We put the questions to this super cool modern German outfit
Monday 28 September 2020
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What do you think of when you think about Hamburg? Germany’s beautiful, industrial, canal-crossed, riverside city of contrasts isn’t necessarily easy to pin down. But that’s what makes it great, according to Axel Ohm, director of the Überquell brewery and tap room, which sits opposite the banks of the great River Elbe.
“It’s so easy to talk about somewhere like Munich, right? Weissbier, blue and white colours, chickens… In Hamburg we don’t have those distinctions. Our city was always about variety.”
This inbuilt philosophy of variety is what led Axel to join forces with two partners in 2013 to create a brewing project that all started with a brewpub — that super-familiar German creation anyone who loves beer and who’s visited the country knows well.
“On day one we opened with 60 different beers, with 20 on tap” he says, matter-of-factly. “Everybody was laughing at us! We had people telling us that we were about to lose a lot of money, but on the contrary, it was the opposite. It became really successful, and even encouraged more young people and women to come to our brewpub and enjoy different styles of beer.”
By 2016, the collaborative project had run its course, with members keen to set up their own individual projects, and this is how Überquell was born. By the end of 2016 the Überquell team found an old building opposite the River Elbe, a national historic monument that had initially had a grizzly use, and then an extremely cool one.
“Who would have thought that whales were broken down for oil and bone here? Or that in the 20th century it was a crazy jazz club, the oldest in Germany, where the Beatles practiced in the 1960s?”
Disused and covered in graffiti, Überquell have turned the building into a vibrant multi-use space, and the colourful art remains. Every six months, different artists are able to exhibit their art on the brick walls of the huge bar, and there are even useful installations outside.
“Local street artists have painted everything,” Axel explains. “Even the beer tanks outside are painted. We don’t have our logos on them, they are works of art.”
Community is vital to the brewery, and feeling central to Hamburg is what drives Axel to support local projects like a farm for local schoolchildren to learn about growing ingredients in, and sponsoring a local youth football team.
“It’s about an emotional connection. Beer tastes better if you know it was brewed by good people, not guys who want to print money.”
“We feel strong now, even after the Coronavirus period, because people are more happy than ever to support local business and to drink local beer. We like tourists but we are not a tourist place; we love being part of our local community, and being part of Hamburg’s growing beer scene. We have grannies and gramps sat next to hipsters and immediate neighbours.
So, we know about the brewery and we know about the ethos, but what about the beers? What’s a traditional Hamburg beer? And what do people love to drink in Hamburg now? When Axel moved to the city from South Africa he wanted to find out about Hamburg’s historic beer recipes, but it was more difficult than he anticipated.
“I wanted to talk about styles not brand names when I got to Hamburg. I tried to find out more about local breweries and beer history but nobody could give me any ideas! I went to the museum and looked into the old archives and found the most incredible information.”
“500 years ago Hamburg had more than 530 breweries, all quality controlled by a strict authority. Then there was this second phase of Hamburg beer in the 1800s, when the first IPA came from the UK. A brewmaster came here and then pale ales were made in Hamburg right up until the 1930s.”
“Hamburg has an incredible history, forgotten.”
Bitten by the beer history bug, Axel decided that Überquell needed to revive some of the beer recipes he found while researching the heritage of his new home city.
“I was chasing this book, one of the oldest books written about beer in the world, by a person born in 1520. I didn’t buy a car, I bought this book!”
“In it there are more than 150 recipes and we interpret them from different centuries, using today’s skill and the experience of our brilliant Brewmaster Tobi Heiss who was classically trained in Germany and has travelled and brewed in Russia, Belize, Uganda and Mexico. We take these old ideas from Hamburg’s history and create beers that suit new tastes.”
And do locals appreciate this re-interpretation of the past?
“People here are understanding that beer can be in different styles, and are open-minded to try it. We focus on five year-round beers and four seasonal beers as well as a monthly collaboration with other brewers including the 11 local breweries in Hamburg.”
Another good example of their obsessive commitment to doing this differently and doing this well is the insane pizzas they serve at Überquell. Axel explains:
“We drove to Naples to find out how to make real Neapolitan pizza and ended up with monstrous traditional-style pizza ovens that weighs a ton. People come and enjoy the variety and the atmosphere but while they do that they learn how different beers can match the varied toppings on our pizza. We try to educate. We’ve learned in recent years that a lot of exciting new things come into being when you let them happen.”
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