A (global) brewer’s life

Pat Nolan spoke to Christian Von Der Heide, President of the European Brewery Convention (and the brains behind the internal Festival of Beer competition at Diageo Ireland), about today’s beer market both here at home and in Europe.

Pat Nolan spoke to Christian Von Der Heide, President of the European Brewery Convention (and the brains behind the internal Festival of Beer competition at Diageo Ireland), about today’s beer market both here at home and in Europe.

As President of the European Brewery Convention (EBC), the technical arm of  the Brewers of Europe, Christian Von Der Heide’s dominion comprises over 5,000 breweries around Europe — 0nly fitting really for a man who’s worked in brewing nearly all his life.

Christian started early, over 25 years ago, as a 12 year-old  in a small brewery in Bavaria, lugging crates and bottles onto an unforgiving conveyor belt during his school holidays… Today, he’s Technical Director for Global Beer at Diageo…
Now based in Dublin, Christian has had a good chance to observe the Irish beer market in (in)action. Can he be happy with it?

“Firstly, I’m never happy if I find volume declining,” he answers about an industry very fond of the draught format compared to Continental Europe, “The on-trade draught consumer difference in Ireland is obviously an area that is very unique and critical for Ireland to maintain and clearly that’s the challenge. So while I’m not happy, we need to be realistic in the way that we look at consumer behaviour.”

The EBC has its work cut out for it. Across Europe beer sales are down.

“Reversing the trends is a matter of finding the consumer relevance and bringing out the positive aspect to beer consumption. As the EBC we’re obviously working on the quality aspects, the natural aspects and the benefits of moderate beer consumption,” he says, “Basically, we’re bringing out the technical and scientific evidence that makes beer a positive product to consume in moderation and one that can create satisfaction with people and give good value in terms of overall consumption.”

For Christian, for the time being, the beer times will stay challenging in Ireland and throughout Europe.
“Overall consumption is likely to shrink further,” he believes but he also remains optimstic, “It’s a real opportunity for the real brands to grow, for innovation and for anything that generates value-for-money and for the premium beers to come forward.”

New Product Development remains an important beer industry driver and that’s where the EBC plays its hand.
 demographics and consumer behaviours are changing, so it’s very important to be with the consumer and not just work on the quality aspects alone.  But quality is very critical too as it’s the drinkability of the beer that’s so very important for the consumer and for sales.

“With the change in demographics and consumer behaviours, comes not only the opportunity to innovate – but to meet new consumer occasions. I do believe packaging innovations will dominate over liquid innovations in the years to come.”

Could it be that bottled beer will ultimately triumph over draught, even in an active on-trade market such as our own? Can it only be a question of time before we join our European counterparts in reducing our draught intake in favour of the bottle?

“The choice is with the consumer. The question of bottled beer or draught is a matter of the drinking occasion. It’s very critical that the publicans and the draught sector give value and the right experience for the consumer to enjoy draught in the on-trade.”

So how will theindustry look in 10 years’ time?

As EBC President Christian leads the Convention’s strategic orientation and he also helps run three separate dedicated groups of Convention experts in brewing science, raw materials and analysis.

As mentioned earlier, his other role is as Diageo’s Global Technical Director. Often, he finds that wearing the two hats can be challenging but enjoyable nevertheless.

In his Diageo role, he enjoys working with people “…. and working for an amazing brand”. As EBC President Christian also enjoys the “sheer opportunity and size of the brewing network and working with people within that network”.
What he’s less keen on in the day job is the conflict in his time management.

“My agenda has lots of competing interests and this is a challenge,” he says. As EBC President though, he singles out the flight schedules to Brussels.

“When I travel to EBC headquarters, the flights are very early and very late, so it’s a challenge to get out and back in a day.”

Despite the pressure, he’s just as enthusiastic about beer today as he was more than 25 years ago and is justifiably proud of having contributed to both the quality and commercial success of the breweries he’s worked for.
Not one to believe in mistakes, Christian’s more of a believer in “opportunites to learn….. and I’ve learned a lot!” he adds with smile.

Christian’s progress

Christian Von Der Heide – who’s also a wine consultant – has always been fascinated with the craft of brewing and the elements of how one brings it alive. An apprentice brewer at just 16, he moved up through the ranks, becoming a maltster and then Head Brewer at the oldest brewery in Munich, the hallowed Augustiner, founded in 1328.

“For sure it shaped my passion in the way I look at beer,” he comments.

Indeed Christian went on to study brewing and brewing technology at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) at the Department of Weihenstephan – “considered the Oxford of brewing”.

At that time he describes himself as having been “drawn to the rising craft of the brewing industry and the microbrewers.”

That call took him to Canada where he worked for entrepreneurs in the design of breweries there. He spent several years starting up small breweries,  conducting feasibility studies and helping entrepreneurs and investors fulfil their dream of running a brewery.

While there he operated and designed a new technical centre for Labatt Breweries, then part of Interbrew and now part of InBev.

He also ran its Centre of Excellence in process and product development for a few years during which time he was promoted to Director of Technical Development before transferring to Belgium as Director of Global Consumer Innovation for Interbrew. A short stint in global business development with the Doehler Group in Germany followed before a subsequent move to London, England, this time to join Diageo as Third Party Operations Director for International Brewing Services.  In 2007 he became Technical Director of Global Beer at Diageo.

It’s all a long way from his first-ever job as an unpaid labourer on his grandfather’s farm in Bavaria, to where he’d be happy to return if he hadn’t been bitten by the brewery bug.

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