Trendsetting U.S. craft beers pour into Germany

by Michael Birnbaum

The Washington Post.

Almost 65 years after Allied planes flew Western supplies into blockaded Berlin, a new American import is arriving by air: craft beer.

The beer is being flown in due to a new surge of German interest in American brewing that’s upending a centuries-old relationship in which German beer defined the gold standard for brewing and Americans emulated it.

Now, with craft brewers in the United States capturing an ever greater share of their home market, they are expanding into Germany as well. German consumers, intrigued by unfamiliar flavors, are purchasing more imported beer and are increasingly copying American efforts in their own small-scale brewing operations.

In the last year in Berlin, high-end U.S. beer — including one from California that is flown over in coolers — has become available in some grocery stores, and several U.S.-style craft breweries have opened. The efforts aim to challenge the dominance of plain-old pilsner, the mild lager that dominates more than half of beer sales in Germany. Beer consumption is slipping in Germany, and some brewers say their only salvation lies in fostering a drinking culture less constrained by a 1516 purity law which they say crimps innovation.

“What we’ve found in the U.S. is this amazing variety of styles and the openness of customers to new things,” said Marc Rauschmann, who is importing beer in air-freighted coolers from California-based Firestone Walker Brewing Co., while other beers come by sea.

Rauschmann has started an aggressive effort to sell imported beer and to brew his own German beer in flavorful styles — such as hoppy ales and zesty lagers — that are popular among U.S. craft brewers but are rare in Germany.

The turnaround is shaking big German brewers, many of whom like to brag that they are the best in the world. Upstarts are using another b-word, “boring,” to explain why consumption has been sliding from its 1976 heights. Back then, the average per capita beer consumption in Germany was three liters a week. Now it is down by a third and is expected to keep dropping as older, traditional beer-lovers die off.

But unlike in the U.S., where many supermarkets have recently expanded their beer selections to include dozens of styles from the far corners of the globe, most German stores have remained resolutely unvaried, typically offering just a handful of manufacturers’ brews and only very occasionally throwing a non-German beer into the mix.

Now Rauschmann and others are proselytizing, traveling around Germany to spread the gospel of unusual tastes. His company, Braufactum, is owned by German beer giant Radeberger, which Rauschmann said was trying to help spark a new beer culture in the country where it has been a major producer since 1872.

For some beer-business people, that change can’t happen fast enough.

“The German beer industry has to reinvent itself in a hurry, or it’s going to be a small fraction of what it is now,” said Eric Ottaway, general manager of New York-based Brooklyn Brewery, which has been expanding in Europe and exporting to Germany through Braufactum, which sells a 12-oz bottle of Brooklyn Lager in upscale grocery stores for the equivalent of $4.20 — almost three times its typical U.S. price.

At a recent tasting in one Berlin bar, guests sipped craft beers out of special vessels shaped like wine glasses that helped concentrate the aromas of the brew. The bar was furnished in a decidedly Berlin style — it was a subterranean lair where beakers of bubbling fluorescent liquids served as decoration, the tables appeared to be made from welded-together car parts, and fake stalactites hung from the ceiling — but the discussion was all West Coast, about the virtues of various hops and of sour and fruity tastes that are foreign to German palates.

“It’s easy to get decent beer in Germany. We call it boredom on a high level,” said Dirk Hoplitschek, at the tasting. He started a beer-rating website in Berlin to try to stoke interest in non-German beers, hoping to spark a craft-brewing renaissance as happened in America in the late 1970s.

“The U.S. has a 30-year head start,” he said. “People are traditional here. Maybe it’ll be a bit slower, but it’ll happen.”

For now, non-German beer remains a small part of the country’s market — just 8.1 percent of sales by volume in 2012, according to preliminary estimates by the German Brewers Federation. But that is almost double 2004 levels, and it comes despite the attitudes of many Germans, especially older ones, who remain dismissive of U.S. beer.

“I have worked in pubs all my life, but never has anybody asked for an American beer,” said Uwe Helmenstein, 52, a barkeeper in the middle-class Berlin neighborhood of Friedenau.

“I don’t think it would work here,” he said, citing what he said were strongly held perceptions that American beers are both flavorless and thin.

But with small-scale breweries springing up around Germany’s cities — and many of them creating beers that emulate American craft-beer styles — the seeds of a broader shift may have been planted, some advocates say.

“The older people see beer as a daily nutrition. The younger people are more interested in different styles,” said Thorsten Heiser, who is head of exports at the Bavarian Weihenstephan brewery in Freising, outside Munich, which markets its 1040 beermaking origins as the oldest in the world.

In the working-class Wedding neighborhood of Berlin, one group of expatriate enthusiasts for American beers are trying to create an outpost that sells styles from home they miss not being able to drink. In fact, they are even building a small brewery and bar in the ground-floor storefront of a century-old apartment building, piecing it together with salvaged parts from other bars and breweries. Much of the brewing equipment is from the U.S., because it was cheaper.

“My friends would come to visit me in Berlin, and we would taste beer, and very quickly, I realized, we reached the end. We tasted all the styles,” said Matt Walthall, 32, a part-time English teacher who is one of the three American expats behind the Vagabund Brauerei, whose storefront they plan to open in June.

“This was simply to fill a void,” he said. “We feel as if we’re teaching a lot of Germans things about their own beer culture that they’ve forgotten.”