Friday, 6 February 2009

Why German Pubs Get It Right


When I visited Düsseldorf and Cologne, places I know very well in drinking terms, I was struck by how amazingly busy the pubs all were. Although my observations are from these two big cities, I have witnessed similar scenes throughout Germany. Germany was just entering recession and yet the pubs were going like a fair. I have been formulating some ideas to explain why they should be doing so well, in the kind of vague hope that suffering British pubs might adopt some of their ideas and start to thrive again. I have concluded though that while I reckon I know some of what makes German pubs tick, it isn't going to be repeated here.

Firstly it has to be said the pubs I am talking about here, mostly are the independently owned Alt and Koelsch houses and these are different in some ways to mainstream pubs, (though most pubs in Germany are independently owned) but perhaps serve to emphasise my point further. On a midweek night it was difficult to find a seat in any of them and when you factor in that really there is only one drink on sale in each - OK you can maybe get a wheat beer and various schnapps, but that's it- the popularity would have any pub operator here scratching their head in amazement. So why are they so busy?

I think there are a number of factors. The list is not exhaustive:
  • the pubs serve all ages, but are predominantly populated by over 40's, an age group alienated from pubs in the UK by bad behaviour, market segmentation, loud music, open plan interiors and many other such "design" factors
  • they may only sell one product but it is a quality one
  • food is genuinely home cooked, not bought in frozen and is reasonably priced and plentiful in portion. No "chicken ding" here!
  • service is warm and welcoming. Staff are smartly dressed and attentive
  • though smoking was banned in most of the pubs, there was no nasty huddle outside, no gauntlet to run and no smoking shelters
  • the atmosphere is friendly and non threatening
  • the pubs are immaculately clean, cleverly divided to break up open space and the custom of shared tables means you have to learn to get on with other people
  • anti social behaviour is absolutely frowned upon
  • in the case of the independent house, they are seen as synonymous with their town (and this is repeated throughout Germany)
  • Germans retain a strong sense of the traditional in so many ways, that the unchanging nature of certain long cherished establishments, is seen very much as a positive
  • German pubs are more often than not, family run
So why is this so? Is it a societal thing? Possibly. Germans are very protective of their own local environment. Are they less sophisticated? The fact that when anyone walks into an Alt or Koelsch house, irrespective of age or gender, a waiter automatically brings them a glass of beer on the assumption that is what they will drink might make you think so. It is an alien concept to most of us, but it works. Maybe this accepting conservatism (not shared by all of course) brings a comforting certainty in a sometimes uncomfortable world? And the beer, particularly in the two cities I mention, is good too which helps, though it has to be said similar scenes are played out all over Germany. (Even in the buzzing Schlenkerla in Bamberg you are expected to drink the very smoky Rauchbier. No alternative beer is usually sold.)

Perhaps it is simpler than that. The over riding factor is that German pubs still deliver a product that people want. They don't need quizzes, karaoke, live "entertainment" or two for one inducements to enjoy a night out in the pub. Drinking at home in Germany is inordinately cheap - even for quality products - but it doesn't prevent people going to the much more expensive pub. Due to somewhat enlightened alcohol taxation, German pubs have always had to counteract cheap beer at home and have done so by giving customers a comfortable, value for money, traditional environment that encourages customers to want to come back. It puts the pub and pub going firmly in the mainstream of German social life. They can and do visit to socialise, eat and drink and just to enjoy an atmosphere that is usually buzzing with friendly conversation and laughter. The Germans even have a word for it - Gemütlichkeit - which can best be described as "socially cosy." Doesn't that sound the sort of place you'd like to drink?

So, are the Germans just like us? Yes and no. That is why I conclude that what works in Germany does not necessarily work here, though adopting most of my bullet points would improve most of our pubs 100%. (Of course it has to be said that adopting these points would also be good for some German pubs no doubt) There are of course bad'uns in Germany too, but in mainstream pubs standards are much higher. Germans expect and demand high standards.

It is different here in the UK and attitudinal, market, social and ownership issues muddy the water. But perhaps pubs here are failing to meet even our low expectations? I'll try and give a view on that next.

There is rather a good page on Wikipedia about Gemütlichkeit. It is not just environmentally warm, but promotes the notion of belonging, social acceptance, cheerfulness, the absence of anything hectic and the opportunity to spend quality time.

