The Two Extremes of German Beer

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Germans do the best things with beer--and the worst. In the 16th century they set down the Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law, which restricted the ingredients of beer to water, hops, malted barley, and yeast--a brewing straight jacket, but one that introduced quality and standards to a vague and shoddy profession (whether or not the Reinheitsgebot is still a good model to follow is up for debate; see my last post). And of course the Germans make some of the best beer in the world--Schneider, Weihenstephan, Schlenkerla.

All of this is old hat in America. At some point in the 19th century, German immigrant brewing culture crowded out the Colonial-era British ale culture--so thoroughly, in fact, that today almost all the beer consumed in this country is light pilsner. Despite the Belgians' upsurge in popularity among the chattering classes, German beer is still synonymous with quality in America.

The cherry flavor was overwhelming: thick, sickly sweet, with almost none of the typical porter maltiness to speak of. It was like drinking sugary motor oil.

One thing Americans don't know, though, is how much Germans abuse their beer bona fides. It's true--you can walk into just about any corner store and find an array of world-famous beers for under 2 euros. But sitting alongside them, giggling in lightweight glee, are a proliferating panoply of...wait for it...flavored beers. Gasp.

Here's the scene: Last week I was hurrying to a party in Wedding, a north-central district in Berlin. I hopped into a corner store and grabbed the first five bottles that caught my eye. A schwarzbier, a helles, a wheat beer, a kolsch, and a porter by a company called Kirsch. I'd never heard of Kirsch, let alone a German porter. So naturally, into the bag it went.

As soon as I got to the party, I cracked open the Kirsch. I immediately tasted my mistake. Kirsch is German for cherry, and Kirsch wasn't the company, but rather the flavor--I was drinking a Biermischgetraenk, or "beer mixed drink," with 90 percent porter and 10 percent black cherry syrup. To make things worse, the porter itself had extra sugar added--because hell, once you've broken the Reinheitsgebot in search of sweetness, you might as well go all out. The cherry flavor was overwhelming: thick, sickly sweet, with almost none of the typical porter maltiness to speak of. It was like drinking sugary motor oil.

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Photo by Clay Risen


Over the next few days, I noticed more Biermischgetranke--strawberry porters, lime pilsners; Beck's even makes a Beck's Lemon. There's a whole subgenre of beer and cola drinks. All of them follow the same recipe: The sweetening flavor isn't added during the brewing process, but only after. And then there's the Berliner mit Schuss. A Berliner is a light wheat beer, typical to the region and not especially tasty. To differentiate it, locals add a shot, or schuss, of sweet food coloring--green or red, your choice. Why they'd choose either is beyond me. Then again, apparently locals also choose cherry porter.

What's that? What about lambics, you say? It's true--fruit lambics are indeed made with fruit flavorings. But the best are made with real fruit, and it's added during the brewing process; the fruit creates a second fermentation, and becomes one with the beer. The worst--and there are a lot of them--are made with syrups. But even then, the brewers still seem to strive for balance, using the sweetness or tartness of the fruit to offset, say, a strong malt flavor. German beer drinks have no balance to speak of.

Why, Deutschland, why? I've got two theories. First off, Germany is still beer land. You can get wasted on wine, and vodka's everywhere, but beer rules. The thing is, a lot of consumers, even German consumers, just don't like beer. So to rope them in, breweries add sweeteners. American breweries have tried the same--Tequiza, or Bud Lite Lime--but without as much success, because American drinkers have lots of other options. But at the typical German Biergarten, they're more or less SOL. They're a market without a supply. Enter beer drinks.

Second, and related, is the strictness of the Reinheitsgebot itself. Once you've added even a tiny variation to the standard beer recipe, you can't call it beer anymore. Such rules make experimentation difficult, but like the strict Calvinist preacher to his children, they also encourage the development of wild, "beer-like" products--especially when there's an entire, underserved market to exploit. (In a way, if you'll follow my digression, it follows that the efforts by mega-breweries to, ahem, water down U.S. laws about what is and isn't beer ironically paved the way for today's adventurous craft brewers, who add all sorts of stuff to their recipes and still get to call the finished product "beer.")

Some of the German beer-drinks are good, some are bad, and I'll admit that on a hot summer day, I might find myself craving a Kirsch Porter. But that's not the point. Rather, next time you get into a bar debate with a German about who makes the better beer, just remember--no matter how good Schneider Weisse is, it's not nearly as common as Beck's Lemon.

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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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