Letter From Ulm: German beer is a grand tradition

Letter From Ulm

Jon Braegelmann is the current Sister Cities Hans Joohs Exchange Intern in Ulm Germany. Below is his second article about his time in Ulm, Germany. His topic in this article is one of the first thoughts that comes to one’s mind when thinking of German and possibly even New Ulm … BEER or as they spell it BIER.

Beer, Bier, Cerveza, Pivo, Olut, -l. No matter how you say it, beer is a long established tradition in many countries. I feel compelled to write about it, because what’s a trip to Germany without mentioning the delicious, foamy drink? In 2014, Germany was ranked 4th in beer consumption with almost 28 gallons per capita per year. America came in at 17th with a pitiful 20 gallons per capita per year (that’s 8 pints per gallon). I was sure that with enough patience and practice I could tap in and learn something about this beloved tradition.

What I discovered about the German model of brewing and consumption hit pretty close to home. Germany has about 1,300 breweries producing over 5,000 different brands of beer. It has big producers like we have Budweiser and Coors, but smaller breweries vastly outnumber the big producers. Brand loyalty from village to village and city to city has allowed those smaller breweries to stay afloat. Bars in an area sell beer from the nearest point of production. Germans love their hometown beer and stay loyal to it. It’s one reason their breweries have evolved with the times and managed to stay around for hundreds of years.

A great example of this hometown loyalty is the Gold Ochsen Brewery in Ulm. Opened in 1597, Gold Ochsen is a family owned operation that produces beer, malt beverages, and soft drinks. Their fully automated bottling line can produce 40,000 bottles per hour, yet they distribute the vast majority of their product within a radius of only 50 kilometers. Strong brand loyalty gives Gold Ochsen a locally concentrated market. This allows them to transport their product themselves, keeping costs down and customers happy.

German beer seems to adhere a little closer to tradition than American beer. The styles of beer in Germany cover a lot of ground, and you can find a beer to fit almost any taste, but American breweries and microbreweries seem to be experimenting much more with novel flavors, hybrids, and diverse ingredients. The German Reinheitsgebot plays a role in this, restricting the ingredients used in the production of beer to water, malt, yeast, and hops. However, it was explained to me that Germans resist change and variety in their beer. Many find a style and brewery they like, and they stick with it. If the desire for new, exciting styles and flavors isn’t there, breweries won’t invest time and money into developing a product. In contrast, go to a bar in the Twin Cities and you’ll have your pick of mouth-punching IPAs and crazy flavors, like gin and tonic or peanut butter beer.

This idea of pick one and stick with it also permeates colloquial language. Order a “beer” in a bar in Ulm, and the bartender won’t bat an eye. They’ll pour you a cold Gold Ochsen Helles Original, a light, pale lager. It’s just assumed you’re talking about the local staple. Try that in America, and the question, “Which kind of beer?” is certain to follow. Synonymous with “beer” is the Halbe. Whether buying bottles from the store or glasses from the bar, Germans drink their beer in half liters, which is about 16 fluid ounces. Belly up to the bar and ask for a Halbe, a “half”, and you’ll get the same, golden yellow Helles from Gold Ochsen.

These are some observations from my short time in Germany. I do not claim to be an expert. However, if you want of opinion of a native to the land of beer, Anna Nusser will be coming to New Ulm in September with the Hans Joohs Program and will be working at Schell’s Brewery. She might be able to offer a more interesting perspective on the topic. In the meantime, zum Wohl!

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