37 comments:

Ten Inch Wheeler said...

The lack of what is seen most nights in almost every town in the UK means Germans over 40 aren't scared to visit their town centres after dark, so the generations mix over a scoop or three, and pubs thrive. Nor do they see the point in change for changes sake - I really can't envisage say, Munich's Andechser am Dom being gutted and turned into a theme pub.

I used to live in South Germany and never once did I see so much as a puddle of puke on the pavement or even the faintest whiff of fisticuffs in any town or city I visited. Indeed, I once saw a couple of hundred members of some university alumni club, all carrying swords and all blind drunk, wobbling out of the Augustiner Bier Garten in Munich. Their ages ranged from about 20 to some who were clearly in their 80s. Nobody got stabbed, and nobody's head got removed.

I once got talking to a senior Munich policeman who told me the only time the city had any drink-fuelled violence was when the National Servicemen were released from duty (although National service has now stopped) around Oktoberfest and at the odd footy match "although it is worse when the British or the Polish teams come". He just couldn't understand how the British government allow our town centres to be effectively taken over by drunks. There's not much Gemütlichkeit at Plonkers, Tipples or Walkabout.

Zak said...

That's a really interesting post, tandleman.

In terms of tradition and the sense of an independent house "belonging" to a town, I was wondering about the effect of not having a national association like CAMRA in Germany - do you think that helps preserve some of the regional character at all?

Curmudgeon said...

Agreed, very interesting post.

I certainly agree that many British pubs nowadays are offputting to the over-40s, who historically were the biggest users of pubs. Very often nowadays, the places where you find the best pub atmosphere are those that retain a substantial proportion of older customers. I've noticed this in particular in some Sam Smith's pubs, which have no music and a generally "traditional" ambiance, and also – in the German style – offer just the one cask beer.

Tandleman said...

Zak

I don't think it does really. I think German beer as a whole has declined a lot, but German pubs haven't. The surviving decent brewing pubs in Cologne and Düsseldorf are at the high end of the scale of course, but even where you have piss poor beer in Germany, you rarely have piss poor pubs. Most German brewpubs are terrible beer wise, but almost invariably lovely pubs with all the right attributes for the pub goer. Germans for reasons best known to themselves - well they think it healthy mainly - scoop down trub laden unfinished beer.

Tandleman said...

Curmudgeon

I think the point that Ten Inch Wheeler made about how our cities and towns at night are almost
"no go areas" for us older types strikes a chord with me. Your Sam's point does too.

Paul Bailey said...

Over the course of several visits to Germany, in particular to Bavaria, I was beginning to think that I was alone in thinking that the Germans are doing something right when it comes to pubs. I am therefore very pleased to read that a number of other people have reached the same conclusion.

A number of points stand out, firstly the absence of loud, distracting and conversation-killing music. Secondly plenty of tables at which to sit, plus the way they are set out. The large, souless, open-plan barn-like establishments, so-beloved by pub-chains in Britain are thankfully rare in Germany.

Like several correspondents have poined out most German pubs have a good mix of customers and age groups, much like English pubs used to have when I first started drinking. Their pubs are clean and non-intimidating and so too are the town centres.

One particular small rural pub stands out in my mind. Just over a year ago I was staying in a Franconian village called Wachenroth, roughly half-way between Nurnberg and Bamberg. I was part of a coach party visiting this part of Germany ostensibly for the Christmas markets in the region, but in my case primarily for the beer.

On the second night of our stay, the tour rep had arranged a party in the hotel we were staying at. Now there was nothing wrong with the hotel, but I have never been one for organised entertainment, especially when it is "forced". I therefore decided to stroll down to one of the local pubs in the vilage, and was pleasantly surprised on entering to discover several of my travelling companions had done the same thing.

The pub wasn't much architecturally, but it had a really good atmosphere. It served good local beer - Reckendorf Schlossbrauerei, and good home-cooked, value for money food. We were made to feel most welcome, not just by the locals who, amongst others included, the local mayor, but by the landlord and his wife. The landlord came over and chatted to us; his pub was very much a labour of love. He had a full-time day job with his wife running things in his absence. The whole area had been feeling the pinch, especially since the American forces had pulled out from the region, but he was determined to carry on. We sampled some of his home-produced, raspberry-flavoured schnapps, and several of us bought a bottle to take home.

