For those of you following along with our blog, our last Pint Report article was about Gruthaus’ Pumpernickel Porter. Well it seems our article made its way back to Germany and eventually it started up an email chain between founder Philipp Overberg and myself. After a little prodding I was able to convince Münster’s BEST gypsy-brewer to sit down to an interview with us. PROST!
Will: Tell us a little bit about Gruthaus. How did it start, and what was
Philipp: I officially started Gruthaus in October 2013. The inspiration goes back
more than 500 years. I’ve always been fascinated with the history of my
hometown Münster and when I found out about the “Grut” [Gruit in English] tradition in
Münster, I could combine my passion for beer with digging up long
forgotten beers from the local brewing history. Being a trained
historical linguist helped too. So when I started my own beer business
choosing the Gruthaus concept was an obvious choice. The ancient
Gruthaus (Gruit house), now completely vanished with no trace but a
street name “Grutgasse”, was the only official place where brewers could
buy the most important brewing ingredient from the city council: Grut, a
secret mixture of herbs. From selling Grut the authorities earned 2/3rds
of the city income, so the Grut Master was also the city treasurer and
second important man in the medieval town. From the Gruthaus treasure
only a single item survived to date: a silver goblet in the shape of a
rooster which I choose for my logo.
Will: How did you start as a brewer? Where did you train?
Philipp: It started as a hobby 9 years ago. I’m not school trained but mostly
self-taught. I’ve read a lot and tried to learn from fellow home brewers
and also from the pioneers of the German craft beer movement that
started about 5 years ago. When the owner of a fine beer pub in Münster
asked me to brew my Pumpernickel-Porter for him large scale I started to
W: So why did you decide to go the Gypsy brewer route? What advantages
are there to being a Gypsy brewer? What is the hardest thing?
P: It was not a decision but the only choice I had at that time. I had to
do it quick as I wanted to be the first in my hometown and it was only a
question of time that someone else would start a [Craft Brewery] in
Münster. I had no money and not much time to spend on the project, so I
could not build my own brewery, although I’d love to some day. Thanks to
Gypsy brewing I could come out with my first beers. But it makes brewing
really expensive and has been frustrating from time to time. I did not
know then that brewing with the quality and ingredients I aim for is by
far easier on a home brewing scale then it is in a big brewery. The
hardest thing was and still is to find a brewery of an appropriate size
not too far away with enough free capacity, and a master brewer who is
willing to work with my challenging recipes. Also I have to make many
compromises and give up quite a lot of control. Now I’m working with 3
different breweries so I can at least decide which production
circumstances would be most fitting for which beer.
W: When I first started coming to Germany about 10 years ago, it was
a land dominated by Pilsners. But in the last few years I have noticed
the start of a craft beer renaissance taking place. How do you see the
German market changing?
P: I’m afraid there’s not much change in the big picture. 99 % of the
German beer market is still very traditional – not always in a good way.
But of course you’re right about the upcoming new brewing scene. I
wouldn’t use the term craft for the German scene though. If you apply
the American definition most German breweries would be craft, even the
biggest ones that produce really boring Pilsners. On the other hand,
being a small brewery is no guarantee for good beer at all. Most
Brewpubs are of the worst kind. Actually, I see a very diverse
development. Industrial scale mainstream breweries started producing
cheap Pale Ales, IPAs and Stouts on smaller brewing systems, they spoil
the prices and keep really small brewers out of the business. Only very
few small brewers can compete, mainly with the help of bigger investors.
Some beer enthusiasts like myself come from a home brewing background,
some are trained professionals, they started producing as Gypsy brewers.
Some have their own self made brew houses that are too small to be
sustainable. Most of them are brewing part time after another day job.
Everything is happening really fast now, but I think it will take many
more years for the new beer scene to gain a professional level.
W: What are some of your favorite styles of beer to produce?
P: I love smoked beers and anything with rye. Also I love experimenting
with historical beer styles that need a lot of interpretation. Generally
speaking, I’m more into malt than hops. I like to discover ingredients
that no-one has used in brewing before. Making up a new style is as much
fun as reviving an extinct style.
W: How do you come up with the inspiration for some of your beer?
P: For the Grut (Gruit beer) the inspiration comes from the great brewing
history of my hometown, Münster. I researched the oldest surviving
account books from the city hall, dating back to 1480. In there I found
listed the ingredients and amounts of herbs used to prepare the Gruit
mixture. But it was no easy task. It took years of interpretation and
discussions with historians still ongoing. I love reading old books and
visiting archaeological sites to find out about brewing techniques long
gone. Some ideas just come from the countryside that surrounds me. I
visit local farmers and talk to them about their products, there are so
many things that could be used for brewing.
W: How have your friends, family, and community responded to you
becoming a brewer?
P: First they thought I was nuts. Then some liked the taste of what I
produced. My wife loves good beer, too. My daughter thinks it is nothing
special, she grew up with it. Most of my friends are into beer as well.
W: What are some beer styles you would like to try in the future?
P: I’ve got much more ideas than I could ever produce with the limited
capacity I got. The next beers in line are a rye triple fermented with
Champagne yeast and a local rye variety called Champagne rye. Then a
strong stout with coffee beans from a local coffee roaster. I would like
to produce a 100 % authentic medieval Gruit beer with spontaneous
fermentation but that will take several years preparation.
W: What is the craziest beer you have ever brewed?
P: That was a beer that appeared to me in a dream. First I heard the name
“Jenny’s Lemon Alt” and then I saw the label in detail. The brewery was
oddly called “the radio station for hair dressers”. It was my own
brewery. When I woke up I had the taste of lemon Alt in my mouth and
knew exactly how to brew it. I took my daughter’s crayons to paint the
label from my memory before breakfast and wrote down the recipe for a
pale Münster Alt beer with lots of fresh lemons squeezed in with zest,
pith and everything, fermented with a Belgian Saison yeast. One of my
best recipes, I have to admit.
W: Where can one find your beers?
P: It is distributed primarily locally in Münster. There is a constantly
changing list of shops and pubs on my website:
My main beers are available nationwide in every Galeria Kaufhof in
Germany that has a food and beverages department and in some beer
specialty shops. Unfortunately not in the US yet.
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