Beck’s Back to Brewing Beer

Starting in March, 2015 AB InBev, the world’s largest beer concern, is set to go all in adding Beck’s Pale Ale, Amber Lager and 1873 Pils to the simmering primordial soup that is Germany’s burgeoning craft beer market. Changes are on the way for the premium beer market, and as always this means that the line between blessing and curse is razor thin. Pale ale is the new gin. MIXOLOGY publisher Helmut Adam provides an analysis here.

The Beck’s announcement of its entry onto the craft beer market has truly shaken things up in the German beer industry. Here at MIXOLOGY ONLINE our author Peter Eichhorn already predicted that 2015 would be the breakthrough year for craft beer, or in somewhat more conservative terms, beer “specialties”.

Although German media has been beating the craft drum for two years now, there’s no reflection of this as yet in terms of quality and above all in market availability. Now that Beck’s is officially making a grand entrance onto the market with no less than three pricier specialty beers, even the skeptics have to admit that this “craft thing” is more than just a hype or a passing phase after all.

Beck’s brewers finally allowed to brew again

The heading for this article has been gathering dust in our editorial desk for years. For a long time we viewed Beck’s as the prime symbol of everything that’s wrong with the German brewing industry. Instead of investing in new, better beers the major brewers focused instead on things like optimized raw materials acquisition and more efficient production processes, all the while dumping sugar, juice and artificial flavorings into their beer. The way German brewers watered their traditional brands down into beer alcopops must’ve brought tears to the eyes of every beer purist.

After all, what does a sticky beer/soda pop/energy drink concoction like Beck’s Level 7 have to do with a once proud brand known not so long ago for celebrating its traditional Hanseatic roots by advertising with a green-sailed clipper cutting the high seas? At MIXOLOGY we slammed this kind of “innovation” until it simply got too boring.

Of course the brewers at Beck’s, or better said the brewers at AB InBev, never quit brewing beer. And aside from the day-to-day mass production of the core brand, they’re certain now and then to have created the occasional experimental brew. But the specialty potions they cooked up in their pilot breweries never saw the light of day.

According to Beck’s, its beers are currently brewed at 15 breweries around the world, with roughly 60% of the worldwide production conducted in Bremen, Germany. But new Beck’s products are not necessarily always created there. For example, company spokesperson Oliver Bartelt told MIXOLOGY that the Beck’s Sapphire launched in the US in 2013 “was developed and is brewed in the USA”.

Nevertheless, the three new Beck’s Pale Ale, Beck’s Amber Lager and Beck’s 1873 Pils brands are Bremen products. And according to Bartelt, “There’s never been anything like this before”. For instance, the top-fermented Pale Ale “uses a completely new technology, since logically enough Beck’s Pils and the local brand Haake-Beck are actually only brewed bottom-fermented” in Bremen. The recipes were created in a microbrewery housed within the Beck’s production facilities. This small brewery is designed for test runs and is also where Beck’s brews its unique “Seefahrtmalz” beer for an annual historic event. Now that the development phase is over, the new varieties are brewed in the large-scale brewery.

Just how “crafty” are these new Beck’s craft varieties?

No other beer has more American craft attitude swagger at the moment than pale ale. Pale ale is the bread-and-butter beer of American craft brewers. Imperial stouts and beer specialties aged in whisky barrels are steadily racking up medals and top ratings at In-house pale ales pay the bills. So naturally this raises the question of how authentically “craft” the new Beck’s Pale Ale is. Will we get to meet the brewer or brewers? Can we expect a Beck’s collaborative brew with a small, owner-operated brewery in the near future?

“It’s not our intention at all to create that kind of image”, says Oliver Bartelt. “No one would take that seriously from a brand like Beck’s. We’re not out to create a fictitious, non-existent world”. The new varieties are aimed far more at strengthening the international character of the Beck’s brand. The target is “more aligned with products in the ‘international beers’ market than in the ‘craft beer’ niche”. Apparently development of the new products was preceded by extensive consumer surveying, which Bartelt references with some pride.

