A couple of years back, in the summer of 2018, I was in an argument involving assorted brewers, beer retailers and beer writers over the relative merits of an imperial stout versus a German Hell. This is, of course, like choosing which is better between apples and potatoes, or judging the attractiveness of golf versus darts: a nonsensical exercise. Except that it was the finals of the International Beer Challenge, the last two beers standing were an imperial stout and a German Hell, and one of them had to be chosen as supreme champion.
The stout party insisted that their favourite was a totally cracking example of the style – which, it’s true, it was – and no other beer on the day came near it for in-your-face slapocity. The Hell-bent, of which crew I was one, countered by saying that a good imperial stout was a relatively easy task, but a perfect Hell, the everyday lager of south Germany, was a technical challenge very, very few brewers could master, the beer in front of us was a perfect Hell, faultless, refreshing, the sort of beer you could happily drink all day without becoming bored, and for those reasons, not least the difficulty in making a beer to the high standards that particular Hell had climbed to, it was a more deserving winner of the “overall best” title than the stout was.
I’m pleased to say that the Hellers won, and the ABK brewery, from the small South Bavarian town of Kaufbeuren walked off with the palm: a triumph for everyday drinking over the extremophiles. Nothing wrong with extremophilia: but palate-blasting is, in my opinion, far from the heart of beer.
A year later, and entirely co-incidentally, I received an invitation to visit the ABK brewery, meet its brewmaster, the unforgettably named Bernd Trick, and enjoy plenty of Swabian hospitality, much of it liquid. Despite travelling to Germany several times, I had never been inside a German brewery, so this was far too good to turn down.
ABK stands for Aktien Brauerei Kaufbeuren, literally “Kaufbeuren stock (or shares) brewery”, though you won’t find many of its shares available today. The business claims to date back to at least 1308, when a Kaufbeuren citizen called “Heinrich der Twinger” (I’m guessing this is “Zwinger” in Standard German, which would make him “Henry the kennelman”) left his “Sedelhaus” (Sudhaus in modern German, the room where wort is prepared) to the local hospital (which, as the Hospitalstiftung zum Heiligen Geist, the Holy Ghost Hospital Foundation, is also still going today). That would make ABK the ninth oldest brewery in Germany. Over the next 700 years it changed hands several times, acquiring Kaufbeuren’s other breweries along the way, until by 2006 it was owned by a pair of brothers called Hans-Theodor and Peter Ralf Stritzl.
In 2013 the Stritzls sold ABK to an Anglo-American conglomerate called ROK Group, now ROKiT. The principals behind ROKiT are John Paul DeJoria, a 75-year-old Californian who made his money as co-founder of the Paul Mitchell hair products company in 1980, adding to it Patrón Tequila, one of the first “premium” tequila brands, which was bought out by Bacardi for a not unpleasant $5.1 billion in 2018; and the Shropshire-born Jonathan Kendrick, who built up his own multiple millions by helping to launch Yokohama Tyres in Europe. ROKiT now has its fingers in pies just as diverse as tyres and tequila, to wit, telecoms, brewing and Formula 1. It has enormous ambitions in both: ROKiT has signed a deal with the Indian government that could see it sell 300 million handsets, while its plans for ABK see beer production rise from the current 90,000 hectolitres or so to three million hectolitres within the next five years. To help publicise both those efforts, ROKiT is the current main sponsor of the Williams F1 racing team, which is officially named ROKiT Williams Racing.
Over lunch in the sun outside the Goldener Hirsch hotel in Kaufbeuren, ROKiT’s marketing director, Bruce Renny, told me: “German beer is basically undervalued. We asked ourselves, ‘Why?’, and the answer is that every town has its brewery. They’re very regional, and yes, the local people are passionate about their beer, and it’s ‘much better than the beer in the town down the road’. That’s how the Germans are. So we thought that we need to find a brewery that we can partner with in some way that wants to see its beer sold more than 20 miles from the brewery gates. By happenstance we came across ABK.”
