Storm brews over Carlsberg, Heineken beer patent

German beer brewers and beer lovers have protested in Munich against the barley patents of Carlsberg and Heineken. European authorities will soon revise the patent law. Will the beer patents be overturned?

Dozens of protesters, six brewery horses and a marching band have demonstrated in front of the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich to object to a patent by beer giants Carlsberg and Heineken.

In 2016, the two companies jointly patented a strain of barley that improved the taste of beer and allows for a more energy-efficient brewing process.

The beer patents haven't gone down well with Germans, a nation proud of its centuries-old tradition of barley cultivation and beer brewing. Breweries fear financial losses if patents on crops become the new normal, and activists believe food security is under threat. 

Deutschland Protest gegen Patent auf Bier und Gerste in München

"No patent on brewing barley and beer": a sign at the protest

In November, No Patents on Seeds, an international coalition including Greenpeace, the Catholic charity Misereor and 300 farmers, urged Carlsberg and Heineken in an open letter to drop their patents. But the companies stood firm. 

Business | 28.03.2017

So, the coalition decided to take to the streets. 

On Wednesday, the last day to officially object to one of the patents of the beer giants, around 100 protesters came with big fanfare and turned the technical duty of filing an objection at the EPO into a beer festival.

Surrounded by music, the organizers of the protest handed out non-alcoholic beer to demonstrators, bystanders and even to EPO employees.

Despite the party-like atmosphere, activists didn't shy away from pointing fingers. 

"We might be handing out the last round of free beer at the European Patent Office today," said Georg Janssen, chairman of AbL, a Germany-wide association of farmers. "The office has so far only supported the interests of the industry and patent lawyers."

"We demand that patent restrictions will finally be effective. They are so important for consumers, farmers and breeders."

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No invention, no patent

Symbolbild - Bier

The German Beer Purity Law was adopted in 1516

The European Patent Office allows patents on plants and animals that have been genetically engineered. Activists agree on that. But the current law is less clear on conventionally bred plants and animals.

At the end of June, the EPO's Administrative Council will meet in The Hague to discuss a proposal put forward by its member states that would clarify which species can be patented, and which can't. The proposal seeks to exclude plants and animals derived from breeding processes of crossing and selection from patents.

The proposal is likely to be accepted. Patents on food crops granted within the last few years, for example on tomato and broccoli, would then be prohibited.

Activists have welcomed the changes, but say they aren't going far enough. The proposal still includes loopholes that have allowed Carlsberg and Heineken to patent their barley in the first place, argues No Patents on Seeds.

The breweries' patent is based on random mutation. It's a hot-button issue in patent law: some say it's a natural process and cannot be patented, while others argue it's a technique often used in research labs and patentable. 

"These patents are absurd, random mutations are no invention," Christoph Then, biotech expert and coordinator of No Patents on Seeds, told DW. "They monopolize seeds and threaten our biological diversity."

Carlsberg, Heineken: Patents are just

Carlsberg and Heineken have maintained their patent is legal and just.

"The barley raw materials are patentable because of the techniques used in the process to obtain these specific barley traits," John-Paul Schuirink, spokesman at Heineken, told DW. "They are not a patent on a discovery of a specific type of barley."

In November, the European Commission presented its interpretation of patent law stating that only methods of genetic engineering that directly intervene in the genome of plants or animals can be patented. This line of thinking would overturn the beer patent. 

But the EPO is not an institution of the European Union, and includes non-EU countries such as Turkey and Switzerland. 

Biotech expert Then is still optimistic that Carlsberg's and Heineken's patent will eventually be overturned. His coalition has been protesting for more than 10 years to strengthen prohibitions against patents on plants and animals.    

"It can take years before the EPO sets stricter rules on what is patentable and what not, but we are confident the patents will be annulled," he said. 

A wealth of choice

Many of the best-known German beer brands have long belonged to international corporations. But true charm can be found among the numerous small operations dotting the country. There are more than 1,350 different breweries and 5,500 unique brands in Germany. Producing more than 95 million hectoliters a year (over 2.5 billion gallons), Germany is the biggest beer producer in Europe.

The top 10 German beer brands

In terms of production volume, Oettinger and Krombacher are neck-and-neck in the race for first place. The graphic uses data made available in 2014. According to recent preliminary calculations, Krombacher now has the slight edge, thanks to its more robust sales abroad.

Oettinger

The main brand of a family business bearing the same name, Oettinger is one of the most successful brands in Germany. The company works according to the discount principle: high quality, low price, direct distribution and no marketing. In addition to its headquarters in the small Swabian town of Oettingen, Oettinger beer is brewed in the towns of Gotha, Mönchengladbach and Braunschweig.

Beer consumption in Germany

Germans have been drinking less and less beer over the past few decades. At its height in 1980, per-capita consumption was nearly 146 liters (32 gallons) per year. In 2015, it was just 106 liters. In comparison, citizens of the Czech Republic consumed an average of 144 liters last year.

Krombacher

Founded in 1803, Krombacher has belonged to the Schadeberg family since 1922. It gets its name from the part of town where its brewery is located in Kreuztal, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia. Krombacher Pils is the most-sold Pilsner beer in Germany, and its alcohol-free beer is a category leader as well. Krombacher is a Bundesliga and Formula 1 sponsor.

Beer consumption worldwide

When it comes to the sheer volume of beer consumed by different world regions, Asia lies clearly at the top, owing in part to its vast population. Asia consumes less beer per capita though compared with Europe.

Bitburger

The Bitburger brewery was founded in 1817 by Johan Peter Wallenborn, whose descendants still own the company today. Its famous slogan "Bitte ein Bit" (A Bit' please), was first used on October 8, 1951, at a food sellers convention in Cologne. Today the beer is distributed to 60 countries and is the third-largest brand on the German market.

The world's biggest brewers

The graphic shows that German brewers are mere pipsqueaks in comparison to international beer corporations. The leader on the world market, Anheuser-Busch inBev, is close to a $100 billion deal with its closest competitor, SABMiller. The EU's competition oversight committee will decide on the legality of the merger by May.

Veltins

Veltins was founded in 1824. Its headquarters are located in Meschede-Grevenstein in northwestern Germany. Susanne Veltins has been the sole owner of the company since 1994. Veltin's beer "mixes" are market leaders in Germany. It became the main sponsor of the soccer team FC Schalke 04 in 1997.

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