. The Simpsons is the only thing keeping Fox afloat in their early days. They may as well be UHF except for The Simpsons. Remember Herman’s Head? You’re not allowed to compete against the little guys because the portion of the market that they’re going for is so small.

Would you believe Disney is basically rebooting Herman's Head? They are. It's ridiculous.

Would you believe Disney is basically rebooting Herman’s Head? They are. It’s ridiculous.

The problem is that the portion of the market that the little guys control tends to grow over time. By the time that Budweiser is broadcasting the Whassup commercials during the Superbowl in 2000, two really important things have happened. First of all, people’s trust in mainstream news is replaced by their trust in Jon Stewart’s daily show. Secondly, HBO has started broadcasting The Sopranos.

The strength of craft beer and also cable TV is the fact that it is not a dictatorial medium. Network TV like Big Beer assumed that you would purchase whatever they put out. It’s a good assumption because there was no competing content. As soon as there is competing content that you have the option to engage with, you’re faced with choice. Choice means that you are engaged in a dialogue with the producer. In order for you to choose alternative content, it has to be either of higher quality or fill some kind of specialty niche. Cable TV and Craft Beer frequently perform both of those tasks. You are still paying for a product, but the product is far more likely to conform to your taste than to attempt to dictate it.

What eventually happened to TV is practically the same as with Beer. Instead of remaining a broadcast medium where one product is available at a time, we’ve reached a point where most of the content that was ever made is now available if you know where to look. In the same way that you can get classic TV shows on Netflix, the back catalogue of beer made in the 20th century is largely available and it exists alongside new products that are being released into the market.

If you released this as a beer in 1984, people would have thought you had brain problems. Now it is one of about 58 beers on ratebeer with the word "Zombie" in the name.

If you released this as a beer in 1984, people would have thought you had brain problems. Now it is one of about 58 beers on ratebeer with the word “Zombie” in the name.

This requires a phenomenal amount of choice on the part of the consumer. If you recall the Budweiser advertisement with the frogs where they were held captive by the giant neon sign, that model is no longer really relevant. Currently, the frogs have abandoned monosyllables and are suggesting content they enjoy to each other. In a very real sense we have become both advertiser and consumer of these products.

I’ll prove it to you. When you watched The Wire, you probably did so because your friends were talking about it. Sure it was on HBO, but it was probably on season three by the time you started watching it. You binge watched it. You probably got the box set or watched it on Netflix. Same with True Detective. And Archer. And Downton Abbey. The result is a landscape of people who are building a referential language and bringing more people to these shows.

You come at the King of Beers, you best not miss.

You come at the King of Beers, you best not miss.

We talk about Craft Beer the same way as we talk about shows on Netflix. “Have you tried” and “Is that any good” and, kind of similar to when an actor is in something else “I liked that other beer they did.” We have actually become a distributed advertising model for craft beer because we have self-selected the content and we want to share things we like.

When Budweiser acts surprised that 44% of people 21-27 have never tried Bud, they’d do well to remember those people were born between 1988 and 1994. The eldest of them might be old enough to remember the frogs. The youngest of them might have been coached by their parents to say “whassup” for comic effect at family gatherings. As adults, they have only been able to drink since 2009 in the United States but they’ve been subject to the internet’s media distribution model since they were in middle school. This is a generation for which unidirectional advertising is more or less moot. They grew up fast forwarding through it on their DVRs.

The result for Network TV is that the ratings are never going to be what they were. The networks sometimes try to capture what they think the audience looks like. The Big Bang Theory, for instance, is a broad caricature of the mainstreaming nerd culture that online media portals might have been viewed as. The shows will always lack something because 30 years on the Networks are still worried about filling the 9:00 slot on Thursday. The focus is still on getting the largest audience rather than creating a quality show.

The result for big beer is that sales and market share are never going to be what they were in North America. People are drinking less overall and their attention is split amongst 3000 US and 450 Canadian breweries. Something like Budweiser Black Crown, for instance, is a broad caricature of what craft brewers are doing and it lacks authenticity because the goal is sales rather than quality. Craft beer has succeeded to the extent that it has because people have got used to curating their own experience out of a practically impossible to navigate landscape of options. In that situation quality products tend to win out.

December Book Reviews: The Handbook of Porters and Stouts

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This does not stop other people from delivering books for him to review even while he signs his own book at Christmas Markets. In order to continue to reduce the stack, he must review. Get some.)handbook-of-porters-stouts-9781604334777_lg

The Handbook of Porters and Stouts is a good sign for the resurgence of local brewing across the world. If we’re to take it that the medium is the message, the fact that there is enough variety in brewing to support such a book is a positive signpost for the future.

Written by Josh Christie and Chad Polenz, the Handbook makes good use of a number of expert contributors including short essays from Stephen Beaumont, Martyn Cornell, Greg Clow and (perhaps in a sign of the times) a Buzzfeed style listicle from Joshua Bernstein about Extreme Beers. While there is a great deal of information about the history of Stout and Porter and the nuanced differences between the styles and various subsets of each style, that’s not what this book is really intended for.

It’s an attractively bound hardcover volume with bright, colourful illustrations on every page. It’s vibrant and entertaining to look at and makes good use of the variety of plumage that each brand displays. Let’s face it, the special edition Imperial Stouts do tend to have some pretty entertaining labels and stories to go with them.

The ideal audience for this book is the drinker who realized just last weekend that they like dark beer. This is shock and awe for someone who didn’t realize beer could do that. It reminds me of leafing through the ads at the back of All About Beer when I was 20 or so and thinking “wait, there’s all that stuff out there?”

The draw for the intermediate beer drinker is the fact that beer writers from across North America have been enlisted to provide a larger context than would have been possible otherwise. Josh Rubin, Julia Burke, Darren Packman, Campbell Gibson and Zach Fowle have all contributed to the book in order to give it the depth of a proper ornithological birdspotter’s reference.

This book will highlight beers worthy of your attention that you might have missed otherwise.

That said, there are a few issues with balance that are understandable in a work of this size and shape. Each of the contributors has a different style and each listing might differ in length from a single paragraph to two pages. Some might give cursory description of what might be considered a classic in a style while others might tell the story of the brewery. Does that give it novelty and vary the pace or does it simply seem uneven?

There is also, despite the recruitment of far flung experts, a tendency to focus on beers from New England and the Great Lakes region. Polenz is based in Albany, New York so it’s easy to see why the context on those entries is somewhat deeper. (I do not know that this is an actual criticism. Some of those beers look pretty good and I’m sure that if I were in charge of a book like this it would probably be Ontario heavy. We all gotta be from somewhere.)