ROKiT wants to make the award-winning ABK Hell bier, 5 per cent abv, known in the town as “das Blau” because the bottle labels have always been blue, its route into the global beer market. “We’re ecstatic that we won the supreme champion title at the IBC last year with this beer,” Renny said. “We intend building the ABK brand – that’s why we’re here – and we have the heritage, in spades – 710 years of it – we have the authenticity of the area.
“But at the moment we can’t even supply Germany from here. Just to put it in scale, this year the brewery here will brew about 80 to 90,000 hectolitres of beer, and 60,000 hectolitres of soft drinks for the Kaufbeuren area. Just one of the big Munich breweries alone will be doing about 6 million hectolitres a year, and they’re about 100 kilometres away. So in order to compete on scale, we don’t have the capacity right here.
“We intend to go from 90,000 hectolitres to a million, and to three million, within the next five years. Our key markets will remain Germany, and in no particular order, the US, China, Britain, Spain. The economics of it are that the transportation from Kaufbeuren to Rotterdam is a cost that Heineken doesn’t have, because they’re there. So we’re competing against globally well-known brands with a completely unknown brand, and we’re competing adversely on cost of production. Where we can compete is on heritage and authenticity.
“There’s room to expand here – the airfield is right opposite, that was an airforce base, and is now closed. That’s one option: to build a purpose-built modern brewing facility there.” But there will be no compromise: “The core values have to be rigorously protected, so everything will be literally Reinheitsgebot, right down to the type of hops that are used, so if we need to airfreight hops about, we’ll do so. There’ll be no scrimping. What must be achieved is that the Hell beer you drink in Beijing or in Boston or in Birmingham tastes exactly the same as right here in Kaufbeuren. There can be no compromise on that.”
Germany “will remain the biggest market for the next two or three years. The next biggest target has got to be the US, particularly the hot states. America’s so enormous anyway, there’s no point targeting Utah. We target California, Texas, Florida, and that alone will occupy a million hectolitres, just those three states.
“With the rise of the craft beer market in the States, people now want beer to taste of something. That’s fine, you can create some wacky recipe for beer and call it an aggressive hipster name, but you can’t buy the heritage that we have, you can’t buy the story. That just exists, in an almost unique fashion.”
Sales are taking off, Renny says: “Until we bought this brewery, it’s fair to say that the beer had never been sold more than 20 miles from the brewery gates, in 710 years. We’re now exporting a container a week into Britain alone, we have hired two people to deal with exports to the UK, one for Spain and one for Italy. Ideally in the UK we’re targeting small chains, because they appreciate the brand. That will grow, and it’s growing extremely fast.” The company sponsored the London Oktoberfest as the exclusive beer, and “we intend to use that as a catalyst to get into the majors.”
At the brewery, of course, they are very happy to be under the control of a company with ambitions. “When we acquired the brewery in 2013, in the months coming up to that we were flying in and out, talking to people, and this didn’t go unnoticed by the employees and the town as a whole, that these Auslanders – everybody knew the brewery was struggling a little bit, and they feared the worst,” Renny says. “Jonathan, on the day we acquired the brewery, firstly, before the media, he gathered the local press, every worker together, and he gave them a speech where he said, ‘Firstly, all the jobs here are safe. We will never tell you how to make beer’ – they were massively reassured with that. ‘Secondly, in five years’ time your beer will be sold in Boston, Birmingham and Beijing, under the ABK brand.’ The Germans, being highly conservative and slightly suspicious perhaps, basically shrugged, and said, ‘Well, we’ll wait and see.’ Here we are five years later, and they’re ecstatic.”
You’ll perhaps think any opinion I have on ABK and its beers is irretrievably skunked, with me having taken the company’s shilling by accepting an invite to drink at their expense. But I didn’t know who they were in 2018 when I was one of the judges campaigning for its Hell to get the “best in show” crown. If you see the “Blue” on sale, try it, I’d be very surprised if you don’t like it a lot. I certainly hope it does at least half as well as ROKiT wants, because if it does that will be an indicator that the beer market really is more interested in taste over hype now.