German Eyes are on US

by: Todd on 10-04-2003
On October 3, 2003, I had the pleasure to meet up with a busload of about 30 German brewers during what was called "Beer Experience 2003," a 14-day tour of the US. The group was mostly comprised of members of the Bundesverband mittelständischer Privatbrauereien, the Association of Small and Independent Breweries in Germany, joined by a few Belgian and Austrian colleagues.

The group was led by Elva Kowald, of Cerevisia Communications and wife of Horst Dornbusch (the German food and beverage writer), and Conrad Seidl, the Austrian beer writer (aka Bierpapst or Beer Pope), who handled translations. We met them at Anam Cara in Brookline, where co-owner David Ciccolo and I played host.

OK, so what was a busload of Germans doing in Brookline?

They were on a mission to gather information on how American microbreweries, bars and distributors operate, with the hope that they could return home and apply these tactics to gain an edge within their markets. Why? Many German breweries are under serious threat of closing. They simply can't compete against the larger national breweries, importers and mega-corporations like Intebrew, who are taking over more and more each day. We're talking microbreweries, from 400-year-old taverns to mid-sized regional breweries, which account for about only 2 percent of the total volume of beer produced in Germany each year.

The group seemed extremely curious as to how a bar could keep so many beers on draft, pricing, point-of-purchase materials, tap handles and our predictions for the craft-brewing scene in America. Most seemed surprised at our knowledge, or rather awareness, of beers from their regions. They were also very intrigued with BeerAdvocate.com (yeah, I wore my colors) and were amazed that such a thing existed. Hopefully, we'll see an influx in German membership on their return home!

Change

The overall theme David and I laid on them was "change." In my opinion, the key to the craft brewing industry in the US has been its constant change, which is something that many European brewers know little about, as they are enfolded by many years of strict tradition, which has proven a double-edged sword for them. Many hardcore beer lovers enjoy these breweries for their tradition, yet their upholding of these traditions allows them no room for change - thus they suffer as the world around them changes to meet new consumer demands. I just hope that this came across in the translation from Conrad, as I think that some change is important to their survival. Without it, German consumers, especially young consumers, will turn toward the first mass-marketed products that grab their attention, as they already are doing.

What did they think of American beers?

They seemed to really enjoy the big beers, such as Stone's Arrogant Bastard, Bear Republic's Hop Rod Rye and Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA. Cambridge Brewing Co.'s Great Pumpkin Ale also piqued their interest, but, oddly enough, the most popular beer sampled was Lindeman's Framboise, a Belgian fruit lambic. Maybe it's because it's so damn expensive ($6-$11 for a 10oz glass), or maybe they'd never come across it before, as the German import market of specialty beers is not a big one.

What did I get out of this?

The fact that I need to learn German, and that beer is indeed a global social lubricant that needs more advocacy focus on the small-guy front. And I wish I'd learned about their trip ages ago and not hours before they arrived. I would've liked to have tagged along for their entire US tour, as there's a much bigger story to be told to the brewing world, one that I could only touch upon in a two-hour visit (not to mention the language barrier).

Prior to their visit to Anam Cara, they had been to Merrimack Valley Distributors, Buzzards Bay Brewing, Harpoon Brewery, Redbones and Sam Adams. Later, I learned that they had also been to Victory Brewing Co. in PA on Sept 28.

Next on their tour: Las Vegas for some R & R, then Chicago and San Francisco. I wish them well and best of luck in an ever-changing and tough industry. And thanks for the round of Ein Prosit, guys!

Respect beer.
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