The Handbook of Porters and Stouts would be a good gift for a novice or intermediate craft beer drinker this holiday season. It succeeds admirably at its Pavlovian primary objective: Getting you excited to drink some Stouts and Porters. It made me want a Narragansett.

December Book Reviews: Pocket Beer Guide 2015

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This did not stop other people from sending him books to review. The stack is nearly as high as the sense of obligation. Let’s crack on.) 71+bcJLxBaL

When you hear about Thomas Jefferson and beer, it’s usually about the fact that he had a brewery planned for his property at Monticello. More impressive than that is the library at Monticello. It represents (more or less) the sum total of the world’s practical knowledge ca. 1770. Thomas Jefferson was maybe the last man on the planet who had the ability to know everything. It has less to do with the idea that he was a genius (he was) and more to do with the fact that information tends to develop exponentially over time.

We’ve reached the point with beer where no one can hold the entire world’s variety in their mind. The scope of information increases daily. The best single overview of the development of independent brewing scenes across the world was 2012’s World Atlas of Beer by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb. It was comprehensive and well thought out.

The severe difficulty is that time marches on and within five years the information in that book, although basically correct and fundamentally accurate, will miss nuances that have developed in the interim. As such, the companion works to that piece, The Pocket Beer Guide(s) 2014 and 2015 are attempts to provide a portable field version of the larger reference work.

The 2015 guide contains an additional 500 listings in addition to explanatory notes on ratings, beer styles and food pairing. It is an incremental improvement in scope over the 2014 version.

I will be honest. It’s a hard book to review because with the advent of the internet it is not as handy as it would have been a decade ago. The beer world is in an interesting place because we are none of us Thomas Jefferson. More beers will launch in North America this month than a single drinker could get through in a year and that will be the case indefinitely. No one will ever have total context again.

What you’re paying for in the Pocket Beer Guide is not total world knowledge. That’s an impossible goal.51+lIaoxKWL

A book like this is only as good as the people who write it.  It is more or less the descendent of Michael Jackson’s Eyewitness Companions Beer from 2007. Even in 2007, such a book was not the best way to convey the information contained within. We weren’t paying for the specific beer reviews so much as Jackson’s referential context.

We are meant to trust that a brewery has made it into the book because it is worth our time. That the beers they make will not disappoint. We must be assured that, as readers, we are in the hands of people who know what they are talking about.

Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb have something like 60 years of professional experience with beer between them. Stephen has been writing about beer since the late 1980’s and Tim Webb was with CAMRA before I was born. What you’re paying for in the Pocket Beer Guide is their breadth of experience. They have seen breweries come and go and trends pass. Between them, I cannot think of people who are more qualified to attempt to convey a relational system of criticism that covers inequal international beer scenes.

What you’re buying with the Pocket Beer Guide is 60 years of attention paid and for the recommendations of men who have earned the right to be unimpressed. That’s always going to be worth an annual update.

The Fermentation of David MacEwan

(Ed. Note: About once a year the family doggerel gene takes over. I try to fight it. Believe me. This is a cautionary tale in the style of Robert Service’s Songs of Sourdough. It is meant to be a warning about putting too much of yourself into your work. I hope it doesn’t offend.)

 

Odd deeds are committed in breweries fitted by men who don’t know what they’re doin’.

A rookie mistake is all it might take to bring a craft brewer to ruin.

Ontario’s shores have seen overpriced pours and cans that are not fit for SKUin’.

But none were so rank as we found in the tank of a brewer named David MacEwan.

 

Now David was placed in a job he thought wasted his talent (although he had little).

An accounting degree led to KPMG but he knew he was stuck in the middle.

He never wore jeans and he stared at a screen, it was pushing him over the deep end.

He discovered craft beer and for nearly a year he got drunker each subsequent weekend.

 

On a boxing day spree, he purchased with glee a bucket and carboy for home.

He scrounged swing top bottles and hoses and throttles and tubing to blow off the foam.

He waited two weeks to show off to beer geeks the ale that he’d made in his kitchen.

Anyone who had taste couldn’t look in his face when they said, “Uh, yeah, Dave… It’s bitchin'”

 

No one had the heart to say at the start that David should not have persisted.

His palate was bad, his skills less than mad and his talent had never existed.

He hated his job and they thought the poor slob would continue to brew as a hobby.

Their mildest of praise ignited a blaze. David became increasingly snobby.

 

It’s a familiar story of striving for glory when craft brewing becomes the fashion.

Now Dave had no skill, but developed a will: His only attribute was passion.

Passion is great, but it doesn’t equate to knowledge or skill or ability.

The passionate can, when absent a plan, become a severe liability.

 

The development board of a backwater ward was looking for brewers and pronto.

They’d pay half a mil if a brewer could fill in a spot just outside Deseronto.

David resigned, left accounting behind, said goodbye to a life of security

The poor ignoramus thought his ale would be famous and escape historic obscurity.

 

Now five hundred grand isn’t much for a man who knows nothing of buying equipment.

He purchased new steel that he thought was a deal and waited a year for the shipment.

The shipping container did a half gainer and sank somewhere in the pacific.

With each perceived failure he’d sit in his trailer using beer as a mild soporific.

 

The concrete was poured and drainage was bored and the brewhouse was finally ready,

But the money was gone and the bank overdrawn; his hands and his actions unsteady.

Circumstances were dire with no money to hire a receptionist or an assistant

Some men would give up, but Dave, in his cups, found the passion that made him persistent.

 

He worked, at his prime, three shifts at a time. His back ached from mashing and raking.

He’d facebook and tweet (while soaking his feet) to promote this, his new undertaking.

He’d jump in his jeep on two hours of sleep, delivering coasters and glasses.

He thought that his ale was unlikely to fail to bring kudos and coin from the masses.

 

It must have been hell when the beer didn’t sell. The public reception was dodgy.

They’d sip at his beer and say with a sneer “it’s boring and terribly stodgy.”

He increased the BU’s and cranked up the booze and added in brettanomyces.

The brewing defects made his projects rejects even under six layers of spices.

 

The bankrupted dope, at the end of his rope, still believed in his talent for brewing

Although if you asked any customers past, they’d have questioned just what he was doing

Then one fateful night, in the depth of his plight, defeated and visibly ashen

He climbed in the hatch and brewed up a batch with his secret ingredient: passion.

 

I arrived the next day, quite unsure what to say when no one was present to greet me

I’d come to review his penultimate brew and I thought that he’d be happy to meet me.

With no one around, the prevalent sound was the hum from the largest fermenter

As I drew near, I trembled with fear as a voice seemed to come from its center.

