An interview with two female beer brewers

“Let's talk about beer”

Two master brewers talk about their love of beer, the differences between major breweries and craft breweries, and why brewing is actually a female occupation.

Susanne Weber, 28, and Kirsten Rhein, 38, have a lot in common and a lot of differences: Susanne is from Munich and works in the quality control department at Paulaner, one of the city’s major breweries. US-born Kirsten brews for Tölzer Mühlfeldbräu, a young brewery in the surrounding area that is also active in the craft beer scene. Kirsten has brought along a rucksack full of beer – just to be on the safe side. The two women have never met before, but they immediately start chatting. The bottles are on the table, so it’s time for the first beer: a typical Munich lager. The glasses are filled with a slight gurgle.

 

So how does beer tasting work again? First you have to smell …

Kirsten: And then you hold it up into the light.

Susanne: This way you see whether the lager is golden with a nice head.All beer tastes pretty much the same to me.

All beer tastes pretty much the same to me.

Susanne: That’s because you don’t know what to look out for. That’s completely normal.

Kirsten: You always have to pour it properly, or else you won’t be able to fully get the aroma.

Susanne: Yeah, but that’s quite difficult with these glasses. We’ll bring some proper tasting glasses next time!

"You always have to pour it properly, or else you won’t be able to fully get the aroma."
Kirsten Rhein

What do they look like?

Susanne: Like wine glasses, with a tower. The chimney effect lets the aroma rise to the top.

Kirsten: There are also glasses made just for stout or IPA. Each glass is designed for a particular type of beer.

Susanne: That’s why wheat beer glasses also have a special shape to let you smell the banana better (the typical smell of wheat beer).

Kirsten takes a book about aroma hops out of her rucksack. Each page contains a description of a hop variety with bullet points and a picture. It’s important for brewers to keep track of things: A few decades ago, there were around 60 commercial varieties; now there are almost 300. Some produce mango notes, while others produce aromas like chocolate or pine. Susanne talks about the state-of-the-art industrial brewery that was opened by Paulaner in Langwied in 2015. Paulaner brews around 2.3 million hectolitres of beer each year, exporting it around the world. Kirsten brews much smaller quantities for the German market.

 

Let’s address a popular cliché: evil corporations and their standard beers in one corner and small craft brewers with their bold creations in the other.

Susanne: We also continue to evolve and try out new things. We just have a different challenge: How can we increase our output from five to 700 hectolitres without sacrificing quality? Small breweriesare quick to experiment with five hectolitres.

Kirsten: That’s right. We are facing completely different challenges. When people drink beer from a major brewery, they expect it to taste exactlyhow they’re used to – and that’s much harder to achieve with greater quantities. When it comes to craft beer, people are more understanding.

Susanne: After moving to Langwied, we were told our beer tasted different. That just couldn’t be true – our analysis was producing the exact same results as before, and we were even using the same water as we did at our old factory. But people thought: “Well, now they’re brewing somewhere else, so their beer must taste different”.

"You can talk and argue about beer for hours and never come to an agreement."
Susanne Weber

So, is the taste of beer just in our heads? How big of a difference is there between different beers? What makes craft beer different, for example?

Kirsten: This difference has been clearly defined by the Brewers Association in the USA: Craft breweries are small, independent and traditional, and they have long-term and fair contracts with hop growers. The breweries have to show innovation and craftsmanship.

Susanne: But then you have to distinguish between US and Bavarian craft brewers: I think it’s just someone who wants to produce small but exceptional batches. After all, at Paulaner, we also show innovation and craftsmanship. And Bavarian brewers also have to meet beer purity requirements.

Kirsten: Beer purity requirements are pretty controversial. A great Franconian brewer has brought back an old style of herbal beer. He even grows the herbs in his own meadow. But he’s not allowed to brew the beer, because it doesn’t meet the purity requirements.

Susanne: He is allowed to brew it; he’s just not allowed to call it beer. German shandy isn’t called beer either; it’s a “mixed beer drink”.

Kirsten: It would be great if our purity requirements were more flexible. These old styles of beer can be brewed all over Germany apart from in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg...

 ... because the law is interpreted more strictly by the authorities here than in other federal states. 

