Now that we’re clear on what defines a beer in Australia, what about the rest of the beer producing world?
I’ll start with the obvious – Germany, in particular Bavaria and that old ‘biblicalesque’ German purity law; Thy Beer shalt not contain anything other ingredient than water, malt and hops… and a little bit of luck that microscopic wild yeasts were all around at the time to actually produce alcohol! Whilst I do like the general message of this law – that is, don’t use low grade artificial nasties to make a consumable product and then always follow natural processes as much as possible – I would have to say overall that such a law is rubbish, or Gschmarry! as my Frankish Nürnberger friends would say. I for one have drunk many a delicious beer that contained an adjunct (so ein schmütziges Wort!) such as… hmmm… wheat (did somebody say Weihenstephan or Erdinger or Schneideweisse…), rice and even licorice.
If you look at the beers on other continents, you’ll notice that they predominantly use ingredients that are readily available to their local area. Japanese beers contain rice more often than not, African beers are primarily made using local sorghum and South American breweries love to brew with maize. And to be honest, using local ingredients is far more respectable than following an ancient rule in my opinion. Having said that, barley and all the good noble hops are basically native to Western Europe so it’s easy to follow the purity law if you’re brewing in Germany. I follow the same reasoning with respect to water – I won’t adjust Melbourne water chemistry to perfectly match Burton on Trent just because I want to brew a traditional English pale ale – why not use what you have without adding unnecessary additives if it won’t negatively impact flavour? Salty gose is an example of a beer that was invented as a consequence of the water that was available in Leipzig back in the day.
And I can’t go on without mentioning Belgium. I absolutely love most Belgian beers, they are simply beautifully crafted beverages. Using candy sugar or spices and herbs can result a really unique and refreshing beer. Clearly, the laws of a beer in Belgium are looser than those down the road in Deutschland and even further down the road (or ocean…) in Australia. Unlike the Australia beer laws, it is allowed in Belgium to add artificial sweeteners to beer, which I’m not a great fan of, but each to their own. Of course there are also natural additives like caragennan or use of copper finings during processing to improve beer quality and wood chips and barrels to add unique flavour profiles.
In Sweden, where alcohol is considered to be a serious problem to society, particularly in the northern parts of the country where darkness befalls the inhabitants for most of winter, and so the choice of availability and style is highly regulated by the Swedish government. When I was living in Luleå, I was introduced to “Systembolaget” the government run bottle shop… the ONLY bottleshop chain in Sweden. Systembolaget was only open during very specific office hours Monday to Friday, a few hours on Saturday and closed on Sundays so you had to be organised if you wanted to drink anything at home over the weekend. In Luleå we had the luxury of browsing in the shop and choosing our own products… you may laugh but in other cities, you were given a catalogue to choose from and somebody went to get your order from out the back… a bit like checking out a book at the State Library of Victoria. Everybody had their ID checked, even 90 year old pensioners. All of the Swedes I knew would drive to the border of Finland to a town famous for a large IKEA store and buy a car load of alcohol once a month to bring home because “alcohol here is too expensive!” I wasn’t so concerned as the Belgian beers were still three or four dollars cheaper than in Australia!
In America, beer taxes do not increase as the alcohol content increases, making it an easy decision for a small microbrewer to make an Imperial Stout or a Strong Ale bordering on 15% ABV. And then there’s that question – what is CRAFT beer? Well we can certainly state what is a craft brewery according to the Brewer’s Association of America:
In America, according to the Brewers Association (https://www.brewersassociation.org), a craft brewery is defined as "small, independent and traditional", where "small" is expressed to be "annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less" and "independent" means at least 75% of the brewery is owned/managed by a craft brewer, and "traditional" constitutes that the beer’s volume contains at least 50% "traditional or innovative" ingredients… whilst ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’ may not be mutually exclusive, they do seem to be antonymous to one another but maybe that’s just me… 6 million barrels seems like a lot of beer to me, but then again the amount of beer spilled down the drain on the packaging line at a big commercial brewery is more than I brew in a year!
At the end of the day, despite the obvious science behind the brewing process, the head brewer is like an artist, creating their own unique work of art using a wide variety colours in their pallet (or flavours in their palate… see what I did there?? Ha!). You can be an excellent technical brewer by understanding the science behind the catalysis of enzymes and flocculation patterns of different yeasts, but to produce a truly beautiful, unique and memorable beer, you must have a certain level of creativity and natural flair for recipe development. Any beer can be measured in metric terms, but a great beer is loved and remembered by you because it stands out from the rest in your palate’s opinion. Deliciousness is in the taste buds of the drinker!