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Lithuania poised to curb strong beer market

  • 2011-12-22
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

STRONG BREW: The proposed ban on strong beer will force Birzu Alus (pictured) to invest in new packaging equipment.

KLAIPEDA - Lithuanian legislators eased the regulations for alcohol advertising, but plan on banning stronger than 7.5 percent beer sales from April next year. National beer producers say the ban will hit not only strong beer lovers who, especially in the provinces, are known as boozers of bambalinis, Lithuania’s cheap and strong beer which is sold in large plastic bottles, but also fans of traditional costly Belgian beer, which is known for its potency.

Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament, is also poised to prohibit bottling beer into larger than 1 liter packages. Lina Sileikiene, head of Lithuania’s Small Brewer Association (SBA) and head of Kaunas Alus (Kaunas Beer), admitted that the Seimas draft on the ban of potent beer and its packaging is a heavy blow to the market segment. “Most small brewers bottle their brew only in the plastic package. Therefore, any ban on them would hit them severely, requiring large investments for switching to glass packaging. The ban would be absolutely inconsistent with the EU laws guaranteeing free movement of goods.

With the ban in effect, local beer importers will possibly cram the local market with imported beer,” Sileikiene warns. Only one SBA member, she says, pours its brew into glass packaging, as most bottle it into plastic bottles larger than 1 liter. “Any change would require large investments. Some of the small brewers would be simply forced to shut down their breweries and deal with bailiffs over [their] debt,” she said to delfi. The association president is convinced that the ban would trigger alcohol smuggling and sales of counterfeit alcoholic beverages. Sileikiene says small brewers take up one-tenth of the entire beer market in Lithuania.

“On the state level, the ban maybe will not cause a significant impact on the economy. However, beer brewing is an old craft, which has continued from our ancestors and which has been cherished over the centuries. It would be dishonest to cripple the culinary heritage by the ban,” the SBA representative says. Rimvydas Apacenka, head of the sales department at brewery Birzu Alus (Birzu Beer), says that no ban, especially when it comes to alcohol consumption, can bring the desired result. “If the ban goes in effect, it will impact us a lot, as the majority of our beer is strong, over 7.5 percent. To comply with the amended Alcohol Control Law, we will have to scrap all packages larger than 1 liter and invest a lot in buying new packaging facilities.

That is a very unwise decision by the state,” Apacenka said to The Baltic Times. “The consumer himself has to be entitled to choose what to drink. The ban will adversely hit most breweries, especially small ones, as most of them ferment beer which is over 8 percent in potency,” says Rimantas Cygas, director of the Birzai-based brewery Rinkuskiai. He says the authorities promulgating the importance of private business initiatives are employing “double standards” in restricting and banning certain kinds of business.

“No one can say that the authorities do not hamper the activity of local business. On the contrary, it is getting harder to run a business. There are some breweries that make ends meet only by fermenting 8 percent and stronger beer. Most of them rely on hefty bank loans and leased brewery facilities. How can the brewers switch to another production within a few months? It is impossible. Because of the unbearable decisions, many entrepreneurs quit and go abroad,” Cygas frets. He said that most brewers had prepared beer bottle labels and packages well in advance, when there were no hints of such a ban.

Vidmantas Laurinavicius, an elder of Lithuania’s Brewers’ Gild and one of the founders of Alaus Namai (Beer House), a Lithuanian beer restaurant, calls the draft “silly” and “illogical.” “The decision would do no good for anybody. Furthermore, it would be a very silly decision, as beer whose fermentation exceeds 7.5 percent is a very exclusive ale, a part of the culinary and national heritage. Are we going to wipe it out without giving a thought to what kind of consequences the decision could later bring? Setting a 7.5 percent limit for the brew’s fermentation is nonsense,” says Laurinavicius. He disagrees that the ban will help wipe out cheap and strong beer from the market. “It is absurd to think that strong beer equals cheap beer. For example, Piniavos Alutis (Piniava Beer) produces 12 percent beer Stacias (Upright), and Vilniaus Alus (Vilnius Brew) brews 14 degree ale 13 Statiniu (13 Barrels). The price of these kinds of beer is considerably higher than those of 8-9 percent,” Laurinavicius says.

He says the Seimas legislators who have proposed the draft banning 7.5 percent and stronger brew are trying to show off before the coming Seimas elections. Belgian beer is also to suffer from the ban, many beer market experts point out. “Certainly, the law, if it were passed, would do no good to our restaurant. I do not grasp why, due to the legislation, good quality, strong beer has to suffer. The draft should be aimed at the Lithuanian bambalinis, not famous foreign brands, like our 8 percent Chimay, without which no Belgian restaurant can be imagined,” says Mintare Smidtaite, deputy director of Belgai (Belgians), a Belgiumthemed Vilnius restaurant. She says Lithuanians are keen on the Belgian beer. “Our compatriots like this kind of beer, since it is really very good. Tasting various kinds of Belgian beer requires using special glasses, which is something our customers enjoy. Many customers come to our restaurant just for the beer. Some prefer only it.

The price of Belgian beer is also often larger than wine. It makes no sense to ban a product which could be considered as a luxury item,” Smidtaite is convinced. Belgai sells 5 kinds of beer stronger than 7.5 percent alcohol. The owner of winery In Vino and Belgian beer restaurant Rene, Kristupas Baublys, lashes out at all prohibitions. “I am a stark opponent of all radical prohibitive measures in democratic countries, Lithuania included. It is very disappointing that Lithuania has managed to employ the principle of the whip, but not creativity and encouragement. It is my conviction that alcohol consumption, despite the fact that Lithuania deals with the problem of excessive alcohol use, is an inseparable part of every culture. Other ways to tackle the problem of excessive consumption should be used, not bans,” Baublys says.

He points out that a Belgian beer, because of its production peculiarities, cannot be fermented to be weak. “Speaking of the beer world, one of the most amazing culinary heritage phenomena is Belgian beer. Due to its technological specialties, it cannot be brewed weaker than a certain potency. In light of the modern European economy, any populist bans of this kind drive me into despair,” he confessed. Antanas Matulas, Seimas’ Health Affairs Committee chairman, asserted that the ban on sales of 7.5 percent and stronger beer includes all beer varieties, and addresses brewers and sellers alike.

“Conditions have to be the same for all. The draft has been prepared addressing the public’s concerns over the wide-spread consumption of pilstukas (home-made beer) and bambaliai, cheap strong beer sold in large plastic bottles. The accessibility and spread of these kinds of beer do trigger their consumption,” the legislator said, convinced. He thinks, however, the law could go into effect later than April for one reason – to give strong beer brewers time to prepare for the ban. “The gist of the law remains the same – reduction of strong beer consumption in the country, but the timeline the law goes into effect can be drawn to a later time,” Matulas said. One parliamentary vote remains till the final adoption of the Alcohol Control Law. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite will have to sign it before it goes into effect.