German Beer Culture – Still King of the World?

When most people think of beer history, Germany is pretty close to the top of the list. That’s natural. After all, it’s hard to find a country with a richer beer heritage than Germany. The nation has claimed preeminence in brewing and beer purity for centuries. In fact, the nation has become pretty much synonymous with flavorful beer styles (unlike America, where watery beer has long dominated). 

However, things are changing for Germany and they might not be able to lay claim to the “king of beer” crown for much longer. In fact, if current trends continue, they might just have to look to other nations to help bolster sales of their brews – those that have traditionally been enjoyed by drinkers within their own borders. What’s going on in Germany?

Less Beer Drinking

The single most disturbing trend for German brewers is the fact that Germans are drinking less beer every year. In a country where beer was once prescribed for nursing mothers, that’s certainly a dramatic shift. 2002 saw an average consumption of 122 liters per person. By 2010, that number had dropped to just 102 liters per person. 2011 shows signs of being even lower. That has German brewers worried and considering making some moves that are definitely out of character for the conservative nation.

What’s behind the dramatic shift in drinking? Germany’s aging population is one of the reasons. There are fewer and fewer young people in Germany, and older Germans favor drinking something different – coffee and tea have developed an enormous following there. The reduction in beer consumption seems to come directly from the reduction in working hours for the nation as a whole.

Shifting drinking habits have played a major role as well. More and more people are opting for nonalcoholic drinks on the whole (less wine and liquor, as well as less beer). Lifestyle changes are also shaping the German beer industry – fewer people head to the bar after work for a beer with friends. More people are heading home to have coffee, tea or water with their families. 

Finally, Germany might also be suffering from a “too many options” syndrome. For instance, there are almost 1,400 breweries operating in the country, and consumers can choose from more than 5,000 different types of beer. That makes it hard for any one brand to gain an edge over another one. 

What’s Germany Doing About It?

The declining situation for German brewers begs the question, “what’s being done about it?” The answer to that question might just surprise you. In fact, it looks as though many German brewers are considering the unthinkable – exporting their brews to America. For those Americans who enjoy German beers, the lack of quality options on the American market has been significant. German brewers were loath to export across the Atlantic mostly because American drinkers have usually preferred beer with little taste and body. However, with the growth the craft beer movement, that’s changing and doing so rather quickly. The average American drinker today is far more likely to take a chance on an imported German brew than what would have been possible even a few years ago.

What Do Americans Say?

What do American drinkers have to say about the potential German invasion? Actually, there’s a lot of anticipation from drinkers and brewers alike. Craft brewers welcome the enrichment, history and culture that German brews represent. Most beers from Germany are brewed according to standards laid down in the 1500s – the oldest of their kind still being used in the world. That certainly represents an enormous amount of history, as well as dedication to quality, flavor and purity.

While American craft brewers might not adhere strictly to German brewing traditions, they do recognize that the country’s beers are a far cry from what Americans had access to prior to the rise of craft brews. In fact, there has never been a more welcoming environment for Germany’s brews than what can be found today in the US. More and more drinkers are demanding innovation, a fresh approach to brewing and inventiveness. Craft brewers in the US can provide this, but there’s plenty of room for other companies and German brewers interested in exporting their products might just find that it’s an incredibly lucrative venture.

Will It Happen?

You might think that in order to avoid financial stagnation and eventual ruin, German brewers would be eager to get their brews into the hands of American drinkers. While some certainly are, there are more that view the situation with quite a bit of skepticism. It’s difficult to find a country with more conservative views than Germany and in the world of brewing more so than any other area. 

While it might make economic sense to export their products to the US and other nations, quite a few brewers are leery of taking that plunge, simply for the shift away from tradition that it represents.

The Bottom Line

So, what’s the bottom line here? Will the US see an influx of new German brews to add even more selection to options available for US drinkers? Maybe, maybe not – only time will tell. Much of that question hinges on whether or not brewers are able to make an impact on the current trends within their own nation. There’s a lot of sense to selling their brews at home. Export costs are only one factor in the equation. Still, chances are good that as the economic troubles Europe faces continue to worsen, more brewers will show an interest in getting their beer across the ocean to the hands of drinkers interested in seeing what German brewing tradition can really produce.

In the meantime, there’s no shortage of innovative, inventive options for those with a taste for adventure. American craft brewers have developed a global reputation for creating unique, interesting brews and there’s never been a better time than now to get out there and see what’s on offer.

Posted on October 31, 2011 and filed under The Business of Beer.