Growing Taste for Black Forest Beer The Reluctant Cult Brand

An old-established beer from the heart of the Black Forest has become a surprise hit in bars around Germany. Sales of Tannenzäpfle (Fir Cone) beer have surged even though the brand isn't advertised. It's getting too much for the Rothaus brewery which just wants a quiet life.


Tannenzäpfle (Fir Cone) beer from the Black Forest is a cult hit with drinkers around Germany.

Tannenzäpfle (Fir Cone) beer from the Black Forest is a cult hit with drinkers around Germany.

Tucked high in the hills of the Black Forest of south western Germany lies the little Rothaus brewery which has been happily -- and quietly -- making its beer since 1791.

At 1,000 metres above sea level, it's Germany's highest brewery. Beer connoisseurs wax lyrical about the softness of the water, drawn from seven mountain springs, that goes into making the main brand, Tannenzäpfle (Fir Cone) beer, which has become a cult hit in big city bars around Germany.

But there's no shortage of exquisite beers in Germany. So how come Tannenzäpfle is flourishing in a world of glitzy advertising and in a country awash with beer from 1,200 breweries? It's homely, unchanging image seems to be the secret of its success.

The company's beer sales have jumped from 750,000 hectoliters just a few years ago to more than 900,000 now. And that's happened at a time when Germans are drinking ever less beer -- consumption has declined by 20 percent since 1991.

Any normal company executive would be over the moon at this growth, but the brewery's management has mixed feelings. "We can't keep this up every year," said chief executive Thomas Schäuble, the brother of German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Of course the brewery wouldn't refuse to sell more beer, he says. "But we're not pushing it."

Special sales promotions or price discounts are taboo. "We don't want to become a television beer," says Schäuble. And he definitely doesn't plan to succumb to the modern brewing trend of introducing beer variations flavored with strawberries or kiwi fruit.

And yet Tannenzäpfle sales just keep bubbling higher. 15 years ago, Berlin only had two bars which sold Rothaus beer. Today you can get it in over 100 pubs in the German capital. It's the same story in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich and Cologne, none of which suffer from a shortage of local beer brands.

Rothaus sells 10 percent of its beer outside its home state of Baden-Württemberg, and is getting annual growth of 100 percent from these "exports." The drinkers are mainly young people. Many are Baden-Württemberg boys and girls yearning for a taste of the homeland they have moved away from. "We're happy about every new customer. But we don't want to neglect our home market," says Schäuble.

Rothaus is an hour by car from the city of Freiburg. The road up to it winds its way through idyllic fir tree forests. There's not much traffic apart from the occasional red beer truck. The visitor center shows a modern advertising film: crystal clear springs, misty valleys, blooming meadows. The message is clear: The Black Forest and Rothaus brewery belong together.

The brewery malt and hops come from local suppliers. Rothaus has a high original wort content, which gives it a bitterness usually associated with northern German beer.

The brewery "Am Roten Haus" (At the Red House) was founded in 1791 by the nearby Benedictine monastery St. Blasien. Legend has it that the monks wanted to provide beer to help wean the local population off ungodly Schnapps liquor. In 1806 the brewery was transferred to the Grand Duchy of Baden, and now belongs to the federal state of Baden-Württemberg. It's one of the few state-owned companies making a profit.

Schäuble, the former conservative interior minister of Baden Württemberg, was appointed its chief executive two years ago. Critics at the time suspected political nepotism. After all, the keen wine drinker had no experience of the brewing trade. But the critics have fallen silent, and sales never suffered.

Security in a "world gone mad"

The label on the standard 0.33-liter bottles of Tannenzäpfle shows a Black Forest girl in a dirndl surrounded by fir cones. Rothaus shuns modern marketing and hasn't changed the label in 30 years, which any advertising expert will tell you is a big mistake. But the customers like the conservative image.

"They believe in us because we're enduring," says Schäuble. "People yearn for their homeland and their roots. We offer a sense of security in a world gone mad."

This philosophy precludes any more major expansion. "We're really ripe to join the big league. But then we'd lose our identity," says Schäuble. If Rothaus were to expand further it would have to open another brewery down in the valley. "But then our image would be kaput."

Rothaus employs 225 people, often in the second and third generation. The brewery is a popular employer in the region because it regularly pays out bonuses.

The only problem is finding new management recruits, says Schäuble. Not that there aren't enough qualified people. But many of the wives don't like living this high, he says. "The weather's a bit rough at 1,000 metres."


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