I had a number of tasty beers at the Oregon Brewers Festival yesterday, but none were as interesting or surprising as the one that came from Montana’s Bayern. It was born last summer, when the brewery experimented with a very American hop, a reinheitsgebot-dubious practice, and a classic Bavarian lager:
The story of how this beer came about goes like this: During American Craft Beer Week (2nd week in May), Bayern has been offering a different cask-conditioned version of one of their usual offerings each day of the week. It has been a fun opportunity to experiment with some of things you can do with beer that we don’t normally do such as dry-hopping and infusing with fruit. The cask (called a firkin) in which we dry-hopped Dump Truck with Citra hops turned out to be one of the best. Summer 2015, Bayern had the opportunity to test drive a centrifuge (a.k.a. separator) allowing us to dry-hop a whole tank of Dump Truck and remove the hops. “Citra Charged Dump Truck” was born and made available in many of our markets in bottles and on draught.
In all other ways, this beer is purely Bavarian. The brewery’s brewmaster, Jürgen Knöller, is a Bavarian-born, -raised, and -trained brewer who does things exactly by the book. He has his malts prepared to his own specs, he uses a decoction mash on this maibock, and everything about the base beer, it’s rich creaminess and wonderfully warm malt breadiness, is pure Bavaria. (Bayern has a second German-born and trained brewer as well.)
But the use of Citra in dry-hopping transforms the beer into something that seems un-German. The nose reminds me of the way the scent of jasmine seems to be heavier and more viscous than the surrounding air. It is somewhere between tropical fruit and summer flower. The flavor is largely typical for a maibock, but the scent continues to waft off the beer, leaving the drinker with the impression of a sweetly floral beer. The aroma and rounded maibock body are perfectly in harmony, but this smells like no German lager I’ve ever had.
Dry-hopping was a practice almost no breweries did in Germany until recently. Uerige does it in their Sticke alt, but they make ales, and they come with an asterisk anyway. Whether it was Reinheitsgebot-compliant was mainly a theoretical one. The effect of American craft brewing on the world came quickly, and apparently it has already changed the thinking in Germany. But what makes Dump Truck seem transgressive is not the practice, but the taste of those American hops.
Germany’s great strength as a brewing country has been its rigid adherence to norms. A helles is a helles is a helles. Everyone understands what it is and how it should taste. But that is also leads to calcification. Knöller told me, “I have seen over the years in Germany where your Reinheitsgebot also led somewhat to a standard beer which they’re all doing to perfection, but it kind of got a little bit boring.” Germany has a rock-solid foundation, but that can sometimes feel like a prison.
The way forward is using wholly authentic techniques and ingredients, but looking for new flavors. There are only so many things you can do with Hallertauer hops. But open up the possibility of using American hops, and the potential range of flavors mushrooms. Then imagine using some of the other techniques Americans have uncovered in working with hops–tons of late- and post-kettle hop additions. The palette of flavors multiplies again.
The biggest barrier to German beer innovation has never been Reinheitsgebot–it’s that cultural expectation about what beers should taste like. No doubt there will be some distress in the transition, but beers like Dump Truck have to the be future of German beer. The forces of craft beer will eventually challenge Germany’s classic styles. For some, a beer like Dump Truck would seem an intolerable apostasy. But my guess is that there will be enough of a market to explore these new flavors and that, reassured that what they’re tasting is still classically German, drinkers will be happy to come around.