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Three Rounds: German Culture, Traditions and Beer

Today, one of the Badger state’s leading experts on beer and brewing is the UW’s Robin Shepard PhD’93. When he’s not lending a hand to communities with water-quality issues or teaching in Life Sciences Communications at UW-Madison, he’s scouring the country to find pubs with the best brews on tap and a rich history to match.

Wendy Krause Hathaway '04
March 15, 2013

When Badger alumni need to know the best places in Wisconsin to sidle up to the bar for a pint, many turn to the UW’s Robin Shepard PhD’93 — an award-winning journalist, assistant professor of life sciences communications at UW-Madison and respected beer know-it-all.

And when alumni want to take the trip of a lifetime this fall, they’ll have Shepard as their host to experience the culture and traditions of a country that some would say has had more influence on beer than anywhere else in the world: Germany.

Badger Voice met Shepard one dark, winter afternoon at the Great Dane, a favorite alumni hangout near Capitol Square known for its creative brews, many of which are made in the German tradition. Sitting down at one of the Dane’s polished tables at a dimly lit booth, we sampled German brews and talked about beer basics, Wisconsin’s long history with brewing traditions and Shepard’s high hopes for bocks at Oktoberfest.

FIRST ROUND: Verrückte Stadt German Pilsner (Another fun fact: the name is German for “Mad City.”)

Beer Dictionary

Ale: A broader category of beers with a greater range in flavors. Different from lagers because yeasts used in ales enjoy warmer temperatures.

Lager: Associated with crisp, clean flavors; traditionally fermented and served at colder temperatures than ales.

Pilsner: Developed in the mid-1800s in Pilsen, Czech Republic. German pilsner mimics the crisp style of Bohemian pilsner (hints of caramel are balanced with aroma and bitterness from Saaz hop), but with less-pronounced hop character.

Bock: Strong, springtime lagers are said to have been produced, initially, as a way to sidestep fasting by German monks. Strong and malty, and often fairly sweet.

Dopplebock (or double-bock): Identified by a massive caramel aroma and toasty, bittersweet finish.

Hops: Apart from contributing bitterness, hops impart aroma and flavor, and inhibit bacteria in the wort and beer. Added at the beginning (bittering), middle (flavoring) and end (aroma) of the boiling stage, or even later in the brewing process (dry). Addition of hops to beer dates from 7000-1000 BC; prior to use of hops, beer was flavored with herbs and spices. Currently, more than 100 varieties of hops are cultivated around the world.

Definitions from

Badger Voice: Today, you’ve ordered a lot of lighter beers, not many darks. Will you see more of a range in Germany?

Robin Shepard: The color of your beer is reflective of the malt, so you might see a Vienna lager or Marzen styles tied to the south around Bavaria, or smoked beers in the Bamberg area. There are distinctive regions of Germany where certain styles have emerged, and that will be fun to experience as we travel throughout the country.

That’s one of the fun things about German beer — you’ll get some beers that look very similar, but they’re made very differently. German beers have many subtleties to them, and a wonderful gradation of how they use and combine three or four very specific varieties of noble hops.

BV: So is this first pilsner close to a typical American lager?

RS: It’s a German-style lager — a pretty, clean beer with a bit of dryness in the finish. This beer, and the pilsner we’ll try next, is based on travels the brewers here have made to Germany.

BV: This flavor is different than, say, a big-brewery “light” beer. What is that coming through?

RS: This has a pretty strong European malt base to it, whereas the big-brewery beers here in the U.S. don’t use as much malt. You get similar flavor, but without the body. Brewers need a way to produce mass quantities in a reliable and cost-effective way.

This is the kind of beer I’d expect on our trip. It’s a beer made famous by the Germans because it’s part of their social culture — they want to have a beer or two with friends, with a meal, but not have it get in the way of a good conversation.

BV: So is it fair to guess this is the type of beer that came over with the German immigrants in the 1800s?

