BLACKFISH AT THE GATES
Nuremberg’s Orca Brau Makes Waves in Franconia
Part I, Spring 2018
Edited for clarity and content
Hi Felix. Thanks for sitting down with me. I’m very excited to be talking with arguably the most dynamic brewer in Nuremberg, possibly Franconia, and am keen to know more about your operation and where you’re coming from. Can you start off with a little background? How did Orca Brau come to be?
So my background…it all started eleven years ago with a beer blog. I was writing about beer but had no real idea about beer or craft beer in general. I’m from the south of Munich so I grew up with beer but there was no thinking about it-it was more just drinking. Then I moved to Upper Franconia for studying- social work. One of my first walks was to a Getrankemarkt to buy beer. I was looking for a case of Augustiner, the famous Helles from Munich, and usually where I come from it’s just sitting everywhere, like at the counter when you leave so you can grab another case before you go, but I didn’t see it at all at this place and it was a huge store. But, there were a ton of other beers. So I asked someone, “Where’s your Augustiner?” and he asked, “Why do you want Augustiner? We have other beers here.”. I said I didn’t care, I just wanted Augustiner, and he pointed me to the back of the store. I took a case and he came back and said, “Here are six bottles from regional breweries in the same style.”. I said okay-I’m not interested, but he insisted I take them, they were free.
This was in Coburg, and people there were coming from all over Germany to this part of Franconia. If they were from Cologne they maybe were drinking Koelsch, or Pilsner if they were from the north. Most of the students in the early days, ten years ago, were not really paying attention to beer. There was no craft beer in Germany, there was no movement, no sign of any movement, no articles in the newspapers or on the internet. But the people in Franconia were very proud of their beer scene. And I guess this guy was used to people coming in and asking for Jever or Radeberger and tried to introduce people to local stuff. I never talked to him again; I never saw him again, but this got me a little into beer.
Then a couple days later a friend of mine in Munich—he had a kind of internet company doing search engine optimisation and websites—he suggested that I start a blog, but I didn’t know anything about them. He explained what a blog is and said you have to find a topic, something you’re interested in. And I thought, maybe it’s beer? And so I started a beer blog.
I ran this blog for six years—the whole of my studying time—and for one or two years I published an article almost daily, so I got more and more into it. I started home brewing, and met brewers and beer people, and I was one of the first people doing a stage talk at Braukunst Live.
That’s pretty impressive. How long did it take you to get from A to B? From the beginning to Braukunst Live?
I founded the blog in 2007 and the first Braukunst Live was 2012, so five years.
Yeah, yeah. The blog was getting more and more famous, and basically there was just one beer blogger in Germany at the time-this was me. I tried to get my hands on every German IPA or something similar brewed here at that time but there wasn’t much, maybe five or six, and most were from homebrewers. I was writing a lot about traditional beers too, and was also one of the first people to help Germany’s first craft brewers like Fritz Woelfing at AleMania and Kehrwieder, publishing articles about their beers and where to get them. This was my beginning.
Then I started homebrewing a little bit but stopped because a beer shop was sending me beers— every month two or three boxes of beer, so there was no no need to brew—and my beers weren’t that tasty, so I decided to stop. Then I got more into it, looking at what’s going on in other countries, especially the States. Europe was picking up a little bit in the UK and the Netherlands with de Molen, and Italy a little bit but it was still very low. Then some more homebrewing and soon we were finished with university.
And then Suza (now my wife) and I moved to Vancouver, Canada for a year. There was a crazy craft beer scene there and I was really curious and interested in it so thought maybe I could get a job somewhere.
Was this trip driven by an educational or a professional pursuit or just to get out of…
Just to get out of Germany-we were not ready for working.
British Columbia is a good place for that.
