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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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BEER

Why German Beer Day is celebrated on April 23rd

We wouldn’t blame you if you were in need of a drink this year more than others. Lucky for us, we live in a country where the brewing and drinking of beer not only has a proud tradition, but is engrained in its cultural identity.

Why German Beer Day is celebrated on April 23rd
Photo from an online campaign in Baden-Württemberg for handcrafted beers on sale for German Beer Day. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Weissbrod

April 23rd 1516 was the day that the ‘Reinheitsgebot’, or Purity Law, was adopted across the entirety of the Duchy of Bavaria.

Originally formulated in Munich, the law was designed primarily as a means to regulate the market. Specifying that beer could only contain water, barley and hops, the law ensured that brewers couldn’t buy up available wheat, which would cause bread prices to rise.

READ ALSO: German brewers cheer 500th birthday of beer purity law

It also meant that beers from surrounding duchies and free cities couldn’t sell their beer in Bavaria, protecting brewers from outside competition. 

While not a food safety measure, the Reinheitsgebot could have had a beneficial effect on the quality of beer. It made the brewing of beer with other, possibly poisonous ingredients more difficult.

In addition to the discovery of the role of yeast in brewing, various gruesome ingredients such as the fingernails of hanged men, or a noose could be added to start the fermentation process – after the introduction of the law, brewers were far more careful with what they added to their beer.

Through centuries of upheaval, war, pestilence and famine, the Reinheitsgebot endured and was adopted first by the German Empire, after Bavaria joined, then the Weimar Republic after the First World War.

It still exists as part of federal legislation today, albeit only applying domestically, adding yeast as a permissible ingredient and not outright banning the sale of beer with other ingredients, but forbidding its sale as ‘beer’. 

Credit: Michael Stuchbery

Despite pushback from younger brewers, the Reinheitsgebot remains an important marketing symbol across Germany, a mark of quality that also stands for tradition and the cultural values embodied in the brewing process – exactness and patience.

It is so treasured that the anniversary its adoption was the natural choice for the day to celebrate one of the country’s most prized exports. 

This weekend, brewers across the country will celebrate German Beer Day, despite the pandemic. Many smaller breweries are offering online tastings, and beer specialist stores are running promotions showcasing local brews.

So, if you’re in the mood for a drink this weekend, why not seek out a local beer that abides by the Reinheitsgebot, and find out why it remains such a potent symbol of German pride and culture. Prost! 

READ ALSO: Berlin craft scene’s challenge to ancient beer purity law

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