RS: Yes, and that’s another reason I’m so excited for this alumni tour. Brewers in Wisconsin have maintained a strong, wonderful malt base, and that, along with bocks and Oktoberfest styles, are our German heritage shining through. Madison was founded by German brewers, after all.

Our industry is directly linked to the German influence, and our taste preferences still have that early influence of the Germans. Germany is a very influential part of the world that has a lot to do with what we drink today, and how we define beer. Even the more popular beers from big brewers — MillerCoors or Budweiser — that’s not what we’d be drinking today if it hadn’t been for the Germans.

SECOND ROUND: Peck’s Pilsner (Trivia: this beer was named for Roslaine Peck, owner of Madison’s first pub.)

BV: This next beer is also a pilsner, but it looks very different from our first sample. Why is that?

RS: This is more of a Bohemian-style pilsner, and has an underlying Czech/Saaz hop to it. It has a spicy dryness to it, specifically in the finish. I love the Czech hops, because of their spicy and herbal qualities. This beer also has more body than the first beer we tried, which I look for in the style. It’s the beer that the makers of today’s pilsners aspire to be like. We’ll find this kind of Bohemian pilsner toward the eastern leg of our tour, even down into Munich.

Passed in 1516, the German beer purity law states that beer may contain only water, barley and hops. Yeast was later added after its role in fermentation was discovered by Louis Pasteur.

BV: As more micro-breweries sprout up around Wisconsin, there’s definitely a market for creativity in the U.S. Has the German purity law held back innovation in that country?

RS: That’s another fun thing I’m looking forward to on this trip: learning how German culture and the brewing industry mimic cultural trends, tastes, desires and morals. I’m intrigued to learn how beer really became part of their communities, almost like a local food movement. What you drink in Munich will be different than what you find in Dusseldorf.

THIRD ROUND: Crop Circle Wheat

RS: The flavors in a wheat beer are pronounced and are much different than in the pilsners, but they’re also more easily adulterated than the other beer flavors. This beer has a wonderful fruitiness. In Germany, we won’t see many lemons…

BV: Yes, why is there a lemon in this beer?

RS: Americans! (laughs) I think the idea is to cut those banana and fruity esters a little bit. It actually sharpens the beer a bit, and makes it a little cleaner. This is traditional German Hefeweizen, in which over half of the sugars are from wheat rather than barley.

BV: Is this cloudiness a trait of German beers?

RS: This beer, Crop Circle Wheat, is a great example of what we hope to find in Germany. It is a cloudy yellow version and a great example of the German Hefeweizen."

It’s a lighter beer — very effervescent, bubbly and crisp. The lemon will bring out more of the sour tones, but a good Hefeweizen, like the kind we'll find in Germany, will have some wonderful cloves and bubblegum.

Germany Highlights - Study of Beer

This, though, is the filtered, American version of a wheat beer. Americans don’t like cloudy beer.

BV: Because we’ve been trained not to?

RS: Yes, sort of. The big-brewery beers are light yellow, incredibly bubbly and very clear.

BV: What is the history of evolving tastes among American beer drinkers?

RS: Before Prohibition, in Wisconsin you’d have seen a range of colors, especially in the Madison area with such a heavy German influence. You would have seen pilsners like the first two we sampled, as well as lagers, though probably not as clean-tasting as today, because they did not filter so extensively.

Major brewery changes happened in Germany during the late 1800s as the age of industrialization brought about the introduction of mechanical refrigeration. In the US, the years following the end of Prohibition and WWII also brought about huge changes in the factory-like conditions involved in making beer which lead to major consolidation of the industry where bigger breweries got bigger and smaller ones failed to compete.

By the 1950s that growth, coupled with mass marketing to consumers, contributed to a decline in the number of breweries in Wisconsin. In the 1930s Wisconsin had about 85 breweries but only 10 remained by the 1980s. And those that survived were all big – no little breweries until the modern brewery renaissance began in the 1990s.”

