IN LATE 2019, as the army of mop-welding cleaners moved in, the organisers of Munich’s infamous Oktoberfest had good reason to cheer: six million visitors through the turnstiles, seven million litres of beer disgorged, half a million chickens roasted and one billion tourist euros now safely in German coffers. In 2020, however, the fabled Theresienwiese meadow would be returned to the squirrels and sparrows as the world pulled up the shutters.
After two long and fallow years, Oktoberfest is preparing to reopen its gates to international travellers. As this traditional beer festival – now in its 187th year – prepares to turn on the old-world charm, visitors will be arriving to a radically changed Germany. Brewers have shrugged off the shackles of antediluvian brewing laws and time-worn beer styles to join the international craft beer revolt.
The birthplace of the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 (known locally as Das Reinheitsgebot) and home to some of the country’s most iconic breweries such as Augustiner and Weihenstephaner, Munich is an unlikely agitator in Germany’s contemporary beer movement. Future Mountain
However, Crew Republic (crewrepublic.de) is one of its leading protagonists, producing a range of hop-forward beers that are a direct affront to the centuries-old hegemony of styles such as pilsner, helles, altbier and hefeweizen. And you most certainly won’t find them at Oktoberfest.
The Hop Junkie Session IPA is as it reads on the label: a mid-strength ale with some crunchy caramel malt that is framed by lashings of luscious hops – amongst them Galaxy, Chinook and Comet. The latter lends some notable ‘cut grass’ freshness that helps this well-balanced drop live up to its ‘sessionable’ status. The Drunken Sailor IPA turns up the dial on the hops with the addition of Simcoe and Citra – adding some pine and tropical notes – plus the totemic and punchy German Herkules cultivar rounding it off for bitterness. But it is the Foundation 11 German Pale Ale that is most intriguing: a unique take on a traditional style that brings some welcome restraint and a distinctly subdued finish that plays well to colloquial tastes.
Bavaria may be the traditional custodian of German beer, but Berlin has emerged as the epicentre of the nascent craft beer movement – driven by the city’s large expatriate population thirsty for the beers of their homelands. While BrewDog and Mikkeller have set up shop to service this growing market, Berlin-born Brlo (brlo.de) is driving the change in domestic tastes with attractive, minimalist designs and canny fusion of tradition and progress.
At 7% ABV, the German IPA brings together textbook German hops (including Comet, Hüll Melon and Polaris) but supercharges it all with additional dry-hopping and some chewy caramel malts redolent with sweetness. Named for the historic Slavic moniker for Berlin, Brlo’s brews can be found around the country but are best enjoyed at the label’s unique brewhouse, on the border of the city’s central Mitte and Kreuzberg districts.
Never a city to buckle to progress, Hamburg was nevertheless quick to join the heretics. Ratsherrn (ratsherrn.de) is a metonym for craft beer in this beguiling northern conurbation. Ubiquitous across the city’s world-famous bars, the brewery pioneered the more hop-driven styles in the region and also found canny ways to put a new lens on traditional styles, including the country’s beloved wheat beers. Its Weizen IPA is a delectable proposition, layered with fragrant wheat malt, the distinct juicy lift of Citra hops on the nose and a faint, but unmistakable, brackishness reminiscent of the sea.
On Germany’s north-east coast Störtebeker (stoertebeker.com) has become the country’s unlikely doyen of craft beer. Brewed in the charmed Hanseatic city of Stralsund – a historic port of Vikings, hard liquor and brassy seafarers – the maritime theme is ubiquitous here, with the Atlantik Ale one of the greatest success stories in German craft beer.
Aromatically restrained compared with its contemporaries, this was one of the first brews to seriously challenge mainstream German palates, and is also available in a hugely popular alcohol-free version. On the other side of the ledger, the equally loved top-fermented Pazifik Ale is a gutsy 6.5% ABV, with a complex stratum of tropical hops and razor-sharp bitterness.
It’s time to dust off the passports: a new world awaits.