Not posh or Beck's

Crude and unsophisticated, Oettinger beer is being downed by Germans like no other brew - just don't expect to see it served at a party. Rose George savours the story of an unlikely bestseller
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Indy Lifestyle Online

For those of us brave enough to have taken German as a foreign language option at school, the linguistic difficulties caused by words like Verantwortungszuständigkeiten were usually compensated by the prospect of a language exchange to Germany, because in Germany were beer halls and in beer halls was German beer. Frothing over the glass, hauled over to the table by fragrant maidens, huge in volume and cheapish in price, it was beer with exotic ethnic spectacle thrown in.

For those of us brave enough to have taken German as a foreign language option at school, the linguistic difficulties caused by words like Verantwortungszuständigkeiten were usually compensated by the prospect of a language exchange to Germany, because in Germany were beer halls and in beer halls was German beer. Frothing over the glass, hauled over to the table by fragrant maidens, huge in volume and cheapish in price, it was beer with exotic ethnic spectacle thrown in.

But not for much longer, if recent rumblings about the worsening relationship of Germans with their beer are true. There's even a word for it - Brauereinsterben, or the death of brewing. Last month, two sizeable breweries closed down in Berlin and Dortmund, with 450 jobs lost. According to the Federal Office of Statistics, Germans are drinking only 113.9 litres of beer a year, whereas they drank 132.7 in 1994. German beer consumption is declining by between one and two per cent a year, according to a 2003 report by Credit Suisse First Boston. It may still be the third-largest beer market in the world (after the US and China), but trouble, nonetheless, is definitely afoot.

Except for Oetti. Recently declared Germany's top-selling beer, the brand that few non-Germans have heard of has stormed up the beer charts. In a country where beer loyalties are often regionally-based - Beck's is Bremen, for example, and Löwenbräu is Munich - Oettinger has demolished conventional beer wisdom. From its base in the small Bavarian town of Oettinger, where an old brewing family started making beer in the Middle Ages, Oettinger has assaulted the German beer market with unconventional marketing. It has no advertising, no middle-man (it sells directly to supermarkets), but it shifts 6 million bottles a day.

What's the secret? "It's cheap!" says Niklas Wittowski, a student in Berlin who's something of a beer expert. A crate of 20 Oettinger half-litre bottles currently sells in one Berlin supermarket for €5.79. That's 5p per bottle. "There's another cheap brand called Sternburg," says Wittowski, "It's known as the punk beer because you see punks drinking it. Oetti's cheap, but it's got a more appealing bottle. It's not punkisch. I drank loads of it when I was younger, because at that point all you want is something cheap that can get you hammered." But Oetti's price now attracts more than drunken youth: Germany's faltering economic crisis - five million unemployed, a capital city that's bankrupt - makes it financially alluring for those who might have picked more expensive beers a few years ago.

Oetti's CEO, Gunther Kollmar, whose family bought the brewery in the 1950s, concurs. "You might call our beer socially acceptable," he said recently, but he bridles, nonetheless, at calling it "cheap" despite it being half the price of competitors like Krombacher. "It's not cheap," he told one Bavarian paper. "There's no such thing as a cheap beer.

Dominik Hust, who runs one of the several dozen Oetti fanclubs in Germany, is equally outraged. "There are still people who don't even know Oettinger," he says, "And there are, even worse, people who insult it as a cheap beer for cheap people. They also claim that Oettinger can't keep up with the other big German brands, which is definitely not true."

Oettinger's 24-hour production line and six-million-bottles-a-day production, combined with aggressive placement in 10,000 supermarkets, petrol stations and "drink markets", belies its homely, family-run aura. It was also inadvertently helped by the German government when it imposed an obligatory deposit on cans in 2003, but without any provision for recycling the cans that were returned. Many supermarkets stopped stocking cans altogether, and - though some cans still exist - that left a very big hole for a relatively pleasant cheap beer like Oetti to fill. In the last decade, production has increased four-fold, and employees have doubled to 1,200.

Perhaps that's because the big German breweries are an increasingly vulnerable target. International mega-firms like Interbrew have started buying German breweries, somewhat of a shock for a country that - compared to the lands of Carlsberg or Stella - hasn't bothered exporting many of its products, and whose beer purity law has been a source of national pride for eight centuries. But in 2001 Interbrew bought Beck's, and the year after that Heineken bought Karlsberg, and things changed for good.

Oettinger is a rare success story in a gloomy beer landscape. Birte Kieppe, a spokesperson for the German Brewers Association, refers pointedly to "the so-called 'death of breweries'" and says the number of breweries in Germany has stayed almost constant: 1,275 this year and 1,274 in 2003. "But I'd be very careful with that number," says one industry analyst. "If you break it down, 800 of those breweries are selling 5,000 hectolitres or less per annum. Some of them are no more than hobbies, and they don't contribute much to the industry profit-pool." Micro-breweries are pumping up the numbers, and the bigger ones - Radeberger, Warsteiner, Beck's - are faced with falling consumption of a product that is less trendy than the latest alcopop, and the unavoidable demographic truth that Germany's beer-drinking population is ageing fast and drinking less, and its young people, like Britons, are turning to alcopops and wine.

In the UK, 82 per cent of people say they don't think beer goes with food and 81 per cent think beer can't be part of a healthy diet. Germans are coming to the same conclusion. Beer bellies are no longer popular, no matter how often brewers point to the purity of their products, or the provisions of the Reinheitsgebot purity law from 1516, which - until this February, when a small brewer won the right to add syrup - obliged Germans to brew beer that contained only grain, water, hops and yeast.

The industry is trying to fight back, with many major brands launching "Gold" versions of beer, lighter and easier and probably aimed at women. "A friend went to one brewery in north Germany," says Wittowski, "and they said they had launched a gold version, but they didn't want to. The market forced them to." He likes the gold beer well enough, "though my friends tell me to stop drinking women's beer." And he'll even buy Oetti, now and again, social snobbery permitting. "I wouldn't take it to a party where I didn't know anyone though. That wouldn't look good at all."

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