Dornbusch’s understanding of the US and German beer cultures is perhaps his greatest asset. He can identify the culture shock that his German clients’ beer will encounter. For instance, “what do Americans look for?” he asks about beer labels. “The brand and the style.”
This is something that German brewers just can’t seem to understand. The vast majority of German beer has been brewed and sold locally for generations. German beer drinkers grow up knowing what kind of beer the local brewery makes and the brand or brewery’s label on the bottle is all that they need to see to know what’s inside. But the beers’ reputations rarely extend beyond the local region. This truth does not occur to German brewers who have successfully sold their beer this way for longer than Germany has even existed as a country. They don’t really see any reason to change now.
But change they must to survive. Beer drinking in Germany is on the decline, Dornbusch says. When asked if this isn’t a cyclical trend that will soon correct itself he answers emphatically. “It’s not cyclical. It’s been a thirty year trend. It hasn’t been a cycle.”
Per capita, beer consumption has fallen by about 20 liters over the past decade and it continues to fall as the younger generations turn their back on their parents’ and grandparents’ drink. Thirty-five years ago 3500 breweries were operating in Germany; today only 1250 remain. The future seems grim for German brewers unless they can break into some foreign markets, a prospect that most of them have not historically had to worry about.
This lack of exporting experience is keenly reflected on the shelves of US beer stores where German beer is greatly underrepresented. As craft beer and imports from Mexico, Holland and Canada gobble up more and more valuable shelf space, German beer has barely budged in a market that by all accounts is clearly turning toward more flavorful beers. As the country and society universally recognized for their brewing, it is a shame that imported German beers are in such a state in the US beer market.
But if Dornbusch has anything to say about it this will soon change. Not only is he working to bring more German beer to the US market, but he also predicts that German beer styles will be the next step for US craft brewers. With a few exceptions, the styles of the craft beer movement in the US have followed an eastward trail across Europe. The early craft brewed beers were mostly English style ales. This is understandable as these beers are full of flavor and were a great foil to the watery beer that dominates the US market. These beers are also cheaper and easier to make, handy for an industry that was inventing its own way. Later, the Belgian beer wave hit. Belgian beers are less susceptible to damage during shipping and beer drinkers loved them. The styles from Belgium gained a mystique. Craft brewers answered the growing demand and now some of the best Belgian-style beer in the world is brewed in the US.
“And just as the Belgian wave is now flattening out I think the next wave is going to be German beer.” Dornbusch says, “The German wave has to happen because it’s the only one left that is potentially big. I am sure either the consumer is going to pull that wave along or the craft brewers will, having reached the point where they say ‘What can we do next?’”
It may not happen in the next month but look for more German beer styles on US store shelves. Whether it is imported or brewed by craft brewers, if it’s a quality beer chances are Horst Dornbusch had something to do with putting it there. Prost!