Where's the Beer?

One of the nation's finest microbrewers is Gordon-Biersch. Most of the company's beer is produced and sold at its brewery/restaurants in Palo Alto, San Francisco, San Jose and Honolulu, but recently it began distributing its products to other restaurants.

Thus it came to pass that last night our local Hayward brewery, Buffalo Bill's, put a keg of G-Bs Märzen on line. I ordered a pint, took a long pull, and immediately realized that, while the beer was very good, it tastes much better less than 20 miles away in Palo Alto.

A stranger standing next to me at the bar (he turned out to be a radiologist at a local hospital) agreed and said he conducts brewery tours in the Northwest and is always startled by how different—and better—the beers taste at their places of origin.

That beer doesn't travel well is no surprise, we've discussed it before here. But that one pint of Märzen made me realize that good beer is a lot more delicate than the mass produced stuff and even a journey of a few miles can alter its taste. It also gave me one more thing to worry about—the frightening number of breweries that are closing in Germany.

Neely Tucker, in an article for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, writes that at least 130 of Germany's roughly 1,200 breweries have closed or merged in the last five years and that young Germans are drinking less beer and more wine.

The author quotes German beer industry sources who say drinking patterns are changing the industry and hundreds of breweries—some say between 25% and 50% of the current total—will be closed or bought out in the coming years.

Young Germans are drinking less beer than their parents. The average consumption per capita has recently dropped from 146 liters (about 38.5 gallons) per year to 138 (about 36.5 gallons).

Other factors include competition from other beverages, a tough drinking-and-driving law and a national move toward fitness and health. In addition, Germany's low birth rate means that the number of 20-year-old to 40-year-old men, the biggest consumers of beer, will decrease from 25 million to 20 million within 15 years.

Finally, German breweries make far more beer than they sell. The overproduction came about after reunification when West German breweries, seeking to dominate East German markets, expanded overnight. But East German drinkers, after an initial fad, went back to their old labels—leaving beer makers with far too much product. The inevitable price drop will favor big brewers who can make money on a small markup.

One casualty already, according to Ms. Tucker, is the Marz Group whose Jever brand was among the top 10 in the country. Today, following a disastrous attempt to sell beer in Eastern Germany, the company is broke and out of business.

A disturbing trend, but apparently inevitable. Of course, Germany has a very long way to go before its beer industry resembles that of the U.S. where three breweries produce something like 90% of the beer sold. Germany's approximately 1,200 breweries in 1988 represented nearly 40% of the world's total.

Our advice to those who care about beer is to drink the local stuff. If you are in Bavaria, forget Becks, Warsteiner, Bitburger or any of the other brands that are sold nationally. Likewise you don't want to drink Spaten in Hamburg. Find out from the local tourist office or from your hotel which are the local breweries and stick to them.

I go against my own advice, however, when it comes to the Czech beers, Budvar and Pilsner Urquell. When I am in a city not too far from Prague, Vienna for example, I am always on the lookout for either. They are tremendous, my favorite beers in all the world. And I am told they are even better at the source. Of course.

Fare Wars

For me, the first harbinger of winter came on a hot night in mid-August. Reading that morning's San Francisco Chronicle, I came across an ad for fall and winter fares on KLM or Northwest Airlines. For travel between October 16 and February 28, the ad offered roundtrip fares from San Francisco that included $406 to London, $488 Frankfurt, $562 Vienna, $562 Zürich and $544 to Munich.

There was only a six-day ticket purchase window plus blackout dates and other restrictions but such deep discounts augur well for the near future. It looks like we'll see very low airfares again this fall and winter. There's more to come so keep an eye out for newspaper ads and/or stay in touch with your travel agent. (Top agents, like Tom Smith of Explorer Travel [541-488-0333] in Ashland, Oregon, maintain a "hot-list" of customers who are alerted by phone whenever there is an airfare sale.)

Sandwich Machine Casualty

The other day we noticed a letter in the Los Angeles Times complaining about high prices in Switzerland. The letter's author cited $45 for an 8-minute taxi ride from the Zürich Airport to downtown, $16 for a self-service sandwich, $4.50 for a soft drink, $140 for a hotel in Zermatt.

I suppose all that is do-able but I'm of the opinion one would have to really work at it to find a machine that charged 20 Sfr. (about $16) for a sandwich, even in Zürich. Then - presumably of sound mind and in full possession of all faculties - one would have to insert the necessary 20 Sfr. in order to be victimized by the sandwich machine. Prices in Switzerland are admittedly high but this seems to be the sort of person who, if given a gun, would very soon create a hole in his foot. One also wonders if this guy is aware that there are $4.50 soft drinks and $140 hotel rooms in Los Angeles.

Buried in all this poking fun at an unnamed person - who probably will never see this less than hilarious little item—is a small tip. This just in: there is a train station right at the Zürich Airport. From it trains run frequently to downtown Zürich. The cost is 5.81 Sfr. ($4.85). However, with the $41 saved our man would no doubt buy two more sandwiches from the machine.

P.S. Only the Blue Angels can get from the Zürich Airport to downtown Zürich in 8 minutes. RHB

August 1996