 

“I’ve found my home, down amongst the foam. I find carbonation just tickles.

It’s comfortable here, in these barrels of beer, if nobody opens the zwickels.”

For David McEwan, No talent for brewing, but some for transubstantiation.

He died for the sins of your firkins and pins in a beery transmogrification.

 

Odd deeds are committed in breweries fitted by men who don’t know what they’re doin’.

A rookie mistake is all it might take to bring a craft brewer to ruin.

Ontario’s shores have seen overpriced pours and cans that are not fit for SKUin’.

But none were so rank as we found in the tank of a brewer named David MacEwan.

December Book Reviews: African Brew

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This did not stop other people from sending him books to review. The backlog is high and the conscience is guilty. Let’s crack on. )41QwNbx4R+L

One of the more interesting books on beer I’ve seen this year is African Brew: Exploring the Craft of South African Beer by Lucy Corne and Ryno Reyneke. It’s easy to review a straightforward book on beer and food or a guide to the world’s beers. I have context for that kind of book and there have been a lot of them published in recent years.

African Brew is interesting because it performs the difficult function of explaining the past and present of brewing in a country that I cannot say I know very much about. The entirety of my context for South Africa is Bryce Courtenay, J. M. Coetzee, a handful of Tom Sharpe novels and a Matt Damon rugby movie. I don’t know the Transvaal from Transylvania. All I know is that you shouldn’t leave a coke bottle lying around.

What I have learned, and what this book helped me realize, is that brewery scenes seem to be subject to convergent evolution. Starting from the early 1980’s beer scenes in various countries have developed in largely the same way.

That said, the book is not formatted as a history. It is a layman’s guide with the usual appointments that style of book requires. There is the obligatory explanation of the brewing process and a short history of the brewing industry in South Africa. There’s an admirably concise section on beer styles, the brevity of which has partially to do with the fact that South Africa’s craft brewers have not yet caught up with North America stylistic diversity. There is a brief introductory section on beer and food.

At first glance, these sections seem too brief. What Corne and Reyneke have managed to do is fold much of the material into the other sections of the book as pop out windows with information or, in the case of recipes, as full page affairs tied to the brewery or brewpub that has supplied them. It lends a good deal of character to each chapter. The book does an excellent job of making the stories of the brewers the focus of an understanding of the South African beer scene.

It seems as though their scene is going through much of the same process Ontario’s went through. There was the first generation of craft brewers in the 1980’s and they were a wild, windswept bunch of eccentrics, engineers and disgruntled professionals. They seem to have developed a number of newer school breweries over the last few years (probably the impetus for the book) that mirrors our own development. Some of them I desperately want to try (Triggerfish, Darling Brew, Bridge Street) and I sense that some of the breweries suffer from early adoption. It’s just like here.

It is also nothing like here. Ontario was a British Colony. South Africa had both Brits and Boers and Zulu and Xhosa and instead of being in a similar climate, it’s much more temperate. The Dutch and European brewing influences seem more widely accepted on a historical level than they were in Ontario. Perhaps most importantly, the location of South Africa as a trade route means that the food is influenced by neighbouring countries on the Indian Ocean.

While the storytelling in African Brew is very good, the included recipes are a real surprise and paint a picture of an increasingly multicultural society with a wide swath of inherited foodways. It’s not all biltong and boerewors. It’s Weissbier and Waterzooi from the Dutch. Pilsner with a Veal and Bacon Meatloaf shows some Bavarian influence. There are curries borrowed Thailand, Malaysia and Alleppey. Some of the cuisine displays a really deft touch with seafood.

African Brew succeeds as a basic guide to South African beer, but it exceeds expectations to the extent that it makes me want to know more about South Africa’s brewing scene. If I were writing about beer there, how would I talk about the flavours in a cuisine like that with new hop varieties and beer styles? With the stories of the individual brewers, how could I frame the effects of Apartheid on a manufacturing industry like brewing? It seems like the rich variety of influences on the culture seem to be winning out as the country becomes more progressive. It would be a fascinating beer scene to work with over the next five years.

African Brew is so good it made me envy the authors.

On Malt Lightening and the Beer Style Continuum

IMAG0625[1]

As far as I can tell, every single brewery is issued one of these when they get their license. I’ve never been in a brewery that doesn’t have one kicking around. Look at it sometime and note the visible difference in malt colour. A good rule of thumb is that the lighter the malt, the later it was developed.

Last time we talked about German Beer and Food (scroll down a couple of posts) we had established some pretty basic truths about the situation in Germany prior to the advent of Oktoberfest. We talked about how the flavours in German landrace hops more or less matched the flavours in the herbs and spices available in Germany. We talked about Oktoberfest as an expression of the modernization of the German agricultural system. I know that it isn’t Oktoberfest anymore, but sometimes these things take a while to percolate.

A lot of the styles that you think of as German beer didn’t exist at the beginning of the 19th century. Altbier existed in Dusseldorf in a broad sense although it would have been different from the versions we get today. Bock had been around for quite a while, with the town of Einbeck claiming its advent in 1351. Dopplebock had been brewed by the Pauline monks from the mid 18th century. By 1798, the Bavarian branch of the Wittelsbach family had decided to allow their monopoly on Weissbier to lapse, giving license to several entities to produce a similar product. In Munich, the prevailing style was Dunkel. People were also making things like Kellerbier and Zwickelbier with bottom fermenting yeast[i], especially in the northern bits of Baden-Wurttemberg and Franconia, but they would have been darker in colour than we are accustomed to.

The thing that these beers have in common is that they are uniformly pretty dark in colour. The Weissbier is the exception that proves the rule. In order to make a beer that was much lighter than 15-20 SRM in the late 18th century in Germany, over 50% of your grist had to be wheat.

The early 19th century created a sort of renaissance for brewing in Europe due mostly to technological advancement. Beer Styles as we now think of them, catalogued by Michael Jackson, are thought of usually as entirely separate entities, but their development exists on a temporal continuum. Usually the development of a new style is influenced by an old style and a new ingredient, process or cultural influence. At the moment, we’ve got hops in a wider variety than has ever existed and that’s due to technology, genetic manipulation and cross breeding.

You’ll recall that there were really only four varieties of German hops. They didn’t have a roadmap for genetic inheritance. There was only one kind of yeast and they didn’t really understand how it worked yet. The water was however it was. The single most important discovery in the entire history of brewing, the one that caused brewers all over Europe to suddenly create new beers, was the ability to reliably heat a kiln to a specific temperature.

