Warm, flat English beer in Germany

In this globalised beer market there is a fluid exchange of beery knowledge and brewing expertise and this is undoubtedly a great thing. The Bavarian brewer Gabriel Sedlmayr II first introduced the Brits to bottom fermented lager beer in the 1830s (which came decades before foreign, premium lager was commercialised and subsequently bastardised in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s). And the US brewers of the 1990s adopted the IPA beer style as we once knew it and completely transformed it into what is now considered to be the figurehead of the modern craft beer movement. Something that went hand in hand with the American taste for traditional British beer styles was the export of one of the less thought of British cultural assets: cask ale. Just like Shakespeare, the Beatles, David Beckham’s right foot and David Beckham’s left foot, come to that (Thank you, Prime Minister Hugh Grant), cask ale is quintessentially British. And for quite a while now it’s been doing the rounds and continuously gaining popularity in the USA. There are even a few select locations in countries a little closer to home, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy where real ale served from a hand pump with a gentle, natural carbonation that takes place within the cask is gaining traction. This got me wondering if Germany would be ready to adopt this dispense method, as craft beer and, to some extent, the prevalence of traditionally British beer styles continue to grow.

I would dare to say that cask beer culture does already exist to a certain degree in Germany but under a slightly different guise. During recent trips to Franconia, including my work experience in a Franconian maltings that I wrote about, I have been lucky enough to visit several small, village breweries that produce traditional Kellerbier (and not just unfiltered lager with a fancy name). Kellerbier is essentially a bottom-fermented beer, lagered deep in a cellar and dispensed from a wooden cask. For me this is the pinnacle of German beer culture and this is where I have come across some of the most balanced and drinkable beers in this beery nation. But if you’re really lucky, you may even find the odd ungespundetes beer knocking about that is made in a similar way. Ungespundet means that the beer has spent time maturing in an unpressurised fermentation vessel and has often undergone a gentle, secondary fermentation in the barrel, which results in lower levels of carbonation than most other German lager beers. Sound familiar at all? This is probably the way in which most beers were carbonated, if at all, before the wonders of modern bright tanks, carbonation systems and the less sophisticated, yet equally as effective force carbonation, which is a method commonly used by home brewers whereby carbon dioxide is added to a pressurised keg and shaken violently.

beer-barrel-keg-cask-oak
Tapping the barrel with hammer and spigot is a classic method still often used in Germany today

Mahrs Bräu in Bamberg produces what can perhaps be considered as the textbook commercial example of the ungespundetes style and/or dispense method. Their ungespundetes goes simply by the name of ‘U’. If you go to the Mahr’s Bräu Brauhaus in Bamberg and ask a waitress for ‘a U’, you will not only be able to show off your knowledge of a local, beery code word of sorts to your mates but, more importantly, you will be brought a half litre mug of lightly carbonated Franconian lager beer with a herbal hop bite from the Hallertau Perle hops and a smooth malty body. This is said to be the only beer in the world that can be ordered using just two letters. And also, ‘a U’ is certainly easier to pronounce in German than trying to order a ‘Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel’ a few beers in.

Whilst ungespundetes Franconian lager beer could perhaps be used as an argument to support a brewer’s decision to dispense from cask in Germany, this culture is sadly only the norm for a very limited number of beer styles in very few brewpubs. Something that would perhaps count against opting to use this method of dispense in Germany would be the high levels of carbonation and low serving temperatures at which German beers are commonly served. Two of the most consumed beer styles in Germany are Pilsner and Wheat beer, which contain on average 5 – 5.5 grams per litre of carbon dioxide (g/L CO2) and 5.5 – 7.0 g/L CO2 respectively. This is considerably higher than the 1.5 – 2.2 g/L CO2 average that is achieved by a secondary fermentation in a cask for traditional English ales. Furthermore, these German styles are commonly served between 2-4°C, whereas a cask ale should be served at cellar temperature, which is approximately 13°C. A final attribute that is a little more difficult quantify is the the depth of flavour found only in real ale. Drinking a well brewed and well kept pint of real ale served at the correct temperature is a completely unique sensory experience that cannot be offered by any other form of dispense. All of the above are bound to challenge German preconceptions about how beer can be served, carbonated and, most importantly, taste. However, it can unfortunately be too much of a challenge for some more conservative drinkers to alter their mindset towards beer and its dispense and for this reason I am very thankful that most craft beer brewers and drinkers are keen to explore new flavour horizons and hopefully disregard the stereotype that all English beer is flat and warm bla bla bla.

As far as I am aware there are no pubs/bars/tap rooms etc. in Germany that currently dispense real ale from a cask.* The only chance to drink cask ale in Germany is at the annual Festival der Bierkulturen in Cologne where several English brewers are usually present showcasing their wares. It would be arrogant and a smidgen neo-colonial to try and impose our almighty British real ale culture on the German lager drinking masses and it would be also misguided to expect to ever see real ale available here like it is in the UK or even in the US. This is because Germany already has its own, established beer culture, which is a great thing. However, it is reasonable to expect that one day real ale will become a limited feature at specialist locations/events due to the ever flourishing German craft beer scene and its appetite for traditional British styles and experimentalism. At Ale-Mania brewery we brew English influenced, top-fermented beers that undergo gentle bottle conditioning and it is fair to say that our founder and head brewer, Fritz Wülfing and I are both keen advocates of real ale. Therefore we not only have the personal incentive but also the vested interest to pave the way for cask ale in Germany. Watch this space.

*EDIT (18/08/17) – Chris Begley (@BegleyChris) informed me that the Loch Ness and La Birra pubs in Berlin both serve hand-pulled cask ale. Berlin, a European craft beer hub and melting-pot for multiculturalism, gives me hope that cask ale could potentially become more widespread as the modern beer scene develops.

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