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New Year, new beer, new hops: German growers enter craft market

BERLIN: In a microbrewery in a trendy Berlin neighborhood, Thorsten Schoppe, one of a wave of beer-makers using new German ingredients to create nontraditional brews, pours hop pellets into a copper vat.

“We only use four ingredients, and that’s one of them,” Schoppen says, as the faintly sour scent of beer begins to emanate from the boiling water and malt, “so they’re important.”

German small-batch brewers like Schoppe have increasingly used so-called “flavor hops” to impart notes of orange, grapefruit or peach while still following the country’s cherished 16th century purity law, which restricts other flavorings.

Until recently, Schoppe had to import special hops from the U.S., where craft brews have an established niche in the market.

This year, German growers, moving to capitalize on growing demand, harvested the country’s first commercial-sized batch of newly developed flavor hop varieties.

“It really amazes people what kind of special flavors you can bring to a beer even within the Reinheitsgebot [the purity law],” says Schoppe, who brews a double India pale ale with a citrus aroma under his Schoppe Braeu label.

“Some people don’t believe you if you say this is all natural, they think you must have added some flavors,” Schoppe says.

Sebastian Hiersick, 35, a cook in Berlin, is a whiskey drinker who generally doesn’t like “normal German beer.”

“It’s either too hoppy, too malty or too carbonated,” Hiersick said.

After starting work at a restaurant that serves several German craft beers, he developed a taste for those with fruity undertones.

“When it’s hot out or in the summer, they are really nice to drink. They are very drinkable, it’s like juice or lemonade,” Hiersick says.

Colleague Magdalen Reskin, 29, who likes chocolate bock, a dark brew, agrees.

“I like them because they don’t taste like beer,” she says.

Hops, fresh or dried and processed into pellets, traditionally give beer its bitter taste.

Hop breeder Anton Lutz began developing the new German varieties in 2006, when he stopped throwing out seedlings with “fruity” aromas and started breeding them on purpose.

Working out of the Hop Research Center in Huell, a tiny village 60 kilometers north of Munich, Lutz pollinated female flowers from a popular U.S. hop variety, called Cascade, with pollen from male plants from traditional German hops.

The idea, Lutz says, was to combine citrusy North American hop flavors with traditional local hops to create a taste that is “hoppy and fruity, not only fruity.”

“German beer drinkers expect beers that are not so extreme, so we needed something a little bit softer,” Lutz says.

The four new breeds, including one called “Mandarina Bavaria,” are described as having notes of “distinct honeydew melon” and “strong tangerine and citrus.”

Local growers are starting cautiously: By the end of 2013, 150 hectares, less than one percent of Germany’s hop fields, will be planted with the new varieties.

“We don’t want the whole beer-drinking culture in Germany to change,” Lutz says.

“We want to open up beer to new markets, not convince people to change their tastes.”

Germany’s beer purity law, introduced in Bavaria in 1516 and adopted nationwide in 1906, dictates that only water, malt, hops and yeast, and no flavorings or preservatives, may be used to make beer.

The law has contributed to a beer culture more heavily focused on tradition and quality than innovation, and the new hop varieties were initially met with skepticism.

“The classic German beer drinker was almost alarmed. They said, ‘We don’t want juice, we want beer,’” says Elisabeth Seigner, head of hop breeding research at the Bavarian State Research Center for Agriculture.

Now, demand for the new hops exceeds supply, Seigner adds.

With a local version of flavor hops available, larger, more traditional breweries are beginning to try them.

Meinel Brewery, in the small Bavarian town of Hof, has been family-owned since its founding in 1731.

About half of the beer brewed there is still Pilsner.

In 2010, however, brew-master Gisela Meinel-Hansen and three women brewers began making limited-edition seasonal versions of “Holladiebierfee,” sold in champagne bottles.

“We have a goal, we want to bring women to beer. This beer is our ambassador,” Meinel-Hansen says.

This winter’s nut-brown chocolate porter, with flavors of coffee and red berry, uses “Mandarina Bavaria.”

Even traditional Hofbraeu, whose Munich beer hall is a tourist favorite, now features a beer with German-flavor hops.

As beer consumption declines, the new varieties allow German hop growers to capitalize on experimentation.

“Three, four, five years ago it was a completely different opinion from brewer to brewer,” Lutz says.

“Now, I think all brewers and hop growers think we need all the varieties,” he adds.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 30, 2013, on page 13.

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