Culture, Craft and Touring for Tradition

Why do beer tourists do their beer tourism?

To answer this question, it helps to begin by asking why any kind of tourist does tourism. I will be bold, and contend that, essentially, all tourism is an act of seeking out and experiencing something different, with the proviso that this experience is likely to be something you will like.

As such, there are three types of tourism: going to one of the few places where you can do something you like to do; experiencing how other people in other places do the things you like to do; and doing something you like to do in different surroundings.

The first category includes sitting on the beach in a country with warmer weather and bluer sea than your own; skiing in a place that has snow; mountaineering in a place that has mountains; surfing in a place that has waves; visiting Disneyland.

The second category includes driving around Bordeaux to visit vineyards and drink wine; touring Japan to see traditional ceramics techniques up close; travelling to historic or otherwise celebrated sites; exploring a different region’s food and drink.

And the third category includes walking the mountains, hills, forests or coastlines that you cannot hop to on a train on a normal weekend; kayaking down faraway rivers; going to a writing, breadmaking or basket-weaving retreat.

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Let’s think about beer tourism in terms of these categories.

Unlike snow, mountains or big surf, beer is ubiquitous. But not all beers are ubiquitous – which is why beer tourism can make it into the first category. I can buy a Czech lager in London, but the only way to taste the Flekovský ležák made for nearly 520 years at U Fleků is to head to the brewery itself. Believe me, it is worth the effort! Similarly, there is only one Brasserie Cantillon in the world, and only one Brasserie Fantôme, and plenty of world-renowned beers that never find their way far from the breweries of their birth.

Beer tourism definitely sits in the second category, too: experiencing how other people in other places do the things you like to do.

In the U.S., where beer culture is craft culture, it would certainly involve visiting the abundant microbrewery taprooms that any good-sized town has to offer. In Belgium it would involve visiting abbeys, gueuzeries, countryside and farmhouse breweries, beer shops and cafés.

In my country, I’d expect a beer tourist to mix it up a little, with a visit to one of London’s dozens of craft breweries seasoning a basic diet of cask ales, sipped at traditional pubs in as many different regions as possible, noting how the singing, sunny, hoppy ales of the south give way to sturdier, maltier, warming ales as one heads north.

In southern Bavaria, it would involve beerhalls and beer gardens, Maβkrugs and brass bands, appreciating the differences between a Pilsner, a Hell and a Mӓrzen, recognising the subtle idiosyncrasies that distinguish Augustiner’s Dunkel from Paulaner’s, and marvelling at the variety of flavours attainable from different Weizen yeasts.

In other words, beer tourism, like all tourism that sits in that second category, is concerned with culture. Culture is alive, by definition, and therefore not bounded or constrained by history or tradition. But unless it is rooted in those things it is not so much culture as fashion, or trend.

And this is why the third category doesn’t really work with beer tourism: doing something you like in different surroundings. I certainly enjoy a beer on the beach, or looking across a mountain valley, or sitting back in a historic European market square, but it is not the quality or type of beer that makes that experience, it is the beach, the valley or the square. This is not beer tourism, but tourism with beer. And if the thing you like to do is to drink a particular type of beer or experience a particular type of beer culture that is characteristic of your own home, seeking that out in different surroundings probably isn’t beer tourism, either.

The globalisation of certain beer brands that has made this kind of “tourism with beer” possible. But so has the globalisation of the culture of craft beer.

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By coincidence, this summer a beer lover whom I follow on social media was in Vienna and then Munich days before I stopped in the same cities. She was delighted to discover the 1516 Brewing Company and its funky pub in Vienna’s Schwarzenbergstraße, as well as Beaver Brewing a little further out of town. Both follow the U.S. craft brewery model, in terms of the styles they brew, their brewhouse-plus-taproom arrangements, the food they serve, even their atmosphere and décor.

1516 Brewing Co, Vienna

1516 Brewing: Funky… but named after the Reinheitsgebot

Vienna is a wine city at the heart of a wine country. It makes sense that its new breweries should look abroad for their model, and that they should be the natural choice of both local beer drinkers and people who like a bit of beer with their tourism. Beer tourists really have no reason to head to Vienna at all.

