What comes to mind when you think of German or Austrian beer? Perhaps a liter stein of Märzen? A tall, cold pour of pilsner? Those are still prominent styles of these Central European countries but lately, the traditional breweries are branching out and experimenting with different styles and brewing methods. They’re even brewing (gasp!) ales such as india pale ales and robust porters. One of the leaders of this Euro-craft movement is Austria’s Hirter Bier, one of Austria’s oldest breweries at 744 years young, and even with this new experimentation, this brewery still embraces the traditional styles that has been their backbone for centuries. Klaus Möller (fifth generation owner), Nikolaus Riegler (sixth generation owner), and Roland Winter (Master Brewer) were in Chicago this weekend to team up with Square Kegs Homebrew Club and family-owned local distributor Louis Glunz to bring to life the Hirter Überbrew Competition.
What makes this homebrew competition unique is its focus on lagers and other German classic styles. The Hirter Bier crew wants to promote these classic brewing styles among homebrewers, who may become tomorrow’s brewmasters. While in town, Möller, Riegler, and Winter visited beer stores and local Chicago breweries to taste some brews, get a feel for the American craft beer revolution, and learn how to best market Hirter to an American audience.
I had an opportunity to meet with the Hirter team the night before the Hirter Überbrew awards ceremony as they experienced the beers of Evanston’s Temperance Beer Company. I first spoke with Louis Glunz’s Jennifer Faulk who explained the strides Hirter is making to experiment more at the brewery while also educating the consumer and beer personnel. Hirter started the BeerCademy which is similar to America’s Cicerone program, in addition to brewing styles beyond lagers. They are even experimenting with barrel-aging.
It was quite a treat to watch the owners of a 744-year-old institution talk beer with Claudia Jendron and Josh Gilbert, the Brewster and Owner, respectively, of barely one-year-old Temperance Beer Company. And yet, in the language of beer, they were all on the same page. Claudia and Josh began pouring samples of their brews (including Great American Beer Festival silver medal winner Gatecrasher) and began a conversation on the definition of “hoppy.” This was interesting to overhear as the American definition and the Austrian definition are clearly two very different animals. When I sip Gatecrasher, while there is bitterness present, I wouldn’t constitute it as a “hoppy” beer; it is exquisitely well-balanced with the malt playing an equally important role. But when Möller, Riegler, and Winter tasted this English-style IPA, they immediately used “hoppy” as a descriptor.
They were also curious about how Temperance puts their beer in cans. According to these Austrian brewers, canned beer is “cheap.” Many of us Americans can relate to that assessment; it was the same in America just a few years ago. Gilbert explained that there was a culture-shift and education aimed towards the consumer with regard to how cans are actually a superior vessel as it eliminates oxidation and “skunked” beer. And within three or four years, it is an acceptable package for craft beer in America. Hirter is trying to change its packaging for the American market, moving away from the larger-format and instead having six-packs of 11.2 ounce bottles. But maybe after some consumer education with their BeerCademy, we may see Hirter in cans in the future.
After the tasting, Claudia provided a brewery tour, walking the Hirter team through the process from grain mill to bright tank. They asked her whether Temperance brews any lagers and she explained that it isn’t practical, at least not now, as they only have four fermentors and lagering holds up too much prime real estate. Temperance is about to get additional fermentors, though, so maybe it will happen in the future but for the time being, ales it is. After the brewery tour, I was able to speak with Klaus Möller, the fifth generation owner of Hirter Bier.
I asked Möller whether his new foray into different styles of beer is to become more relevant to the craft beer movement. He was adamant that it is not in response to the market; they are brewing beer that they like. But whatever beer they brew, Möller said that it is important that the beers are well-balanced. “When brewing an IPA, it has to be well-balanced,” said Möller. Hirter has started branching out by brewing ales and higher-gravity brews such as an imperial porter that can be aged for many years.
I also asked about how he can ensure that his beers can maintain consistency on its journey from Austria to the United States. I relayed the issue that Pilsner Urquell had a few years ago regarding consistency and the strides they took to adapt their packaging and transportation techniques to ensure the quality for the American consumer. Möller concedes it is a challenge, especially since their beer is not pasteurized and is a natural product. They conducted numerous tests and found a way in production to ensure that even if you taste their product in eight months to a year, it tastes almost the same as a freshly brewed beer. “You have to accept that it is a natural product and will change a little [over time],” said Möller.
I was curious about whether Austria had to adhere to Germany’s Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law that prohibits German breweries from using any ingredients other than malt, hops, water and yeast. Möller said that Reinheitsgebot is mostly a marketing tool and, in Austria, you can use adjuncts but why would you? “You can use additives but why?” According to Möller, you can achieve pretty much any flavor you want by just utilizing the four ingredients of beer. “There is possibility with the new trends in hops, mango and other flavors. And the flavors in malt, you can get coffee and chocolate, and still maintain that natural product,” said Möller. “And people don’t understand [the different flavors] that yeast provides. Why? Why add anything else?”
How old is the oldest craft brewery in America? Twenty-five or 30-years-old? It was difficult to wrap my head around a 744-year-old craft brewery. But Möller, Riegler, and Winter are working to keep their craft alive for another 744 years by “brewing what they like” and branching out to brew other styles. A huge thank you to the Hirter crew, the Temperance team, and Jennifer from Louis Glunz for allowing my family to spend the evening with you. Prost!
For additional photos of my visit with the Hirter crew at Temperance Beer Company, check out Christopher Murphy’s photostream.