We saw a documentary about the Winter Olympics featuring the singer Michael Buble-he’s from Vancouver. He showed German audiences where he grew up as well as some cool places. At this time we were thinking of going to South America or the States or Spain or England to live and just take in the culture, and when we saw the documentary we decided that’s it-that’s where we wanted to go. The mountains, the nature, the multicultural city; the food, beer, the music, the ocean just around the corner, or basically in the city. So we moved to Vancouver for a year. Which was the best decision definitely of my life.
You don’t see a lot of Germans doing that gap year abroad. You’ve got to explain that on your resume, right?
Ha ha. That’s why I’m self-employed. Yeah, that’s true. Before we left, some people said if you go to another country you have to do something that helps you with the stuff you learnt before to get better qualifications for your future jobs, but Suza and I both…. I don’t know- we tried to find our own way of life and decided when somebody asked us about what we did in Vancouver we would answer that we tried to get into another culture, see what was going on in another country, tried to be more open to other things. The idea was not working in the industries that we studied. It was more doing just a job-one that that we liked, but nothing really fancy.
It was not easy to connect with the brewing industry in 2012-2013. It was still the beginning-there were a couple of breweries, but not that many. Then I walked into a liquor store with Suza and we started speaking German and an older guy came over and asked if we were from Germany. Turns out he was the liquor store owner and was from Germany but had been living in Vancouver for forty years. I was in the store pretty often, getting into the beer scene, and I asked him if he had a job. So I worked in this private liquor store for a little while and there got to know people from a brewery that had recently opened. I worked late hours and wanted something with more regular hours, so asked the brewery if I could help out for bottling day. After a month or two, they asked me if I wanted to work full-time.
Which brewery was this?
Parallel 49 Brewing Company. They opened in 2012 and now they’re huge-they’re growing like crazy and starting to export to Europe and Asia.
This is in Vancouver?
East Vancouver. It was one of the first breweries in East Vancouver-now this area’s called Yeast Vancouver because there are five, six, seven, eight breweries around an area of five or six blocks. I worked at this brewery full-time time and it was a crazy experience with local people and it got me into this culture, doing the beer thing, and I was just blown away, fascinated at what was going on. It was a hard job as well, but it was great-it was a good time. We were hiking a lot, doing a lot of travelling, and would talk about our futures. Suza and I talked almost everyday about opening a brewery when we got back-but not really seriously because you can’t just open a brewery in Germany, not in 2013 and not without any knowledge or money. But at this time, we decided if we opened a brewery, it would be called Orca Brau, because the killer whale is a famous animal in British Columbia, and it’s a connection to the past for us.
Then we moved to Berlin and I tried to find a job in beer but there was nothing in 2013-nothing really interesting; nothing where you could really earn money. But I got lucky. Because of my past with the blog, I had connections with Sylvia Kopp, a beer author and sommelier. She opened the Berlin Beer academy with Olav Strawe and I got a job there. It was a cool job, but mostly desk work-too much talking about beer and not creating it. I missed working in a brewery. But things picked up a little bit in Berlin-I met Johannes Heidenpeter at Markthalle 9.
We were just there the other day-he had a nice Goese on.
I worked for him two years-starting out with just a little bit, then more full-time, and then more and more running the business side by side with him. This was for me my learning experience in having a brewery in Germany. When I started working we had no beers in bottles; I mean, we bottled a little bit, but the labels we made on paper, and then wrapped them around…
Like Post-It Pale Ale?
Yeah, and it was crazy. Some of the beers were really tasty, and some were, “Oh my God!”, but at this time you could sell anything in Germany and people would like it because it was something new. Business grew and grew and then he put a new brew system in. The old system was in the corner in the basement getting dusty. One day I said, “Johannes, what are you doing with the old system? It’s just in our way. Maybe you should sell it.”, and I thought that maybe I could buy it. I talked with Suza about it for a long time and suggested maybe we finally had the opportunity to open our own brewery and go back to Nuremberg, which was always the plan. He made me a good price and I took his old system. I’ve been brewing on this system for a year, and sometimes it’s cool, sometimes it really sucks because it’s self-made and a really manual system made with milk tanks. It’s an easy, low-budget set-up but it was the only opportunity for us to get into the game.
