Germans, famously, coin neologisms when a crisis hits or the culture reels in a new direction. Take die bad bank (toxic lender), kreditklemme (credit crunch), or twittern (sending a message via Twitter). Because Germany's brewing industry has fallen on hard times, especially since the mid-1990s, you'll now hear brauereisterben (literally, "brewery death") muttered across the land as well. That may sound a little ridiculous, but in a country practically synonymous with beer and brewing—buxom servers in dirndls and overflowing steins, the biergarten echoing with song—the possibility of a downturn is a major buzz kill.
The facts are stark: According to German federal statistics released in late January, German brewing has dropped to less than 100 million hectoliters of production for the first time since reunification in 1990. (That's less than half of the United States' annual output.) The same study revealed that consumption dropped almost 3 percent last year alone, to 101.8 liters per person per year, and that it's down about one-third overall since the previous generation. The number of breweries in the country has also dropped—by about half over the last few decades to around 1,300. (There are nearly 1,700 up and running in the U.S.) The vaunted Weihenstephan brew master degree program in Munich adopts a dour tone on its student prospectus, saying the majority of graduates don't actually become brew masters but instead head for jobs in mechanical engineering and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
Further evidence of brauereisterben is depressingly easy to pile on. Berlin, which sustained some 700 breweries in the early 19th century, now counts only about a dozen firms. Amid the ruins, highly trained German brew masters are giving up and heading to the United States—even to sleepy Covington, La., where Henryk Orlik, a graduate of Munich's prestigious Doemens Academy, settled down in 1994. "I came here for the great American craft beer industry," the Heiner Brau founder told me recently over samples of freshly brewed pilsner in his charming little brew house just off the town square. Adding insult to injury, craft brewers in the United States have largely taken over the prestigious international-brewing awards circuit. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., founded 30 years ago by home brewer Ken Grossman in Chico, Calif., took top honors in a hotly contested 2010 World Beer Cup category, besting 68 other brands, many of them German. The bracket? German-style pilsner.
These days, Germany's celebrated brewing towns and atmospheric old taverns can feel like retirement homes. Visitors to the south of Germany today (where more than half the nation's breweries are located) find few of the ardent young beer lovers that crowd craft watering holes in Copenhagen; Brussels; London; New York; Portland, Ore.; and even Rome. And while it's true that last fall's 200th Oktoberfest was bigger than ever, using Oktoberfest to measure the health of German beer culture is like using Disney World admissions to measure the health of American cinema. Once a decorous wedding pageant, Oktoberfest is a hot mess, with cheesy carnival rides and hordes chugging cheap lager as if it were Hawaiian Punch. Paris Hilton even showed up for the anniversary celebration.
It's also true that there are still a lot of small German breweries that produce great beers worth seeking out, from juicy, clovey Bavarian hefeweizen and bready ungespundet-hefetrüb (unfiltered lager) to the malty altbiers of Dusseldorf and the grassy, refreshing kölsch beers of Cologne. In Bamberg (north of Munich, in the area historically known as Franconia), distinctive smoked beers called rauchbier predominate, and the most steadfast craft-beer lovers will make the pilgrimage to taste these specialties. In 1997 I spent three happy months in Germany studying ancient brewing techniques on a Thomas. J. Watson Fellowship and came away deeply impressed by the idyllic places where traditional brewing has survived the 20th century's punishing economies of scale. But some of the same breweries I visited that year have already closed, and I can scarcely imagine the variety that would have existed had I visited just half a century earlier.
German beer-industry spokesmen are quick to blame the downturn on the nation's declining birth rate and aging population—if there were more teenagers and twentysomethings, the logic goes, there'd be more beer drinking. But the fact is that bored young Germans are abandoning the entire alcoholic genre of beer itself. They're flocking to mixed and energy drinks like Bacardi's Rigo and Austria's amped-up export, Red Bull, whose sales surged 18 percent in Germany during 2009.
A more likely culprit for the brauereisterben is the country's very definition of beer. Germany's brewing industry has, for nearly 500 years now, marched under the banner of the Reinheitsgebot (literally, "purity commandment"). A law enacted in 1516 to control prices and shield the baking industry from supply shortages by excluding rye and wheat from brewing, the Reinheitsgebot stipulated that beer must contain only malted barley, hops, and water (wheat and yeast were written in later). The decree—often described as a the world's first consumer protection legislation—dried up the ancient pre-hops tradition of Gruitbier, which likely included yarrow, bog myrtle, juniper, rosemary, mugwort, and woodruff—all perfectly useful bittering and flavoring plants. It also pulled the plug on Köttbusser, an ancient brew made with oats, honey, and molasses. While the Reinheitsgebot was actually overturned in 1987 as an impediment to European free trade, many German companies adhere to it for marketing purposes, especially in Bavaria. When it comes to beer for local consumers (exports are mostly brewed without the strictures), it's still the de facto law of the land.
Initially, the Reinheitsgebot improved the state of German (and, by extension, worldwide) beer quality immensely and helped make Germany's brewers world famous for quality. No one wants to go back to the Dark Ages when beer was murky, dark, sour, and smoky, sometimes fattened up with roots, bone, ash, or squawking fowl.