To find such an excellent establishment on a freezing cold December night was a pleasant surprise indeed. The fact that the pub was packed was testimony in itself that the landlord and his wife were doing something right. If I lived in Wachenroth, I too would have been a regular drinker there, but I was left to bemoan the fact that whilst there are several traditional looking pubs within easy walking distance of my home. the tradition only extends as far as the front door. When I go for a pint, I want to sit and chat with people. I don't want my eardrums assaulted by a wall to wall sound system, or worse still, karaokee, neither do I want to squeeze past a load of moronic sweaty oafs in football shirts, all glued to the latest TV offering from Setanta Sports!

No wonder so many pubs in the UK are closing when all they do is appeal to the lowest common denominator, and to one age group in particular!

Paul Garrard said...

Fantastic post. This speaks volumes about where we need to be in the UK.

The Woolpack Inn said...

This is indeed a very interesting post. For full parity it would be important to understand price comparisons. I fear that we are too price concious here in the UK and therefore quality sufferers.

"I’d rather push needles in my eyes than pay that." tells a big story.

Curmudgeon said...

"I fear that we are too price conscious here in the UK and therefore quality suffers."

Agreed, people need to accept that if they want a good night out with high-quality beer in congenial surroundings, it won't come cheap. Unfortunately that is a difficult message to put across in a recession.

Off-trade beer is cheaper in Germany than in the UK, and the gap between the off-trade and pubs is greater, yet people, as Tandleman says, still flock to pubs more enthusiastically than they do here.

That rather gives the lie to the oft-heard moan that "the supermarkets are killing pubs". In reality, badly-run pubs are killing pubs.

Tandleman said...

Dave - I think you will find, pre pound plunge, that German pubs were only marginally more expensive than ours. Compared to earnings, probably cheaper.

"I’d rather push needles in my eyes than pay that." tells a big story." is only part of the story I'm afraid.

Tandleman said...

Curmudgeon: "In reality, badly-run pubs are killing pubs."

I refer to my comment above. It's only part, but a sizeable part, of the story.

jocko said...

Germany doesnt have the problem of big pub companiesdeciding what we the public like in a pub.Its not all doom and gloom. I go up central London once a week and can find great pubs and no trouble.
ZAK-Why would Germany need CAMRA. They have 6000 breweries.We needed CAMRA because our tradition was being demolished by the then big brewers.
WOOLPACK-The busiest pubs in London are usually the most expensive.Maybe its a London thing.
TANDLEMAN-Ive been to Munich which is maybe not thebest example of German beer culture but warm and welcoming is not the first thing that comes to mind with the bar staff. yeah good post-cheers.

Paul Garrard said...

Forgot to say "Gemütlichkeit" is my favourite German word. Hard to translate but perfect for describing cardigan-like environments/experiences.

THE southport drinker said...

Is the fact that most customers are over 40 pointing to a decline in Germany?

A similar thing has happened here - just earlier.

The majority of younger people just don't want to know about cask, they'd rather binge at a weekend in a dodgy club but prefer pills to pils.

Woolpack Dave said...

My experience of going abroad is that ml for ml the continent is more expensive. Comparing ABV etc confuses it, put personally I think there is a slight case of rose tinted 'specs when it comes to price comparisons.

There are many pubs cannot provide the service that is required at the prices they are expected to drop to. Some are not economically viable at any service level.

However, your list is indeed a very accurate check list of what makes a good pub.

Zak said...

Jocko - I think it's interesting that Germany is alone among Northern European coutries with a great brewing heritage that doesn't have a national consumer body like CAMRA, Zythos, Danske Olentusiaster etc. It must be indicative of something?

Tandleman said...

Dave - The best thing pubs can do (apart from providing good beer of course)costs nothing, It is to be welcoming to customers. That makes you want to come back.

And yes it is expensive now in Euroland and some parts such as France, particularly so. Germany has always been on a par with the UK assuming around 70p to the €. After that it diminishes.

SD - re the over 40's bit. No. I don't think so for the social reasons I mentioned.

Tandleman said...

