Food & Drink

‘Wholesome’ Label Brings Beer Brawl to Top German Court

There are many things to be said about German beer. But a legal fight about an advertising campaign means “wholesome” might soon be a word marketers explicitly can’t use.

Germans have a whole vocabulary for beer, with regional dialects and local favourites creating a vast range of choice when choosing how to describe their beloved drink. But the word “wholesome” might soon be verboten – at least for advertising purposes.

Back in 2016 covered the story of the southern German Haerle brewery which was describing its beer as “bekömmlich,” which roughly translates to “wholesome,” in its advertising. Health activists got “hopped up” and took them to court, where a Stuttgart judge ruled that the word created an inaccurate association with health benefits from the beer.

Starting Thursday the case is before Germany’s Federal Court of Justice (BGH), the final arbiter for criminal and private legal matters. It’s not clear when a verdict will be issued.

Q: What’s the case about?

The brewery had used the slogan “Wohl bekomm’s!” (To Your Health!) since the 1930s, updating it around the turn of the century with the word “bekömmlich.”

That drew the attention of the Association of Social-Minded Competition, which argued the term was misleading. In 2015, that led to brewery owner Gottfried Haerle having employees cross out the word with permanent marker on 30,000 bottles as he lost cases in local and appeals courts.

Q: What’s wrong with ‘bekömmlich’?

In its original usage, the word could have been translated as ‘acceptable’ or comfortable. But, in modern German, it has taken on the meaning of ‘easily digested’ or ‘agreeable.’ The competition organization argued that was not a term that could be lightly used with beverages containing an alcohol content of between 2.8 and 5.1 per cent.

Since it’s a “health-related” claim, it has to be used properly. Under EU law, the use of such a term would be limited to drinks with less than 1.2 per cent alcoholic content.

Q: Are there any comparable cases?

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has previously blocked German vintners from using the term to describe their wine, noting that alcohol consumption has health consequences and that consumers need to be protected from misleading advertising.

Q: Does that mean there’s precedent for the beer case?

According to the competition association and the German courts, the answer is a definite ‘Yes.’ They note that the term not only implies general well-being, but a “long-term promise” that regular consumption carries no health risks. They argue that advertising regarding alcoholic beverages cannot be misleading or unclear.

But the brewer says he understands the word as “purely a statement of quality” with a long tradition.

Food law expert Jeannette Viniol says its a borderline case. ‘Bekömmlich’ could be understood in a more general way and the ECJ ruling might not apply, since it was very specific to the acidic content of the grapes used to make the wine.

“In the current case, the decision will have to be whether the word ‘bekoemmlich’ can be found to be a health-related term without such a concrete issue … or whether it is viewed as a statement of ‘general well-being,’ which does not promise the consumer any health value.”

Q: Has a case like this ever come before the BGH?

In 2011, the court allowed an herbal liquor maker to use the word ‘bekömmlich,’ but drew the line at ‘wohltuend’ (beneficial). This was, however, before the ECJ wine case. Also, the 2011 case was never finally decided, because an appeal was made and then withdrawn.

Q: Could this affect other German breweries?

Germans spent 7.4 billion euros (8.7 billion dollars) on home consumption of beer and beer drinks in 2017. Nonetheless, brewers are seeing their sales decline. First quarter 2018 sales were 1.6 per cent lower than the same period in 2017.

To combat that, brewers are trying new branding exercises, which has left the country with 6,000 kinds of beer – 1,000 more than a decade ago – according to the German Brewers Association. The Haerle brewery argues that multiple others have also used the word ‘bekömmlich’ to sell their drinks.

Thanks – Karlsruhe, Germany (dpa)

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