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Fancy beer bottles brew up problems

Big German breweries are making fancy beer bottles in a drive to catch consumers’ eyes and boost flagging beer consumption - but small beer-makers say trend could drive them out of business.

Fancy beer bottles brew up problems
Photo: DPA

For decades many German beers came in the same standard bottles. When drinkers returned them to supermarkets, they were delivered in giant crates to brewers, who could just take off the old label, clean the bottle and fill it with their own beer, according to the Financial Times Deutschland FTD newspaper.

But in 2007, the giant Radeberger brewery created its own unique beer bottle complete with the company logo in relief. Soon, others followed and today the market is becoming flooded with new designs from breweries like Carlsberg, Bitburger and Veltins.

The impetus for the trend? A push among companies to set their beers apart as the market grows smaller.

Consumption of the amber nectar has been falling steadily even in Germany, and dropped to 107 litres per capita in 2010. That’s compared to 136 litres 15 years ago, the FTD reported.

But small breweries complain that even as they struggle with decreased demand, the new bottles push up their costs. Some suspect the trend is a back-handed way for big breweries to drive the little guys out of business.

When small breweries receive recycled bottles from wholesalers they are forced to hire extra staff to sort through the proprietary bottles and separate them from the standardised ones.

“In this way, the sorting costs alone are increasing by €8,000 per year,” complained Thomas Schäfer, the head of the Vereinsbrauerei Greiz brewery in east Germany.

Günther Guder, of the Association of German Beverage Wholesalers, said it was questionable whether fancy bottles even worked to boost sales. He called on beer-makers to stop making them.

“We are, as one might say ‘not amused about the development,” Guder told the FTD.

The Local/mdm

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From ‘crisis beer’ to crowdfunding: How German small brewers are getting creative during the pandemic

Beer gardens are beginning to open up across Germany. Yet In order to make up for the losses they have faced over the past year, brewers have had to take matters into their own hands.

From ‘crisis beer’ to crowdfunding: How German small brewers are getting creative during the pandemic
The inside of the 'Kaiser Brewery'. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

Across Germany, brewers have been searching everywhere for inspiration during the coronavirus pandemic, from brewing ‘crisis beer’ to baking beer-infused bread, starting online businesses and even relying on crowdfunding.

This creativity has been a lifeline – the only way for some breweries to survive.

Standing next to a storage tank inside the Holzhauser Brewery, Dario Stieren – brewer extraordinaire and manager of the Munich Brew Mafia – takes a sip of his own freshly-brewed beer.

The months-long closure of restaurants and bars during the pandemic has hit the industry hard, and small breweries have really felt the impact. 

READ ALSO: Can Germany’s small breweries survive the coronavirus crisis?

Perhaps surprisingly, business is actually going better for the Munich Brew Mafia than before the pandemic, all thanks to the launch of their new line of beers named Impfstoff (vaccine) that they developed in response to the crisis. This novelty beer is available in ‘easy dosage’, ‘double dose’ and ‘overdose’. 

The brewers had not expected their ‘pandemic beer’ to fly off the shelves so quickly, but the first round of bottling sold out in just six hours. In June they will be bringing the fifth batch of their innovative creation to the market.

The pandemic has definitely not all been smooth-sailing for the Brew Mafia; the three brewers who produced the crisis beer have had to become much more flexible and creative over the pandemic, and each of them has had to work a separate job alongside the brewing.

‘We have to stand together’

The opening of beer gardens around Germany is undoubtedly an important step forward, but the Association of Private Brewers in Germany does not think that this alone can lift the brewers out of the difficulties brought by the pandemic. 

The Nuremberg Schanzenbräu brewery is a prime example of innovation under trying times. In a normal year, every weekend between the end of May and the start of September would be a celebration, for which the Schanzenbräu brewers would provide beer on draught. 

Last year the summer party season was basically non-existent, explains Stefan Stretz, the managing director of the brewery, and this year is not looking much better. 

Between 25 and 30 percent of the beers sold by Schanzenbräu come from the tap. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis Stretz, like most brewers, has been trying to sell more and more bottles of beers. “The market is now pretty cut-throat”, says Stretz. 

READ ALSO: Why German beer day is celebrated on April 23rd

Along with his fellow brewers, Stretz developed and brewed a Zusammen Halbe beer. “The idea behind the beer is that, in a time of crisis, we have to stand together”. A full 40,000 bottles of the beer were produced, and most of these were snapped up pretty quickly.

Stretz will not reveal the extent of the losses suffered by his brewery during the pandemic, but he says there is no way the company’s new ventures can fully compensate. What the beer did do was bring attention to the brewery, which is hugely valuable given the competitiveness of the brewing industry in Germany. 

Somewhat surprisingly, some brewers are actually doing well in the crisis. The Störtebeker brewery in Stralsund has seen a rise in sales.

“With this rise we have been able to compensate for the losses caused by the closure of the restaurant industry”, says the brewery’s spokesperson Elisa Raus. Offering their products online has also played a part in the brewery’s increased sales, and helped to win over new customers. 

Like many other brewers, Christoph Kumpf, manager of the Kaiser Brewery in Geislingen, Baden-Württemberg, faced another problem dealt by the pandemic.

“The persistent lockdown of the restaurant industry meant that a lot of our draught beer was approaching its sell-by date”.

In order to avoid having to pour it all down the drain, Kumpf had to get creative, using the beer to make gin, installing a ‘beer drive-thru’ in front of the brewery and selling any remaining product to local bakers.  

‘Beer-saver bread’

Six bakeries in the region are now producing ‘beer-saver bread’, for which they replace the water in the dough with beer. According to Kumpf, 1,500 liters of draught beer have been used so far to make over 3,000 loaves of bread.

An employee of the Kiene bakery holds a Bierretter bread in her hands. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

Through these forward-thinking approaches, the brewery has at least been earning back the cost of producing the beer. Other breweries across the country have come up with similar ideas and you can now be on the lookout for Altbierbrot (old beer bread) in Düsseldorf. 

Kumpf is pleased with the success of his campaign, but he stresses that his brewery cannot survive without restaurant sales and private events. “The support from the state has been a real lifeline, no doubt, but the crisis has simply lasted too long”. 

A further problem of the pandemic is that breweries have no money to invest in their futures. The Viechtach community brewery in the Bavarian forest had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to counter this, from which they raised €500,000 within a week, according to the brewery’s manager Markus Grüsser. 

Grüsser, who comes from the Cologne area, took over the brewery at the end of 2018, at which time the business had an investment backlog of fifteen years.

He now wants to use the money raised by crowdfunding to invest in new refrigeration systems and increase the brewery’s social media presence. 

According to the German Association of Brewers, effective media campaigns like those in Nuremberg and Viechtach can help to alleviate the damage for their own individual brewing companies, but are not representative of the situation facing the majority of breweries. 

“What we are talking about here are a few exceptions”, says Holger Eichele, the association’s spokesperson.

The union’s surveys have shown that the future of one in four brewing companies in Germany is under threat. 

READ ALSO: ‘We thought we’d be closed for a month’: How Berlin’s bars are surviving the coronavirus shutdown

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