Zak it is. There is an astonishing unawareness of how their brewing heritage is crumbling. I examined it here:
http://tandlemanbeerblog.blogspot.com/2008/09/bier-deutsch-problem.html

They need a consumer organisation and can learn from the experience of CAMRA and even avoid our mistakes!

Woolpack Dave said...

I'm afraid a good welcome does cost money. It requires good staff, which need to be paid more, it needs staff training, which costs more.

Most importantly, it needs to return the licensee a reasonable profit so that he isn't worried about his bank balance and cash flow and therefore stressed out all the time, which then ripples through to staff and customers.

Tandleman said...

Umm. I don't really agree Dave. If your staff can't say "Hello", "Thanks" Is everything all right?" and "Goodbye" they are a false economy in the first place, no matter how little you pay them.

If the Landlord or Landlady can't, then there is little hope, I appreciate you are out on a limb somewhat location wise, but even so.........

Woolpack Dave said...

The only words that cause me a problem in that reply, Mr Tandleman, are "I don't really agree" so perhaps we agree more than you think.

All I am trying to point out is that a cost driven approach drives down quality. That can ripple through to the welcome as well.

I may steal some of your post for staff training, if you don't mind. I do think it's rather good.

Erlangernick said...

Interesting post, and interesting commentary, to which I shall respond haphazardly. 'Been wait'n for this post!

A couple of points right up front: Be careful with the assumption that they don't use frozen, canned, or pre-made foodstuffs! You might be surprised at how much is used at different places. Just order something with peas & carrots at any of the Altbier places and see for yourself.

And what's this about smoking being "banned in most of the pubs"? You told us a while back us that it'd been segregated into smoking & non-smoking rooms. I experienced this in Köln last spring. It's an improvement, but still...Scheiße.

As far as the reaction that they're "doing something right" in Krautley, well, I think they're just doing things the way they've always been done, nicht wahr? I agree with your point about their being simple traditionalists.

I want to quibble about whether one should think of German Gaststätten (guest houses, more or less) as "pubs" though. They're just a bit fundamentally different. You go to a pub to drink and socialise, but not necessarily to eat, or so I'm led to believe by Brits I've known and from my experience. The Krauts go to their Gaststätten to eat. And to them, drinking is just a natural part of eating, bless them. Beer is a foodstuff.

A typical Gaststätte is like a family-friendly, informal restaurant (sort of), and if the beer happens to be great, so much the better.

A "Kneipe" is more like a pub or a bar, and there you're less likely to see people eating much, nor is it as likely to be as gemütlich IMO.

The youth grab a Döner and head to the discos and bars, leaving traditional Gaststätten to us old-timers and families.

AFA the modern murk-producing brewpubs go, considering how relatively few of these places there are in any given city, compared to the number of Gaststätten serving other (sometimes very boring) beers, I don't know if I'd say that so many Germans go for such crap by choice. They just don't know any better, I think.

And a nitpick: Schlenkerla do list their Rauchweizen on the menü, as well as wine! This business about brewery taps' serving just one beer not leading to bankruptcy, that's your traditionalism again. Why SHOULD a place serve more than one kind of beer?

Which reminds me...how long do I have to wait for that wonderful Schlenkerla Fastenbier this year? When's Fastenzeit? Ah, 2-1/2 weeks. You should come visit!

Rednev said...

I have to admit that a lot of this discussion about German beer is over my head, but I don’t understand why some people seem to tolerate aspects of German beer that we would be unwilling to accept with British ale, such as the fact that a lot of it is keg. After all, the keg process is a comparatively recent development (early to mid 20th century) in the overall history of brewing, and all German beers must have been served without the use of gas for hundreds of years.

Perhaps one of you regular visitors to Germany could tell me whether much - if any - German beer is produced in the traditional way without the use of extraneous gas, i.e. their equivalent of real ale. I do understand there are different fermentation processes involved, but that wouldn’t explain the need for gas pressure.

Also, taking up another point from this posting, since when have town and city centres become no-go areas for drinkers over 40? I’m 54 and go out drinking until around midnight at least twice a week in my town centre, and sometimes in others, and never feel intimidated. Of course problems do occur, but that was always so; don’t let media scare stories put you off.

Erlangernick said...

