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Germany: A Matter of Purity

It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile. - German Proverb

There is good evidence that grain beverages were brewed by ancient cultures in Egypt and the Middle East, but Europeans commonly credit the form of beer that we recognize today as having been developed by Bavarian brewers in the 16th century. Many stereotypes are founded on a grain of truth: In this spirit it is fair to say that Germans are "beer chauvinists" who consider "auslander" (foreign) beers with suspicion. Beer purity is a German obsession that is close to the heart of German beer-drinking culture. To quote Richard Von Weizsaecker, former President of the German Federal Republic, in showing early environmental concerns: "We could be happy if the air was as pure as beer."

The Reinheitsgebot, or Beer Purity Law as it is better known, has guided German brewers since 1516 when Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria enacted it. Originally it stipulated three ingredients (yeast was at that stage an unexplained phenomenon)-water, barley, and hops. Subsequently, yeast has been harnessed and understood, and it has been tacked on as the fourth respectable ingredient. Although no longer on the statute books, this "law" still has enormous currency in Germany among brewers and consumers. German-brewed beer is still almost exclusively produced in this manner. Being good Europeans, the Germans have relented to the European Union (E.U.) and allowed the importation of foreign beer brewed with adjuncts such as rice, corn, and other un-Germanic additives. Since their introduction to the market, such beers have not made dramatic inroads into the German beer market, thus demonstrating the fact that beer in Germany has remarkably strong cultural connotations.

The Germans have recently lost their position as the European Union’s most enthusiastic drinkers of beer. According to industry figures (Plato Logic, U.K.) they consumed a 30-year low of 136 liters (239 pints) per head in 1996, just behind the Irish. As a result of this un-Germanic restraint in beer drinking, Germany has overcapacity in its brewing industry. Nonetheless, even after the ongoing rationalization of Germany’s 1,200-some commercial breweries, it will still be a brewing giant, with a prodigious number of breweries varying in scale from the miniscule to the large regional concern. Germany will remain the world’s largest beer exporter by a wide margin. Despite its scale of beer production, Germany does not have national brewing concerns in the same manner as the United States and other countries. Breweries are local or regional in nature, which reflects the federated regional composition of Germany.

Germany’s strong regional brewing traditions have given rise to recognized styles of beer. Some of these styles are widely exported and are familiar to habitual consumers of German beer, while others are rarely seen outside their region of production. Hamburg in the north is known for its dry pilsner styles of lager. Berlin specializes in tart Berliner weisse beers, a local specialty occasionally mimicked by U.S. brewpubs. Dortmund is world famous for its rich "export" lagers, which are widely distributed beyond Germany’s borders. Dusseldorf still clings to traditional alt beers, a few authentic examples of which are on the U.S. market. Cologne has legally protected the name of its refreshing kölsch beers, though they are not known much beyond the city region. (kölsch-style beers are produced in some U.S. brewpubs in the spring, though use of the name outside Cologne is illegal within E.U. countries.) Bavaria is world famous for its malty Munich helles-style lagers and refreshing weizen beers.

When U.S. consumers encounter German beer, it will most likely be from a large Northern producer such as Becks, brewers of the best-selling German beer in the world. However, the sleepy backwater of Bavaria is becoming increasingly fashionable for its outstanding weizens and fest-styles. Many a light beer drinker has experienced their first favorable encounter with a specialty beer from a foaming stein of weizen bier. In this section many of the most highly rated lagers and weizens hail from the rural south of Germany.

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