I wanted to ask you about the orca, the killer whale. Obviously, it’s a huge symbol of the Northwest, and a very beautiful animal sacred to a lot of people both indigenous and non, but do many Germans know what an orca is? Do they recognize the tail on your label?
I would say not many. Most people don’t really know that orca is another name for killer whale or recognize the tail. People ask, “What does it mean?”, this thing in the logo, and when I say it’s the tail of an orca they don’t always see it. But here in Franconia and Bavaria in general you have lots of breweries named after animals. Loewenbrau in Munich is a huge brewery but a lion is also not a typical animal living in Germany. Nobody is asking why it’s called lion, but people say, “Why orca?”- it’s not an animal from here.
You get pushback for that? That’s interesting. So, I first saw your beers at a bottleshop in Bamberg. I’m from Seattle so the orca immediately jumped out at me and I was pretty sure there was some kind of Northwest connection. When I picked up the bottle and saw it was a pumpkin beer I was a lot more confident, and then when I first saw you not too long ago it was immediately apparent that you had spent some time in Cascadia. How would you say the Northwest has influenced you?
Well, the beer styles-definitely. I mean, it’s hard to say, because it’s all about diversity and creativity in the craft beer scene of the Northwest. I don’t have a regular lineup right now-I can’t say any one beer is always available. I have a couple of beers that are sometimes available but I don’t have so many tanks, so I go more for something new as well as seasonal brewing. Sometimes once or twice a year I’ll make the same beer but with slight changes. So far this year I’ve made forty-five different styles and this approach I took from the Northwest. Some brewers here tell me that can’t work-you need four beers and maybe two seasonals and you have to make perfect beer and you can’t just do one-offs. You have to brew a recipe fifteen times, tweaking everything until it’s perfectly consistent. That’s the German way of brewing.
So a flagship is not in the works?
Not really. I mean the Pale Ale, the Wanderlust Pale Ale, is kind of the flagship beer. People like it a lot and ask me a lot about it so I try to have it available as often as I can but when it’s sold out, it’s sold out-that’s ok. And with one beer (Anders) I change the hop profile using different dry hops.
A lot of breweries, in the Northwest for example, have a lineup, but after a while actually have to figure out…I mean-the lineup we had at Parallel 49, the core-range beers at the beginning have changed almost entirely. Many are just gone, or are seasonals. They have other beers now, the scene is changing, tastes are changing. Like Hazy IPAs, for example. Now Hazy IPA is a core beer, but five years ago it didn’t exist.
Sure, and that sort of feeds into my next question. What’s your brewing philosophy? How do you approach your craft?
If I had to break it down into one word or two I’d maybe say creativity and diversity. I like to combine flavours or ingredients, and I’m influenced by food. I’m not brewing within the Reinheitsgebot, so I’m using other ingredients as well.
Well, I’d say even by US craft standards you’re pushing a lot of envelope here, which is for me very interesting to see, given the inherent conservatism of Germany in general and Franconia in particular. You’re brewing with fruits, herbs, and spices, playing with barrels and mixed fermentation, and doing a lot of colouring well outside traditional style guidelines. Personally, I find it incredible, but are you worried you might be trying to make up for some lost time? Is it too much, too soon, too fast, too loud?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The people here are into it, actually. I have a lot of older people coming to the brewery, and sometimes think they’re coming to ask for a Helles or a light lager but they’ll walk in and say, “I have no idea, but I’m curious.” and stay a while, then walk away with two six-packs of different beers and a big bottle of Saison or mixed fermentation. Then they come back in a week with empty bottles and give their feedback and ask what’s new. It’s really interesting-I had no idea things would go in this direction. I thought it would be more predictable.