I suppose gas is used in Krautley like it is anywhere else for two main reasons: convenience of dispense, and preservation. (Right?)

But yes, the best Kraut beers are poured under gravity, called "bayerischer Anstich" (Bavarian tap(ping)), which helps. Whether or how much gas is infused during lagering and/or kegging, to this I plead ignorance. I'd like to think none is, as a rule. I suppose I should ask around.

Adeptus said...

Interesting post indeed. I have a faint feeling that you may have been visiting the better establishments, Tandleman, as my experiences have varied wildly. I'm not sure exactly what the "traditional environment" you describe is. As Erlangernick said, the Kneipe can be different beasts, and can vary from extremely dodgy kips to pretty nice places to go regularly. The Gaststätten can be like that too, with some awful holes I have visited over the past 13 years. I suspect that you have been visiting places that are either producing their own beers (as in Dus, Munich and Cologne) and are essentially beer temples, or places in regions like Franken where you expect the best of all. However, like you I think that generally there's a more relaxed atmosphere ad less hassle than back home, and the general approach to beer and alcohol in general is a more healthy one.

Pubs in the cities do seem to be doing very good trade, and in places like Muenster, with a large student population, it's pretty lively (although pretty quiet when the students have gone on holiday). You do find lots of quiz nights, live entertainment and stupidly loud music to attract them in, but there are equally as many estqblishments that cater for a broader range of people, and these are the places I like. In tmers of business and the health of the pub trade, I've found it quite different in smaller towns outside of tourist areas. In my wife's home town it's great in summer, with a fairly good trade in most bars, but in winter the pubs are dead, apart from one which is the "trendy" cool bar and is always packed, the local brewpub, and one that caters for a more rock-oriented clientele. Actually I like the latter, and it's not uncommon to go in and see people playing chess or other games while getting plastered. I don't know how the other dozen or so bars survive to be honest.

I found that people tend to socialise at home more so than in Ireland, and I can only assume the UK. In fact they are very sociable, and in my in-laws case there's usually lots of people coming in and out, but very rarely any pub going. I came to the conclusion years ago that Germans generally socialise more in this context than the pub-driven cultures of Britain and Ireland, but I think in the larger cities there will be a different case. As with any analysis of another culture some generalisation is required and it's going to depend on your own experiences, so I think it's difficult to concisely define the differences as it depends on so many variables. I do like your list as something to aspire to however, but I think a direct comparison for any individual is going to vary based on experience.

Tandleman said...

Adeptus and Nick

I do agree with a lot that you say and of course I'm generalising a bit, but I have been in pubs in most major cities in Germany (not all beer Meccas I can assure you Hanover for example - crap for beer , great little boozers - or Lubeck,crap for both - I could go on) as well as very many in the German countryside and a lot of intermediate size towns and I understand that some are bloody awful there too. I reckon though that compared to the UK in its current state, it is a generally better scene and of course it will vary depending on where you are. My points about the over 40's, service, higher standards etc still stand I reckon.

As I said, my post was a more general one (set off by a recent visit)and it doesn't fit every pub, area or scenario, but I'd say it is a reasonable average picture.

Lastly,I am beginning to doubt if the UK is any longer a pub driven culture, at least in the way we fondly imagine it to be. Maybe Ireland still is?

Tandleman said...

RedNev

This particular post isn't about beer per se, but there are plenty of decent keg beers in the world, provided they are unpasteurised. Plenty crap too and no, not all unpasteurised beer is good.

Rednev said...

Tandleman ~ decent keg beers?

Perhaps, but nothing I've read has persuaded me. My point about accepting lower standards for foreign beers than for British beers still stands. I can't see how gas pressure isn't detrimental to beer quality. Just think what those keg German beers that you love would taste like if they weren't polluted by gas bubbles.

Reading all the posts above, I conclude that Germany has some good pubs and mostly unremarkable beer.

Tandleman said...

RedNev

Not a bad conclusion in some ways, and when you do get German beer served without extraneous CO2 it is indeed much better. Erlangernick and I have experienced it both ways and without is indeed better.

Boak said...

Great post, and a lot of very interesting comments. We've observed similar things on our trips to Germany and have wondered what it is that creates such a good atmosphere. Your list is a good one, and I think the point about age is absolutely key (in the Gaststatte type places anyway). That said, it does mean you can get some funny looks if you're under 30 in some places!