A direct fired kiln is not bad for pottery, but it’s terrible for malting. For one thing, it’s extremely inefficient. You’ve got to fire the kiln and then wait for it to get to about the right temperature. You’re more or less guessing about what the temperature is and where it will be over a long period. You’d develop a knack for that eventually, but there’s only so much you can do with it. The lack of precision means that your malt is going to turn out darker than you want and it’s going to take on some flavour from whatever fuel you’re using to heat the malt. If you’re in a place where you’ve got to use wood or peat for fuel that means wood smoke. That’s a geographical problem. If you’re in Upper Canada in 1820 and you’re making your own malt, you probably don’t have access to coke or coal. You were probably using wood or charcoal because there’s lots of it. Slight smoke flavour.

Another way that it’s inefficient is that darker malt is going to tend to have less diastatic power. In order to get the beer to the strength that you want it to be as a finished product, you’re going to have to use more malt. More malt is going to result in the darker beer styles that we’ve already mentioned. It’s quite expensive because you need more barley to make the same amount of beer.

Gabriel Sedlmayr's Spaten Brewery. Munich Lager changed irrevocably with the adoption of (and improvement on) English malting techniques

Gabriel Sedlmayr’s Spaten Brewery. Munich Lager changed irrevocably with the adoption of (and improvement on) English malting techniques

By the time that Anton Dreher was a brewing apprentice in the 1830’s, he was touring England to see what techniques they were using. This was pretty common practice amongst brewers in the 19th century. Because no one was in direct competition with each other internationally, trade secrets weren’t particularly highly guarded. By 1836, he had brought English malting techniques back to Schwechat near Vienna. It wasn’t exactly Pale Malt. It was darker than that. It was closer to a light Crystal Malt roast and that’s what’s become known as Vienna Malt.

Informational exchange within the region happened almost immediately because Dreher was friends with the brewmaster at the Spaten Brewery in Munich, Gabriel Sedlmayr. Dreher borrowed Sedlmayr’s yeast and Sedlmayr borrowed Dreher’s malting technique. Informational exchange drives progress in any field, but the string of events these two brewers would put in motion would last until the 1950’s on another continent.

Artistry and refinement happen in German beer as a direct result of modernization of agriculture and industry. You can’t have barley to malt without increased yield and you can’t malt it to any degree of precision with shoddy tools. The hops, yeast and water did not change substantially. The lightening of malt leads to the lightening of beer. The styles exist as a basic continuum because they all result from the previous change. Because of the prevalence of rail and the ability to transport goods, each style inspires the next. They don’t exist in a vacuum.

Viennas
Beer Style Creator Date Avg Bus Avg SRM AVG ABV
Vienna/Marzen Anton Dreher 1841 24 13 5
Marzen/Oktoberfest Gabe Sedlmayr 1872 24 10.5 5.25

 

This is the prime example. Functionally there may not be a difference between Marzen and Oktoberfest beer. However, in practice, Oktoberfest beer was introduced by Spaten in 1872 and the primary difference was the fact that they had developed a new malting technique. Instead of Vienna Malt there was Munich Malt. The lightening is only two and a half points on the SRM scale, but that requires a level of precision. How dark can you make the malt and still have diastatic power needed to convert starch to fermentable sugar?

Lagers
Beer Style Creator Date Avg Bus Avg SRM AVG ABV
Schwarzbier Kostritzer 1543 27 23.5 4.9
Dunkel Munich 1800 23 21 5.05
Pilsner Plzen 1842 40 4.75 4.8
Dortmund Kronen 1871 26.5 5 5.4
Northern German Pilsner Radeberg 1872 35 3.5 4.8
Munich Helles Spaten 1894 19 4 5.05

 

If you start with Black Lager and move through Munich Dunkel which is formalized as a style by 1800, the departure once Dreher imports English malting techniques is pretty staggering. I’d put it to you that while people will talk about soft water and saaz hops, the defining characteristic of Pilsner is that it was nearly 10 SRM lighter than the other beers available during the 1840’s. Yes, it’s hoppy, but it’s also light gold in colour. That’s a huge departure. Northern German Pilsner is lighter and less hoppy. Dortumunder is significantly less hoppy and about the same colour.

That's light enough, mein freund. Put the rake down and step away from the floor maltings.

That’s light enough, mein freund. Put the rake down and step away from the floor maltings.

The brewers in Munich actually had some difficulty with Helles. Spaten created it and took a great deal of criticism from the other brewers for doing so. They thought that it was too light! They thought that it didn’t have enough character! That’s as light as German beer styles ever went.

As I’ve shown in the previous posts in this series, because German beer and food contain essentially the same seasoning agents as a result of the landrace hops and locally available herbs and spices, we can assume that we’re dealing exclusively with complementary pairings when we look at Oktoberfest food. Ultimately, the result of the beer getting lighter is that the food also gets lighter. The food needs less fat and can stand being less heavily seasoned. Weisswurst, for instance, is invented in 1857. Additionally, because industrialization has provided more quantity of food, the individual meals do not need to be as substantial. More people are working in cities. In point of fact, a lot of people are emigrating; they are Emigrating to America.

To this day, the largest ancestral group in the USA is German. It’s about 17.1%. From about the time of the revolutions in 1848, there was a huge wave of immigration to the United States. You’ll notice that by that time there was already Pilsner and Vienna Lager in Germany. It was fairly widespread and these people would have had context for that. They had seen the lightening of beer. The largest wave of immigrants came later on and they had seen even lighter beers in Germany. By 1900, Milwaukee, Cincinatti, and Cleveland were all at least 40% German. Every large town in the Midwest would have been at least 25-30% German. We’ve heard the names: Anheuser, Busch, Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst, Yeungling.

This map will explain more about America's brewing history than any other image I can show you.

This map will explain more about America’s brewing history than any other image I can show you.

When you have a population concentration like that, immigrants bring their ideas with them. In this case, they brought their progressively lighter beers along for the ride. If the defining concept of German beer in the 19th century has to do with making a beer that’s lighter in colour, the restraining factor had been how light the colour could be made with malt. Without the restriction of the Reinheitsgebot, these German brewers could pursue making even lighter beers with adjunct grains like corn and rice.

People claim that prohibition was the factor that created light flavourless commoditized beer, that people had gotten used to soft drinks. Really the blame lies with the fascination of making the beer lighter. It’s a construct that depends on industrial production. It was a good idea that got out of hand.  In Munich, they had the sense to stop at Helles. In America it spiraled out of control.