Munich, on the other hand, is hosting the Oktoberfest as I write, the biggest beer-tourism event on the planet. It has documented its brewing history for over a millennium. More than a handful of sizeable breweries operate in and around the city. Its beerhalls and beer gardens synecdochise the city in the same way Big Ben stands for London, or the Eiffel Tower for Paris.

When it comes to beer tourism, Munich has the gravitational pull of a supermassive black hole.

Our social-media correspondent’s response to this was to temper her enthusiasm for the beerhalls and beer gardens, which were giving her an authentic “feel for Munich”, with the observation that the beer consumed there was not “craft beer”. It was hard to find craft beer in the city, she observed, and the Reinheitsgebot was probably to blame for this lamentable state of affairs.

Search for articles about “craft breweries in Munich” and you will come across more extreme expressions of this view. That the beer capital of the world should be a desert in which bars sell only the pale, dark and wheat-beer iterations of a single brewery’s output, or that finding “a decent IPA” should be as demanding as the quest for a vanished princess in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, is apparently an unbearable outrage.

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The journalistic impulse to find U.S.-style craft beer and breweries around the world is understandable. Craft-beer culture is a phenomenon whose adoption worldwide is worthy of documentation and interpretation. As we see in Vienna and many, many other cities around the world, craft culture is introducing beer to places where it has little or no recent history. Where it does have a history, it is no surprise to find local, and especially younger beer drinkers generating a demand for variety beyond the region’s historic specialities.

For the beer tourist, too, it can be interesting to discover the ways in which new, independent brewers are using craft-beer culture to reinterpret or even revive local beer styles. In Munich, Giesinger Brӓu, a garage brewery established in 2006 that now occupies a large site with a taproom in a southern district of the city, turns out several thousand hectolitres of Hell, Märzen, Weiβbier and Dunkel. Even Crew Republic, with its crafty name, “craft beer is not a crime” tagline, and U.S.-style brewery-and-taproom 20km north of the city, has a Hell in its stable alongside the Double IPAs and Imperial Stouts.

What is puzzling, however, is how tourists in search of beer often set a city or region’s craft-beer scene in opposition to its brewing traditions. Admittedly, the move by large German or multinational brewing companies to acquire traditional brands complicates things – and Munich stands out here, with Löwenbräu and Spaten owned by AB Inbev, and Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr by Heineken. But the perception that craft-beer styles are somehow better than the traditional beer styles seems to have more to do with the fact that a lot of otherwise beer-loving tourists dislike or find it hard to appreciate the subtleties of lager, while craving a certain type of big-flavoured variety.

When a tourist like this wonders why Munich isn’t awash with Mango-Juice Double IPA, Espresso Coffee and Vanilla Stout, or Arugula Brett-Spiked Saison, it’s as if they are complaining that the Italian Alps don’t look like the Cotswolds, or that the Vietnamese don’t eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or that Neuschwanstein Castle is covered in pictures of Lohengrin and Parsifal rather than Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

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But then one arrives in a place like Nuremberg, the second city, after Munich, on my recent tour of Bavaria. The rules seem to get broken here. And that makes this city intriguing as a tourist destination, per se, let alone as a destination for tourists in search of beer.

There are centuries of busy history behind Nuremberg’s façade, but to the modern tourist it feels rather melancholy. Much of the city’s old fabric was destroyed in the Second World War; some, but not all of it, was rebuilt, and there is a certain tiredness to the gaps that were filled in during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

The history that looms most prominently today is one that no-one would choose to commemorate, but no-one can afford to forget: to the southeast, and three times larger than the historic centre itself, sit the Nazi Parade Grounds, now a monument and a museum documenting the rise of National Socialism. It was the symbolism of this “Temple City” of the Nazi movement, just as much as its importance for military logistics, that made it a target for some of the most ferocious Allied bombing campaigns.

One can overstate this sense that the history of the erstwhile capital of the Holy Roman Empire is feint and obscure behind the dust and smoke of its comparatively recent destruction. Churches and houses were rebuilt, after all, and the Kaiserburg still glowers impressively over the Altstadt, whose squares still exude a gingerbread-box charm. And yet, somehow, wherever one turns, this city seems to have taken on this obscurity from its past as its defining identity.

