German brewers face an “unprecedented” shortage of beer bottles.

Stefan Fritsche, who runs a century-old German brewery in Neuzelle near the Polish border, has seen his natural gas bill rise 400 percent over the past year. His electricity bill increased by 300 percent. And he’s paying more for barley than ever.

But the surge in inflation for energy and grains in the wake of Ukraine has not been up to the biggest challenge that Mr. Fritsche’s brewery, Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, and others like it across Germany: a severe shortage of bottles of beer.

The problem is “unprecedented,” said Mr. Fritsche. “The price of the bottles has exploded.”

The problem is not so much the lack of bottles. The approximately 1,500 German breweries have up to four billion returnable glass bottles in circulation, about 48 for each man, woman and child.

Customers pay a surcharge of 8 euro cents on each bottle and get that money back when it is returned.

While the returnable bottle system is climate friendly and appeals to the Germans’ obsession with waste sortingcomes up with a big problem: getting people to return the blanks.

Dragging a case – or several – of empty glass bottles into a store can be a hassle, even if it means recouping the storage fee. So people tend to let them stack up, in the basements of their homes or on the balconies of their apartments, biding their time until they run out of space or spare money.

“It’s deadly for small brewers,” said Mr. Fritsche. The brewery he runs sells 80 percent of its bottled beer. (In 2003, a recycling law was expanded to focus on reducing waste in the beverage industry, meaning most of the beer sold for the domestic market is in returnable bottles, not cans.)

Holger Eichele, who heads the National Association of Brewers, has been airing and on social media in recent weeks to urge Germans to return their empty bottles. Brewers don’t want to run out of bottles as summer approaches, when heat, backyard barbecues and festivals drive sales.

The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the problem, making it more difficult and costly for brewers to purchase new bottles to make up for the shortage.

As breweries buy their glass from numerous countries across Europe, the war has resulted in the shutdown of the glass factories in Ukraine, previously a major supplier. The sanctions have disrupted supply chains from Russia and Belarus.

The price of bottles produced elsewhere, including in the Czech Republic, France or even Germany, has reached record levels of 15-20 euro cents each, because glass production involves enormous levels of heat and energy prices have soared.

Breweries without long-term supply contracts are seeing more than 80% price hikes for new glass bottles, the German Brewers Association said.

A recent article in the leading German newspaper, Bild, proclaimed that “Germany is running out of beer bottles,” causing shockwaves across the country and leading Eichele to check the damage to prevent panicked purchases.

“We don’t see any danger that beer production needs to be curtailed,” he insisted. “To put it bluntly, supplies to consumers are safe.”

However, the industry is facing a wide variety of problems, including a shortage of truck drivers and high fuel costs. “It is becoming increasingly difficult for breweries and the beverage trade to maintain the supply chain,” said Eichele.

Prices for label paper and other raw materials have also risen. The cost of each wooden pallet that breweries stack with crates of beer so they can be loaded and unloaded with forklifts has gone up to around 25 euros from 17 euros, said Ulrich Biene, a spokesperson for Veltins, one of the largest. breweries in the country.

“The whole pricing structure is out of control,” he said.

As a result, Veltins raised the price he charges for a case of 20 bottles by one euro – the most common way beer is sold in German liquor stores and supermarkets – to nearly EUR 19.50, the first increase. in three years. The largest brewer in the country, the Radeberger Group, which owns Radeberger and Schöfferhofer beers, also this spring has increased prices by 8.50 euros per hectolitre of beer, an increase of about 6 percent. This results in consumers paying between 32 and 63 cents more per checkout.

To encourage more people to pick up their bottles, Mr. Fritsche played with the idea of ​​nearly doubling the deposit customers pay on their refillable beer bottles, to 15 cents. But the larger brewers argue that raising the deposit price is not the solution because they have too many bottles in circulation and that it would be a complicated process.

Mr. Fritsche has kept the prices of Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle beers so far stable, but said he expected that this year, like so much else in Germany, they should increase by perhaps up to 30% this year. German inflation rose for the fifth consecutive month in May, reaching 8.7% yoy.

The Germans are already experiencing record inflation. Retail food and drink sales in April were down 7.7% from March – the biggest monthly decline since 1994 – and asking customers to pay more to cover the cost of their bottles wouldn’t be fair, he said. Biene of Veltins.

Instead, his brewery is encouraging customers to clean out basements, balconies, and garages, and take back their vacuums to be washed, refilled, and put back into circulation. Of the approximately one million cases of 20 bottles that Veltins owns, only 3-4% are in the brewery.

“If people walk away and leave their voids stacked in their garage, then we could get in trouble,” said Mr. Biene. “Every empty crate that comes back prevents us from having to buy a new one.”

Germany was ranked fifth in the world for per capita beer consumption in 2020, according to an Kirin’s annual survey, the Japanese brewer. (The United States ranked 17th.) But overall, the Germans are cutting back. Since the Federal Statistical Office began keeping records in 1993, a year after Mr. Fritsche’s family took over the Neuzelle Brewery, national beer consumption has dropped by nearly 24% as people embrace. a wider diversification of soft drinks.

Blockages surrounding the coronavirus over the past couple of years have also contributed to the trend, as bars have remained closed and sporting and cultural events have been canceled.

The challenging environment makes running the breweries even more important. Mr. Fritsche said he has relied on a combination of tradition and creativity for decades.

A willingness to push boundaries and think around the corner is essential to survive in a more difficult work environment, he said. What also helps is having a long view of the history that derives from the management of a company founded in 1589, of the events he has witnessed and resisted over time.

“Nazis, Communists, government takeovers – in the past, we’ve had pretty much everything here,” Fritsche said. “And we survived everything. We will overcome that too.”

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