I love brewing all kinds of different styles. I love Helles and Kellerbier and I’m doing a Maibock, very traditionally-brewed. But I also have some barrels aging now for a year, getting soured. I’m brewing a beer with hemp and chamomile, and am working now with a tea and herb company in Nuremberg to get more interesting stuff like lavender and Franconian peppermint. My philosophy in the beginning, and it still is, was to brew traditional beers, to brew more modern styles for Germany, like Pale Ale, IPA, Stout, Saison, and also go wild and crazy with experimental stuff. My first four beer styles were Helles lager, a Golden Ale, a Double Pale Ale, and Boomshakalaka, a smoked ale with raspberries and habanero chili.
I want to talk with you about Northern California and the Northwest and Franconia. You’ve spent some time there, in the epicentre of craft brewing, ground zero-where it all started. These places are arguably the best in the world for beer quality, diversity, and dynamism. I think most residents here would likely say the same thing about Franconia, but the two landscapes really couldn’t be any more different. As a German who’s lived in both worlds, what are your thoughts on this? How can these sentiments exist simultaneously?
Uhm, yeah, it’s different for sure, but there are also some similar things, in my opinion. The Northwest is about nature and going out and enjoying life in a relaxed way-this is also what Franconia does. There’s a lot of nature and hiking and people enjoying beer gardens. Franconia is also sort of an island in Bavaria. Bavarian people living in Munich are not the biggest fans of Franconia-they say it’s a poor region that’s full of farmers. Franconians say Bavarians are just rich guys and are stuck up and we don’t need them. We just want our own thing and to enjoy life on our terms. People maybe aren’t rich in Franconia but they enjoy their lives. They have their bakeries and butchers and breweries. For me, food culture and drinking culture are most important in having a good quality of life and this is the same in both Franconia and the Northwest. On the beer side it’s for sure totally different but people here are very into beer. They have a lot of breweries around and try different—not different beer styles—but different beers from different breweries over and over again. So when you ask someone here on the streets about their favourite beer in Franconia maybe it will take half an hour. This helps me a lot here because people know beer already and understand ‘craft’ as being handmade. They walk into the brewery and see that I do everything by myself, and so if beers are €1 more that’s fine because I’m doing everything by hand and am an enthusiast and a beer lover and this is what people want to support. I think that’s similar to the Northwest-a lot of support for the local brewery, a lot of support for the local markets. And there are taprooms-most of the breweries in the States have taprooms, and it’s the same here in Franconia. People go directly to the brewery and drink the beer and have a personal connection to the brewery and the story, especially the family-owned breweries. That’s similar to the Northwest, except without the beer styles. I’d say the average Franconian beer drinker-give him twenty different light lager beers brewed in Franconia and he would definitely identify fifteen by brewery. Maybe a guy from the Northwest who’s into craft beer would say that they’re all the same but the Franconian would really notice the nuances and identify them and say, “This is from that brewery…”. This is a really good thing for me that people know beer in Franconia and that they’re open to new beer styles, which is really interesting. I did not think they’d be that open but most are. I’ve had this brewery for a year now and I have only had one guy walk into the brewery who left without beer because I had no Helles or Weizen or traditional stuff. I thought it would be more like 50% of the people leaving like this.
Would do you say that in your opinion, Franconians have a different relationship with beer than other Germans?
Is this the most beer-savvy region in Germany?
Oh yeah, for sure. There is no other region like this. Not even the other parts of Bavaria. Bavaria around Munich is dominated by the big breweries. In Franconia you have Kulmbacher as the big brewery, but it’s still small compared to the big breweries of Munich, and they own the market for a radius of 100 kilometers. And around Munich there are not so many tiny villages with breweries in them, but in Franconia nearly every village has a brewery, and this is very important for the people who live here. I would say when there are no breweries anymore in Franconia, you don’t want to be here in this part of the world.