By the 1950’s we had light beer and America had thoroughly adapted the German feasting culture that is Oktoberfest. Bratwurst had become hot dogs. Frikkedellen had become hamburgers. What is a chicken finger but an unflattened chicken schnitzel? The commonality between the food and the beer is that they have been reduced to their least flavourful form in order to appeal to the largest number of people. There’s an idea that beer and food pairing is difficult, but it’s the foundation of American popular cuisine. America was a feasting culture, but without flavour and without joy.

Whether you believe it or not, this is German food.

Whether you believe it or not, this is German food.

We talk about the 3000 brewery mark in terms of craft beer. There’s an idea that it is important that we have reached the number of breweries that existed before prohibition in North America. The fact is though that the makeup of those breweries is significantly different than it would have been before prohibition. The majority of brewers would have been German and would have made lager. It might be time for Craft Beer to attempt to reclaim that heritage, additional ferment times be damned.

[i] A word on yeast: Throughout my career writing about beer, I’ve run into people who are a little confused about bottom fermenting yeast. I have met professionals who think that lager didn’t exist before 1840. Bottom fermenting yeast had been around and in use for a few hundred years before Emil Hansen managed to separate out a pure strain at the Carlsberg labs. I suspect that these are people who are using “lager” and “pilsner” as interchangeable terms.

The real question is how there was suddenly bottom fermenting yeast in the mid 1500’s. I have an elaborate theory involving Saccharomyces Bayanus, Dutch trading ships and the Rhine as a primary trade route to Bavaria. It’s as good as anyone else’s guess.

 

Advent Calendars – But What If You’re In Ontario

This week in the column, I talked about the growing trend for breweries to produce advent calendars. It’s a fun idea and one that I can get behind. With the short days and cold weather, you want to treat yourself nicely and a single high quality beer a day is not a bad way to do that. It may only give you ten or fifteen minutes enjoyment, but it’s a nicely ritualized thing. It’s an Agent Cooper approved strategy for coping with a seasonal lack of esprit de corps.

You’ll notice that there are no craft beer advent calendars in Ontario. The LCBO isn’t allowed to stock packages over six bottles because of an agreement with the Beer Store. It’s an agreement that they’re threatening to rescind. The Beer Store isn’t a good option for stocking something like an advent calendar because they charge the same for listing whether you’re offering a product year round or as a seasonal option. Even when Andrew Oland from Moosehead says that The Beer Store is doing a great job, you’ll notice that his Hop City and Sam Adams Seasonal products only show up in the LCBO. If The Beer Store is so great, why aren’t they carried exclusively by The Beer Store, huh?

Incidentally, you’d think this would be a great opportunity for the Beer Store to score a PR point and maybe make way for something like that “because Christmas” what with them having been visited by the ghost of Christmas future in the form of Ed Clark. They seem to have decided to cover their ears and reap the whirlwind of public opinion.

Let’s not be scrooges. For the moment, let’s be Fezziwigs.

If you’re in Ontario, you might want to put together an advent calendar of your own. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to do that with the beer that’s available at the LCBO. I notice that the  Craft Beer Advent Calendar out on the West Coast is somewhere between $129 and $145. In Newfoundland, more like $188. If you like rare stuff, that’s probably a good deal. The Phillips and Central City/Parallel 49 packs tended to come in somewhere between $65 and $85 depending on the store stocking them. That seems a little more in line with what I’m willing to spend.

The goal I therefore put together was to create advent calendars that you can use. I wanted them to be affordable and fairly specific. The ones that I have put together will run you approximately $75-$80 bucks and they’re suitable for different beer drinkers. I didn’t put together a Canadian Craft Beer version because that’s really easy. You can do it entirely with canned beer and it requires no imagination. I’ve come up with an English Version and a Belgian Version instead.

The “Full English” is actually 25 beers. You can drink the extra Hobgoblin while you put the calendar together for whomever the recipient might be.

The Full English
Package Beers Included Price
Marston’s Classic Ales Brakspear Bitter $18.95
Hobgoblin
Banks Bitter
Cockerhoop
English Pale Ale
Ringwood Fortyniner
Wychwood Beers of Character Hobgoblin $12.95
Goliath
Wychcraft
Scarecrow
Duchy Originals $3.05
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout $2.95
Abott Ale $2.25
Fuller’s London Pride $2.95
Lancaster Bomber $2.65
Bombardier $2.25
Fuller’s London Pride $2.95
Belhaven Best $2.15
Historic Ales from Scotland Heather $9.95
Elderberries
Gooseberries
Spruce
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome $3.90
St. Peter’s Winter Ale $4.00
Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout $4.25
$75.20

The Belgian Pack actually came in under budget because the leverage the LCBO has over the Belgians is insane. It’s crazy. I included a Dupont Saison for Christmas day which brings it in three dollars over budget. Whoever you give it to will be just that much happier. Because of the darkness of the short days and the prevalence of St. Bernardus products, I’ve taken to calling it “Bleak End at Bernie’s.”

St. Bernardus Pack St. Bernardus Wit $18.95
St. Bernardus Pater 6
St. Bernardus Tripel
Watou Tripel
St. Bernardus Abt 12
St. Bernardus Prior 12
Belgian Beer Pack Piraat $18.95
Gulden Draak
L’Eute Bokbier
Augustjin Blonde
Augustjin Donker
Augustjin Grand Cru
Pauwel Kwak $3.00
Chimay White $3.25
Rochefort 8 $3.25
Chimay Blue $3.55
Rochefort 10 $3.85
Mort Subite Framboise $3.95
Saison Dupont $7.75
Unibroue 6 Blanche de Chambly $12.95
Don De Dieu
Ephemere Apple
La Fin du Monde
Maudite
Trois Pistoles
$79.45

I’m not going to claim that either of these packages is going to be absolutely unique. I will say that at least wrapping them is pretty simple: Take two wine boxes from the LCBO, arrange beers at random in them and slap a bow on that sucker. Wrapping paper optional, but available at dollar stores for cheap.

Two historical beers you should try at Cask Days

Cask Days is this weekend and for Toronto beer drinkers, that’s an event that is more or less Christmas. This year’s specialties are from California, with nearly 40 beers to choose from. There are also 22 beers from England. As if that were somehow not enough, there are 22 ciders on offer. Also, nearly 250 other beers. It’s the 10th anniversary and they’re going big. There’s not any point in planning for the event at this point. The best you can do is bring about a hundred bucks in cash for food and snacks and pace yourself.

