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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Weizens on the Rise Around Munich

MUNICH. Germany has more intact regional brewing than any country I know, but Munich over-punches for its weight: dunkel and helles are de rigeur, oktoberfestbier the most famous, but weizens are in the ascendancy. Yesterday I visited Weihenstephan and Ayinger and for different reasons, the story was the same (I'm down to singular pronouns now--Sally flew home in the morning from an airport conveniently close to Weihenstephan.)

Weihenstephan is of course synonymous with banana and clove. The brewery is located on a hill and the university part of things is most dominant. That part of Weihenstephan includes food degrees and has continued to grow long past the parking needs, and I spent a half hour trawling the lots for a sliver of space. The campus is draped over a hill and the brewery is at the top: of course. Since it dates back nearly a millennium, brewers used cellars beneath the brewery to age their beer. A student of the school led our tour and it was the best by far I have ever heard given to the public--brewing arcana reduced to pithy, comprehensible descriptions. Every time I asked a question, the guide nodded and told me to wait--he was getting to that.

(There are two degrees available. The first is the brewmaster's, a three-year program. You can stay and get your brewing engineer degree--like a masters--in one more. By law, a brewery must employ a credentialed brewer, and Weihenstephan is the most famous of the several German schools. Whether the best is a matter I'll leave to others.)

Weihenstephan is a super-modern brewery and as you might expect, sort of the model for current practices. They do a double decoction mash, which is still common if not standard, and ferment all their beers in cylindriconicals. It is, in this way, a bit of a boring tour. (In other ways, like its university location and the fact that it's one of only three (I think) state-owned breweries, it is more so.)

What I found interesting was how quickly the brewery is growing even in the face of overall declining sales. We watched a brand-new video that mentioned 300,000 hectos of annual production; our guide said the earlier, 5-year-old video, quoted 230,000. And this is fueled by weizen--80% of production.

Weihenstephan is located just north of Munich in Freising; after my tour I zipped down to Aying, just a bit south of Munich. It's a very charming little town, and the old brewery is located just across the road from the iconic onion-domed church they put on their labels. It's a family-owned brewery and beginning about 20 years ago, the owners were deliberating about whether to call it a day or expand. They expanded, a few turns down the road, and built a brand-new brewery in 1999.

It's always interesting to see what a traditional brewery does during expansions. In Ayinger's case, they went the Adnam's route--super state-of-the-art and ecological. With one big exception: open fermenters for the weizen. (They scrapped decoction as well, calling it unnecessary, old-fashioned, expensive, and energy-intensive. Again, take any debate on that point in comments.)

The primary fermenters are encased in a glass cube to prevent--or forestall--microbiological mischief, but Ayinger thinks its an important part of building flavor, so this tradition they preserved. (Again, on the subject of open fermentation, debate among yourselves--I'll try to remain journalistically neutral here.)

Ayinger makes about a third as much as Weiheinstephan, but weizen's proportion has gone from the single digits to almost 30%. (Americans like me know the brewery for its legendary Celebrator Doppelbock.)

Fascinating stuff. Yesterday I mentioned how much I like the scarce-America helleses and dunkels. I wonder, will they one day be scarce in Munich?

Errata: I totally spaced taking iPhone photos at Weihenstephan--these are Ayinger.


  1. Agree, agree, agree, agree, and agree on the comments about decoction and open fermentation from Ayinger. You can see a 1 to 3% increase in brewhouse yield with a double or triple decoction, but the addition time (2 to 6 hours in the mashing process alone), cost of equipment (mash kettle and mixing kettle) and energy inputs (boiling grain is inherently inefficient) simply don't make sense since we now have thermometers and well-modified malts at our disposal. Modern Munich and aromatic/caramel malts can replace the lost color and aroma of the reduced amount of maillard reactions and they duplicate the rich malt flavors of decocted brews. And I haven't seen a study yet that hasn't shown an increase in ester and phenol production in open versus closed fermentors. That said, there are ways to recreate the effects with pitching rates and temperature if one is forced to work with CCTs. Thanks for the post, Jeff!

  2. Alan, your comments generally align with what I've come to believe--as a non-brewer. One thing that becomes manifestly obvious when you start visiting breweries is that there is no consensus on methods. Breweries do things differently and probably three-quarters are VERY committed to the idea that their methods are best (this is especially true among older, established breweries.) The great difficulty for any single brewery is this: they have do make decisions about equipment and brewery configurations before they start brewing and can never run test batches on different systems to see how they differ. Brewing scientists have a big advantage on this score.

    (Interestingly, Ayinger does have a mash cooker and could do decoction if they wishes. Reading between the lines, I wonder if that doesn't suggest a post-purchase course correction.)

  3. Is that a mobile lid for CIP'ing in that last picture? What a cool idea.

  4. Charlie--right you are. (Mobile clean-in-place? Language fails us.) Ayinger's set-up was really sweet. If you come to Munich, make sure to take a trip south to check it out (reserve a place on a tour beforehand).

  5. First of all, it is Dunkles, not dunkel and Helles, if you want to be correct.

    One thing you have so far not commented on and I would be curious to read: the price difference between the US and Germany. I don't mean the cheapest beer you can buy in either place, but a "typical" beer, for lack of a better word.

  6. To be really correct, you can say either "ein Hell / ein Dunkel" (a pale / a dark) or "ein helles Weizen / ein dunkles Weizen" (here declinated adjectives - dunkel is unhelpfully irregular), with the latter being shortened to "ein Dunkles / Helles".

  7. Mike and Nick, thanks. As you may have gathered, language is not a strength of mine. (God help me here in Czech.) Mike, on the prices, they have varied quite a bit, which is also the case in the US. There's the additional issue of the euro's strength against the dollar. My sense, though, is that a euro buys in Germany roughly what a dollar buys in the US. By that standard I would say beer prices are definitely cheaper in Germany. I could get a half liter of beer for under four euros: a "pint" of beer in the US (usually 12-14 ounces) goes for around four bucks in Portland (a cheap town) and upwards of six or seven dollars in New York.

  8. Jeff, your relative German proficiency is fine and normal. If you haven't learned the language, you can be forgiven spelling mistakes. Those who try to help you with this should be mindful of their own spelling mistakes though!