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Beer and the challenge of wine

"Young people are turning to wine. What can we do to compete?" The question was put to me by the sales director of a famous German brewery.

Soon afterwards, people were asking how it was possible that a foreign company could take over Beck's, the best-known German brewer in the outside world. These seem two very different questions, but they are linked.

It was American Budweiser's move into export markets that frightened the dray-horses. Those Clydesdales stampeded Interbrew and others into becoming international brewing companies, snapping up enterprises like Beck's and Diebel's en route.

What led Bud to notice the world beyond the U.S. and its traditional territories? That happened because the United States, like all the traditional brewing nations, is now a mature market.

The mass market for beer in the U.S. is at best static, and probably shrinking. That is also true in Britain, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic. These were all industrial nations. In each of them, heavy industry is in decline. As a young beer-drinker in a coal-mining area, I watched working men sink 20 pints a night. The mines have gone, and the "working class" is shrinking. The new middle-class spends its days at computer screens in a world where Paris, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo seem as familiar as the next village. Local loyalties are eroding.

A day at the green screen promotes a thirst, but not for 20 pints. It is a sedentary occupation, so workers at the keyboard worry about their weight and health. They probably drive home. They have more disposable income than the coal-miner, and will pay more to drink less. They are better educated, more confident, more questioning, and less trapped by tribal loyalties. She is sometimes a woman. Were she not ignored by the brewing industry, she would consider beer as readily as wine. In the U.S. she (or he) often does. This requires that beer be as interesting and varied as wine. Unless your brewery is a world giant, the future lies not in imitating Budweiser, Miller or Coors (or Corona), but in making products with of individuality and character.

Budweiser, Miller and Coors may dominate in volume, and middle-sized enterprises have had difficulty in surviving, but the U.S. today has more breweries than Germany. They make far more types of beer (more than 50 styles are judged at the Great American Beer Festival). Within any one style, they offer far greater variety of character. Despite such genuine variety, the U.S. also imports many of Europe's finest beers, some of which could no longer survive on their domestic sales.

What the U.S. does today, the world does tomorrow? I hope so. The U.S. is the best place in the world to be a beer-drinker. The bigger the national brewers, and the blander their products, the greater the demand for flavoursome beers from micro-brewers. If a new beer comes into town, its brewer will issue press releases discussing the types of grain used, the methods of malting, the hop varieties, and so forth. If it is an interesting beer, there is a good chance that it will be profiled on the food page of the New York Times -- alongside the wine column. On a far lesser scale, the same happens in Britain and Belgium.

Germany, with its tiny coastline, tends to look inward. With a huge domestic market, many of its breweries have grown lazy. Now, some are beginning to panic.

Germany, with its tiny coastline, tends to look inward. With a huge domestic market, many of its breweries have grown lazy. Now, some are beginning to panic. Yet it is the country best placed to benefit from the "drink less, taste more" consumer. Despite a fast rate of closures, it has far more breweries than any other European country. Its range of styles is far more extensive than almost anyone realizes. Its fragmented brewing industry is an asset, not a liability. The areas around Munich, Bamberg, Cologne and Düsseldorf should be promoted like the great wine regions.

The easiest place to sample the full range is the U.S. I can easily find, variously imported from Germany or brewed by local micros, and probably all available in one bar: the Northern (ie Berlin) and Southern styles of wheat beer, the latter in filtered and sedimented versions, pale and dark, at conventional and Bock strengths; the different top-fermenting styles of Cologne and Düsseldorf; the golden lager variations of Pilsen, Munich and Dortmund; the Munich style of dark lager, the Schwarzbier that emerged from the East, Bamberger Rauchbier; Märzen and Festbiers; Bocks of the "single," Doppel and Maytime variations.

In Germany, I know brewers who make ten or a dozen styles, but offer only only three of them in their flagship pub. Some brewers would rather kill a distinctive style than talk about it, let alone promote it. I have yet to meet a German sales manager who knew anything about the beer he was selling. What is there to know? It's frisch! It's German. It's Pils. It's brewed under the Reinheitsgebot. Who can challenge that? Anyway, does any other country make beer?

Some do. Others make wine.

(From Brewers' Guardian, London, September 2001)

Published Online: JAN 21, 2002
Published in Print: SEPT 1, 2001
In: Brewers' Guardian


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