It’s funny you mention that because my next point is about that dynamic and identity. A typical conversation about beer with a Franconian invariably involves some number dropping. The region’s got what, approximately 280 breweries, or something like that, for its—correct me if I’m wrong—5 million people. That’s without a doubt far and away the highest per-capita rate of breweries in the world and Franconians are obviously very proud of this. But coming from the outside I have to wonder if it’s really a justified pride, quite simply because a lot of these breweries are making very similar beers within a lot of the same parameters and few of them really approach greatness, in my opinion. So, how would you explain such an incredible uniformity across such a wide playing field?
That’s not easy… are there Franconian brewers listening or reading this? Maybe not-I’m guessing not. I think a lot of breweries just stopped getting better maybe, or kind of pushing things. They have their Helles lager or Weizen from maybe fifty years ago and people like them in the town so they think, “Ok that’s fine, we’ll brew these beers over and over again.”. They just do this and they don’t invest in the brewery to get more modern or better quality in their beers-I mean we have amazing techniques now to have an amazing end product in your glass. But there is a charm sometimes. Sometimes you will walk into a brewhouse and think it’s a museum instead of a working brewery. You think, “When’s the last time the Health Department was in here?”. And sometimes you have that in your glass as well-some beers are not so good. Especially in the summertime. Some brewers are small-they brew just once a week and so have to push the beer, so a lager can go out after only 3 weeks in the tank. There’s a lot of pressure also for brewery owners, with the market getting tighter and also more industrial brewers coming into towns through financing. A lot of times I’ll see small villages with their own brewery and the restaurants in town only have the Big Guys on tap or are heavily branded by bigger breweries. They give them money, taps, chairs for the bar—everything— and this is sad.
People also move away from the towns. Young people move to the cities and don’t really care about local beer. Small breweries can’t find staff-a lot of breweries have to close down in the winter completely. And you have the hours-some bierkellers are just open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, which is okay, but I’m self-employed and would like to go on a Monday, for example, and everything’s closed. Some beer gardens are doing well but most of them in my opinion are not doing well financially or in terms of quality of the beer. But Franconians don’t really care about this-they still have this strong connection to the brewery. But we will see a change in the future for sure. More breweries will definitely be closing down, while some will do really well.
Expansion is possible. Some brewers don’t want to but Franconian beer could be huge in other regions, like Scandinavia for example, or Rome. In Rome there’s a Franken Bier Festival that’s just crazy. Italian guys drive up to Franconia and load up kegs for Italy and people go nuts about them. But they choose maybe forty breweries consistently. The rest of the two hundred and forty breweries are not doing so well.
There are a lot of breweries that are really struggling, breweries where maybe the grandpa is still doing the mashing-in on a very old system. You have to invest in new techniques but they cost a lot of money. But when you’re old and your son wants to do something else you might not have the justification to make investments of half a million into a new bottling line or a new brew house because you think, “I’ll do this two or three more years and then I’m done. I can’t find anyone to work in my brewery or sell to so I will close down.”. This is the same thing that is happening to bakeries and butchers.
Some brewers are definitely pushing boundaries a little bit and doing a bit more crazy stuff which is really interesting to see but it’s still very hidden and small-under the table. They’re selling sour beers or whiskey barrel-aged stuff but when the Stammtisch sees those things they aren’t happy. They say, “Craft beer sucks-this new beer scene’s no good.”.
Even die-hard supporters of a brewery are unhappy to see that same brewery producing something new, even if it’s of quality?
Yeah, they don’t want to have a change. Also, we know beer, we know when a beer tastes okay or when it’s off, from a quality perspective, but sometimes the Stammtisch likes it, and has for like, ten years, and says, “Don’t change it!”. Those people sitting in your brewpub, talking to you everyday- of course you listen to them, because they’re drinking maybe two kegs a day. You listen to your locals, and I do too.
For me, Franconia is one of the most interesting beer regions to watch for the next five years or so. It could go this way or that way but we’ll see more diversity. We’ll see more breweries doing more interesting things but also a lot of closings as well. Not necessarily because the beers are not selling but because of lack of investment. And there are also some cases of the health department going to breweries and saying, “This looks horrible. You have to close down.”.
