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How much does ‘authenticity’ cost?

Non-local local beers, and other tricks of the trade.
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When you choose the beer you want to buy and drink, what qualities are you seeking? Is “authenticity” one of them? Which raises another, tougher question: What is authenticity? It’s a philosophical doozy that could take a whole book to address, and if any of you are publishers who want to take a stab at it, I’d be happy to cobble together a proposal. To the rest of you, my fellow drinkers, I ask: Do you care if a beer is authentic? Does authenticity help you make a choice at the bar or the bottle shop? And do you pay extra for it?

It helps to put this somewhat abstract idea into specific context. If a beer’s label says it’s a “lambic” but we know it was soured in a quick fashion, not spontaneously fermented, and perhaps artificially sweetened, I reckon most of us would agree that it is not an authentic lambic beer—even leaving aside questions about where it was brewed.

If a beer’s label claims it is an “authentic” Czech-style or Bohemian pilsner, but the brewer didn’t use decoction mashing or Bohemian floor-malted barley or Saaz hops, then we could probably agree that the beer is not an authentic Czech-style pils after all. So authenticity in the context of beer might relate directly to the producer’s claims about the product. Are those claims honest?

The question of authenticity came up earlier this week at a panel discussion in Berlin, at a trade show for bars and booze. One of the panelists said that “authenticity” was a quality that consumers want in a beer. I’ve long wondered if that’s true. 

In Berlin, incidentally, a couple of the most successful “craft” brands of the past couple of years are Berliner Berg and BRLO. Their beers are not difficult to find these days in the city’s trendier bars. Both of them put the word “Berlin” or “Berliner” prominently on the labels. When locals or tourists see those names on tap lists, menus or shelves in Berlin, I assume that they assume that it is a local beer. It might even help them decide.

But neither brand is actually brewed in Berlin, yet. Most of the BRLO beer is made in Brandenberg and Saxony-Anhalt. Berliner Berg brews its beers at Hohentanner, northeast of Munich. The labels on the bottles don’t mention this. To find out where, you need to ask the people who run the firms—who have always been honest with me about it when I ask—or  search the FAQs or fine print on their websites.

There are examples in the U.S. too, of course. Samuel Adams has long been the “Boston Lager,” even when it wasn’t brewed in Boston. (Much of it still isn’t brewed there but to its credit, Boston Beer does list other cities on its labels.)

Berliner Berg recently redesigned its labels. The team there made a deliberate decision to omit the actual place of manufacture, according to Michèle Hengst, head of sales and marketing for the brand. Hengst says, “If you just put ‘Produced in Hohentanner’ on the label, the customer would get much more confused.”

It ought to be said in the case of both these firms that they have hired professional brewers to oversee the production of their beers and that the quality has generally been high. The local craft geeks tend to go for their ales, but BRLO Helles and Berliner Berg Lager are among my favorite beers available in Berlin’s trendier bars.

Dirk Hoplitschek, who co-founded Berlin Beer Week, moderated that trade show panel. He told me that brewers are trying to figure out how to portray authenticity, with the idea being that “craft beer needs to be authentic, to a certain degree, to sell.”

“But in the end,” Hoplitschek says, “the taste will decide.” Then he quoted a friend, German beer writer Peter Eichhorn, who likes to say, “Geschmack vor Gesinnung,” which translates to “Taste before ideology.” If a beer tastes good, Hoplitschek says, “that validates the product to a certain degree. It’s not about the ideology, it’s about the product.”

It makes sense. But maybe they should tell it to the food and drink companies that are selling authenticity as if it were the product, or to drinkers who pay extra for abstract qualities that are not necessarily relevant to the taste that’s in the bottle.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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