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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Native Dunkel of Glasgow

America is an immigrant country, and one of the ways we measure sophistication is cultural diversity. Does a town have good examples of world cuisine? No decent Ethiopian restaurant: well, that's not a real city. Paradoxically, we like the rest of the world to remain locked in their rigid cultural traditions. I guess, looking at it crassly, you might say we think of the rest of the world as our farm team, and we want to be able to call them up whenever we want. Don't pre-adulterate things, that's our job.

So I bring my typical American attitude to the news that German bier is selling well in Glasgow: no!
The heart of Scotland's biggest city isn't where you would expect to find a traditional German-style brewery, serving authentic fare. But that's exactly what Bavarian businesswoman Petra Wetzel set up in a corner of Glasgow's east end five years ago....

West is the only brewery in Britain that adheres to the strict German purity law of 1516, the Reinheitsgebot, which dictates that only water, barley and hops may be used in the production of beer. Wetzel first came up with the idea when she was studying at Glasgow University....

"We are building a second brewery in Glasgow so we are increasing capacity times 20," she said. "That's what we need in order to grow to the level of business that we want to reach.
I love the fact that within a few miles of my home I have a sour-ale brewery, a farmhouse brewery, lots of Anglo-American breweries, and a little further out, a German lager brewery. But this is the American way. Scots should stick to ales.

Of course, I don't really believe this. It's good for cultures to share, and it's good for Glaswegians to have access to fresh hefeweizen. But the lesson is that the world grows ever smaller and those hidebound traditions that led to indigenous beer styles are eroding at the speed of satellite communication. In a brave new world, we may have to get used to strange ideas--like "traditional Scottish dunkel."


  1. I drank there a few times and WEST was a part of the Pub School event series I organized in Glasgow. I really enjoyed their beer. The best/worst part of it is that all their beers are kegged so they're left out of all CAMRA events.

  2. Brewing lager has a long tradition in Glasgow. Tennent's started construction of a specialised lager brewhouse in 1889, with a complete German-made brewery imported from Augsburg. They employed several German-born chemists and brewers, some of whom reached senior management level. Both pale and dark lagers were brewed. I don’t think Tennent's lager is very good nowadays, but once upon a time they put a lot of effort into making a respectably authentic product.

  3. How can she brew a wheat beer and adhere to the german tradition?

    It states only barley, hops, and water. Not wheat.

  4. Barm, good to know. Apparently the presence of lager breweries doesn't instantly change Scottish preferences.

    IM Lock, Bavarian wheats were never subject to reinheitsgebot.

  5. They were. Well, kind of. Though all evidence points to it being czechs who invented it and brought it over in the 15th century, in Bavaria it was an exclusive right of the Degenbergers. It was banned everywhere else in Bavaria (competition with baking guilds for wheat, most likely). The Degensbergers and the Wittelsbachers (the Bavarian ruling line) had themselves a little feudal spat, and the Duke of Bavaria required that the Degensbergers pay a surcharge to brew it. Eventually the Degensberger line died off and Maximilian I took their property, including the brewhouses (which continued to make Weissbier. The Duke had previously built a brewery in Munich, so they added a Weissbier brewery (which is now the site of the modern Hofbrauhaus) and that became the only place in Munich one could brew Weissbier. The monastic brewers of braunbier (literally brown beer) were forced to pay a surcharge if they did not serve the Ducal Weissbier as well.

    As popularity waned in the late 18th c, the rights to brew Weissbier could be purchased, except in Munich, where it was still the sole privelege of the royal brewery. In 1802 the Weissbier side of the Royal brewery began to be leased out to the public. In 1872 Georg Schneider traded his rights as the current lessee for Weissbier rights to fall into public domain.

    Following the adoption of the Reinheitsgebot in all of the unified German Empire, a special proviso was added that allowed the use of wheat in top fermented beers of all kinds (ie Leipziger Gose, Berliner Weisse, Kolsch). The Reinheitsgebot was again carried into the Weimar Republic at the insistence of Bavaria. It was finally squashed by the EU at the behest of Belgians, who complained that it was unfair (or, at least, their lager-producing mega-breweries did). Such is the end result of globalization.

  6. On that note, Jeff, I would be extremely wary of Friedman-esque proclamations of how great a global economy is. Sure, you have a plethora of local breweries, in Portland. Very few places have such options. Remember that CAMRA itself was founded, at least in part, to shield the dying small town pub from the ravages of corporate consolidation.

    Then there is the issue of terrior: can you really call a beer a "bavarian hefeweizen" if it uses North american malts and hops? Most american micros and homebrewers do, because neither the BA nor the BJCP style guides respect ingredient appelation.

    And while I'm glad I can purchase floor malted English malts or noble Czech hops on the fabulous internets, it comes at the cost of the complete destruction of local traditions. A terrible price by any metric, but one that is concomitant with neoliberalism.

  7. Friedman, cerealdisobedience? Ouch, you know how to hurt an erstwhile political blogger. I would say that "complete destruction" may be overstating things. We'll see how things evolve. The nature of styles has always been mutable, and although I'm a huge fan of the "beer is local" theory of style development, we should recognize that cultural drift and even cultural destruction has played a role in their development, too.

  8. I am not against the idea of people moving, and bringing their local culture with them (as seems to be the case in the article). But the point I was making is that there's always a tradeoff, and our downside homogenization.

    CAMRA types are reflexively defensive about ale for good reason: it is their tradition, and it is unquestionably endangered (especially the small, local pub).

    As Americans, the situation is different, because most of our traditions were either made extinct by prohibition or privatized (looking at you, Anchor). We desperately need something like CAMRA, because right now there is very little in the current culture that is structured to preserve tradition. That's awfully short sighted, in my opinion.