Since I started my brewing course at Fritz-Henßler Berufskolleg in Dortmund in December 2016 I have not only been lucky enough to learn a great deal of theory and science relating to brewing and brewing technology, but I have also, perhaps equally as importantly, learnt about what it means to be a ‘German brewer’, even if we are still in the training phase and I am not German by nationality. Amongst other reasons this has been particularly interesting for me, as working for a small craft brewery, I otherwise have limited contact to brewers who work for traditional German breweries and therefore relish the chance to gain this rare insight.
These are the four key features I believe that makes the German brewer so unique:
1. The reason I make the generalisation about ‘German brewers’ in the first place is because they must all jump through the same educational hoops in order to become recognised as a brewer in the first place. The three-year apprenticeship programme (in which I am also currently enrolled) provides the apprentices with a base knowledge of the daily operational tasks performed in a brewery. I estimate that 99% of people in production based brewery roles have at some point completed this apprenticeship, sat the exams and, most importantly, received the certificate to prove this. Germans really like certificates. And official stamps too.
2. Those who complete the German brewer apprenticeship scheme are also qualified maltsters. It is believed that these two crafts are interconnected on such a fundamental level that it makes sense to train apprentices in both subject areas. This allows the brewer a certain degree of entitlement when blaming the maltster for cloudy beer or even a stuck sparge, maybe.
3. Move aside Ninkasi because Wolfgang Kunze is the brewer God and his publication entitled ‘Technology Brewing & Malting’ is the Bible. I also estimate that 99% of brewers who have completed the apprenticeship scheme since the 1960s own a copy of this meaty, 900-odd page technical overview of brewing and malting. I certainly do and whilst I find it provides some fantastic explanations of some technical aspects of brewing written in an accessible style, I find the industry overdependence on this text a little suffocating and long for a wider range of technical literature. Nonetheless, most brewers will still be able to recite passages from their school days and it wouldn’t surprise me if some even have their copy of the textbook sitting on their nightstand.
4. (Stereotype alert) Germans love efficiency. German manufacturers produce some of the most reliable and advanced energy saving machinery in the world and it is no surprise that German brewers also fit this mould. German brewers are geared in their professional formative years to increase yield and optimise brew house efficiency wherever possible. From an economical perspective this obviously makes complete sense but I have often been baffled by the complexity and cost of some of the brewing equipment I have encountered that only marginally increases efficiency and sadly allows quality to fall by the wayside as a result.
The Belgian brewery manufacturing company Meura are the number one producer worldwide of the mash filter. This is perhaps the most efficient method of starch extraction from malt that must first be hammered down to a fine powder. In a slide title of a company presentation, Meura anxiously writes: “(The mash filter) isn’t German but it works.” This title beautifully sums up the German prowess and renown in such technology designed to increase efficiency.
These four characteristics all have one thing in common: they all relate back to training and knowledge. The German educational system for brewing completely shapes both the minds of the brewers and, in turn, the way the brewing industry operates as a whole. Either opting for the 3 year apprenticeship path, perhaps succeeded by the 1 year ‘Braumeister’ course, and/or studying brewing technology at University in Berlin or Munich are by far the most common ways to work one’s way into the brewing industry.
However, it seems that more and more brewers are joining the German craft beer ranks and avoiding the formal education route. Instead they are learning by doing, namely by home brewing, often starting on a makeshift brew kit in the kitchen or in the garage and experimenting with different styles and ingredients. These brewers break the rigid mould, as is often the case, in an industry environment in which autodidacts and brewers without formal education are otherwise rare and sometimes, quite tragically, even frowned upon. On the contrary, this DIY path is definitely the most common career development process of many brewers from the English-speaking world. Whilst this approach is unfamiliar for many German brewers it certainly cannot be dismissed as it can be regarded as the very pillar on which the American craft beer movement was founded. A conclusive contrast emerges: The native English-speaking brewer learns from experience and experimentation, often at the cost of formal brewing qualifications, whereas the German brewer can be characterised by a systematic mind-set to brewing and a rigid adherence to academic theory and practice.