Kirsten: That’s exactly why I’m in favour of naturalness requirements. You should be able to make beer with everything apart from chemicals. The purity requirements of 1516 don’t mention anything about yeast, and yet it’s still found in our beer.

Susanne: When do you use chemicals to brew beer?

Kirsten: I don’t. But lots of major breweries use PVPP, small plastic particles, to make their beer last longer.

Susanne: This doesn’t end up in the beer though; it’s filtered out. And yeast wasn’t known at the time; it was discovered later. It is included in the purity requirements of 1918.

Kirsten: Well people should refer to the “purity requirements of 1918”.

"Bavarian beer goes down better than any other. There’s always room for another."
Kirsten Rhein

The brewing scene has been arguing about the sense and nonsense of the purity requirements for years without ever coming to an agreement. And the current beer law, which is based on the purity requirements, would have to be changed by politicians anyway. They’ve agreed to find a Solomonic solution – for this evening at least… Kirsten tries one of Susanne’s Paulaner beers, and Susanne samples one from Mühlbach.

 

How well do brewers have to be able to hold their drink?

Kirsten: I can hold my drink.

Susanne: Has anyone ever told you they’ll drink you under the table?

Kirsten: Yeah, but now they say “don’t drink with Kirsten!”

What fascinates you about beer?

Susanne: We’re limited to four ingredients – hops, malt, yeast and water –and yet we can make so much out of it. You can tell just by listening to us: You can talk and argue about beer for hours and never come to an agreement.

Kirsten: It’s just a great product. Berlin might be the heart of German craft beer, but people also go crazy for Bavarian beer.

Susanne: The further north you go, the more bitter the beer gets. In Bavaria, we’ve managed to optimise a beer that’s down-to-earth and not over-hopped. We’re the best at what we do.

Kirsten: Bavarian beer goes down better than any other. There’s always room for another.

And what do you love about your job?

Kirsten: I’d always dreamed of coming to Munich. I just loved the beer culture. And now I’m a brewer here.

Susanne: It’s nice to see you’re living your dream. What I love about my job is the tradition. And it’s good that I can move around a lot at the brewery unlike in a typical office job. I love Oktoberfest. I have twenty dirndls at home.

Kirsten: I’ve got nine.

Susanne: Not bad for an American!

Kirsten: But one always gets ripped on the Teufelsrad every year.

"Good female brewers used to be burnt at the stake."
Susanne Weber

Our glasses are empty. It’s time for another beer. Kirsten has brought along one of her own favourite beer: an open-fermented quadruple wheat bock beer – 10.1 percent. That’s quite a high percentage for a beer. A classic lager has just over five percent. Susanne looks impressed.

 

Susanne: We should start a regular meet-up for female brewers. Everyone would be welcome – nobody would have to prove their worth.

Kirsten: Thanks for saying that. Lots of women have good brewery jobs here. Brewing only became a male profession through industrialisation.

Susanne: It used to be completely natural for us women to be brewers. Men were in the fields, while their wives stayed at home – and brewing was seen as a household chore. As soon as a woman had got the feel of it, people said she’d made a pact with the devil. Good female brewers used to be burnt at the stake. Men!

Your industry is now dominated by men. How can women get back to brewing beer?

Susanne: By getting more women to follow our lead.

Kirsten: Exactly. Even if it doesn’t go down too well with all men out there. I think it’s important that women stand up and know where their path can take them, because other women are already working in our industry without any problems.

Susanne: So, my dear women, work at Paulaner or Tölzer!

The table is now full of empty bottles. Kirsten gets some more supplies from the fridge – a local brand of craft beer. Susanne has her lighter at the ready to crack open the bottle. The drink smells a bit like soot. It’s a mix of wheat beer and lemonade, but it’s more than twice as strong at 6.5%. Our glasses clink one last time.

 

And last but not least: Which popular beer myth would you like to debunk?

Kirsten: I think purity requirements are a beer myth.

Susanne: Mine is the “seven-minute Pils” – people say Pils only tastes good if it took seven minutes to tap. That’s nonsense.

 

Also interesting: A typology of Munich's beers - and the people who drink them. Plus: a picture gallery in which you can also see the tasting glass described above.

 

 

Photos: Frank Stolle