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What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Philosophers have debated this paradox since at least the third century BC, when it was posited in a Chinese fable about a man who was selling a shield that could never be pierced and a spear that could pierce any shield. In the early 2020s, it manifests once more, this time in the shape of the German beer market.

In this iteration, the unstoppable force is the American-inspired global craft beer movement, which has spread now to every serious beer drinking country in the world – just about. The immovable object, the impenetrable shield, is German brewing.

It’s got history

Germany arguably has the longest continuous brewing tradition in the world. It’s full of breweries that date back centuries, including Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world, which has been mashing in consistently since 1040.

It’s got style

While lager makes up most of the beer consumed around the world, the Germans are particularly famous for it. There are a surprising number of lager styles beyond the ubiquitous pilsner, with rich, malty dunkels, heady doppelbocks, and smoky Märzens among styles that might surprise the first-time visitor.


It’s got malting

While Germany is in a tussle with the United States for the title of biggest hop grower in the world, the character of many of these styles relies on malt more than hops.

Crisp’s “Tivoli” maltings in Hamburg, first built in 1922, is one of the biggest in Germany.

German MaltingsThe huge acreage of farmland in northern Germany and southern Denmark is perfect for spring barley that makes a classic German pilsner style malt. Indeed, the coastal German barley or “Küstengerste” malted at Crisp provides the backbone for Germany’s most northerly brew; Flensburger.

This barley is particularly prized for its flavour with high levels of magnesium due to the local soils along the coast, giving a unique flavour profile.

As well as pilsner being the biggest German beer style overall, pilsner malt provides the base even for those chewier dark styles too.


It’s got Reinheitsgebot

Apart from the dominance of pilsner and the variety of other lager styles, German brewing is famous for the Reinheitsgebot, the most celebrated brewing regulation in the world.

In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria passed a law about taxation which, almost in passing, stipulated that the only ingredients permitted in beer were malted barley, hops and water. Often praised as a piece of legislation designed to ensure high quality beer, it was in fact initially designed to reduce competition with bakers for wheat and rye – it was more intent on securing the supply of bread than beer.

It was amended to include wheat following pressure from various duke and princes who specialised in wheat beer production, and incorporated yeast once its nature was fully understood. Initially confined to Bavaria, it was adopted across Germany in 1906. While under EU law, it cannot apply to beers imported to Germany, it still governs the vast majority of domestic beer production.

In a philosophical sense, the Reinheitsgebot exists at the precise point where the irresistible force and the immovable object meet. It’s become a dividing line between the solidity of tradition and the powerful surge of innovation.

Its critics argue that the law stifles innovation. Historically, this is arguable: would German brewers have done so many interesting malt-led beer styles if they were allowed to use other grains? But what is inarguable now is that in the craft beer world, adjuncts have become a way of twisting and experimenting with beer styles, a tool for creativity rather than just a way of making beer from cheaper ingredients. Hazy IPAs, flavoured stouts, spiced and fruited beers cannot be brewed under the Reinheitsgebot.



It’s got other market forces

But this is not the only barrier to American-style craft beer conquering Germany. In the United States, craft emerged as a challenger to a market in which three giant players controlled eighty per cent of the market, all making very similar pale lagers. Beer ownership has consolidated into fewer hands in almost every mature beer market in the world. Today, the banner under which global craft brewers rally is that they are independently owned, free from the handful of multinationals who dominate brewing around the globe. Craft beer drinkers reflect this by seeking out whatever is small scale and local.

In Germany, the beer market never consolidated in this way.  It’s always been locally based, dominated by small scale, independently owned brewers. So in this aspect, there’s not actually a need for the craft beer revolution.

But that’s not going to stop craft beer from having a go. It’s the most exciting thing to happen to beer in at least a generation in most markets around the world. Germans remain the fourth-highest beer drinkers per capita, and there are around 69 million adults in the population.

Spear or shield?

So which will triumph, the spear or the shield? Recent market research provides plenty of ammunition for both sides. The typical German beer drinker is male, probably over fifty years of age, and has an overwhelming preference for pilsner. Just under a third say they always drink the same brand, and about half have a preference for local beers.

However, forty-one per cent say they like to try new beers, and a fifth say they drink imported brands. Younger drinkers in particular, drinking in different venues from their parents, are more likely to seek something new.

It’s telling that although in the United States, craft was free to experiment because it wasn’t shackled by an existing brewing tradition, when it reached the UK and Belgium, younger drinkers welcomed an alternative to their national brewing heritage – even though that heritage was highly regarded around the world.

In the research for this piece, one analyst presented figures suggesting craft beer was providing much-needed growth in an overall market that was stagnant, while another claimed craft beer volumes had peaked and the craft scene had failed to ignite. It’ll be a while before the true picture emerges. One particular local craft customer is Hamburg based Ratsherrn; a brewery where German tradition meets modern craft beer styles and the local malt is as equally at home in their superb Hell as it is in their Pale Ale.

Malt is needed, whatever

Either way, the people at Crisp maltings seem relaxed. A few years ago, Germany accounted for almost half Crisp’s Hamburg maltings’ output. Now, it’s export to the growing Africa and south east Asian markets that dominates with demand for quality pilsner malt increasing to countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Niger, Spain, and the UK.

So, what if there is a sudden switch in demand from pilsner to hoppy IPAs? Stefan Hendschuch, the manager of Crisp’s Hamburg maltings, says simply, “With access to superb barley from North Germany and Denmark, and common varieties to the UK, we can turn our hand to Pilsen and Pale styles of malt. Adaptability and working with customers’ needs is key – they’re what we thrive on”.

His main challenge is what it has always been: “producing the best malts that technology will allow, and achieving consistency from a natural product that changes year-on-year, depending on the harvest.”

The German translation of “craft” is “handwerk”. But as Stefan’s comments illustrates, the English idea of craft is at least as much about knowledge and wisdom as it is about manual skill. In its broadest and truest sense, “craft” is both the immovable object and the unstoppable force in German brewing.

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