In Germany, it's no more deutsches Bier uber alles

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 30, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

BERLIN -- If the legendary coachmen of Vilshofen had visited the Happy End cafe here, they would never have cracked each other's skulls.

The coachmen, according to a traditional Bavarian legend, had been arguing vehemently over an age-old question: Which did God create first: thirst or beer?

The Happy End's answer to the riddle would be enough to make the coachmen roll over in their graves. Here at least, the answer is obviously thirst, because the obvious answer to thirst is no longer beer.

There's no doubt that Germans are still a thirsty lot -- 182 gallons of beverages per capita were consumed in 1991 -- but they are turning more to sparkling wines, mineral water, fruit juices, coffee and milk rather than a hearty Pils when their throats dry up.

And when locals do pick up a beer stein, it's more likely than ever to be full of light beer, non-alcoholic beer or, horror of horrors for Germany's 1,315 breweries, foreign beer rather than a real "deutsches Bier."

"Well, why not? I'm interested in new things. Foreign beer is a new taste. Not always the same old thing," says Martin Georgi, a Happy End patron found drinking a Mexican Corona beer with a lime slice stylishly stuck in the bottleneck.

Corona, like most successful imports, has turned the tables on German beers by charging $2.50 a bottle over the counter and claiming the role of the expensive, high-quality import. Top German beers, which only cost about 75 cents a bottle, are cast as the boring "prolo," or proletarian drink of choice.

The same goes for low- or no-alcohol beers, whose ads focus on consumers between 18 and 35.

Gone are the days when drinkers were portrayed as cheerful chubbies. Now it's young, athletic ladder-climbers who drive their vintage Porsches to a pub and meet vibrant, successful women. Even the boys order light beer, because as the slogan puts it: "Strong guys drink light beer."

Despite these changes, most traditional brewers are sure to survive because 1,100 of them are located in Bavaria and serve only one or two villages. Few think that Miller or some yuppie-lite will make inroads in those staunchly loyal communities, says Brigitte Hensela of the German Brewers Association.

Mrs. Hensela says foreign beers constitute about 5 percent of the German market. But she concedes that this does not include highly popular brews like Irish Guinness, Czechoslovakian Budweiser (which is nothing like the St. Louis version) or Pilsener Urquell, all of which now brew in Germany but which the association does not include in its import statistics.

Altogether, foreign beers are believed to hold 15 percent to 20 percent of the market. A decade ago most were regarded as little more than novelties.

And now that foreign beers do not have to meet Germany's medieval "purity order," which commanded that beer could contain only water, malt, hops and yeast, big overseas brewers, like Heineken and Anheuser-Busch, are expected to challenge top German brewers, such as Warsteiner, Jever, Beck's and Bitburger.

More immediate is the challenge of other beverages. Beer-drinking reached its glory days in 1976, when per capita beer consumption stood at 40 gallons a year. Individually it would actually have been more, since the per capita figures include every man, woman and child in what was then West Germany. That was a four-fold increase over the postwar poverty of 1950.

"Those heroic men drank hard to win glory for Germany as the leading beer-drinking nation and sacrificed the health of their well-soaked livers in the process," laments Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Now, however, only 32 gallons are consumed a year, public drunkenness is frowned upon and the Stammtisch -- the table for pub regulars -- viewed as an anachronism reserved for men with triangular beards.

In East Germany, the 0.0 legal blood-alcohol level for drivers can really cramp a guzzler's elbow.

"Our customers come to talk and have fun. Few people get really smashed. It's uncouth," says the Happy End's manager, Stephan Petersen.

For real beer lovers, it's all a long way from the days when the mythic hero Wotan spat into the beer mash to help it ferment.

It even seems to have undone the common folk's maxim:

"Beer without alcohol

Is like a sausage without fat:

* No good, and that's that."

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