Sylvia Kopp is one of the world's top beer sommeliers, but at home some people equate her taste with heresy. For centuries, Germany's proud brewing culture has been influenced by an old law that says beer can only be made with water, barley, and hops. Kopp says that time is over.
As an expat, I didn't fully understand how weighty an opinion that was until I sat down with a group of young German friends. Raising the Reinheitsgebot (or, as it's called in English, the purity law) erupted our table into nuclear war. Even a friend who I don't consider to be patriotic or stereotypically German said, "The Reinheitsgebot is tradition, and you just don't mess with that."
So therein lies the rub for Kopp, a beer sommelier who's obsessed with variety but who lives in a market that's over 50 percent pilsner. She's Europe's official American craft beer ambassador, and trying to expand the mainstream palate is her real life's work.
"The challenge, especially in Germany, is to show people that American beer is not this fizzy yellow thing anymore but actually flavor-forward, with a wide diversity in styles and good quality," she said to me over a cold one at Gestalten Pavilion, her favorite outdoor terrace in Berlin.
"And the laws about German beer need revision, I think. German beer shouldn't be only after the Reinheitsgebot, but a beer brewed in Germany and a beer that Germans like to drink."
Kopp's all-consuming passion—and what some would call controversial notions—began on a trip to Belgium around 20 years ago. At the time, she was working in marketing and didn't know much about beer, aside from drinking Beck's as a teenager in Bremen.
"[Belgium] was enlightening," she said. "They had so many different colors of beer, in various different kinds of glasses, and there were menus. You could actually make a choice, which was something I wasn't used to … but when I got back home and told people about this, they would say, 'Yeah, but that's not beer, you can't drink that.'"
Those first sips of ales, stouts, and porters—which were at that time nearly impossible to find in Germany—only made her want to learn more. A few years later, Kopp became the editor of a German beverage magazine; in 2006, she got her diploma as a beer sommelier at the prestigious Doemens Academy. Soon after, she started working independently as a beer writer and educator.
"I enjoy talking to brewers about how they create taste," she explained. "That's what I love about beer—that it's a creative product, a creation. Wine or juice can happen just by the effects of nature. But [with] beer, you have to prepare the ingredients, go through the process of brewing, much like cooking a great dish. There has to be a creative mind behind every brew."
Reporting from the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Kopp got another overwhelming taste for what was possible. Craft beer was still so alien in Germany that she couldn't even buy a book about it.
"A beer country with no books," Kopp said incredulously. "Sometimes it was frustrating in those early days. One couldn't be sure that German brewers would ever become innovative and create interesting, flavor-forward beers. We had good classics in Germany, but the spark of innovation was still missing."
The landscape has come a long way since those days. The purity law has been loosened up, and in Berlin especially you can find a lot of microbreweries and bars importing craft beer. But according to Kopp, "the Reinheitsgebot is still hampering our brewing culture from evolving." She points to a brewery called Camba Bavaria, whose milk stout was recently banned by authorities for violating the law by using lactose.
"The tax administration regards this as beer and collects taxes on it," said Kopp. "At the same time, the brewery is not allowed to distribute it. Yet, we can buy and drink imported Left Hand Milk Stout from Colorado. There are all kinds of these paradoxes going on."
That's why in 2013 Kopp co-founded Berlin Beer Academy, a school that holds classes on sensory evaluation for consumers and professionals. By holding tastings, seminars and other events she's hoping to shift the local taste by giving people a chance taste from a wide range of everything from German pilsners to craft beer from America.
Kopp also recently published her first book, Barley & Hops: The Craft Beer Book, in both English and German. She continues to be a jury member at various international competitions and travels for her writing. The last time I heard from her was from the Stockholm Beer & Whiskey Festival, where her latest and greatest discovery was Gigantic Pipe Wrench, an IPA from Portland with a "delicious fusion of gin's spiciness and hoppy aromas."
"I always enjoy a good pilsner, a delicious one with great hop aroma and elegance," she said. "But I love diversity. For me, my favorite beer is always the next great brew that's able to surprise me with its quality and flavor."