Think again. When University of the Sciences beer professor Matthew Farber walks into a brewpub, he orders a pilsner as a test “because it’s a simple, clean, difficult-to-master style.”
“Because it’s so simple and clean, it becomes very elegant,” said Farber, director of the Philadelphia school’s brewing science certificate program. “Any flaws or problems are very apparent. To make it well means that a brewer has really good control of his or her process and raw materials.”
Now, a flavorful pilsner and an Oktoberfest beer steeped in Bavarian tradition are on tap in Midtown Harrisburg, while a 160-year-old German brewery prepares to launch an IPA to a cautiously curious market back home. All are products of a two-way collaboration between the Millworks Brewery and Keesmann Brewery of Bamberg, Germany.
It all started with Millworks owner Joshua Kesler.
Ancestry-wise, Kesler is typically American—“a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” he said.
He studied German in college because Spanish was booked up. Or because German was later in the morning. Whichever, he made it an avocation for the chance to “engage with people in their mother tongue. That was the one I picked, and I’m sticking with it.”
Through a friend in Germany, Kesler met Stefan Keesmann, owner of Keesmann Brewery in northern Bavaria. Kesler (German translation: “cheesemaker”) suggested a brewing and cooking collaboration to Stefan and his son Lukas Keesmann (also “cheesemaker”). The Keesmanns had entertained similar thoughts.
Thus, Stefan and Lukas Keesmann came to Harrisburg for a consultation in early July. Kesler and Millworks brewmaster Jeffrey Musselman returned the favor and ventured to Germany later in the summer.
The Millworks’ first resulting pour was its “Collaboration Pilsner,” a delicious take on the classic lager that’s dreamy with the kale salad, the cheeseburger and probably anything else on the Millworks’ menu. Musselman, 10 years in the business, said he increasingly appreciates a “well-made, simple beer, and that’s the way the Germans approach their beers.”
Putting a Millworks spin on a classic German pilsner included dry hopping a newish German hops called mandarina Bavaria, for a “marriage between an old-school pilsner but also using a hop variety that’s relatively new and more pleasing to the modern American craft drinker,” Musselman said.
The German purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, decrees that only beverages brewed with barley (or wheat), yeast, water and hops can be called “beer.” A malty imperial stout tastes nice, the Keesmanns told Kesler and Musselman, but it’s not beer.
“If you drop a cherry in it, you can’t call it beer,” said Kesler.
Musselman certainly loves the American arms race for the craziest tap in town, but his Germany visit affirmed the Millworks philosophy of beer as social catalyst.
“Beer over there is not seen as a luxury item,” Musselman said. “It’s part of their daily routine. It’s part of living a good life. That was the really cool thing I took home from the trip. It was neat to see people just enjoying a beer with friends at a beer garden and hanging out and talking and enjoying the good life.”
Traditional as Possible
American beer is deeply rooted in German traditions and techniques, brought to the New World by early immigrants.
By the mid-19th century, the city of Lancaster earned the nickname “Little Munich” for its profusion of breweries catering to German-Americans thirsty for home-style lagers instead of English ales.
Prohibition and post-World War II industry consolidation severed many of those ties.
Today’s American brewers can learn a thing or two from their German counterparts, said Farber. The United States is poised to reach 7,000 breweries this year, with two opening per day since 2012, and an emphasis on quality is now sharing priority with the rush to innovate.
“There’s such great attention to the technical aspects of brewing in Germany,” Farber said.
That combination of German tradition and American innovation now is also on tap at the Millworks, which recently released its Oktoberfest, a beer actually closer to a German springtime marzen.
A true German Oktoberfest beer is a light-colored lager, but Americans expect autumn color. Musselman said it’s “malt-forward” for “those bready, caramel notes.” All ingredients, including the hops, are German, hewing to a brew “as traditional as possible and also appealing to the American demographic.”
“When I have a sip of that beer, it immediately transports me to southern Germany,” Kesler said. “I start looking for the closest wurst I can find.”
Germany’s beer culture is “baked into their way of life,” he added. “It’s not that someone’s a beer drinker. Everyone’s a beer drinker.”
In Germany, new beers encounter skepticism, and yet, brewers must innovate incrementally to differentiate in a market where all brewers make the same products with the same ingredients, under the same rules.
Younger Germans are “picking up this IPA bug” in their travels, Kesler said, and American craft brewers are making inroads in the market. So the Keesmanns weren’t cautious about collaborating, but they were taking a risk. They approached the collaboration “trying to figure out what type of American-style microbrew would resonate with their very traditional customer base,” Kesler said.
The Keesmanns told Musselman they wanted to brew an IPA. The resulting New England IPA will reach German stores and restaurants next April. Juicy in taste and hazy in appearance, it allows Keesmann to reach that younger demographic while hewing to German brewing traditions.
And because Keesmann Brewery, like the Millworks, is food-oriented, the collaboration brings new dishes to each establishment, Kesler said. German dishes on the fall menu pairing with Millworks’ Oktoberfest include a schweinshaxe.
And that means?
“I hate to say it out loud, because it doesn’t sound great, but it’s pork knuckle,” Kesler said. “It’s this fantastic presentation of a huge hock. It’s pork tender with crispy skin on the outside. It feeds two people. It’s fun to pick away at while you’re drinking a big beer.”
And what else would the Millworks offer on the culinary side but smoked brisket? The Keesmanns and their families loved their taste of the Millworks specialty, and next year, chef Lance Smith will travel to Keesmann Brewery, guiding setup of an “American-style barbecue blowout in their beer garden.”
That visit also will go both ways, as the Keesmanns return to Harrisburg in March to help create a to-be-determined beer. Aiming for release with the Millworks’ rooftop beer garden opening on May 1, Kesler welcomes suggestions for the new beer’s style.
Farber knows of just a few other intercontinental collaborations, one being between the 2SP Brewing Co., in Delaware County, Pa., and a brewery in Japan, where there are “some interesting trends.” He also noted that Sierra Nevada collaborated with the world’s longest-operating brewery, the Bavarian Weihenstephan, to produce its Braupakt hefeweissbier.
The Millworks-Keesmann collaboration is “a great idea,” he said. “Innovation meets tradition.”
Musselman and Kesler hope to make the initiative a regular effort, with each team regularly crossing the ocean to swap brewing and culinary notes. Musselman, for one, is wondering about his hefeweizen, declared good by the Keesmanns, but not a true German hefeweizen.
“There absolutely is a lot to learn to really dial these beers into the German tradition,” he said.
The Millworks is located at 340 Verbeke St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.millworksharrisburg.com.