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’sHopfen-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