Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle
Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle launched its brew Friday during Green Week in Berlin.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 1/16/2004 1:22:02 PM ET 2004-01-16T18:22:02

German experts often say beer is like good wine - it has a variety of different tastes. Germany alone boasts more than 1,200 breweries, with over 5,000 brands. And a small eastern German company is now adding a new taste: anti-aging beer.

"Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle," a former monastery brewery in a small town at the German-Polish border, introduced its "anti-aging beer" at the country's largest food and nutrition fair on Friday, during the so-called "Green Week" in Berlin.

"The beer will be promoted as a healthy and nutritious food product, which supports the general well-being, if consumed in moderation," Stefan Fritsche, the son of the brewery's owner, told NBC News.

Yet, the company -- which has defied Germany's strict beer law in the past -- might not be allowed to call its traditionally brewed product "beer."

According to the nation's 1516 brewing law, beer brewed in Germany can only contain barley, hops, yeast and water.

According to the company, the new beer is brewed with salt water and enriched with algae, which contains vitamins and minerals. But, Klosterbräu is braced for any challenges.

'Brandenburg Beer War'
About nine years ago, the Fritsche family business took its first, small steps toward developing a healthy formula by brewing a dark beer called "Black Abbott." The beer was similar to many other dark beers in Germany, but a small amount of sugar was added to give it a distinct taste.

Shortly afterwards, the local Brandenburg state agricultural ministry, citing German brewing law, forbade use of the word "beer" in the product logo.

The Fritsche company was irate, and told the state finance ministry that it would refuse to pay the mandatory "beer tax" if its brew was not designated as beer by the agriculture ministry. The argument was rejected by the tax ministers.

The subsequent dispute, still ongoing, between the Klosterbrauerei and state officials has been dubbed "The Brandenburg Beer War."

And for the company, the media attention was a boon as "Black Abbott" became its best-selling product. "The story immediately hit the local press and was a real sales boost for us," Stefan Fritsche said.

East German brewery makes good
Prospects for a healthy business weren't always as good. After German reunification in 1990, only the very well known former East German brand names survived.

"There was simply no demand for East German beers on the saturated market," the owner of the Klosterbrauerei, 67-year-old Helmut Fritsche said.

However, Helmut Fritsche -- an entrepreneur who had never worked in the beer industry -- came across the run-down brewery in Neuzelle about 11 years ago and decided to take up the challenge of re-vitalizing the business.

He invested more than $500,000 in a company that was working with ancient brewing methods and had little to offer other than a historical name.

The family believed that the traditional brewing methods make a difference and decided to combine them with modern marketing.

Internet sales, for example, are becoming an important asset for their sales. While the main market for sales is still Germany, the brewery's products are sold as far away as the United States and South Korea.

But, even though the customer base was growing, the Klosterbrauerei is focused on limited production of beer specialties and does not want to compete with mass-production companies. The Fritsches even turned down a large order from a Japanese customer because they would have had to increase production capacities.

The small brewery fills no more than a niche with its total output of 40,000 hectoliters of beer per year. In comparison, a neighboring firm brews 1.4 million hectoliters annually.

Bathing in beer
The Fritsche family has even taken its belief in the healthy attributes of beer a step further by offering beer baths. In addition to several pilsner brands and an extravagant "cherry beer," the brewery markets "bath beer."

The company says its all-natural product is a scientifically tested brew and it's sold in drug stores and health product shops, but can also be found in wellness farms, where it is used for skin treatment and recreation baths.

The tradition of bathing in beer dates back to ancient times. An old "grandmother's recipe" in Germany, for example, reads that beer should be used to wash your hair.

For the Fritsches it is part of a strategy to promote the effect of natural ingredients in beer. The formula of the bath beer is also the basis for the "anti-aging beer," with which the family is hoping to ride on wellness and health product wave that has gripped Europe.

It may spark a legal battle. But for those who need to convince skeptics that drinking beer is a healthy activity, it may offer the perfect exercise -- and excuse.

Andy Eckardt is an NBC News producer based in Mainz, Germany.

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