America and Germany — the odd couple of international beer — are having a baby.
The German beer industry is one of the world’s most conservative. The American beer industry is one of the most dynamic and changeable, which only adds spice to this summer’s collaboration between Bavaria’s G. Schneider and Sohn and Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Brewery on a new beer called Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen-Weisse.
We American beer drinkers — if that is not a redundancy — run the gamut from those who wash down our nachos with practically tasteless “industrial” brands like Coors and Budweiser, to those who enjoy exploring the broad range of the world’s beer styles, from deep dark stouts to crisp India pale ales to champagne-like Pilsners.
“German beer drinkers don’t like change,” explained Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster Garrett Oliver during a recent visit. “No German brewery has introduced a new beer style in the past 30 years.” This is not surprising, perhaps, in a country where all beer must confirm to the Reinheitgebot, the more than 400-year-old “beer purity” law.
One thing German consumers don’t like is a British technique called “dry-hopping,” in which hops, a standard ingredient in most beers, are added very late in the brewing process. This gives the beer a distinctively bitter flavor and complex aroma.
German brewers, on the other hand, may be harboring a repressed urge to break free. Not long ago, Oliver hosted a number of his German colleagues at a Brooklyn Brewery beer dinner. One of the beers on the menu was Brooklyn Brewery’s own eccentric concoction, Blast!, which Oliver calls “a riotous celebration of hops.” To Oliver’s surprise, his German guests had a blast(!) drinking Blast!
Hence this summer’s collaboration between Oliver and his G. Schneider and Sohn counterpart, Hans-Peter Drexler. First, Oliver traveled to Germany to direct the brewing of the German version of Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen-Weisse, using his favorite European hops. This beer went on sale in July.
This was followed by Drexler’s visit to Brooklyn, where he oversaw the brewing of the American version, using his favorite American hops.
While a project like this may be something new — it is the first collaboration in G. Schneider and Sohn’s 150 years — it also represents a fitting homage to Brooklyn beer tradition.
North Brooklyn was known in the 19th century as “Brewery Row” for its dozens of breweries, all producing German-style beers, including the Weisse, or wheat beer that G. Schneider and Sohn have made world-famous. At one point, 10 percent of the nation’s beer was made here.
The 20th century decline of the area’s German neighborhoods — plus Prohibition and the rise of mass-produced, mostly Midwestern-made industrial beers — hit Brooklyn brewing hard. When F. and M. Schaefer, Williamsburg’s oldest brewery, shut down in 1976, not a single bottle of beer was brewed in Brooklyn or anywhere in New York City.
That is, until 1996, when the Brooklyn Brewery opened on North 11th Street and began turning out Brooklyn East India Pale Ale, Black Chocolate Stout, Pennant Ale and the rest of its popular line. In 1984, Brooklyn had hired a fourth-generation German-American brewmaster from Brooklyn, William M. Moeller, to create a recipe for Brooklyn Lager, which was originally made upstate in Utica, based on brewing records and formulas left by Moeller’s grandfather to his sons.
There is more, however, to the connection between Brooklyn’s brewing present and its past. According to Oliver, shortly before the idle Schaefer brewery on Kent Avenue was to be gutted, he and a few accomplices sneaked in and liberated some of the brewing equipment. “We took everything we could carry that we thought we could use at our place,” Oliver said.
The bottled, German version of the Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen-Weisse (right) is available at many area beer stores. Its American cousin will be released this month, in draft form only.
Tom Gilbert is a writer and historian who lives in Greenpoint.
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