German Micros Inch Forward

Independent craft breweries struggle against the majors

German beer consumption has been in steady decline since the early 1990s –- especially among young people. Small, independent craft breweries and brew-pubs in Germany, a country rich in brewing tradition and history, could change that.


Beer may be Germany’s unofficial national drink, but more and more Germans seem to be losing their taste for it. According to the German Brewer’s Association, beer consumption fell by around 18 percent from 1992 to 2006.

One person who’s not affected by the decline is Berlin’s Oliver Lemke, the owner of one of the few independent brewpubs in the German capital. Business is up in all four of his establishments, the first of which opened in 1999. He said the overall slump reflects the destruction of small local breweries by big corporations.

“There used to be 100 breweries in this neighborhood alone,” Lemke said. “They died out in the 1970s with the trend toward mono-breweries. The big breweries — for example Warsteiner or Licher – said: ‘We’re only going to make one sort of beer, a premium pilsner, and we’ll market it nationwide.’ And that inevitably leads to a dead-end. At some point, even the world’s biggest idiot notices that there’s virtually no difference between a Warsteiner and Licher.”

Germany has some 1,300 brewing companies, but the vast majority — including Germany’s most famous brand, Beck’s — belong to huge international conglomerates, and styles rarely stray from the standard pilsner and wheat varieties. The main strategy among major brewers for interesting young people is to mix their products with everything from lemon flavor to cola.

But why hasn’t Germany gotten in on the micro-brewery and real-ale trends in the US or the UK?

“It’s a global interplay between wrong-headed marketing, the wrong sort of people as bar owners and the wrong retailing structures,” Lemke said. “That’s why those trends are under-represented here compared with the United States.”

Lemke is trying to change that. His brewpubs revive almost forgotten brewing styles, such as amber ale or the double-hopped, non-filtered Zwickel, and seasonal specialties such as the extra-strength Märzen (“March beer”). They sell a respectable 2,500 hectoliters (66,000 gallons) a year — and there’s no mistaking them for Beck’s.

Nationally marketed brands forced many local breweries out of business in the 1970s.
But it’s difficult for independents to break through against the conglomerates. The big brewing companies control distribution networks and, unlike here is the US where tied house laws prevail, the large brewers can offer pub owners to feature their products exclusively by offering loans, price rebates and free tapping and refrigeration systems and beer glasses.

Lemke’s flagship brewpub is in the touristy neighborhood around Berlin’s Hackescher Markt. He knows it will be a challenge to convince the locals to drink local stuff, but he’s confident.

“I think that it’s exactly the right niche in the market,” he said. “General consumption is in decline. People are more conscious and perhaps more choosey about what they drink. And so I hope they’ll be interested in the sort of specialties that I’ll be offering.”