I am pleased to say that I have beers on offer at Cask Days. I make up approximately 2/339ths of the selection, or just over one half of one percent of the beer to be served. Both of the beers that I’ll be serving on Saturday have historical precedent, which befits the recent level of activity over here at St. John’s Wort. As you may know, I’ve written two books this year. It should have been obvious given the links to those books directly to the right of this article and the sheer amount of publicity I’ve been trying to get out for them. They are Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay and Lost Breweries of Toronto. I wrote the first one with Alan McLeod from A Good Beer Blog. The second one was my first solo book.

Both of them are relevant to the beers on offer on at Cask Days.

The first beer was brewed with Jason Tremblay from Shacklands and is called Rouille after Fort Rouille in Toronto. You may have been to the Toronto Festival of Beer and posed on top of the cannon. (Yes, it’s funny. It looks like you have a giant cannon for a penis.) What you didn’t know is that that cannon represents the placement of a French fort and trading settlement from the 1750’s.

Spruce Beer was a fundamental part of the growth of Upper Canada. Even in a place without citrus, you are usually able to grow food that contains vitamin C. That doesn’t work very well in Toronto in the winter. We know that Fort York imported real beer from Kingston, being as it was from a later era. Fort Rouille probably made some manner of Spruce Beer.

The verifiable historical recipes for Spruce Beer are just awful. The purpose of spruce beer was not to taste good. It was to hydrate you in a way that would prevent you from having to drink the water and contracting Giardia, a parasite which will cause the contents of your digestive tract to seek escape in as violent and explosive a manner as possible. Spruce Beer would also prevent you from getting scurvy and having your teeth fall out. If Spruce could prevent those two horrible things from happening, you’d gladly suck on a branch.

Traditionally, the recipe for Spruce Beer contained five quarts of molasses per 36 Gallon Barrel. Having done the calculation, I can tell you that it would have barely been alcoholic. If you were extremely lucky and you had an active yeast strain that would chew through fermentables, you might have gotten 1.5% alcohol out of that.

We decided not to make that beer. We decided instead to go with a historically inspired Spruce Beer. We used mostly Maris Otter and a small amount of Wheat in addition to the traditional Molasses. We used Spruce Extract, since neither of us are mighty woodsmen and tips were out of season. Since Jason seems to have a solid grip on the funky stuff, we used nearly a gallon of lactobacillus culture in the boil and used two yeast strains in fermentation, finishing it with Brettanomyces. It’s not your great great great great great grandfather’s spruce beer, is what I’m saying to you.

The second beer on offer is called Helliwell 1832 and it’s a collaboration between myself and Jon Downing from Niagara College. You’ll notice, if you’re observant, that it’s not listed on the Cask Days list. All I know is that it has been delivered to Cask Days. I imagine that it will be available (although, apologies are probably necessary to Tomas Morana for being a logistical omnishambles.)

The Helliwell Brewery was located at Todmorden Mill. I have been given an idea of where we’ll be serving the beers in the Brickworks and I can tell you that we’ll be approximately 385 meters and 182 years from where this beer was brewed. I managed to piece together a large amount of information from the Helliwell Diaries about their brewery and the kind of beer that they would have made.08051

It was difficult because they used an outdated standard of measurement called the Dring and Fage Saccharometer that didn’t use Brix or Plato or even Specific Gravity. It used something called Beer Gravity which represents pounds of extract per barrel. We know they were using it because William Helliwell went to the manufacturer when he was in London in 1832. Using google image search I was able to find a photograph of the slide rule they used for calculation as part of the Saccharometer’s set and found out that the beer would have been somewhere around 9.0%. It’s a sort of unaged Barley Wine. The Helliwells were from Yorkshire, so they didn’t trifle with wheat in the grist.

The Helliwells brought in barley to their own maltings (part of which I’m told still stands, across the river from the brickworks) and kilned it themselves. During the 1820’s and 1830’s they owned nearly a thousand acres and were clearing wood from it to make properties in the area north of the Danforth saleable. They actually had a hop yard on the Don River’s flood plain that I’ve estimated at being about 8-10 acres based on the number of poles they commissioned for it.

I assume that they were using that wood to fire the kiln and we’ve accounted for that with just enough smoked malt to give it a kiss. I also know that the open fermenters that they were using were simply converted puncheons (although he did not adopt this strategy until later) and that being made of wood they would have taken on some souring bacteria. We have lowered the PH of the beer with a hint of acidulated malt. We used Brown Malt and some dark Crystal to replicate the crispy burnt edges you’d get from a single inconsistently kilned malt. We used Golding hops because that’s about the only English variety that existed at the time.

I don’t claim that Helliwell 1832 is an exact replica of the beer that would have been produced in the Don Valley. It’s as close as we’re ever going to get, though, and it’s definitely worth a try. I’ll be pouring both beers myself on Saturday during the day. Stop by and chat. It will also be the first time that Lost Breweries of Toronto will be available for purchase by the public.

German Beer and Food Part 2: Terrines, Terpenes and Terroir

Last week (just scroll down a little), we ended up by talking about Oktoberfest and how it’s a sort of benchmark for the modernization of the Bavarian agrarian system. The impressive thing about Oktoberfest is not that it has been going on for 204 years. The impressive thing is how quickly it was adopted in other parts of the country. While Bavaria may have been out in front, Wurttemberg eventually launched a festival in Stuttgart.

The Canstatter Volksfest started in 1818. This is because the winter was so bad in 1816 that it negated any attempt at growing crops that year. The people of Wurttemberg were starving because there had been snow on the ground until May. The King was basically dependent on grain deliveries from his brother in law in Russia to prevent starvation, riots and uprising. In 1817, they decided that there should be a harvest festival. There should also be a new Agricultural University. These were Monarchs prolonging their reign by making concessions to science and rationality. An educated populous is notoriously bad for a Monarchy, however, one makes concessions when faced with an unruly mob with pitchforks and torches.

This period of privation, incidentally, was one of the reasons for German settlement in Kitchener and Waterloo in the 1820’s. It’s one of the reasons Ontario looks the way it does. In fact, it’s why the second largest Oktoberfest in the world takes place there.

Agricultural science takes a long time to propagate, or at least it did in the early 19th century. Gregor Mendel would not actually establish genetic heredity for another forty years. For the time being German Brewing was like German Cuisine: Taking advantage of scientific modernization, improved technique and vastly improved production to make strides ahead. Another similarity is that for the time being they were largely stuck with “landrace” ingredients.

In an age like we are in with GMO products basically everywhere and Monsanto issuing patents on their designs for plants, it’s a good idea to explain the concept of landrace. Landrace more or less means that the plant or animal variety that you’re using has been there since time immemorial; since before records were kept. There was a time when it wasn’t so easy to transplant crops around and grow them in greenhouse polytubes and glasshouse nurseries. There was a time when you were more or less stuck with what there was on the land when you got there.

