Beer Without Borders

The current tumult in Westminster reminds me that I was in Brussels in November 2011, when politicians there were picking over the final details of a coalition to form a new government. That would have been unremarkable, except that the process had begun with an inconclusive election almost a year-and-a-half earlier. Five months had already passed since Belgium had broken Cambodia’s record for the amount of time taken to form a democratically-elected administration.

What caused this epic impasse? The usual Belgian stuff: the Dutch-speaking, Flemish parts of the country felt economically-burdened with the French-speaking, Wallonian parts; the Wallonians regarded their neighbours as haughty splitters. The fact that Wallonia was a centre of coal-mining wealth only two generations ago added a painful historical twist; a tight poll between the New Flemish Alliance and the Socialist Party, amid a fragmented political landscape, provided the necessary roadblock.

Three years later I was again surrounded by Belgians at a historic moment for their country. It was 1 July, 2014, at a post-conference dinner hosted by a Luxembourg and Brussels-based asset management firm. The buzz was all about the national team readying itself to face the USA in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and how the “golden generation” of De Bruyne, Lukaku, Kompany, Fellani and Hazard had become a focus of shared enthusiasm and identity. Belgians from both sides of the linguistic divide augmented their smart suits and ties with face paint in the black, yellow and red of the tricolour.

It was past midnight when Lukaku slammed Belgium’s second, decisive goal into the roof of the net mid-way through a nerve-shredding period of extra time, sending his nation to its first World Cup quarter final in 28 years. The place erupted. Five months earlier this asset management firm had been acquired by a big US insurance company: this was the night’s final line of patriotic poetry.

Belgians appear to regard their beer and brewing traditions, and notably the fiercely regional character of those traditions, as a source of shared national pride – just like the football team.

What holds it all together? From its fruits and spices and crazy yeast strains, through the prohibition-busting, chaptalisation-boosted ABVs, to the aged hops, open fermentation and bacteria-addled barrels of its tart Bruins and Lambics, the governing idea of Belgian brewing is a love of the anarchic and surreal. The first rule of Belgian beer is that there are no rules.

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The first rule of German beer, by contrast, is actually a rule. It is the one thing everyone knows about German beer. It is the Reinheitsgebot.

The popular understanding of the Reinheitsgebot is that it prohibits the use of anything other than water, malted barley, hops and yeast in the making of beer, and that it is “the world’s oldest food-safety legislation”. But the complications start with the name itself, and only get knottier thereafter.

The term “Reinheitsgebot” was coined by someone in the Bavarian State Parliament during a debate about tax in 1918. Yes, that’s right: the Reinheitsgebot has its origins not in food safety but in taxation. Today it can be found in Germany’s federal tax code. It’s also not as strict as the popular description suggests. German law poses no problem if you wish to go all Belgian and add cane sugar, beet sugar, inverted sugar or candi syrup to your beer.

Bavaria joined the Federal Republic in 1949, but it still jealously maintains its own Reinheitsgebot – the one that can trace its genealogy back to the 1516 decree by Duke Wilhelm IV. This one is stricter on the sugars, but it does allow malted wheat and rye to be used in top-fermented ales. That’s Bavarian pragmatism for you: the region’s most celebrated brews are its top-fermented wheat beers, after all.

Of course, at the end of the day a German brewer can do whatever she wants. She just cannot sell it as “beer” unless it respects this rule. Unless it’s for export, in which case she can. Unless she is Bavarian, in which case she cannot. Which is not to say that there is no Reinheitsgebot-flouting beer being sold in Germany as “beer”. There is.

In 1987, the European Court of Justice concluded, not unreasonably, that the Reinheitsgebot ran counter to the Treaty of Rome as a restraint on trade, forcing Germany to free imported beer from its strictures. Germany itself decided to go on applying the law (or rather, laws) domestically – I guess for the sake of the discipline of its brewing art. Did I say it was the Belgians who had a flair for surrealism?

Alt versus Kolsch

Who are ya? Who are ya?

The Reinheitsgebot has not inhibited the evolution of a dazzling range of styles in German beer. It is tempting, however, to attribute the fierce localism of German brewing culture – sometimes bafflingly tribal to the outsider – to this enforced standardisation of its ingredients and methods, and the vanity of small differences.

Whereas Belgian beer embodies the togetherness-in-diversity of the national football team, German beers assert their regionalism with all the heat and aggression of a local derby. Ninety minutes discussing Düsseldorf Altbier versus Köln Kösch in the Brauhaus is apt to rouse similar passions as 90 minutes of Borussia Dortmund versus Bayern München on the pitch.

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Bohemian and German beer is about the herbal, “Noble” hops. Belgian beer is about yeast. English beer is about floral hops. Scotch beer is about malt. American beer is about fruity hops. Discuss.

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A single brewery in the Czech city of Pilsen can lay claim to be the most influential in the history of beer. But as well as making an impact worldwide, that brewery drew its initial inspiration from across borders.

It is the late 1830s. In Munich, the use of ice-making machines was bringing new stability to the lagering process, enabling more consistent use of the cleaner, cold- and bottom-fermenting yeast strains that allow hops to sing out clearly in beer. In England, malt is being kilned indirectly over coke rather than roasted directly over wood, creating the creamy foundations of the pale ale. Architect Martin Stelzer designs the Burghers’ Brewery in Pilsen around these innovations, a state-of-the-art laboratory in which Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll develops the beer that would become known as Pilsner Urquell – “the original Pilsner”.

One hundred and fifty years later, the mongrel-pure, local-global style he created had conquered the world and become labelled, not always kindly, with the splendidly oxymoronic term “International Pilsner”.

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When I visited Prague in 2014 I was surprised at how much ale was being brewed there, led by pioneers such as Pivovar Matuška. Hop-drenched American IPA is evidently the 21st-century equivalent of 19th– and 20th-century Pilsner.

Ask serious beer lovers where the most exciting place is to seek out new ales today, and many will suggest northern Italy. They taste Belgian. Some of the brewers, such as Teo Musso of Birreria Le Baladin, who has been known to put headphones on fermenters to soothe his yeast with music, act a bit Belgian, too.

In London just now, every other beer put out by our hyperactive brewing industry calls itself a Saison. There are very few farmhouses in London.

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In January I attended a seminar and beer tasting hosted by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling and the US Brewers Association. The event offered an exclusive opportunity to try some fabulous brews, presented as prime examples of current trends in American craft beer.

As we settled down with our favourites from the selection and discussion opened up, a number of attendees asked when, if ever, these beers would make it across the Atlantic in greater volumes. Some had a professional interest: they were journalists, barkeepers, bottle-shop stockists. But others were simply beer enthusiasts and small-batch brewers, like me.

I was struck by a paradox. Had a handful of Americans returned from their trips to Britain and Belgium in the 1980s inspired to establish an import-export industry in Fuller’s ESB and Orval, rather than inspired to set up some buckets and brew, the ongoing craft-beer revolution we were celebrating would never have begun. Like everyone else, I left the seminar wishing I could make an order. But I also left knowing I could take inspiration.

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“Is that how you do it in America?”

“It’s how we do it in my part of America.”

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