Rochester native and brewmaster Erik Mell brewed a collaboration Berliner weisse (Twisted Zweig) with Forager Brewing Company in December while home for his sister’s wedding. Mell has lived in Berlin, Germany, since 2009, learning the brewing trade at Technical University of Berlin, the traditional route of climbing the German brewing ranks. He also learned brewing procedure and technical infrastructure as a trainee at Heidelberger Brewery before setting his sights on Berlin craft brewery Vagabund Brauerei. He’s worked there since early 2015, brewing creative beers like the salted lime Gose. We spoke with Mell and asked him what it’s like being an American brewing in Germany.
The Growler: What’s it like to be an American brewer in Germany?
Erik Mell: Some people say, “There’s all these untrained brewers doing stuff and we don’t trust it.” You have to do the full thing: school, apprenticeship—three years of apprenticing at a brewery. Those are the only people that traditional brewmasters really trust. It’s very traditional, with a hierarchy. You’re there, and you did your work, put in your time, and moved your way up. A lot of people are really hardcore on the education. They don’t even trust this new generation of bachelor master [brewers]. Mine was essentially the last full year of my program, which is the traditional program to become a brewmaster.
I have my education now, so I’m kind of floating around as this American brewmaster who did it in German in Germany, so I get a little respect. But I still don’t have the apprenticeship.
TG: What are some differences between the German brewing industry and ours?
EM: In Germany, I will say that they make top-quality beer every time. Like, perfect—every spec is tested every step of the way. What they lack a little bit is the variety.
As for the industry itself, there’s pretty much no way to get into German brewing without an education. Now, in Berlin that’s changing a lot, which is cool. You’re getting some artists coming in, a lot of homebrew-background people starting up, which is great. In the industry as a whole, that’s very much not the case.
Craft brewing is a passion here [in the United States]. You live the beer. Over there, you start at 7am and you end at 3pm. That’s your job. You don’t stay until 3:05pm. That’s your shift and you get paid pretty well for it. You make good beer and get eight cases of beer as part of your salary and you go home. There’s not a lot of big involvement, like, “Oh yeah, what if we try that recipe and we make this.” In the States, that’s cool; there’s a lot of creative expression. And that’s true with craft brewers in Germany also, but most brewers are not craft brewers; they’re traditional.
TG: In 2014 there was a report about plastic particles in German beer. Has that affected German perceptions of the quality of their beer?
EM: I was a brewing student when the report came out. We discussed the issue during lectures. There did seem to be a peak in interest concerning all-things beer in the media during that time, including a couple specials on the national TV stations about beer brewing. Otherwise, I don’t think it would be fair to say that it influenced general perceptions much.
TG: What is the average German’s perception of American beer? How have you seen those perceptions play out at Vagabund?
EM: It really depends on what group of people you are talking with. This perception that American beer consists solely of watery light lagers has changed. A lot of our customers at Vagabund are expats or internationally interested Germans, and you are just as likely to hear English spoken in our taproom as you are German. I think the fact that we [Mell and Vagabund’s three co-founders] all come from an American homebrewing background really fits with our do-it-yourself company image, and gives us some street cred, especially when it comes to our American-style beers. If we talk to other German brewers, sometimes we are seen with a bit of suspicion. It’s sort of a “learn to crawl before you learn to walk” attitude in reference to why we are not brewing a standard lager or pils before we put out a chocolate chili stout, for example.
TG: We talked a lot about brewing in Germany, but is there anything else you’d like to share about being a Minnesotan brewing in Germany?
EM: Honestly, I couldn’t be happier. I love being from Minnesota and I love brewing at Vagabund here in Berlin. It is such an innovative city and craft beer culture is really only a couple of years old here, but it’s growing quickly. To give you an idea, three breweries opened in December, including two other breweries with American head brewers (Two Fellas Brewery and Berliner Berg Brauerei).
Still, there is plenty of room for expansion and investment, and it is exciting to see it grow from the beginning. It is like stepping back to the early 2000s in the Twin Cities. I am also very fortunate that I have gotten a solid German background and education. It’s a great combo. When talking about quality and the technology behind making beer, I trust the Germans. When talking about variety and pushing flavor profiles, I trust Americans. So having both on my side is fantastic.
Having such a great craft beer scene back home—and by home I mean Minnesota—is a big help in terms of information and collaboration, like the one I just did at Forager. It definitely gives me a sense of pride.