The same thing is happening with butchers. The standards are always getting higher and higher. Industrial brewers can adopt the higher standards for brewing but a little brewer in Franconia might say, “What? I have to invest €2,000? That’s not possible.”.
I hope some American brewers might see what’s going on here and say to themselves “Ah, here’s a brewery that’s shutting down-maybe we can buy it.”. Maybe they could leave the beer like it is-maybe make it better. They could leave the culture like it is, but maybe produce their IPAs for the European market without having to build a new brewhouse in the field like Stone did.
Well, it seems like things are definitely coming to a crossroads, multiple crossroads, and change of course is inevitable. But everything seems to always come back to money, investment, and financing. And what’s interesting for me to see is…well, how do you distinguish yourself as a brewer if you’re all making the same beer, and you do want to stay alive? It is a business after all. There are a couple of ways to do this, right? You can make a very singular beer, you can make a high quality beer…but it just seems to me, from my limited viewpoint, that everybody here is competing on price-prices which are absurdly low. You’ve got craft breweries—and you can call the regional breweries craft breweries—competing with brewery conglomerates on price points and nobody is making beer that stands out. I can’t wrap my head around it-I don’t understand it. If they’re worried about investment can’t they make a better product and charge more money for it? Is there dialogue about this?
Well yes, us in the Franconian beer scene-we talk a lot about this, but people in the towns don’t. They’re happy that beer is cheap. They say that in Franconia, the world is still normal because beer and food are still cheap, which is totally stupid. People in the beer scene in Nuremberg, almost everyone says that Franconian breweries need to charge more. In a beer garden you’ll pay sometimes only €1.80 or €2.20 for a half-litre. I have no problem paying €3.20 for a half-litre of Helles. When I see €1.80 or €2.20 I think, my God-I can’t do this. It’s not good for anyone, because when one brewery decides they want to charge more than the other guy, they might not, because people likely would go elsewhere.
Unless you’re making a beer of far superior quality.
Yeah, and this is definitely a big point-the quality of beer in Franconia. They’re not really thinking about this. Brewers don’t consider making a better beer to attract people, they choose to make their beer less expensive. Beer is just beer, for most of the people here. For most of the people, it’s not really about the taste. It’s about having a good time, sitting in the beer garden. There’s not a lot of talking about quality. Getting deeper into quality and taste is not really a thing for the Franconian beer drinker. They’re really more concerned with prices.
But doesn’t that fly in the face of your earlier assessment that the Franconian consumer is the most well-educated beer consumer in Germany?
Yes, that’s true. Maybe not well-educated, strictly speaking, but more experienced in choosing different beers from different breweries. In a regular supermarket we can choose from maybe forty beers from around Nuremberg within a radius of 100 kilometres. People are open for beers in general. In Berlin, for example, the normal people-
What is a normal Berliner, these days?
I don’t know if they still exist anymore-maybe. But 90% of people are drinking Pilsner, Berliner Kindl, and there’s nothing else. People have no idea about other beers, but here there is regional appreciation. But regarding taste and beer quality, maybe 5% of Franconian beer drinkers have an idea about this. Most people have no idea, which I don’t mean in a bad way. I hope one day they’ll more concerned with quality and talk with brewers and insist they make the beer better so the brewer has to get better. Because otherwise they can get too comfortable, too complacent. To get better you need to invest time and knowledge. But often they’ll say, “No, I don’t want to do this. I want to leave it like it is. I don’t want to have a new, shiny colour on my wall-that means I have to paint it. It might look shitty now but it’s fine.”. And that’s the thing-if you look at a shitty wall for two years, you’ll get used to it. When you drink shitty beer every week for two years you get used to it, and then you like it at one point, because it’s beer. You know what I mean?
Education about beer quality in Franconia is still at a low point I hope this changes. I hope it’s talked about more. When there’s a beer festival in Franconia, maybe in a small town with five breweries pouring in the marketplace, there will be maybe two out of two thousand visitors who talk to brewers about how they make their beer.