Yesterday I had the chance to be a fly on the wall at the Union Brewery, where I was given a special tour. Master brewer Doreen, who has been working here since September, is being visited by her new colleague Kristof, who is himself a master brewer. The pair kindly allowed me into their hallowed – if not quite finished – halls for a chat.
I had already seen the building site once before, in early summer. At that stage you had to be careful where you stepped, and you needed a big imagination to picture the eventual brewery and pub/restaurant. Now I was heading back to the district of Walle on my bike through the November rain. On my way, I spotted a tractor towing a trailer. Ah, I thought to myself, it must be going to pick up draff – a delicacy if you’re a cow. The tractor driver saw me waiting at the traffic lights in the rain and took pity on me. While I slowly dried off, Doreen took care of the draff delivery. This cheap and healthy byproduct can also be used to bake bread. Once I was dry, it was time for business.
Master brewer with a weakness for the smell of bananas
Doreen is only 24 and already shoulders huge responsibilities. She grew up in Sulingen and after an apprenticeship in brewing she found herself in Munich completing her master brewer qualification and gaining more experience at the Camba Brewery. It was her general interest in food and drink that brought her into this profession, specifically her amazement at how just four ingredients can produce such a wonderful and diverse product. She heard about the new Union Brewery by chance, and sent off her application. It wasn’t just the amazing job that appealed to her, but also the beautiful north German city of Bremen. I can’t argue with that! She describes the city and its people as gemütlich, which roughly translates as warm, welcoming and friendly. One of her favourite places in the city is Böttcherstrasse. Her place of work is anything but gemütlich, but the restaurant certainly will be, once it’s finished.
Doreen considers it a serious accolade to have been given the opportunity to run a brand new brewery at such a young age. To begin with, she had to battle with customs regulations and a lot of other red tape. But last Tuesday, the time had finally come to brew the first three varieties of beer: I could see wheat beer, red ale and porter bubbling away in the fermentation tanks. Three more varieties are in the pipeline, and in a few weeks the first Union Brewery beers will be on sale.
What has been the best moment so far? That came after the mash house was finished. It marked a real turning point, as the planning stage was complete and it was time to start brewing. Now the fun begins. Doreen had to pinch herself that evening as she collapsed on to her sofa, exhausted but happy – it was a real ‘goosebump moment’.
And the worst moment? We’ve not had any catastrophes yet, she says, but there was one occasion when my heart stopped. When the bottle washer was delivered, it looked like it might not fit in the space designed for it. There was only about a centimetre to play with, but we managed to squeeze it in without having to take any drastic action.
And which is her favourite type of beer? Wheat beer, no question. She brings out a small sample of unfiltered wheat beer, still in the early stages of fermentation. It has the aroma of bananas, brought about by the fantastic strain of yeast they use. And Doreen’s face lights up again.
From BrewDog to Brew Union
Kristof doesn’t have a favourite beer. He likes a wide variety of beers, and he loves to experiment. He is also young, at 27 years of age, and has just arrived from Scotland, where he worked at craft brewery BrewDog. Before that, he studied in Berlin after his apprenticeship. And now he is about to apply his expertise here in Bremen.
Coming from the north German state of Schleswig-Holstein, Kristof was already familiar with Bremen and feels at home here, particularly on the Weser. He looks forward to hearing feedback on his work from guests and customers, and to telling them all about ‘his’ beers. Both Doreen and Kristof will have direct contact with their customers. At times it will be possible to watch them at work through the glass walls, and they are going to share their knowledge on guided tours or in brewing seminars.
A wide product range from porter to Hanseat 2.0
The brewery’s first beer, Keller Pils, which was produced at another brewery, was presented at the Fisch & Feines fair for artisan food and drink. Craft beer doesn’t always have to be experimental. When you’re sitting in the indoor beer garden watching Werder Bremen play football, then you don’t want a complicated beer, just one that’s easy to drink. So, why Keller Pils? It’s simple, when people think of pils, they think of one of the filtered varieties from the big breweries. The Keller Pils (cellar pils) isn’t filtered, and so it’s still a little cloudy. This opacity is not a defect, quite the opposite; personally, I think it tastes much better. And it is piped straight from the cellar, through the tap and into the glass – beer doesn’t get much fresher than that.
The other varieties scheduled to go into production are: Hanseat 2.0, Rotbier red ale, Weissbier wheat beer, Porter and Pale Ale.
There are also plans to brew some seasonal beers. Maybe something light for the summer? Or something hearty to go with traditional kale dishes in the winter months?
Brewer and maltster – a dream job?
It’s certainly a hugely fascinating job, but if you think you’ll spend your days standing over a cauldron concocting new recipes, you’re mistaken. Customs, the German standards bureau and other official bodies take a close interest in your work. You need to be really proactive in your planning, because it can take weeks before a brew can be tapped or bottled. And then there are the three most important steps in beer making: cleaning, cleaning and cleaning. The disinfectant spray is never far away. You also have to look after the technology, and at Union they also interact with their customers. And then they clean some more.
There’s also the small matter of the beer ingredients, which are restricted in Germany – a disadvantage against international competitors:
In 1516, the German Beer Purity Law came into force in Bavaria, decreeing that only barley (i.e. barley malt), hops and water were permitted in the production of beer. Back then, they didn’t understand the important role of yeast, and wild yeast worked its magic on the beer. But, then again, when I read that people used to add deadly nightshade and things like that, I think the law is a good idea. However, more recent regulations have permitted certain exceptions, including ingredients that make the beer keep longer. The main ingredients are still restricted for the German market, whereas imported beers can contain almost anything. In other parts of the world, beer makers can add flaked rice, polenta, (harmless) herbs or even coffee beans. Of course, German beer lovers are allowed to experiment at home for their own consumption.
Craft beer – is it really a craft?
The photos show a lot of technology at work. Some people might ask what actually makes craft beer different? Is it even a craft?
While it might seem special to spend hours at home with a mixing paddle trying to stop your brew from sticking to the bottom of the saucepan your mum uses to make jam, this nostalgic method of brewing comes at a price of upwards of €25 for a 500ml bottle (based on 20 hours work at €50 hourly rate, plus materials). Who wants to pay that for a beer? Craft brewers use small-scale (technical) equipment, or contract out their brewing if, unlike Union, they don’t have their own facilities. In case you were wondering, the ‘tripod’ in the picture above is used for dry hopping. Pretty cool …
Craft here means something other than working with your hands. It means having the courage to try something new, to invent unusual flavour combinations, to create diversity. Certain speciality beers work well with different foods, for example through the addition of chocolate malt or whisky malt, or through fruity aromas (like banana). I can’t wait to see what Doreen and Kristof come up with next. All it takes is malt, hops, yeast, water, and a whole lot of enthusiasm. Before I leave, I pause in the soon-to-be beer garden to take one last look at the fermentation tanks and that delicious unfiltered beer – I’ll definitely be back …