Sun, Aug 05, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Germans losing their taste for beer

HEAVENLY BEVERAGE A staple for over 500 years, Germans now prefer other forms of alcohol, causing brew consumption to fall 20 percent in the last 20 years

By Erik Kirschbaum  /  REUTERS , BERLIN

A beer maiden carries full mugs during the opening of Oktoberfest in Munich last year. Despite the popularity of the annual festival, beer consumption in Germany has fallen sharply in recent years, largely because young Germans are drinking far less of the country's national beverage.

PHOTO: REUTERS

The German passion for beer has gone flat.

The notion that Germans have an insatiable thirst for beer and guzzle their world famous beverage with breakfast, lunch and dinner may linger as a cliche, but breweries know the depressing truth: beer consumption is falling -- and at a frightening rate.

Down by nearly 20 percent over the last two decades, beer drinking fell another two percent in the 2001 first quarter and there is no end in sight for the long and steady slide. Output and turnover are also dropping and roughly half the country's 1,270 breweries are believed to be unprofitable.

"The market is facing radical change," said Dieter Ammer, chairman of Beck GmbH & Co, the country's top exporter, that was recently put up for sale.

Beer may still be among the most important drinks in Germany, with some using the beverage for as much as half of their daily intake of fluids.

It is neither uncommon, illegal or even frowned upon for workers to sip ales during mid-morning breaks or at lunch. Winning soccer teams traditionally douse each other in beer and celebrate their victories with huge foaming mugs. Vending machines often have beer and you can even order a plastic cup of it at fast-food restaurants.

But despite the easy availability, per-capita consumption has dropped to 125 liters from a peak above 156 liters in the 1980s, sending the former world champions in Germany to third place behind the Czech Republic -- at 150 liters -- and Ireland.

Brewers attribute the beer drinking slump to several factors, including stiffer drink-driving rules, increased competition from wine and non-alcoholic beverages, a new-found health consciousness and the fact that Germany is a mature market with a stagnant population. Most worrying for the beer makers is a strong shift away from beer by younger Germans who consider it a rather stuffy and old-fashioned drink.

"The wind is blowing against us," said Ammer, Beck's chairman, who is also head of the German brewers' association. "And it looks like the trend will continue."

Ammer blames German political leaders in particular for steps that he said hurt the image of the national drink. He blasted the recent decision to lower the legal drink-driving level. The blood-alcohol limit was cut to 0.5 percent from 0.8 percent, a move that especially hurt taverns in rural regions.

Out with the old ...

"There has been an hysterical campaign against alcohol," he said. But Ammer also acknowledges beer is no longer the drink of choice for young Germans, whose abstemiousness is causing problems for hundreds of struggling small breweries. "The young people prefer exotic beverages and anything that is new."

The brew of water, hops, yeast and malt has been around for more than 3,000 years. In 1516 the German Beer Purity Law that decreed nothing but natural ingredients could be added made German beer a standard others tried to imitate.

Brewed by monasteries in the Middle Ages, beer was considered an important, healthy and necessary beverage. In the 16th century people in Hamburg drank an average of about 800 liters each year, more than two liters daily. That tradition no longer seems to carry as much weight. The younger generations that have cast off other baggage from the country's turbulent and ignominious past are also happy to part ways with their boozy heritage.

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