Beck’s is “the only German brand that is internationally successful”, and it is now present on 120 markets. Consumer statements such as, “Beck’s is an internationally recognized brand with contacts all over the world. I take them at their word on that. Krombacher, Warsteiner or Veltins can’t make that claim”, tend to verify this positioning as an international brand.

Bartelt isn’t excluding the possibility of exporting the new brands into other markets in the near future. He explains, “If consumers in Germany accept these new beers, of course we would also be eager to try them out elsewhere”.

Growth in the specialties segment

Although news about the development of the new Beck’s brands had already leaked out last year, many people in the industry were still surprised when the market entry was officially announced in March. But Oliver Bartelt squarely denies that Anheuser-Busch InBev has rushed to react to German market developments in the specialty beer segment, explaining “We don’t develop something like this overnight. There’s a medium-term plan. We were already talking about this project (internally) in late 2013”.

According to Bartelt, AB InBev plainly sees the greatest potential for growth in the premium segment, refusing to produce any private labels or participate in supermarket price wars. He cites the AB InBev brands Beck’s and Franziskaner and the fact that they are priced “significantly higher than competing brands”. The Belgian import beer Leffe, positioned for the first time last year in Germany’s gastronomy sector, also belongs to this segment. To build on all this going forward, the next logical step is the development of specialty products.

We recently got hold of a Beck’s memo released to beverage wholesalers that would seem to underscore this assertion with hard facts and figures. According to a GfK survey cited in the memo, sales growth last year in beer specialties increased 5.1% over the previous year, and they now represent a driving growth force in the gastronomy sector. Nielsen stats claim that the so-called super premium beer segment enjoyed above-average growth of 11.4%.

The new Beck’s beers are brewed in accordance with Germany’s traditional beer purity law, the “Reinheitsgebot”, to have a “taste typical of the particular beer variety”. They will be presented to the public and in the contemporary restaurant and bar scene this coming mid-March with a series of events in larger German cities accompanied by TV spots and other advertising and promo measures.

The 4-pack will feature 0.33 L bottles and be priced at around four Euros. The alcohol content in all the new beers hovers around the 6% abv mark that is psychologically so important for the specialty segment. As for the bittering units (IBU), a critical taste description criterion for die-hard handmade craft beers, we shouldn’t expect any revolution from the Beck’s varieties.

The new 1873 Pils has a comparatively mild rating of 25 IBU, so it will be up to the hops mixture which differs from the classic Beck’s pilsner and 1873’s higher alcohol content to underpin its proclaimed “refreshingly tart taste experience”. But it is Beck’s Pale Ale that will be the focus of the greatest scrutiny because, as demonstrated by the results of our latest MIXOLOGY TASTE FORUM, it’s the American brewers and not the Germans who are the reigning pale ale pioneers. The new Beck’s Pale Ale comes in at 30 bittering units, somewhat lower than both what’s normal and what is feasible in Germany.

A fresh tailwind for the new German beer scene

Anheuser-Busch InBev’s participation in this market will provide a major boost to the current dynamics in the new German beer scene. Self-proclaimed craft beer crusaders who value everything small and authentic and spurn anything big as an end-of-the-world-sell-out will have a reinvigorated field day on forums and social networks with the “all-consuming” Goliath AB InBev.

But this move also gives other large-scale German brands adequate reason to dedicate more resources to any existing or planned craft or specialty beer projects. Otherwise they risk missing the boat. With Radeberger and Bitburger already on board the rocky craft beer ship, we can now expect Krombacher and Warsteiner to reciprocate, either through takeovers of smaller companies or by developing their own new products.

But Beck’s rediscovery of its own brewing skills is unmistakably a positive signal for enlightening consumers about this segment. Pale ale, the key to the world of experimental beer claiming greater flavor and more hops, will be on everyone’s lips this year thanks to Beck’s. And according to Bartelt the future of the ailing German beer market is not as bleak as some had thought. He declares, “Beer consumers over the age of 25 are more demanding. They tend to want products with distinctive taste and brand profiles positioned in a higher price range which enhance their status”. Well, here’s an India Pale Ale to that!


Original article by Helmut Adam. Translated by Jeff Collier.


Foto: Ship and flag via Shutterstock. Postproduction: Tim Klöcker