Re. staff - I get the impression (possibly wrongly) that in Germany, like France and Spain, waitering is seen as a proper profession that you should take seriously. It's such a low status job in the UK that people tend to only do it temporarily. That's not to say it's always great in Germany and rubbish in the UK, but you do seem to get a more consistent, attentive and professional service in Germany.

Finally, I think the point about anti-social behaviour being frowned upon is absolutely right. A lot of people in the UK are proud of being drunk and will act up accordingly. Whereas I get the impression that showing signs of drunkenness in Germany (unless you're at a beer festival) is a real faux pas.

Woolpack Dave said...

Boak, indeed, staff are part of the problem. Working in hospitality is what you do in the UK if you can't do anything else. It would be nice if it were seen as a quality profession. Quality staff are rare, and a great asset if you can get them.

"A lot of people in the UK are proud of being drunk and will act up accordingly" spot on, I've said this before.

Laurent Mousson said...

Rednev - point is, one just can't dismiss german beer because it looks similar to british keg beer. Different kind of beast, much closer to cask ale than one thinks seen from the UK.

UK keg "lager" is indeed pasteurised, and owes its carbonation to forced CO2 injection, which yields awful gassy and bloating beer.

Whereas a lot of the German proper lagers, that is the ones produced by local and family brewers, are, in draught form, often unpasteurised and sometimes unfiltered. On top of that, if the brewer's been working properly, and most of them do, the carbonation in the beer is natural. There's a phase in lagering called Spundung during which the lagering tank is closed using a pressure valve set at a pressure slightly higher than atmospheric pressure. As the beer slowly ferments on, the gas dissolves little by little into the beer and yields a beautful fine condition. No tongue aggression through biting CO2, no bloating, even after a few Mass...

And then, unlike british so-called lager, German beer is not always served under CO2 pressure. It's quite often mixed gas (but without the nitrokeg gizmos), which does not gas up the beer. Which could be deemed similat to a cask breather with nitrogen. Not 100% kosher, but not damaging to the beer.

Besides, when we're talking of traditional outlets in Bavaria or North Rhineland (i.e. Cologne, Düsseldorf etc.), the standard dispense method is gravity, because turnover is fast enough.
Add unpasteurised, natural condition, gravity dispense, and you'll end up with something a lot closer to real ale than you think.

So why no handpumps ?

Well, those beers have a condition level that's higher than british cask ale, and it's impossible to pull much more than froth when working at atmospheric pressure (Tandleman has worked long enough at the BSF bar of GBBF and can probably confirm). A pressure of about 2-2.5 bar is necessary to dispense beer with a decent head-to-liquid ratio.
(Gravity dispense entails less shaking about in tubing, and indeed also enables serving livelier beer without trouble. But it demands a high turnover, since ther'es no cooling circuit. i.e. a 50-l. cask must be disposed of in an hour or so.)

I hope this sheds some light as to why german lager can be so drinkable... cheers !

Laurent Mousson
Vice-chair of EBCU

Tandleman said...

Thanks Laurent. Great explanation.

Laurent Mousson said...

You're welcome, Guv'nor !

Oh, and one last point to Rednev :

You just don't stand a chance of being ever convinced *reading* anything about German beer.

You have to go over there, find a decent beer place, try local stuff, on draught (gravity where applicable), sit down, keep your mind open, and see, or rather taste, for yourself.
And beware of epiphanies, which tend to happen a lot to Brits doing just that.
;o)

Rednev said...

Thanks Laurent; your explanation was interesting and answered the questions I was trying to ask. You see, I was really enquiring rather than forming definitive judgements, as German beer is something I know very little about. I am always happy to risk an epiphanic moment when it comes to beer.

Laurent Mousson said...

Glad to read you RedNev. Let me know (at laurent(dot)mousson(at)bluewin(dot)ch)) when you get an opportunity to cross the North sea and try German beer on its home turf, I'd be happy to assist with tips on where to go and what to try... and I'm sure Pete/Tandleman could help you too !

Cheers !

Laurent

The Publican said...

Thanks for the comment Phil: http://www.thepublican.com/story.asp?storycode=62991