Strike up a chorus of "Ein Prosit": the Munich Oktoberfest is celebrating its 200th anniversary.
The world's largest beer blast began in October 1810 as a folk festival to celebrate the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria to Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The original Oktoberfest was BYOB, with a horse race as the main attraction. But the beer tents soon followed. In the ensuing two centuries, the annual bacchanal has been canceled only 25 times, as a result of war or epidemics.
Upward of 7 million liters of beer was consumed at this year's Oktoberfest, which kicked off Sept. 18 and ran through Oct. 3. But its ocean of beer comes from just six Munich breweries, and almost all of it belongs to a single style: a golden lager a little maltier and stronger than a helles, the Bavarians' everyday drinking beer.
German beers have many fine characteristics: They tend to be smooth, balanced, moderate in alcohol, perfect for quaffing from those dimpled liter glasses the Germans call masskrugs. I've argued that German styles are undervalued by an American craft beer culture that often obsesses over how many hops you can cram into a fluid ounce.
However, hopping from brewery to brewery on a Bavarian tour a few years ago, I was struck by how similar their offerings were: a golden lager, a dunkel (dark lager), a weizen (wheat ale), a seasonal bock (strong lager) and Oktoberfest beer. All technically perfect but lacking in unique house characteristics.
In 4¼ years, Germany will mark another milestone: the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, or purity edict. Issued on April 23, 1516, by Bavaria's reigning Duke Wilhelm IV, it dealt mostly with standardizing the price of beer at no more than a penny per liter in the fall-winter and two pennies in the spring-summer. A single line in the 250-word document states that "the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water." (No one back then had glimpsed a yeast cell; now, of course, the Germans allow yeast as an essential beer ingredient.)
In 1987, the European Court struck down the Reinheitsgebot, declaring it an impediment to free trade, but most German breweries still comply voluntarily.
As a consumer protection law (perhaps the world's first), the Reinheitsgebot has kept German beer free of such noxious adulterants as narcotic herbs and chemical preservatives as well as the corn and rice adjuncts used to lighten mass-market beer. But it also has prevented German brewers from experimenting with such flavor enhancers as fruits, herbs, spices, and exotic grains.
Consequently, American craft brewers, for inspiration, look not to the hidebound Germans but to the freewheeling Belgians.
Every year, Germans drink less beer. Last year, consumption fell 2.1 percent, from 107.1 liters per person to 104.8 liters, according to Bloomberg.com. An aging population might be the main culprit, but a boring beerscape is hardly encouraging a younger generation to hoist the foaming stein more often.
In all fairness, Germany does have pockets of eccentricity, such as the Franconia region of northern Bavaria, noted for its rauchbiers (smoked lagers) and kellerbiers (unfiltered, naturally carbonated lagers that are Germany's closest equivalent to the cask ales of England). Greg Engert, beer director of ChurchKey, describes kellerbiers as "rich and dry and biscuity," with a pronounced hop character. (He'll be serving 10 kegs from small Franconian breweries on Oct. 11 as a salute to Sandkerwa, an annual street festival celebrating the consecration of St. Elisabeth Church in Bamberg.)
American craft brewers are also helping to lift German beer from the doldrums. Try Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse, a joint effort of the brewmasters of the Brooklyn Brewery in New York City and the Schneider Brewery in Kelheim. The tutti-frutti flavors imparted by the hefeweizen yeast combine with the citrusy American hops to yield a wonderfully appetizing brew.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Jim Koch, chairman of Boston Beer Co., was invited by Josef Schradler, head of the Weihenstephan Brewery in Freising, Germany, to collaborate in formulating what would be a new style of beer within the confines of the Reinheitsgebot. Their joint effort, dubbed Infinium, will be released in late November in 750-milliliter bottles. Koch describes the 10.3 percent alcohol-by-volume beer as combining the dry fruitiness of a champagne, the body of a dessert wine and the aromatics of a classic pilsner. A sample sent out in August proved to be amazingly light and spritzy for its strength.
The key, says Koch, was devising a brewing regimen that makes use of the enzymes contained in the barley malt to ferment the sugars more completely. "The purity law forbids you from taking shortcuts such as using enzymes or high-fructose corn syrup," says Koch. "It forces you to really know your ingredients. But it's not the straitjacket that people think."
Koch says he feels honored that the nearly-1,000-year-old Weihenstephan Brewery, which traces its heritage to 1040, would want to work with an American upstart who "was brewing in my kitchen 26 years ago." Perhaps more important, he says the release of Infinium could spark a spirit of innovation within the German brewing industry. "Weihenstephan is the pinnacle," he says. "Their seal of approval says it's now OK for everyone."