Lockdowns weigh on German beer sales, hurt small brewers

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Employees work in the small family-run Heller brewery in Cologne, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Bars have been closed for over three months, Carnival celebrations are canceled and its not clear when things will get better. That's a big problem for Germany's many small brewers, which rely heavily on selling draft beer to bars and restaurants. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

COLOGNE – Bars have been closed for more than three months, Carnival celebrations are canceled, and it's not clear when things will get better in Germany. That has left the boss of Brauerei Heller, an organic brewery in Cologne, thinking “from week to week” as she tries to chart a course out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Official data released last week showed beer sales in Germany dropped 5.5% last year to 8.7 billion liters (2.3 billion gallons), a decline fostered by lengthy shutdowns.

German bars and restaurants were closed from March until May, and have been shut again since the beginning of November as part of the country’s second lockdown. Major events and festivals where large amounts of beer would usually be consumed also have been canceled.

The current lockdown was set to end on Feb. 14, but the government could announce an extension on Wednesday that will keep on hurting beer sales.

That's a problem above all for Germany's many small brewers. Marc-Oliver Huhnholz, the spokesman for the German Brewers' Association, says the country has over 1,500 breweries, including more than 1,000 small ones “that are very strong in the catering industry. So they sell their beer in their bars and restaurants, and they are, of course, massively affected.”

One such case is Brauerei Heller, a nearly 30-year-old organic brewery with its own beer garden. “We're getting through the pandemic from week to week,” CEO Anna Heller said.

Strong summer business followed Germany's relatively short first lockdown, but when the winter started “everything was over again,” Heller said. The brewery is largely dependent on draft beer; only about 20% of its output is bottled beer, which doesn't depend so much on open bars.

Heller says she has “no idea how far and how well we can carry on like this." Revenues were down 40% on a normal year in 2020, “and without help we wouldn't survive at all,” she said.