Contrary to popular cliche, beer in Germany doesn't come out of the kitchen faucet. In fact, it's going into fewer glasses these days. Germans are drinking less of the sudsy stuff and brewers are getting alarmed.
There's a bit less of this going on these days
For foreigners, the old stereotype about a German social event has a bunch of rather portly Germans in lederhosen sitting in a beer garden listening to oompah music, each with a stein full of frothy beer in front of him.
Edmund Stoiber, chairman of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU)
Well, few people drink out of the steins anymore -- except for tourists, and the occasional politician (photo), at Oktoberfest -- and more frequently these days where Germans are relaxing, you're almost as likely to see a glass of wine or a cocktail sitting in front of them instead of a beer.
That's the case at Fluido, one of Berlin's hip bars in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, where there are a few glasses of red wine scattered about and a lot of brightly colored cocktails.
"I think beer is just so boring and there's such a variety when it comes to cocktails," said Sousa, a bartender. "Beer always tastes the same. To quench your thirst in the beer garden in the summer, it's nice enough. But for all the time, I don't know."
Those are words that keep the beer industry up at night. Beer consumption has been falling steadily in Germany for almost a decade now. In fact, between 1994 and 2003, consumption shrank by more than 13 percent, according to brewers. The trend doesn't look like it's going to turn around dramatically anytime soon, although the fall has levelled off somewhat over the past year.
Mineral water now beats beer on the popularity scale, part of which can be attributed to a new health consciousness among Germans, especially younger ones. They appear to prefer throwing back Gatorade at the gym instead of guzzling pints at the corner bar. Slim and trim is in, a beer gut is not.
With a new concept Munich beer garden owners try to reach younger people. Our picture shows a young couple drinking a Caipirinha-cocktail out of a 1-litre jug.
"Beer isn't considered cool anymore," said Andreas, who had just ordered a mojito cocktail at Fluido. "People just don't want to be compared with daddy, who at 50 is carrying around a big beer belly with him."
It's not that beer companies aren't trying to change a fusty image they feel is unfair. Beer companies are looking for a facelift, putting their products in new bottles with new names, eye-catching labels and new advertising strategies.
"Beer in itself is not fattening," insisted Birte Kleppien, spokeswoman of the German Brewers' Association. "It depends on what you eat with it."
According to her, demographic shifts in Germany are hurting beer's fortunes here. The group of beer drinkers that her industry has its eye on, those between 35 and 45, is shrinking. The fastest-growing age group in Germany, the elderly, do not drink as much.
"And young people like change, like to try something new and do not stick to one brand, one product, like their fathers," she said.
Ettikett einer Flasche der Berliner Brauerei Berliner Kindl. 2005
The result has been a rash of brewery closings. The Oetker Group, one of Germany's biggest beer producers, announced it was closing it Berliner Kindl brewery in Berlin, after 133 years.
The Brinkhoff Brewery in the western Germany city of Dortmund faces the same fate. According to Stefan Lepin of the Raderberger Group, a subsidiary of the Oetker Group, with almost 1,300 breweries, Germany's beer market is simply tapped out. He said the unwelcome news about brewery closings will likely become more common in the future.
"We have an estimated 30 to 40 percent overcapacity," he said. "Consumption will drop again in the future and we think the consolidation of the market will go ahead."
While many people were upset at the closing of a traditional Berlin brewery, not to mention at the loss of jobs, some of the younger in-crowd at Fluido seem less concerned. They are enjoying the broader palette of drink options available these days in Germany. But it wasn't always that way.
"Maybe the Germans have simply become a little more cultivated when it comes to drinking," said Michaela, who was having a cosmopolitan with her boyfriend at the bar. "People put more value on drinking a nice wine or a cocktail, because now we can. I think 20 years ago we didn't have these types of cocktail bars."
But the industry's not going down without a fight. They are determined to lure those customers back who are always in search of the new, the latest, the most unusual. The brewers' association recently unveiled a new line of beer cocktails.
Beer daiquiri, anyone?