The Beer Idiots spoke to Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, Secretary General of The Brewers of Europe about current trends in the beer sector, the recovery from COVID-19 lockdowns, and dealing with the current energy and supply disruption.
Along the way we also discussed the upcoming Brewers Forum, which will be held this year in Prague, from 22-23 May.
“Some things are back to normal but we are not there yet,” is how Bergeron describes the current state of Europe’s beer sector.
The overall production and consumption of beer are trending positive, but 2022 statistics are still below those of 2019. The hospitality sector, which accounts for one-third of sales, is still recovering from COVID, but is still in crisis due to high energy prices, among other factors.
April 2021 report estimated that the European beer sector experienced a 42% reduction in on-trade beer sales, which was only slightly offset by an 8% increase in off-trade sales.
The most recent figures published by the organisation show that EU beer production in 2021 was at 34.2 billion litres, up from 34.1 billion litres in 2020, but down on 36.3 billion litres in 2019. Consumption was also slightly up in 2021, to 30 billion litres, from 29.7 billion litres in 2020, although still 2.25 billion litres below pre-pandemic levels.
Survival of the fittest
The good news is that overall the number of breweries in Europe has not decreased. Pre-COVID, about two new breweries a day were being created in Europe at one point.
While there was no net decrease, a number of brewers did not survive the fallout. Europe counted some 11,000 brewers in 2019. This number includes breweries from the organisation’s non-EU members: Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK.
During the COVID crisis, the Brewers of Europe lobbied for an excise duty regime favourable to brewers especially for an exemption on kegs that would not be consumed during the shutdown. Many countries applied this measure.
Some countries were smart to lower VAT rates for beer served in hospitality sector, says Bergeron. Other brewers took advantage of subsidies or state aid to survive, though this is a balancing act as under the EU’s rules most of the money will have to be paid back.
With the war in Ukraine, additional pressure was put on brewers as the supply of raw materials and ingredients was disrupted. This affected not only cereals and malts but also packaging materials and carbon dioxide. Energy costs for breweries and suppliers skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, the Brewers of Europe is continuing its work with European legislators to ensure upcoming new policies on packaging and the EU’s Green Deal on climate change.
Brewers are adapting and are continuing to invest more in sustainable systems along the value chain, from raw materials to distribution.
The organisation is behind the changes to counter climate change and reduce waste, however it wants to ensure brewers are treated fairly and factors affecting the industry are considered.
“It’s not the time to put the onus on the brewers,” says Bergeron.
Another big trend in the industry is the growth of non-alcohol or low alcohol beer, which has reached 5% of sales and is expected to continue rising. Consumers are increasingly seeing these types of beer as part of a range of drinks they can enjoy.
In the craft sector, the rise of lagers are slowing becoming a trend as small brewers start investing in a more expensive energy-intensive process.
The brewing sector, while rooted in tradition, has been innovative in meeting these challenges and changing consumer tastes, says Bergeron.