Germany had landrace hops. They were actually spoiled for choice on the landrace hops. There are four basic varieties that we’re going to look at: Spalt, Tettnang, Hallertau and Saaz.

(I know what you’re going to say! Isn’t Saaz a Czech hop? It is named after a Czech town called Zatec, but Saaz is the German name for that town. Plzen, which is where you find a lot of all Saaz beers is less than 300 kilometers from Munich. One of the developments they enjoyed was trains. Let it go.)

Hop Variety % Humulene % Myrcene % Caryophyllene % Farnese % Alpha Acids
Spalt 21.5 20.0 12.5 12.5 3-5.5
Tettnang 22.5 22.5 8.0 14.0 3-5
Hallertau 40.0 32.0 11.0 0 2.5-5.0
Saaz 42.5 22.5 11.0 13.0 2.5-4.5

 

Don’t worry. You’re not going to be forced to do math.

In terms of the hops that were landraces in Germany, there are a few things we can tell from this information. The Alpha Acids are pretty low. These days, if you want a bitter beer, you put hops with high alpha acids in at the start of the boil. The Germans would have had difficulty making really bitter beer (by modern standards, anyway) without using a ton of whole leaf hops. The historical hopping rate for Pilsner Urquell was apparently 400-460 grams per hectoliter. That is before hop pellets. That’s a lot of trub at the bottom of the kettle. The beer in the region didn’t really get more bitter than 40 IBU, 45 tops.

If bitterness comes from Alpha Acids, then aroma comes from the oils in the hops. Those are the four columns in the middle. Now, typically aroma doesn’t survive when you add hops early in the boil. The byproducts of Myrcene in particular tend to disappear in a flash when added to the boil. When you dry hop or add hops at flame-out, you get a better result. Think of it like making a stew. If you add fresh herbs at the beginning, they’re going to get overpowered and cooked down. If you add fresh herbs at the end, you can actually taste the freshness of the herbs.

Myrcene’s byproducts are things like menthol, citral, citronellol, geraniol and linalool. More importantly, they are responsible for all of the aromas in your favorite American dry hopped beers. Modern hop varieties have been brew to extract specific byproducts from Myrcene. Take Citra, for example: Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime, Passion Fruit, Lychee. 65% Myrcene!

You’ll notice that the hops in the chart don’t have a lot of Myrcene. Every single one of the German landrace hops are higher in Humulene than Myrcene. The things that you tend to get out of Humulene’s byproducts are earthy, woody, or spicy. Humulene occurs in things like Bay Leaves and Tobacco and other kinds of herbs. Knee level forest floor stuff.

It’s also good to mention Caryophyllene. It mostly comes across as dry wood, spice and pepper. Some new varieties that you will have tried have bred it out completely. Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin are good examples of hops that don’t have Caryophyllene in any reasonable quantity.

What all this means is that the hops that German brewers had access to at the beginning of the 19th century were herbal, spicy, woody, peppery and potentially a little bit floral. It would have been more or less impossible to make a beer that tasted like an orange without adding some oranges. Landrace hops meant that they were stuck with these four varieties of hops.

That is a good thing because all of the other ingredients in Bavaria were also landrace ingredients. Everything that the peasants were using in their food and everything that would be adopted into the idealized festhallen fare we recognize as German food today was suited to the same terroir as the hops.

Let’s think about the herbs that German cuisine used for flavouring at the beginning of the 19th century:  parsley, thyme, bay leaves, juniper and caraway seeds. They also had salt and pepper.

Herb Aromatic and Flavour Components
Parsley Phellandrene, Myristicin, Myrcene, Menthatriene
Thyme Pinene, Cymene, Linalool, Myrcene, Thymol
Bay Leaves Cineole, Pinene, Linalool, Methyl Eugenol, Humulene
Juniper Pinene, Sabinene, Myrcene,
Caraway Seeds Limonene, Pinene, Caryophyllene
Black Pepper Sabinene, Pinene, Limonene, Caryophyllene, Piperene

 

From a beer and food pairing point of view, this explains just a huge amount about how German beer and food culture develops. For the most part, the beer that they’re making is going to be a complement to the food because the hops contain all of the same flavor components as the food from the region.

The brewers and beer drinkers did not know about hydrocarbons and terpenoids and aromatic compounds. At least, they didn’t have those words for them. They knew that what they liked and which things tasted good and that certain things went together. Most of these people would never have travelled much more than 100 miles from their homes. They would not have had context for other cuisines. What they would do over the course of the next century is refine the beer being made based on technological innovation to make the beer and food work better together.

We’ll talk about the refinement and development next time.

German Beer and Food Part 1: Parliament Frikadeller

(Ed note: This is longer than usual. There are no pictures. Next time there will be pictures. Promise!)

When we talk about beer and food pairing, we try to come up with shorthand rules. I’ve heard Stephen Beaumont suggest you treat Lagers like White Wine and Ales like Red Wine. I’ve heard Mirella Amato suggest light coloured beer with lighter fare and darker coloured beer with heavier fare.

Both of those are pretty good shorthands, incidentally. They address the main anxiety that everyone seems to have about beer and food pairing: There’s so much stuff. We have the entire world at our fingertips, culinarily speaking. It is essentially a form of choice paralysis that makes this difficult for people. If you’ve spent your entire life paying attention and eating good food, it’s less difficult.

We’re spoiled for choice in a way that no one, historically has ever been. I’m in Toronto, which is more or less landlocked and a thousand kilometers from the nearest ocean. There’s a place down the street which, for $17.99, will serve me about 18 different kinds of sashimi on an all-you-can-eat basis. The contents of just the spice bins at one of the Bulk Barn locations in Toronto would buy you a medieval village. If I decide I want to eat Kangaroo or Camel or Moose, I can go down to the St. Lawrence Market and chow down on the various denizens of nature’s splendor.

Given all these constraints something like Oktoberfest seems practically quaint. The simplicity is life affirming. There is a sausage and some cabbage and probably some potatoes or spaetzle. It’s very straightforward and there’s even a specific beer to go with it. Marzen! They brew it in March, it sits underground in casks during the summer and then they serve it to people at Oktoberfest. It’s simple and tasty.

It’s also the result of hundreds of years of refinement, privation, misery and eventual triumph.

Germany has always been in some state of flux if we’re speaking historically. I remember watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on the news as a grade schooler. It didn’t actually become a nation state until 1871. Before 1806, it was more or less the Holy Roman Empire. Really, Germany was a series of pocket fiefdoms and principalities that were all governed by disparate laws and which did not have much in the way of trade with the outside world.

