Beer Battle: America vs. Germany

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Yesterday I wrote a piece for my host paper here in Berlin, der Tagesspiegel, defending American beer. Needless to say, the reaction from commenters has been swift and harsh. But because it's in German, I'm really only seeing half the debate. What do Americans think about German beer? And what do readers think about the piece? Remember, it's for a German audience, but I hope the arguments can get some discussion going.

Read the piece in translation below; read it in the original German here.


Dish water. Piss. A joke. There are a lot of stereotypes about American beer here in Germany. And these stereotypes aren't completely wrong: Budweiser, Miller, Coors--the USA manufactures a lot of famous, awful beers.

But the market is changing: Since the late 1980s you can find more and more small, fantastic American breweries. Dogfish Head, from Deleware, for example, is famous for its so-called "extreme beers" brewed with raisins or aged in oak barrels. These "micro breweries" or "craft brewers" only have around five percent of the market, but they nevertheless have a big influence. As an answer to these challengers the big firms are making better and better beers--Coors produces Blue Moon, a wheat beer, and Anheuser-Busch has brought Stone Mill, an organic pale ale, to the market.

In comparison, the German beer market seems a little boring to Americans. It's true that Germany produces Schneider, Weihenstephaner, Andechs, and Schlenkerla. But how often are these beers consumed? Becks, Sternburg, Flensburg, and others are the most-consumed beer brands in Germany, and they are hardly better than Coors or Miller.

It's no wonder that, according to the German statistical office, in the first half of 2009 German breweries sold 2.3 million hectoliters (4.5 percent) less beer than in the same period for 2008. That's the largest drop in statistical history. Is it possible that Germans find their own beer a bit boring? In any case it's time that Germany give American beer a second chance. Here are five reasons:

1. Quality For a long time price was the single most important factor in the American beer market. But today there are really two beer markets: one, in which price is still determinant, and another, in which quality counts. The second market is smaller, but more complex and adventurous; they drink Dogfish Head and other beers as a luxury symbol. In this market the best breweries compete through quality as well as price. It's normal to find a $10 beer made with the finest ingredients in a corner grocery store. How many German beers cost more than 1.50 euros?

2. Selection This second market promises not just quality, but also variety. Twenty years ago there was only watery pilsner. Today any local store offers a beer universe: barley wine, IPAs, cream porters, Belgian triples, fruit beers, imperial stouts and many others. The beer world knows more than just light and dark.

3. Innovation German beer is prized for its tradition. The breweries here have perfected the lager, the hefeweissen, and the helles. But how often do you find new offerings? In contrast, each year brings new trends, experiments, and fads to the American beer market. The current trend is for more and more hops, although Belgian beers--tripels, saisons, etc.--are also hot. These often have a higher alcohol content, and as an answer you can also find more and more nuanced beers, especially from Pennsylvania. There you can find Stoudt's, which specializes in German beer styles--they brew kölsch, maibock, helles, pils, doppelbock, and hefeweissen. Such innovations make the American beer scene exciting, fun, and surprising. It's also important to note the influence of homebrewing. Americans love homebrewing, and many microbreweries started out as hobbies. The homebrewing scene is an enormous workshop for the American beer world.

4. Geography America is a big place, with different climates and "terroirs." Beer from the American Midwest contains more malt, because that's where a lot of barley is grown. Beer from California, Oregon, and Washington State on the other hand contains more hops. The water in Oregon tastes different from the water in Florida, which makes their beers taste different as well.

5. Openness/curiosity Unlike England or Germany, America has no real beer tradition of its own. What is American beer? It's everything and nothing. English ale and Czech pils are both accepted. Americans import their styles, and so beer is nor a national symbol or a part of ist culinary patriotism. You'd never find a German brewery that makes a Belgian beer: The German beer culture is too proud of itself. In contrast, in America such internationalism is the ideal.

American beer culture is not better than Germany's, it's just different. But one can no longer say that German beer is better. Americans prize German beer. It's time for Germans to do the same.


Most of the German commenters take issue with my comparison between Beck's and Flensburger on one hand and Coors and Miller on the other. Hyperbole, perhaps, but they're all boring to me. Others objected to the idea that "extreme beer" could ever count as real beer. I probably could have stated my "quality vs. price" argument better, because many commenters assumed I meant that good American beer is all really pricey. But my point was really that some beer in America is a luxury good, and is priced accordingly. Obviously, there are lots of reasonably priced American craft beers.

To some extent the difference is unbridgeable--Germans are uninterested in innovation or even a wide variety of choice, because they feel they have already found perfection. Americans are dazzled by the possibilities of new angles and avenues, and pursue them relentlessly, even if it means breaking rules. Is there is a better statement about the basic differences between European and American culture?

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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