“Oh God“, I hear you cry, “he’s writing about beer again!” Well, with three of my posts in the last year having beer in the title and my recent post on bottle deposits, you might think the topic has been covered as much as it can.
Yet far from being ashamed, I stand by my record! After all, there’s a good reason I drink so much beer in Germany: it’s the sheer variety, the fizzy excitement of discovering a new brew almost everywhere I go.
If you ask me, one of the best ways to discover Germany is to drink its manifold local and regional beers. While the trend to brewpubs in the U.K. and microbreweries in the U.S. may be a new and exciting revival, in Germany that trend never went away. Generation after generation has grown up quaffing its local beer, which often forms an integral part of the drinkers’ identity; and this is especially true of Germany’s largest cities, two of which – Düsseldorf and Cologne – have the highest concentration of breweries within their city limits of any major conurbations in the world.
And with all these different beers on the market, the breweries have become very good at marketing, using a variety of in-jokes that are often impenetrable to us non-natives, but are instantly understood by the locals. Which, of course, is the point.
More than anything in Düsseldorf and Cologne: these two cities, less than 50km apart and both on the Rhine, continue to cultivate a centuries-old rivalry (like Liverpool and Manchester in the U.K. or Springfield and Shelbyville in The Simpsons), much of which is largely built on beer. In Düsseldorf, people drink Altbier, a form of dark ale, while in Cologne the beverage of choice is Kölsch, a light ale. From this simple difference in brewing techniques, years of ingrained rivalry flow, together with insulting chants and songs – and some very funny adverts.
Früh Kölsch, for example, one of Cologne’s leading ale brands, used the rivalry to produce a series of light-hearted put-downs to Düsseldorf – with a good measure of linguistic aplomb. Düsseldorf’s Altbier is a rich field for puns, after all – Alt with a capital is short for “Altbier” whilst alt as an adjective simply means “old”. When Germans say “dieses Bier ist alt”, they don’t mean that it comes from Düsseldorf, but that it has been sitting in the glass for too long. So Früh cunningly produced an advert encouraging people to drink its Kölsch quickly before it gets “too old”. By writing the Alt with a capital letter, though, they (not so) sneakily took a swipe at their Düsseldorf rivals.
Another of their snipes was the phrase “Alles andere bitte ins Altglas”. Now, ein Altglas in the indefinite singular is a glass for Altbier, but das Altglas in the definite is nothing more than a recycling container for empty bottles. So Früh Kölsch is saying that other beers are worth nothing more than a glass made for Düsseldorf beer – or the recycling heap at very best. In one fell swoop, Früh accuses its rival Cologne beer of being second-rate, and has a joke at the expense of its rival city.
Not that Früh Kölsch takes things all that seriously, of course. It even opened an own-brand brewpub in Düsseldorf, just in case the inhabitants at the heart of its rival city decide to see the error of their ways. And its counterpart Uerige, the leading Düsseldorf brewer of Altbier, isn’t letting itself get annoyed either, producing similar adverts playing on the old alt/Alt-combo without reference to Cologne. Its slogan: “UERIGE: ALLES ANDERE IST ALT” is written in capitals leaving the reader to make up his or her mind about whether Uerige is accusing other beers of being old, or just categorising them as dark ale.
In terms of funny ad slogans, though, neither Cologne nor Düsseldorf can stand up to Hamburg, especially if you – as a non-German – like jokes that you can understand without actually having to have grown up here. Astra, Hamburg’s favorite local beer, is not interested in rivalries with other Hamburg breweries, or even with the traditional enemy, Bremen. In fact, it seems the Astra marketing department just wants to have fun, with the campaigns focussing on nothing more ominous than some seriously good puns. There’s the one from 2003 with a picture of a short guy holding a beer with the phrase “Ein Bier und ein Kurzer“, for example. “Ein Kurzer” means not only a “shot” or a “beer chaser”, but also a short guy. Genius. Or there’s the now legendary “Kein Astra, kein Spaß” campaign from the same year, featuring two very glum-looking people drinking coffee. The tag line is as simple as it is beautiful: “No Astra, no fun”.
Now, with or without adverts, it’s clear that I love German beer whatever the case. I also can’t help thinking that high-profile ad campaigns like this might be just what microbreweries and brewpubs need to really get their sales moving…