If you were a peasant in one of these principalities, you did not exist legally. The nobles would run roughshod over your fields while hunting. Your property (probably half a slab of bacon and your churchgoing smock) would revert to the nobles when you died. If you were lucky, they wouldn’t take your milk cow from you on a whim. You had to pay a tax to get married. You probably had to pay a tax to have children, depending on your location.

When you look at the surviving dishes in various regions of Germany and at the cuisine as it exists now, it’s pretty clear that the heritage was grim. From a purely carbohydrate perspective, the people in the uplands were able to grow significant amounts of grain. They had wide varieties including barley, wheat, oats, spelt, rye and so on. Bread was of paramount importance. If you cast around a little, you find that most large towns have their own varieties. Since German is a startlingly precise language, the word for supper is “abendbrot,” literally “evening bread.” If you were in the lowlands like Saxony, there might have been potatoes. If you were in a principality that was truly bereft, like Swabia, you didn’t even make bread. You made dumplings.

In terms of meat, you mostly had pigs. They kept cows and goats for milk, but probably didn’t eat them because the nutrional variety gained from dairy. They kept chickens, but mostly for eggs. If you look at a list of traditional German regional dishes, it’s rare to find chicken being used. If you were near the Rhine, you might get fish. In a lot of cases, they got protein from lentils.

From the standpoint of vegetables, you’re talking root veg and fast growing greens. Carrots, Onions, Turnips, Spinach, Broccoli and Cabbage. They didn’t really have spices. They had herbs: parsley, thyme, chives, bay leaves, juniper and caraway seeds.

To sum up, if you’re a peasant in Bavaria or Swabia or Baden or Wurttemberg (They had apples in Wurttemberg. Luxury!), you were eating a narrow variety of very basic grain based carbohydrates, with some pork, some dairy, and cabbage. The cabbage probably prevented you from getting scurvy. In Swabia, you had spaetzle and lentils. Every day. If you were lucky.

If you weren’t lucky, it was before the Reinheitsgebot. People talk about the 1487 Bavarian Purity Law as though it was about beer. It may have been partially about beer, but mostly it was about preventing brewers from competing for grains. If you ensure that brewers can only use barley by enforcing a royal decree, you keep the price of bread down. The only people who will find wheat and rye and oats and spelt useful are bakers. The local economy was so bad that they enforced pricing on beer: one to two pennies a litre.

Barley doesn’t make good bread. However, it’s hardy and easy to grow. It’s basically free calories. Making beer out of it is more or less a method of preservation from a dietary perspective. Barley by itself will go moldy fairly quickly. Beer will keep as long as you need it to, and you can use the leftover grain as animal fodder. It puts Dopplebock in perspective. It makes sense for the monks to fast on beer: It’s one of the only ways to preserve the calories from the previous year’s harvest to survive until lent.

Similarly, hops don’t make for good eating. While they may have some medicinal properties, their best use is as a flavouring agent for beer. Why outlaw gruit? It’s a production problem. You can farm hops. They don’t need a lot of attention. Usually gruit was made with yarrow, bog myrtle, juniper, rosemary or woodruff. These are things you have to gather. It is a massive waste of time compared to hops which you harvest once a year. Some of those ingredients are already culinarily in use, so the dual usage increases their cost.

You might ask what happens without the Reinheitsgebot price controls. Well, you’ll recall that I mentioned Swabia. In 1524, due to a population surplus, labour in Swabia was worth approximately nothing. The harvest that year was poor and the cost of food skyrocketed. These were people who basically ate Lentils and flour dumplings all the time and now they couldn’t even afford to do that. This is the kind of situation where people get killed over a parsnip. The tipping point was apparently when the Countess of Lupfen ordered serfs to collect snail shells so she could use them as spools for thread. The resulting revolts and retributional massacres thinned the peasantry across Germany by 300,000. The total population was only 12 million across all the principalities. In two years they wiped out about 2.5% of the population!

Jumping ahead a couple of hundred years, we suddenly have The Kingdom of Bavaria in 1806. What had happened was that the line of the Wittelsbachs, ruling family of Bavaria had died out and the Elector of the Palatinate had become ruler during a time when the French Revolutionary armies were overrunning the place. By 1806, they were on the second generation of rulers from the Palatinate line of Wittelsbachs and Bavaria was caught between an increasingly powerful France under Napoleon and the Hapsburgs in neighbouring Austria.

In 1806, Bavaria still had serfs. Because it was made out of small principalities that had been ruled in different ways by different nobles, the laws were different from one village to the next. The entire Kingdom was like that: incredibly outmoded. In France, the revolution had done away with monarchy. In Bavaria, they had not even been able to consolidate the disparate monarchic principalities.

Under Maximillian I Joseph of Bavaria, there was actual reform. There had to be; if they didn’t get their acts together, France or Austria would waltz in and take over. Maximilian Von Mongelas as chief minister oversaw the annexation of free towns and church lands and the holdings of lesser royalty. For the first time ever, there was a central government overseeing everything. There was standardization of agricultural production, which is the kind of thing you need if you’re going up against France or Austria. In 1808, the new constitution abolished serfdom. By 1812, they had abolished torture.

In 1810, Prince Ludwig of Bavaria got married. They threw a festival to celebrate. Oktoberfest!

What we tend to think of as German food is Oktoberfest food. Festhallen fare. Sausages and Pretzels and Sauerkraut and Sauerbraten and Schweinesaxe. It is really meat heavy. That’s not what people typically ate prior to modernization. Further, it would have been basically impossible to organize prior to modernization. Essentially, the Oktoberfest celebration demarcates a significant shift in agricultural production in Bavaria. The food being served is a sort of idealized version of the peasant sustenance that existed before centralization of government. It is a kind of annual bread and circus for the Bavarian people. (Ja! Ein Zirkusbrot!)

It is at this point in 1810 that Bavaria begins to produce the construct that dictates the way we think about beer and food pairing. It’s easy to talk about tradition and intent from this side of it. We’re sort of inculcated to think it’s brilliant. Hamburgers, after all, are just Frikadeller. Hot dogs are just Wurst. You have been eating Oktoberfest food at every family barbeque since you were born. It is not as though it was simply put under glass and existed as a static construct, either. Weisswurst, for instance, which I have been told since I started writing about beer is part of a typical mid-morning German snack wasn’t invented until 1857. By 1857, we had been making lager in Ontario for nearly 30 years.

Next time, we’ll look at the german beer and food construct from a scientific point of view and talk about why it works.