German Beer: Could America Provide the Answer to Germany's Problem?

Der Spiegel’s 2005 prediction of the Brauereisterben, the death of German brewing, is increasingly becoming a reality. Demographic shifts have already all but wiped out the lederhosen, and the next victim may well be domestic beer.

Since even before the modern state was created, Bavarian brewers (in Germany's southern-most state of Baveria and home to Munich's Oktoberfest) have been setting the global beer standard. In 1516 Bavaria adopted the Reinheitsgebot, a law regulating its brewers, ensuring that only water, barley, and hops could be used as ingredients. In a sign of things to come, this Bavarian beer law, once the oldest food regulation law in the world, was repealed in 1987 and replaced with the much more inclusive 1993 Provisional German Beer Law.

In fact, beer consumption is now the lowest it has been since the reunification of West and East Germany in the early 1990s. According to the German Brewers Federation, consumption peaked at 151 liters per person in 1976, and has since dropped to 106.6 liters. Some blame lifestyle changes, with wines becoming increasingly popular and Germans becoming more health conscious, and the impact of the recession, but it seems as though the real culprit is demographics.

As with many other Western countries, longer lives and fewer births are causing an aging German society. A 2010 forecast predicted that by 2060 Germany’s population will have shrunk by 21% and that one third of Germans will be over 65.

German brewers who have been around since the 14th century are struggling to adapt to this demographic pressure and are beginning to look across the Atlantic for inspiration. Although known as the home of “beer that tastes like water,” the United States has seen an explosion in its micro-brewing subculture. America has evolved into the home of uncommon brewers: ranging from lemonade beer, to beers aged in bourbon barrels, bacon beer, and the 2010 Great American Beer Festival gold medal winner, Short’s Brewing Company’s Key Lime Pie beer.

Not all Germans, however, are impressed by America’s beer diversity. A German Oktoberfest visitor was quick to point out that “We try new things, but there’s nothing better than the old … This beer has tasted the same for hundreds of years.” Despite what the BeerFest movie may suggest, even if Germans are now drinking only 106.6 liters per person annually, this still puts German drinkers at a consumption point roughly a third higher than Americans. Further, German beer exports have been growing prodigiously in the same years as domestic consumption has dropped.

With the 203rd Oktoberfest this coming September set to be even bigger than the last, it is doubtful that American brewers will be conquering German taps anytime soon. But with Germany struggling to maintain its beer consumption, German brewers will have to find a way to combat the demographic pressure of an aging population.