BONUS ROUND: Velvet Hammer Bock

RS: Germany is really known for its lagers, but bocks will have a special place on our tour. In Germany, there was a period when summer brewing was banned, which led to the development of Oktoberfest. Brewers would set to work in late winter, partly because of the Germany purity laws, and focus on cold fermentation. So they’d brew during winter and early spring, store it over the summer months and release it in the fall.

Bocks were made with some of the better malts and aged toward the latter part of winter. The bock and dopplebock have religious ties as well, because they originated from monastery brewing. Dopplebocks were how the monks got themselves through Lent — they're nourishing, and have a lot of carbohydrates. That has a lot to do with why we see them at this time of year.

BV: How does Wisconsin celebrate bock season?

RS: We still have a strong commitment to the German lager in this state, particularly the bock. Every spring in Milwaukee, a priest blesses the year’s offerings on a Sunday morning, and then the community holds a big party.

The itinerary of this fall’s German Study of Beer tour, September 24–October 5, 2013
The itinerary of WAA's Fall 2013 German Study of Beer tour

BV: Of course, you’re an alumnus, as will be many of the people traveling with you in September. How does someone with your education become a beer expert?

RS: I’m very lucky. I have a background in water quality and found myself working with UW-Extension, which in large part involves extending [learning opportunities] to the people of the state, and getting to know our communities. And it’s something I latched on to — understanding whom the university serves, beyond our captive students on campus.

An important part of what we do at UW-Extension is to reach out to the public and help it solve problems: everything from land-use planning to helping with water-quality issues. So this was something I picked up along the way on road trips, when the next thing you know, you’re in a wonderful local eating establishment with community leaders … and what better way to get to know each other!

BV: It’s really part of our culture.

RS: Absolutely! For me, it got to be a scavenger hunt of sorts. Not just to find the beers, but to get to know the towns they’re in, how they ended up with a brewery or what’s the story behind this bar we’re sitting at. I just happen to be on the side of the university that allows me to go out, see and hear from people directly.

BV: Final question: Why are you proud to be a Badger?

RS: I like being from an institution that’s so well known, a land-grant institution that also has a family of 26 campuses behind it. Doing what I do now, even though technically I work for 12 different institutions, people recognize the University of Wisconsin. They recognize me as a longtime faculty member, and that opens up a lot of doors for me personally and professionally.

Beer, Germany and Wisconsin

Did you know …

  • Germans are the largest ethnic group in Wisconsin’s population. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 42.6 percent of the state’s residents claim German ancestry — as did the founders of all of Wisconsin’s great breweries: Miller (Friedrich Müller of Riedlingen), Pabst (J.G.F. Pabst of Nikolausrieth), Schlitz (Joseph Schlitz of Mainz), Heileman (Gottlieb Helieman of Kirchheim unter Teck), and Shotz (Shlemiel H. Shotz of Lavernenshirley).
  • According to Jerry Apps ’55, MS’57, PhD’67, author of “Breweries of Wisconsin,” the state provided a perfect environment for the beer industry. In addition to a large German immigrant population, it offered abundant water and long, cold winters. “Ice is very important for the production of lagers,” Apps says. “You need cold storage, especially in the summer.”
  • Apps notes that the state also owes thanks to an insect, the hops louse. In the early 19th century, New York was the center of American hops farming, but the pest hit the East Coast hard. By 1860, Wisconsin was the country’s leading hops producer.
  • Beer has been available on the UW campus for as long as it’s been legal (and maybe longer). Immediately after the United States repealed Prohibition in 1933, the Wisconsin Union voted to serve low-alcohol beer (“3.2” beer), making Madison the first university campus in the country to offer students a brew.
  • It was a Wisconsin senator who pushed for the repeal of Prohibition. John Blaine was the chief sponsor of the 21st Amendment. On April 25, 1933, Wisconsin was the second state to pass that amendment.
  • The UW has a long history of celebrating the state’s German roots with an open flow of beer. From 1959 to 1980, the Union (first Memorial, then Union South) held Fasching, the German version of Carnival or Mardi Gras.


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