A foreword on ‘Crafty’ beer producers and knee-jerk reactions
We’re all familiar with the state of beer in Germany: the sale of craft beer is growing at an exponential rate, while beer sales as a whole have fallen for seven consecutive years. Many industrial beer brands are keeping an eye on the craft beer segment and are launching spin-off “craft beer” breweries with independent brands in order to capitalise on this small, but growing market. Others are releasing these beers under their own label, in the hope that the brand identity might help them reach a wide audience of more conservative beer drinkers.
The Köstritzer Meisterwerke series falls squarely into this second category. Acquired by the Bitburger Group in 1991, Köstritzer has a strong brand identity with its Schwarzbier, a style that has been made by the brewery for centuries. It was a surprise then, that Bitburger chose to launch two new beers – an American Pale Ale and a Belgian Witbier – under this Schwarzbier brand, when it already has its own Kraft Werk brand on the market, with its own Pale Ale, IPA and Belgian Abbey Tripel.
The naive knee-jerk reaction for many enthusiastic beer lovers, of course, is to write these new Köstritzer Meisterwerke beers off, giving them little or no attention at all. Are these beers not ultimately the wolf in sheep’s clothing? However, I find it fascinating that the Köstritzer brand is being used alongside these beer styles. It is important to remember that for many German beer drinkers, their first encounter with a hoppy pale ale might be when they find the Köstritzer Pale Ale on the supermarket shelf. Furthermore, the choice of brewing a Belgian Witbier (using the coriander seeds and orange peel appropriate for the style, deliberately outside the traditions of the Reinheitsgebot) is a big step for any large brewery, and one that will encourage other German breweries in the long run.
Having heard positive reports about the pale ale, I looked forward to trying these two beers. Here are my tasting notes:
Tasting Notes: Köstritzer Meisterwerke – WITBIER
Pale straw in colour, the WITBIER certainly looks the part. I was unable to find out whether Köstritzer used flaked/unmalted wheat or a higher percentage of wheat malt.
It is extremely light in the nose. A hint of lemon/citrus and coriander, but much more subdued that the Belgian counterparts.
In the body, this beer is quite round and sweet, with the cereal qualities of the pilsner malt dominating the profile. Entirely lacking in any of the phenolic/spicey character expected from an appropriate Belgian Wit yeast. Very light bitter finish.
Conclusion: Overall, a very light, thirst quenching beer, but entirely lacking in Belgian character. This beer tastes more like a German Helles with a hint of coriander added to it. The subtle, spicey, peppery yeast complexity required for this style is not just subdued - it’s entirely absent - and the beer is not dry enough. I suspect that the wrong yeast was used for fermentation and that the brewer decided that coriander and orange peel in the brew-kettle were sufficient to make this Belgian. Once again, the contribution of the appropriate yeast and fermentation management has been underestimated and we are left with a compromised, hybrid beer.
Tasting Notes: Köstritzer Meisterwerke - PALE ALE
The PALE ALE is a nice dark amber colour.
In the aroma, the citrus notes dominate; lemons and oranges, rather than tropical or grapefruit.
It is quite fruity/juicy up front, with sweetness from the caramel malts coming through, but slowly subsides into a long, very unpleasant bitterness. After taking several sips, this bitterness aggregates and is like chewing on a very bitter grapefruit rind!
Conclusion: On the positive side, Köstritzer should be applauded for going ‘all in’ with this pale ale. The choice of Citra, Delta, Hallertau Blanc, Galaxy and Calypso hops show that they were prepared to brew a hop-dominant pale ale. Unfortunately, this beer is extremely off-balance. It is far too bitter and simply does not have the malt body to stand up to this bitterness.
Once again, I suspect that this was brewed by a well-intentioned brewer who does not understand the style and pushed the IBUs to inappropriate heights. Yes, American Pale Ales and IPAs can sometimes have an aggressive bitterness – but balance is key. Unfortunately, this pale ale needs to be reformulated to make it palatable at all.
Hypocrisy and the Reinheitsgebot
Finally, it is worth mentioning the Reinheitsgebot and how it applies to these two beers:
The Belgian Witbier style is a spiced wheat beer. It requires two natural ingredients – coriander and orange peel – to be used when brewing the beer. This is not a law written anywhere – both historically and since Peter Celis revived it in the 1960, this is just part of the style. I have to applaud Köstritzer/Bitburger for getting a special exemption from the Ministry in Thüringen to brew this beer according to this traditional style, with the correct spices and to sell their WITBIER as beer in Germany. This is a step in the right direction and sets an important precedent.
Marketing material for Meisterwerke – click for large version
Unfortunately, this conviction does not carry over to the marketing department. If you look at the marketing material for the two beers, the PALE ALE is proudly announced as: “Pale Ale – the popular beer speciality of the British Isles, interpreted by the Köstritzer Brewmasters and brewed according to the German Reinheitsgebot.” (Let’s put aside the fact that the PALE ALE is clearly brewed in the style of an American Pale Ale). My question is: why invoke the Reinheitsgebot at all!?
If the Reinheitsgebot is irrelevant for the WITBIER, that is proudly displayed beside this PALE ALE, then it is irrelevant for the PALE ALE, another style that is not traditional for Germany. Dear marketing team - you can’t have it both ways and not look like hypocrites!
Notes on other Witbiers brewed in Germany
Another German brewery, Crew Republic, has just launched their Experimental 4.0 beer – labelled as a Witbier. However, only malted barley, wheat, hops, water and yeast were used. Although the brewery took the trouble to source genuine Belgian witbier yeast, in my view, this is still not a Witbier, but rather another hybrid/compromise. One can only speculate why coriander and orange peel were left out of the brewing kettle in a brewery in Bavaria…
Although obviously not a ‘traditional’ Belgian Witbier, Pax Bräu’s From Asia With Love, a “Doppel-Wit”, is a wonderful twist on the style: this time with spices (including Szechuan pepper, ginger and lemongrass) added to the brewing kettle and genuine Belgian witbier yeast used in fermentation. Unfortunately only a seasonal beer, this is really wonderful if you can find it.