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Brewing Consensus: Beer as a Tool of Soft Power in the German-American Relationship

A German diplomat, a Smithsonian beer historian, a local brewer and a Fletcher student discuss beer as a diplomatic tool.

Helmet Landes hails from Bavaria, the south German state known across the world not only for fairytale castles, flower-speckled meadows and snow-dusted peaks but also for a beer festival. Landes, a German foreign service officer who’s lived far and wide across the globe, remembers one Oktoberfest better than the rest—one not in a Munich beer hall or an Alpine haus.  

“The best Oktoberfest I’ve ever had in my life was at the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan,” Landes told The Fletcher School Fermentation Club. “You have stolen our brand name, but you threw the best party.”

That, in a phrase, is soft power. German soft power in the form of beer.

Landes, Germany’s deputy consul general in Boston, gave the introductory remarks to a wide-ranging discussion at The Fletcher School on the role of beer as a tool of international soft power and the efficacy of beer as a glue in the German-American relationship. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Berlin Airlift, and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Speakers emphasized that beer, indeed, bolsters power and prestige not only between Germany and American but in all international relations.

“Much like any other cultural thing, beer is a cultural touchstone,” said Karst Brandsma, an active duty U.S. Army Officer and Ph.D. candidate at The Fletcher School. “And like any other cultural touchstones, it’s meant to be enjoyed.”

“What brought down the USSR?” asked Brandsma. “Was it economics or culture? Missiles or blue jeans? … Like any other cultural export, whether its popular movies, TV shows, music or fashion—food, and alcohol specifically, is how we project ourselves. … It multiplies other sorts of power.”

Landes pointed to moments in international relations, contemporary and historical, where Germany exported beer along with its political projects. “The first thing the Germans did,” at Germany’s colony of Qingdao in China, Landes said, was build a brewery, and German beer continues to facilitate economic and political cooperation with countries in Africa.

“Sometimes politics follows beer,” Landes said. “For people to people contact, beer has always facilitated relationships. … Beer might be one of the ingredients of German foreign policy and soft power in the world.”

The effects of that soft power touched America more than 150 years ago. Theresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian National Museum of American history, said the craft beer revolution that began in America a few decades ago is, in fact, the second major transformation of brewing culture in the United States. The first began in the 1840s and illuminates a reshaped America, one powered by immigrants that saw production shifting from woman to man, and muscle to machine.

Colonial American brewing had been dominated by English-style ales, brewed small-scale by women in the home.

 “That all changed beginning in the 1840s when hundreds of thousands of German immigrants began to bring new brewing traditions to America,” McCulla said. “There’s an earlier chapter where German ingredients came to America and changed what we drank and how we drank it.”

From then on, beer would be mass- and male-produced pilsners and lager style beers, reflecting America’s shift from an agrarian to industrialized economy as its demographics shifted, too. Beer drinking also moved toward a more German experience, and beer gardens exploded in popularity—a culture that largely disappeared in America during the prohibition era from 1920 to 1933.

The culture lived on, however, at its roots in Germany, where Brandsma got his first taste of something different after years of drinking “cheap, crushable, light beer, often spelled incorrectly.”

“My first time I ever set foot outside of the U.S. was in Germany,” Brandsma said. “So, I’m trying this new beer called pilsner beer, which I’d never had before, and it was fantastic. … I didn’t know anything. I was literally all by myself in a country where I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the culture … so I would go to the local beer hall, and I would meet local German citizens and talk, and it was always over beer.”

Soft power works at the individual level, too. Brandsma met his first-ever German friend at a beer hall just like those that came to America with the first wave of German immigrants, a “communal experience” with long tables at which everyone sits together. Karst was sitting alone over dinner when a local sat down across from him. They’ve remained friends to this day.

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Christian Mosebach of Hopsters Brewing Company leads a beer tasting post-event on beer diplomacy.

“You know, the theory is when you drink beer you can speak German more clearly,” Karst said. “That is not true, but they appreciate the effort.” 

The experiences abroad of millions of American military personnel like Brandsma had its effects on American beer culture, as that second brewing revolution McCulla talked about began fermenting in the 1970s.

Homebrewing was illegal in America until 1979, but it began in garages and basements with the 1960s counterculture, “tied up with all these ideas about individuality and anti-establishment,” McCulla said. Today there are more than one million homebrewers.

“We’ve called this era of brewing a revolution because it started as a backlash against the consolidated brewing industry,” McCulla said. “When somebody drinks an IPA (India Pale Ale) abroad, it’s imbued with this history.”

Military personnel who experienced foreign beer cultures in the 1980s and 1990s returned to America with new brewing ideas, too. Soon, they were stirring them into brews in their kitchens and local breweries as the craft brewing revolution started boiling.

“They took their inspiration from European styles of beers, primarily British and German styles,” McCulla said.

Christian Mosebach counts himself among one of those people. The director of brewing operations for the Boston-based Hopsters Brewing Co. said craft brewers across the United States are involved in a “give and take” with foreign styles to create what are now seen as quintessential American craft beers. And its not just beer styles that migrate across the oceans: foreign visitors also end up in America’s craft breweries tasting beers that strike strangely close to home.

“It’s how we pull the brewing trends from all over,” Mosebach said. “We want to blow their minds with things they might not have thought of … put a little twist on things.”

It doesn’t stop there, either. Just like Americans living abroad returned home with new ideas about beer and culture, foreign visitors to America’s breweries return home with new ideas of their own.

“When I got to Berlin this summer, my friend Mike gave me an IPA. A German IPA made in Germany,” Brandsma said. “You couldn’t even find an IPA when I got there in 1998, let alone a good one.”

Just like in the 1840s, those changes in beer production reflect the larger forces at work in a world where nations today—including the United States and Germany—are re-evaluating their roles in the American-led global order.

“Germany is the heart of the EU (European Union),” Brandsma said. “Germany is next to the United States and the U.K. as one of the staunchest allies in the NATO alliance, and if the United States starts stepping back a little bit, I think Germany wants to step up,” Karst said. “I think this redefinition of themselves is reflected in these changing beer styles.

“Beer culture is their culture, and they want to be leaders in it.”

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