Non-alcoholic beer has long been on the drinks menu in Germany. But the once ridiculed beverage is becoming increasingly popular. Are Germans sobering up?
My first beer was a bitter experience. This cold drink made from barley did not taste good. The bitter substances made it impossible for me, then 16, to make the Germans' favorite drink my own. So my friends and I mixed it with lemonade and cola. Over the years, the ratio became increasingly in favor of beer, until after a long period of getting used to it, I finally came to accept the pure taste.
Raised in the 1990s, we had never heard of chia seeds, green smoothies or tofu schnitzels. A healthy lifestyle sounded to us like a buzz kill, and fitness a waste of time. During my high school and university years, I can't remember a single non-alcoholic beer being ordered by my friends or myself. I only discovered the bottles with the "alcohol-free" label once at family celebrations when my abstinent uncle was invited.
Since then, the world of beer has continued to change, both in terms of taste and society. Today, non-alcoholic beer is part of the standard beverage list, sometimes there are even several types to choose from, including Pils, Kölsch or wheat. Sitting at a beer garden on a hot summer day, if I don't want the alcohol to go to my head, I can now order a non-alcoholic beer without cynical comments from my friends. This trend is also confirmed by sales figures: According to the German Brewers' Association, sales of non-alcoholic varieties in May this year were 6.5% up on the same period last year.
What's going on with the Germans?
The alcoholic beverage belongs to the triad of prejudices with which I, as a German, have been greeted on my travels so far: Rammstein, bratwurst, beer! The oldest beer recipe found so far comes from China; Mexico is the champion beer exporter — but Germany has the Purity Law. This food law from 1516 makes us world-famous as a beer nation and states that the drink can only be brewed from four ingredients: water, hops, malt and yeast.
This art of brewing consists of a fermentation process that inevitably produces alcohol. So how is a non-alcoholic beer supposed to be a real beer?
German master brewers have taken care of this for years and developed two elaborate processes: Either the ethanol is subsequently removed, or the brewing process is terminated at the moment when the permitted mini-alcohol content of 0.5% is reached. Because even in alcohol-free beer there is still residual alcohol. However, in such small quantities that, according to Brauer-Bund, they have "no physiological effects on the human body whatsoever."
While in the beginning there were only a handful of breweries offering a non-alcoholic variety, today most of them are developing their version of it. In addition to the increasing sales figures for beer without alcohol, there is another figure that is causing breweries to rethink: Germans drink less beer every year. Whereas in 1970, according to the online portal Statista, beer consumption per capita was still around 140 liters per year, it fell to just under 100 liters in 2018. "When it comes to beer, non-alcoholic beverages are the only kind that have been on top of the market every year for 10 years," explains Marcus Strobl of the Nielsen market research institute.
"Non-alcoholic beer is increasingly becoming a soft drink. Today it's a bit like a bitter substitute for soda or spritzer. The occasions for drinking non-alcoholic beer have been constantly expanded," says Strobl. "In Germany, no one has to bypass beer if they want to consciously avoid alcohol or remain alcohol-free."
And in Berlin?
On a warm summer evening in Berlin, I sit in the cocktail bar next door. All tables are full, the menu offers a variety of mocktails, the alcohol-free version of classics such as Pina Colada, Caipirinha or Bloody Mary. I ask the bartender if he sells more of them and he shakes his head. "But people generally drink less," he says.
It's actually astounding when I consider how natural and socially acceptable alcohol — undisputedly harmful to health — still is. I think of other trends that move the focus away from alcohol — sober party events like "Ecstatic Dance" or the "Sober Sensation Party" are well received.
Certainly there are exceptions in the party capital. And yet they may also stand for the current generation, which will determine future sales figures: According to an alcohol survey conducted by the Federal Center for Health Education, only 8.7% of young people up to the age of 17 stated that they drink alcohol once a week. In 2004, this figure was 21.2%.