Plutarch, the ancient Greek philosopher, liked beer. “Among beverages beer is the most useful, among medicines the most tasteful and among foods the most pleasant,” he wrote.
Were the philosopher alive today, he might question the wisdom of a court ruling that has sent ripples of disquiet through the country’s proud beer industry.
The district court in the southern German city of Ravensburg decided the Clemens Härle brewery from the nearby town of Leutkirch can no longer use the word “bekömmlich,” a term with a number of possible English translations including “wholesome,” “digestible,” “pleasant” or “agreeable,” to advertise its beer.
The century-old brewery, which described its beer as “bekömmlich” on its website, argued the word meant its beer was good for one’s well-being.
But the Berlin-based Federation for Social Competition, a private organization committed to fighting unfair business practices, said the term implied that the beer had health benefits. Advertising alcoholic drinks on that basis is against the European Union’s Health Claims Directive that forbids health-related advertising for alcoholic drinks.
The Ravensburg court agreed. The small brewery, with just 30 employees, will fight Tuesday’s ruling, which confirmed a temporary injunction imposed in June.
Germany has 1,352 breweries, which generated sales of €7.914 billion, or $9.04 billion in 2014.
“We will appeal against this,” Roland Demleitner, managing director of the Association of Family-Owned Breweries, told Handelsblatt. Mr. Demleitner, who is also a lawyer, is representing the Härle brewery.
German winemakers have already fallen victim to the Health Claims Directive. The European Court of Justice ruled in 2012 that a winemaking cooperative from the Palatinate region in southwestern Germany couldn’t use the word “bekömmlich.” The cooperative had advertised its wines as “wholesome” because they had gone through a natural process to reduce their acidity.
But Mr. Demleitner said beer and wine couldn’t be compared. “With beer, unlike with the wine ruling, the term has no connection whatsoever with a statement about health,” said the representative of 800 breweries in Germany.
He said he wasn’t just fighting for Härle but for other breweries in Germany that had been ordered to stop using the word.
The rival Federation of German Brewers, which represents larger breweries accounting for four-fifths of the market, is keeping a close eye on the dispute. But a spokesman declined to comment on the Ravensburg ruling.
Germany has 1,352 breweries, which generated sales of €7.914 billion, or $9.04 billion, according to 2014 figures from the federation. While per-capita consumption of beer has been falling in recent years, it is still among the highest in Europe, with a staggering consumption of 106.9 liters per person per year.
The country is gearing up to celebrate the 500th anniversary of its beer purity law in 2016, which states that beer must only contain water, malt, hops and yeast.
Brewers are lobbying for the purity law, supposedly the world’s oldest nutritional law still in force, to be given UNESCO World Heritage status.