Young and Hungry

How Can Germans Revive Their Country’s Thirst For Beer?

The notion that Germans, with their foamy steins and spirited drinking songs, are turning away from beer may seem as likely as pigs flying. But an article at Slate.com this week describes how German beer culture is in an undeniable decline. Statistics released by the German government over the past several years have shown that Germans are producing and drinking less and less beer and cases of brauereisterben, or "brewery death" are rampant.

According to the article this year's numbers show consumption is down one-third from the previous generation of German drinkers. Brewing in Germany has dropped to its lowest volume since 1990, and the number of operating breweries in Germany is less than half what it was twenty years ago.

What is killing Germans' love of beer? Everything from an aging population with declining birth rates, smoking bans in bars, and the weather has been blamed. But author Christian DeBenedetti dismisses these simple explanations for the downturn. Instead, he suggests that young people in Germany have turned away from beer in favor of other alcoholic drinks because of a strict definition of beer that demonizes flavor in the name of purity and tradition. DeBenedetti believes this rigid aspect of Germany's beer culture has stunted openness to experimentation for both makers and drinkers of German beer. DeBenedetti writes:

Another issue is that the hypnotic marketing force of Reinheitsgebot may make Germans less sophisticated tasters by limiting their perception of what a good beer can be. When asked, many Germans—even well-traveled beer-industry professionals—tend to wrinkle their noses at beers of foreign style or origin. They would sooner drink cheap biermischgetränke or mass-produced domestic beers mocked as spüllwasser (dishwater) than try anything exotic, such as Belgian ales spiced with herbs or the sort of hoppy, aromatic ales and lagers making waves in the American craft-beer market. If Germans want the taste of something new and exciting, they look to other forms of alcohol.

The more important question, then, is how will German beer producers win back young drinkers? I recently wrote about how some German brewers are beginning to break away from Reinheitsgobot, the now de facto 16th-century ingredient limiting beer purity law. Collaborations between German and American breweries like Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan Brewery's Infinium and Brooklyn Brewery and Schneider's Hopfen-Weisse are helping German brewers reconsider their definition of beer. DeBenedetti agrees that these seeds of innovation are a good start but believes more significant change is needed to get the country back on its drinking feet.

But backlashes like this one (read the full dialogue auf Deutsch) suggest that many Germans are not ready to give up long held beliefs about what their beer should taste like and what ingredients it should have in it. I am left to wonder if redefining beer is the only way Germans can revive their thirst for beer. So I put the question to you. Will true change happen on the beer front in Germany? If so, what will it look like and will it happen quickly enough to save remaining breweries from the dreaded brauereisterben?

Photo by Tammy Tuck

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Comments

  1. #1

    As someone who reads pretty much every piece of content that Young & Hungry puts out there, lemme say thank you for such an informative, well-researched, interesting article.

    I totally bashed another writer here a few weeks ago for
    penning something I thought was emblematic of a perceived quality swan-dive in the post-Carmen era.

    Recently, I've seen a turn-around. Maybe the new staff has started to find some sea legs, maybe the editors have been exerting more control, maybe there are other factors, like me being wrong to begin with, but, whatever the reason, thanks and good job.

  2. #2

    German beer industry = American car industry 3 years ago

    Short of an accelerator pedal recall by Sam Adams, its hard to see any quick fix to German beermakers' one-size-fits all approach.

    But, if I remember right, 10 years ago US beer consumption was also declining and everyone was drinking wine. It has since rebounded, probably because of breweries like Sam Adams, etc. Maybe German tastes will experience a similar trend as breweries are more willing to get creative.

  3. #3

    This is a phony crisis because Germans are drinking as much beer as ever, and favor the neighboring Czech Pilsner Urquell and Budvar (an ancestor of our Budweiser, but very remotely). During the Cold War, west Germans couldn't ge the prized Czech versions, and had to settle on their domestic supplies, which truly are swill that even pigs avoid. After the Berlin Wall collapsed, it took a few years for the Czechs to gain back their pre-war market. That they have done this is proof of the superiority of the Czech beer, which I myself can echo.

  4. #4

    Great article Tammy. Unfortunate to see the decline of German beer drinking, but it's apparently been a long time coming.

    The Economist did a fantastic short piece on this last October, which provided the basis for my own thoughts on this tragic news.

    Economist - http://www.economist.com/node/17204871

    My thoughts on the matter - http://thehipflask.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/a-report-from-germany/

  5. #5

    Funny question: Will true change happen on the beer front in Germany?

    No, it will not. There is no reason at all for a change. Beer consumption has decreased over the last years. That is a problem for the big breweries with their high capacities. But, while the overall decrease was 1.7% last year, ABInbev reported a loss of 9% in Germany for 2010 just one week ago, including Becks, their top brand. But that is mass beer; who care? Fighting for market shares will claims some victims, that’s economy. For every brewery that passes away there is at least one that opens. Last figures I have: 1995: 1282 breweries, 2010: 1319.

    Many regional German brewers and all top level brewers do not moan. They are doing well, but you cannot see that if you look at overall figures. The market in Germany is far too complex; there is f. e. a strong regional element. And there is tradition. Honestly: Why do have to care about Brauereisterben if you started brewing 1455? Andechser, Rothaus, Uerige and other famous brands stand for history and the culture of drinking, like Bordeaux or Islay whisky.

    When did you have your last business lunch with a beer? Do you think that “open container laws” will form a tradition? Did you ever hear about redefining Bordeaux wine? Do not worry about the beer front in Germany. You have a home front, as long as people think making beer is like making cars.

  6. #6

    Alex: Thank you first for reading, and second for the feedback. It is great to hear that you have been pleased with the quality as of late. I have been covering beer on Y&H for almost two years and we are all working hard during this transitional period for food and beverage writing at WCP.

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