Today I want to share with you a mixture of my passions: German history, food in the “new South,” and, most importantly, beer. These themes all came together in a tour of an amazing brewery in Durham called Fullsteam. But before I can get to the tour and photos, we need to go back in time, as well as take a slight field trip to Germany and the development of my deep, respectful love of beer.
Known as the "Land of Breads" (eat your heart out, France!), Germany is also a land of beers.
I think that like most 18-year-olds, I arrived at college with a dysfunctional view of beer and alcohol in general. Basically, beer was the means to the end of getting drunk, which was itself a means of navigating the semi-adolescent, semi-adult social relations in college. What never really entered into the equation was that beer itself should be enjoyable. In fact, like most Americans I had the vague sense that I should like the taste of beer, but I actually did not care for it. I was willing to put up with the taste because beer offered something I did like: the connection between pleasant drunkenness and sociability.
As it turns out, part of the reason that I did not care for beer was that the beer I was drinking was not very good. Coors, Bud, Miller, and Pabst are all inexpensive staples at college parties, and I think that it is telling that the “light” versions of the major beers are most popular, with the exception of PBR. They have the least flavor, meaning that most people will drink them because they don’t really taste like beer. Think about it: college students (particularly men) are supposed to like beer, and they like the effects of alcohol, but flavorful beer can be off-putting to neophytes. There is a reason why you can hardly taste either hops or malt in lights beers, as well as why they are so carbonated and finish slightly sweet. They are adult sodas. Alco-pops like Smirnoff Ice or Mike’s Hard Lemonade just admit what everyone else keeps secret. (On this note, you should watch the eye-opening documentary Beer Wars – just don’t let the slightly annoying narrator put you off.)
The fundamental difference between this and Coors Light? Less than you might think...
What does all of this have to do with ze Germans, you ask. Well, like everyone else on the planet, I knew that German beers were supposed to be good. For the most part, they actually are pretty tasty. The reason why people like them is that the Germans are very good at producing lagers, which they first developed and popularized (based on the German verb "to store" which has to do with how they are brewed) and which all of the mass-market beers in the US cynically imitate. Lager beers tend to have crisp, clean flavors that are not overpowering. When made correctly and consumed in the right circumstances, they are sublime. They are also very welcoming beers for those who do not want an overpowering drink; for instance, when I was younger and first encountering German beers in Germany. When lagers are made cynically…well, you get Miller, Bud, PBR, Coors, Schlitz, Ice House, Natty Light, and so on. And do not for one second tell me that you could taste the difference between Coors and Natty Light in a blindfolded test, because there is no way you can once brand-loyalty has been eliminated. There is not enough flavor for either to be distinctive – that is the point of their beer and why they have such non-beer-related ad campaigns that support them.
See the hops, barley, and other ingredients on this table? You can hardly taste them in mass-market beers.
German beers are good because in typical German fashion, they decided to subject it to some rules. In 1516 the Bavarians introduced the Reinheitsgebot (say it with me, “Rine” like shine, “heights,” as in tall places, “ge” like get without the t, and “boat,” but with the vowel slightly clipped). The Reinheitsgebot was a “purity law” for beer that decreed that beers had to be brewed with only barley, hops, and water. So, the delicious German Hefeweizen-style does not actually conform to the law because it is a wheat beer, but apparently it was tasty enough to eventually warrant an exception. By outlawing adulterants, the Germans kept nasty preservatives and other additives out of their beers, which meant good, “clean,” tasty beer that also needed to be consumed while relatively fresh because only hops acted as a preservative.
Delicious, German, and wheat-y, but not actually allowed by the Reinheitsgebot.
The Reinheitsgebot is no longer in effect because European courts deemed it as anti-competitive and a barrier to freed trade within the EU, but many breweries still work within its constraints as a point of pride (and, to be honest, probably as marketing). As a result, mass-market German lagers are better than their American counterparts because they do not use adulterants such as rice and weird preservatives, and also because they still seem to take some sort of pride in what they do. There are exceptions – I am looking at you, Becks – but that is the general idea.
This stuff, on the other hand, is great!
Sadly, just as the constraints on German beers had the benefit of producing a nice base-level quality, they have also harmfully narrowed the horizon of German beers. The fun thing about the explosion of American craft beers is that people who started as homebrewers are a little more willing to experiment. Sometimes that turns out poorly, but it also leads to really neat beers. Dogfish Head in Delaware is a classic example: they have fun beers ranging from their India Pale Ales, to nearly Paleolithic and other historic styles, to a pumpkin beer that manages to not be cloying and disgusting. Here it is again worth noting that problems really arise when brewers are cynical and go for the lowest common denominator of fizzy, alcoholic pumpkin pie rather than pumpkin beer. This sort of cynicism is also manifest in certain super hoppy craft beers that are more a product of a hops arms race than the effort to create good or interesting beer (Dogfish Head also gets points here because they manage to balance their IPAs even as they get really hoppy). In any case, an IPA is already pretty out there for most German drinkers and brewers, so imagine the horror they would have when confronted with a brewery like Dogfish Head that brews with pumpkins and even the sap of a Central-American hardwood tree.
What's this? We are getting to the point of this long-winded post?
As part of a series of “goodbyes for now” to the South while I get ready for 10 months of research in Germany, a group of us went on a tour of the Fullsteam brewery in Durham. We got hear all about the history and production processes of this young brewery from their very charismatic founder Sean Wilson. They have actually been using a second-hand German-made system, and I like to think that is very appropriate. It nicely encapsulates the combination of the care and dedication to standards from the German tradition with the American craft beer tendency to try new things. It does not hurt that they also have a fun beer garden for enjoying their product, local food trucks to keep away the hungers beer can’t satisfy, and that they are taking part in the revitalization of a part of Durham and maybe also foodways in the South.
See, I told you they use German equipment.
Sean Wilson (in black) talking to us amidst brewing tanks
Sean spreading the good word in the outdoor portion of the beer garden.
We really hope that Fullsteam is successful because they are doing the very things that make Dogfish Head wonderful, but they are also brewing with a great “new Southern cuisine” approach to local traditions and ingredients. But they don’t use tradition as a crutch. Take their Carver Sweet Potato Lager for example. They brew it in lager style, but they also use local sweet potatoes in the mash, which produces a subtle, interesting variation on that sort of beer. It would also be unthinkable under the Reinheitsgebot, which is why the Fullsteam people talk about having a Neinheitsgebot (it rhymes but is sadly gibberish in German). They also brew a “cream ale” that is an old southern style containing grits. So, what might seem like an additive to cheapen the beer when used cynically actually helps to produce another subtle, pleasant shift in what beer can be. For the most part I oppose using rice in beer, but when someone loves beer enough to try a New Orleans red beans and rice homage, I say go for it. It may not taste very good, but at least you gave it a shot. The other great thing about their style and dedication to exploring ingredients is that, as they like to point out, it connects beer back to its agricultural origins. Beer is made from food, and is actually food itself. Just like we are now supposed to think about where our meat and tomatoes come from, maybe we should think a little harder about our beer.
This modified keg was the humble origin of their brewmaster's first Fullsteam lager.
Awesome taste and awesome backwards "F".