A few things that make the German brewer tick

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.

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Malting is a key component of the German brewer training

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.

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My borrowed copy of ‘The Kunze’, 1988 edition.

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.

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7 thoughts on “A few things that make the German brewer tick

  1. You can also get in by studying brewery engineering, if I remember rightly – or is that what you meant by “studying brewing technology”?

    Thanks for the great read, it’s useful to me because it is an insider view that confirms a lot of what I picked up living in Germany (up north) and talking to new-wave brewers and others. The technical grounding is why German beer is so respected, but the associated mind-set is why it can be pretty dull!

    I hear there are shifts now though, with the big brewing schools allowing students to experiment a little more.

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    1. Yep, that’s right. There seems to be a very subtle difference between ‘Brauwesen’ (brewing technology – the classic brewing degree) and ‘Brauingenieurwesen’ (brewery engineering), with the latter having a deeper focus on quality control, process tech and brewery equipment etc.

      I certainly do hope some of the bigger schools are liberalising as my brewing school in Dortmund is very conservative in its views on beer and its teaching. Nonetheless, as I mention in my post, it is really interesting to catch a glimpse of this traditional brewing education environment from an outsider’s POV that allow me to make these observations.

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      1. Among other things, you can find final-year brewing projects (at least I think that’s what they are) from TUM and Doemens on Untappd. Many are pretty straightforward, a few are just plain weird, but some look at least a bit innovative.

        One thing I’ve noticed recently though is German new-wave craft brewers turning to the staples they once rejected – Helles, Pils, etc. Sure, they’re then dry-hopping or somesuch, but it’s all a bit mainstream. I can’t decide if they do it to get respect as ‘real brewers’, or simply because some customers want that, or as a gateway thing.

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  2. The freewheeling American approach is changing–precisely because that lack of a technical, professional foundation can be such a large liability in a commercial brewery. It’s interesting to me to hear how many Americans have actually gone to VLB or Doemens (and many more to Siebel) so they can get that foundation.

    Those brewers probably have the best of both worlds. They aren’t hidebound in terms of techniques and styles, but have the technical knowledge so that when they want to try something new, they understand the limits and dangers. So many “experimental” beers in the US are just bad. (Experiments fail!) Professionalizing the industry is a necessary part of evolution. But Germany offers a caution as to the limits.

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    1. That’s interesting; I wasn’t aware more and more brewers from the US were coming to Germany to study brewing. But I suppose as the market becomes tighter quality becomes even more crucial and a well trained production team can give you that cut above the rest.

      You’re right, it’s great to have that combination of knowledge and experience. My main grumble is the way German brewers are trained to think. Education should broaden the mind and allow you to promote new ideas. In Germany it unfortunately seems to be quite the opposite. Brewers are raised on strict, time-honoured academic theory and thus not encouraged to branch out creatively or think independently. I believe this is part of the reason the beer industry here is generally so conservative.

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