Did somebody say beer? While craft brewing in Europe has been growing rapidly for over a decade now, Germany has lagged behind a little. BRLO Co-Founder Katharina Kurz talks about her experience of launching a new brand into the market and why now is the perfect time for a German craft beer revolution.
“We always play with the fact that no one can pronounce it … how do you want to say it?”, laughs BRLO Co-Founder Katharina Kurz. We’re sitting in Kaschk over two pints of pale ale and aside from pronunciation problems – for the record, it’s ber-low – the brand has had a very good year!
BRLO is still a baby in the world of craft beer having just launched in November 2014. But the German craft beer market generally is a newborn in itself when you consider that in the US, the movement has been growing steadily since the ‘70s.
At that time, the Stateside craft beer market was at a doldrums, having been completely destroyed during the ‘20s. In the intervening 50 years, marketing campaigns had quite successfully changed American beer preferences to bland, mass-produced swill.
In the late ‘60s, hobbyist homebrewers started to professionalise their craft and today the US craft beer market is thriving. Europe was slower to catch onto the trend, but in the last 15 years the number of small breweries has grown massively.
Thus, Kurz and her co-founders Christian and Michael started their brewing business in a much more open market than they would have faced even just a few years previously. The ‘foodie revolution’ has extended its influence to beer and consumers are now more concerned with quality than cost-effectiveness.
But that’s not to say it’s not challenging. In Germany in particular, beer quality is high and the Reinheitsgebot – the German beer purity law – means that brewing is highly restricted in terms of ingredients and processes.
I asked Kurz about her impressions of how the market is changing, about the community aspect of craft beer, and how BRLO plans to address a nation of seasoned beer drinkers.
As Germany already had a lot of beer options that are generally pretty high quality, is it a harder place to establish a new beer brand?
In general I would say yes, because the beer quality in Germany is overall very high. But then again, at the same time, beers are extremely boring. If you’re standing here in a supermarket in front of the beer shelf, it’s all the same thing. The advertising is all the same and you see no real distinction. That means that you always get qualitatively good beer, but the variety is rather limited and unappealing. That’s why I think people are kind of craving this rejuvenation of beer. Reaching everybody with craft beer will not be possible, but I don’t think we need to do so. In part, there’s still somewhat of a resistance and people ask themselves ‘why would I pay €2.50 or €3 for a beer if I can get a six pack for that price?’.
How do you deal with that resistance?
I think it’s really necessary to do some consumer education. You need to explain why craft beer is different, what makes it different and why it is special. You have to convince the bars and restaurants of that better quality in taste. So, there is a little bit of education to be done but I think now the time is right. If we had started a few years earlier I think it would have been a lot more difficult.
What do you think has driven the growing interest in craft beer?
It started in different areas before, for instance with food and drinks like coffee or with handcrafted spirits, like gin or vodka, and wine as well. It started in areas where the quality wasn’t that great, and people started going to smaller suppliers. […] People have noticed that all these other areas have benefited from great attention to detail, to quality, to handcrafted artisanal details.
On top of that, the beer market has been declining in Germany for the last 25 years. Ever since 1990, the hectolitre consumption per head has been going down – basically, because beer was so boring! There was a war over price, but the taste has always been more or less the same. How did the beer brewers react? They tried to get new markets by introducing these Biermischgetränke – beer beverages mixed with guarana or some other fruity flavour. It’s not beer anymore, and I think it was betraying consumers – there was no heart and soul in it.
Where do you take inspiration for your recipes from?
Obviously the US is a huge inspiration. It’s funny because a lot of people say German craft beer is concentrating on American pale ales and IPAs instead of reinterpreting old German styles which I think is kind of true. We on the other hand, also experiment with German styles. That’s how we created our Weisse, which is a kind of sour beer.
Has it been difficult trying to get funding for a physical product in a techie startup world?
It’s an offline product, and it’s a beautiful product that we’re super passionate about, but obviously it’s hard [in a tech context]. But you also get love. Companies that make the thousandth photo sharing app struggle for attention. For us it’s easier, because: ‘Hey! It’s a beer!” And everybody loves beer! You always get attention and people try your product. That’s actually quite an advantage but it’s a disadvantage at the same time when looking at funding and support in the startup scene. Online business ideas are currently very hyped and you get money thrown after you if you have one. As soon as you have an offline product, it’s much harder. Right now, we are happy that we can make all the decisions for ourselves, but it could also be interesting to have somebody on board. I think, in our business, we need a very different kind of support. We need lifestyle investors. We want those!
What’s been the best part of founding BRLO?
Meeting people. Seriously. It’s been so great. Because we get to meet a whole lot of different people from bars, restaurants, retailers. We go into startups and do events there, or to conferences etc. Beer has such a social aspect and that’s the most fun part of it. I actually have to drink all day! [laughs]
How important is the community to craft beer and to BRLO?
Extremely important. In the community everybody more or less knows each other because it’s like any community: it’s all about things for insiders. Everybody agrees that craft beer is great but then as soon as it starts to get big, most community members become skeptical and say: ‘Oh no, no – we don’t want it to get too big!’ [laughs] It’s an interesting moment right now where craft beer has reached a larger audience, and you have a company like Becks producing a pale ale or something of the kind. Maintaining that community with it’s commitment to true craft beer is really, really important.
Moreover, we are based in Berlin – one of our founders is from Berlin – and, therefore, I think it’s really important to be a member of the town’s community and to give back. It starts with choosing your malt, choosing your supplies, choosing your partners. We only use organic malt, and once we have our own brewery we’re going to go a lot further in terms of sustainable energy etc. In addition, we also support local projects here in Berlin.
In the course of scaling up your brewing process, is there a danger of losing the ‘craft’ in craft beer? How do you make sure you don’t lose quality when brewing in larger quantities?
That’s a very good question, and it’s a difficult one. I mean if you look at the US, you’re still considered a craft brewer if you produce under 6 million barrels. Every industrial brewery in Germany is below that line, so that’s ridiculously big. If you compare the beer startups here in Germany, they’re extremely small. I think there’s still a long way to go without compromising your craft identity.
I think it should be allowed to grow – it’s good because you actually employ people. But it’s also important to have good ethics, values and principles that you always hold high and which you stick to. Especially with regard to people, with regard to raw materials and with regard to how you operate and talk to your customers and consumers. It’s a very difficult question and there’s certainly a fine line but I think you can still grow without making compromises.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting their own business or project?
Just go out and do it. Try and stay as lean as possible in the beginning. There were a lot of things that we avoided until we absolutely needed to invest in them and that helped us. When you have the feeling that something is nice to have but it’s not absolutely necessary, don’t do it!
Since I met Katharina a few months ago, there have been some big developments in the works at BRLO. Bootstrapped from the very beginning, their big dream was to open a brewery and bar. They’ve now started building their own Brwhouse at Gleisdreieck in Berlin. Construction is currently underway but if you’re in Berlin in the meantime, keep an eye out for their pop-up beer garden on-site!
Interested in working at BRLO? You can see if they have any vacancies on their Jobspotting company page.
All images kindly provided by BRLO.