Crew Republic: Rebels in Theory

Crew Republic: Rebels in Theory

Munich, and the Bundesland of Bavaria, is well known as the centre of Germany’s traditional beer culture. Crew Republic was one of the first micro brewers to challenge this, but where do they stand now? Founder Timm Schnigula gives the lowdown.

A few years on, Crew Republic, who initially started off as Crew Ale, is still beating the rebel drum. “We’re a bit like Asterisk and Obelisk, fighting against Romans,” says their affable, long-haired founder Timm Schnigula. “We’re a little island doing things differently, on our own republic. One in which we brew beer.”

Dramatic allusions to French cartoons notwithstanding, taking on the titans of German brewing really does require a battle mindset. Crew Republic, run by Timm alongside Mario Hanel, was one of the first to create some hard traction in the notoriously conservative, but potential-filled German market. But how about now? In an increasingly busy market, with marketing savvy brands like Brlo and the brewers of the Kreativbrauerverband, the rebel status of Crew Republic has come into question.

Out of the office

Mario and Timm’s brewing adventure started off as a personal riposte – not aimed at big German beer exactly, but to both Mario and Timm’s corporate careers in management consultancy. “It’s the furthest thing away from brewing you can think of,” he laughs. The job however enabled them both to travel – to the US, Australia and more, tasting all these hoppy, fruity, diverse beers on the way. Back in 2011, in Germany there was nothing of the ilk. Cue huge disappointment when they’d order the beers online on returning home, and they’d arrive not quite as fresh as they’d wistfully remembered.

Time for a change. “We decided to take a brewing class in 2011,” Timm explains. “Not like a formal program or anything, but just to see what happens.” Soon the two friends realized it was a lot of fun. If they can’t get them in the local shop, why not brew these type of beers themselves?

Lo and behold, they got some equipment and a few months later they were brewing. By the end of 2011, they had the first beer on the market – their signature Foundation 11 Pale Ale – and by 2015 they’d moved into the first brewery, a 20hl space in Unterschleissheim north of Munich.

Nowadays, there is some delineation in their roles. Timm falls more into production and brewery stuff, whilst Mario focuses more on the sales and marketing. Crew Republic was also the hub for the successful careers of a few big names on the German beer scene. There was brewer Richard Hodges, who left for Berliner Berg, sales manager Manuel Schultz, who went on to found his own lemonade company Eizbach, and Jan Hrdlicka, marketing manager, who left for Ratsherrn. All three left at once in 2015, which undeniably took a toll on the brands visibility in the years after.

Crew Republic: A communal focus

To this day, there’s something Brewdog-lite – that all guns blazing, “together we stand” bolshiness – in their branding. See their slogan: ’craft beer is not a crime.’ Or others admonitions on their website: ’we aren’t always popular’, ‘join the revolution’, and more. “There’s been this perception in Germany: if beer doesn’t taste like lager, it’s not good,” he explains. “We want to show different beers can be good too – not criminal at all.”

Why are they a Crew? “We want to be a very open brewery, interacting with everybody from our customers, to the suppliers of our hops or malts,” he says. For this, the brewery is open on Friday evenings for all and sundry to visit, and visitors can see the hop field next door too.

Creative within the law

Expecting the Reinheitsgebot to then come in for some heavy stick – an integral part of the establishment they stand alone from – Timm throws a curveball. He’s behind it 100%. It’s historic and a good thing for Germany he says. So far, a surprisingly conservative stance. But more interestingly, he adds it isn’t creatively restrictive at all.

“I love using those four ingredients and showing how diverse it can be. Even the water you can play around with,” he explains. “It’s all about the craft. When I do it with these four ingredients, it’s more crafty than throwing in fruit or throwing in sugar for better fermentation. Or adding grapefruit to make a Grapefruit IPA.” A disclaimer: he’s fully aware of the additives the big brewers often add in spite of the law, which Crew claim they don’t do whatsoever. I ask about the Kreativbrauerverband, a riposte to the Reinheitsgebot-focused German Brewers’ Association. Timm Schnigula claims they never reached out to him, nor that he knows much about it.

Their beers are different from the big German brews and not quite conformist. But on the most polarizing topic in modern German beer, Crew Republic isn’t such a rebel at all.

Timm Schnigula on the independence debate

Going even bigger, in the wake of Beavertown selling off a minority stake to Heineken, we land on the topic of corporate takeovers. “If it’s your baby and your brewery, I don’t understand why you do this?”, he says. “I’m always a bit sceptical if these brewers can really keep their identity.”

It’s worth remembering here that Noris Hopfenverwaltungs GmbH, led by CEO’s Regine Barth and Peter Barth, has a 30% minority stake in CREW Republic Brewery GmbH, having invested in 2013 to help build the brewery. The two are better known as part of the Haas-Barth group, the world’s biggest hop trader. Surely that has an impact on their identity? He disagrees, noting it’s different to part-ownership from a brewer. “We use other hops, like Hop Union, Hopsteiner, and more” he says. “All they (Haas-Barth) want is to see the craft beer scene expand, that’s why they invested.”

He believes, nonetheless, that they remain independent – which is how he defines “craft”. “A large independent craft brewer is no less a craft brewer than a smaller one. It’s important to be independent and have an open mind, so you don’t make the wrong decisions,” he says. He doubts there will be any complete purchase made in Germany soon – the market is still too young – but eventually there will be. “It’s happened in the US and then the UK, and the German market is full of potential, so it would be silly to say it won’t happen here,” he warns.

In Ya Face!

A sign of the conservative German beer scene: he admits the reaction to their packaging – something part of their commitment to be more than just beer – wasn’t so favorable at first. There was some negativity. The audience has come round now and their cheeky image, all swirly typography and colorful graphics – from the clenched fist of the “In Ya Face” to the suspiciously alert flowers of the “Hop Junkie” – he believes is now seen as a strength.

Nowadays, Timm Schnigula admits their distribution is still mainly focused in their Munich heartland and in gastronomy at independent bars and restaurants. He wants the industry to become more used to putting their beers on tap, serving draft IPA’s and the like.

For the future, expect more experimental Crew Republic white label releases. And they’re planning on upping their sales game, penetrating the market even more – particularly in Berlin, the creative beer centre of Germany, where they’ve got a growing sales team running about. The battle of the titular republic continues.

Photo Credit: Timm Schnigula + Mario Hanel von Bernard Huber