Small but beautiful
Microbrewing in Europe | What do the seafarer Christopher Columbus and former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have in common? Well, put simply, they believed that the New World got it better than Old Europe. For centuries, Europe's intellectuals have envied America for being free from the ancient traditions that are Europe’s heritage and curse. The same could be said for Europe's microbrewers. Striving for greater visibility and acceptance in Europe's highly competitive and declining beer markets, where do they look for inspiration and support? To the United States. Obviously, nothing changes?
You would have thought that organising a beer fair in Munich was a piece of cake. After all, some of Munich's breweries claim to be among the oldest in the world and the town annually hosts what must be the biggest booze-up all around, the Oktoberfest. Actually, organising a beer fair in Munich is like trying to nail custard to the wall. Just ask Frank-Michael Böer. When he launched Braukunst Live (trans. The Art of Brewing Live) last year, a festival devoted exclusively to speciality beers, Germany's beer aficionados gave him the cold shoulder. Only 2,500 of them turned up for the three-day event. Admittedly, 2,500 visitors are quite a crowd if you happen to be the organiser of SMÖF, the beer festival I visited last October in the Swedish sticks (see Brauwelt International 1/2013). But in Munich that's only two out of a hundred inhabitants. No wonder, Braukunst Live 2012 landed Frank in a depression and, as some say, EUR 50,000 in the red. If you are a one-man operation, that's bad. And even worse if you seriously believe that there should be a market out there for beers that positively stick out.
Fortunately, Frank did not give up on the idea and organised another Braukunst Live (8 to10 March 2013) in the Munich Museum of Transport, housed in a former tram depot. Trust Frank not to miss out on what goes on over in the U.S. because the choice of location was, oh so American craft. In keeping with their upmarket image and their growing numbers, American craft brewers, these days, like to hire whole museums for their grand bashes. Still, you can imagine that it was with some trepidation that I went along to check out Frank's festival. With any luck more people would turn up this time, I hoped. Alas, my fears were rekindled when in a side street next to the venue I accidentally stumbled upon four empty beer bottles neatly lined up in the gutter. Oh dear. Would the festival now attract the wrong kind of crowd? With sombre visions of semi-drunken lager louts, full of preparty beer staggering about the aisles, wrecking the exhibits while getting even more plastered on the alcoholorific brews served, I walked on.
Savouring: yes, quantitative quaffing: no
Fortunately, my concerns proved unfounded. Perhaps, the EUR 20 entrance fee (critics called it prohibitively high - I thought it appropriate, not least for political reasons) and the fact that you only got 0.1 litre beer per serve for which you paid (again critics complained that this small volume ran counter to beer being a thirst quencher) had given juiceheads the message that Braukunst Live was not the Oktoberfest 2.0. Thank heavens for that. As to the festival's visitors, they made an interesting object of study in themselves. Yes, testosterone at all ages was in abundance, although younger women could be spotted too. But in all honesty, I have never seen so many nerds with black-rimmed glasses voluntarily rub shoulders with true blood lederhosen guys while expertly balancing long-stemmed beer glasses (courtesy of Rastal and the Italian craft brewers who launched a fashion for this glass) and savouring their contents.
Braukunst Live this year showcased over 80 breweries, most of which came from Bavaria. This was hardly surprising, given that Bavaria alone sports half of Germany's 1,300 or so breweries. However, in actual fact there were more breweries at the festival from outside Germany than from northern Germany. A possible explanation for this is that many German brewers are still too deeply entrenched in their traditions - Europe's beer heritage and curse - that they have not realised that the winds are changing. The German speciality beers at the festival were mostly Reinheitsgebot, although it was not an issue if they were not, often top-fermenting, often high in alcohol and if bottled, almost exclusively in 0.75 litre bottles.
The packaging of choice is not insignificant as German brewers seem to have understood that, if they want to sell their speciality beers and effectively establish a new segment in the market, they can only do so if they agree on a different, ie larger, bottle. In this they seem to have taken their lead from the Italian craft brewers, who have long packaged their beers in champagne-lookalike bottles. The important part of the lesson - that Italian craft brewers also charge champagne-like prices for their beers - seems to have been lost on some German brewers. Selling their beers for about EUR 5 per 0.75 litre bottle - as compared with the usual retail price of upwards EUR 10 - makes you question their business sense, as packaging costs alone for these beers are high. Why they should willingly forego sure profits for potentially higher volumes beggars belief, unless, of course, they seriously believe that consumers won't pay more than the average retail price of beer (about EUR 1.0 per litre) without having their arms twisted. That wholesalers and retailers on the whole have proven reluctant to stock expensive speciality beers may have added to their ill-informed decision. Consider this: There are currently only a handful of beer retail outlets in the whole of Munich that sell a fair selection of speciality beers. Of course, you can buy them over the internet. But that's not the same. As we all know, availability in the traditional channels is the key in creating consumer awareness and by this measure Germany lags other markets by eons.
As could be expected, the Bavarian brewers Hofbräu (Munich) and Schneider (Kelheim) were major sponsors of the do. But so was SABMiller's Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell, which served an unfiltered version of its beer which is usually unavailable. I mention this fact not because SABMiller's rivals Heineken and AB-InBev were conspicuous by their absence, despite brewing speciality beers like Affligem, Leffe and Hoegaarden. I mention this fact because SABMiller's top brass seem to have understood which way beer is heading in several mature beer markets - namely towards pricier craft beers - that they have decided to jump on the bandwagon early on in order not to miss the boat (excuse the mixed metaphors). There is no other feasible explanation as to why SABMiller should sponsor a festival which is still in its infancy. Strangely enough, no one at the festival appeared to object to Pilsner Urquell's presence or even question the beer's adopted positioning as a speciality. I say "strangely enough" because few in Munich seemed to have been aware that there is currently a vicious debate raging between craft brewers and big multinational brewers in the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Sweden over what makes a craft beer a craft beer and who is allowed to use the moniker "craft" for their beers - as opposed to those beers that have only been given the "craft comb-over".
The reason I have devoted so many paragraphs to a review of a comparatively small Munich beer festival is that I always feel compelled to launch into a lengthy explanation whenever the pertinent question is put to me: "Is there a craft beer market in Europe?" The short answer is: "No!" If you need further proof, just bear in mind Frank's toil and trouble in Munich. If I am allowed to answer the question politically - contra Rumsfeld - I usually say: Rather than reviling Europe's beer market as "Old Europe" that has not caught up with the times and gone all the way of the U.S., we should see Europe for what it is: a cluster of highly heterogeneous beer markets, each with its own specifics and peculiarities, which ultimately defy any attempt to apply a set of parameters that have clearly been derived from the U.S. experience.
What follows is my long-winded answer as to why we run into a methodological impasse if we try to describe, let alone measure, something that is nevertheless - and palpably so - happening all over Europe: the rise of microbrewed beer.
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