For example, the house that belonged to its most famous son, the artist Albrecht Dürer, makes the great man feel curiously present and absent at the same time. There is nothing unusual about the fact that the medieval-style interiors and furnishings for this 15th-century building were almost all introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries. But it is striking that, because Dürer’s work was so sought-after in his time and none of it remains in his home city, the room of his highly-characteristic paintings is filled with copies – albeit copies with their own historical significance.

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Losunger Keferlohe

Losunger Brauhaus: Ozymandian

Nuremberg’s brewing history has been similarly razed and obscured.  The Tucher Traditionsbrauerei still operates to the west of the city, as it has done since 1672, passing through the hands of many different owners before settling into the Radeberger Gruppe.

Apparently, all that remains of the many other breweries that must have punctuated this city and its suburbs in centuries past are the old branded Maβkrugs and Keferlohers that litter its antique shops, like mysterious Ozymandian relics.

The spirit of that industry – like the fabric of the city itself – has had to be reclaimed by brewers with more modern sensibilities.

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The most notable of these modern breweries is the Hausbrauerei Altstadthof. With its taproom, its shop, its canny diversification into distilling and barrel-aging spirits, and its youthful vibe, this family-owned, 30-year old establishment was the nearest thing to a modern craft brewery that I visited in Bavaria.

Fittingly, it does its thing just a barrel roll from Dürer’s house and the Kaiserburg. It also riffs on traditional German beer styles – indeed, with its Rotbier, on a traditional Nuremberg style (one that fellow craft-beer citizen Schazenbrӓu has experimented with, too). It proudly sports a six-pointed Brauerstern, and organises tours of some of the many miles of cellars beneath the city, which it alone still uses for lagering its beer and maturing its spirits.

Happily, its beers are excellent.

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On our first visit we took the seasonal SommerBier and the truly outstanding Schwarzbier.

The former is aggressively and unusually late-hopped for a German brew, probably with Tettnanger. Midway between a Hells and a Pilsner that is learning to talk American, this was aromatic with herbs and lemon zest and suitably refreshing. The latter delivers a proper shot of well-defined espresso coffee but remains very easy to drink.

Second time around we shared more of the Schwarzbier and added some Rotbier and Rotweiβ to tick all the boxes. The Rotbier is unusual, not unlike a rye ale with its blend of slight smokiness and caramel sweetness, followed by a very dry finish. The Rotweiβ adds a hint of banana as a complement, but otherwise did not quite live up to the promise of the SommerBier and Schwarzbier.

Hausbrauerei Altstadthof, Nuremberg

Hausbrauerei Altstadthof: Excellent Beers, Tools in the Ice Cellars

The tour of the cellars yielded cool relief from the hot August sun and some fascinating facts, historical and technical.

In the 1940s these underground warrens, in some cases dating back 600 years, not only sheltered citizens as air raids destroyed the town above; after walls were knocked through and the epic network of separate cellars were joined together, they also served as crucial escape routes as firestorms raged in the devastated streets. Damp was eradicated thanks to constant airflow, generated by locating vents on both the north and south sides of buildings to exploit the temperature differential. This airflow also carried a cold breeze through the complex during the summer months when Mӓrzen beer was lagering, as it passed over vast piles of ice that had cut from the river in winter and transported into the city by horse and cart.

So much of what makes Nuremberg intriguing is, it seems, beneath the surface.

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The moral of the story, I suppose, is that there are some places where one expects to be a mere tourist in search of beer, but one ends up being a genuine beer tourist. Thanks to breweries like Altstadthof, Nuremberg is one of them.

The next stop on our Bavarian tour? Bamberg.

That is another chapter, still to come. Suffice it to say that, with its unique concentration of tiny, often ancient, brewpub-like Brӓuhausen, and its world-renowned Rauchbier, smoked with the beechwood that grows in the surrounding forests, no tourist of any kind can expect to pass through this unspoiled city without becoming, to some degree or other, a beer tourist.

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