Franz Ehrnsperger has fought these battles before.
“I’m doing it all again for the second time,” the 69-year-old said.
After he took over his father’s brewery and switched to making organic beer, many of Germany’s brewers were frothing. They sued him multiple times in the 1980s, claiming he was trying to undermine their businesses with unfair competition.
Germany already has its famous beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, and you couldn’t get any purer than that, they claimed.
Mr. Ehrnsperger won the court battles and the hearts of beer drinkers in the process. Today, his Lammsbräu is Germany’s leading organic beer. While the industry has suffered sinking sales for years, Lammsbräu’s turnover last year grew 12 percent to €19 million, or $21 million.
The niche brewer is clearly profiting from the trend towards organic and regional products. But rather than bask in the success of his organic beer brand, Mr. Ehrnsperger is now agitating another part of the beverage industry. He has turned his attention to water, launching Biokristall, Germany’s first organic-labeled mineral water.
Organic water should be the standard for the entire world. Franz Ehrnsperger, Owner, Lammsbräu
He had another fight on his hands as he struggled to get a European seal of approval. The German mineral water association alleged it was consumer fraud and sued until the country’s administrative court decided the organic label for water was valid.
Although Lammsbräu only sold 11,000 hectoliters of organic water last year, Mr. Ehrnsperger sees developing organic water sources as the key to protecting the environment and supporting organic farming.
“People are easier to reach emotionally with the issue of water,” he said.
He’s set up a group to develop clear rules for certifying organic water, but there’s still a long way to go. “We don’t have a lot of friends yet. We’re just at the beginning,” Mr. Ehrnsperger admitted.
Roughly a third of German mineral water sources would meet the strict qualifications to be organic. The list of 50 criteria is stricter than Germany’s rules for normal mineral water and includes new requirements like limits on uranium levels.
At least he’s spurred two large mineral water bottlers, Ensinger and Christinen, to produce their own organic brands. “Organic water should be the standard for the entire world,” said Mr. Ehrnsperger.
Now that a few bottlers have switched sides, the mineral water association has become more conciliatory. Stefan Seip, the group’s managing director, told Handelsblatt that all German mineral waters are “a 100-percent natural product” subject to strict controls and food safety standards.
“The attributes of naturalness and high quality apply to all German mineral waters,” he said. “Each source is free to use the available possibilities, such as the organic mineral water label.”
But skepticism still abounds in the industry.
“Our natural mineral water is organic,” said Michael Bartholl, the head of the spring water bottler Mineralbrunnen Überkingen-Teinach. “How can mineral water be more organic than when it comes from very deep layers of rock directly to customers?”
As the 14th-biggest spring water producer in Germany, he’s warning the competition: “Making pedantic classifications for organic water is a very dubious business.”
Video: Lammsbräu's gluten-free beer ad.
The spring causing all the ruckus doesn’t look particularly spectacular at first glance. Hidden on the Lammsbräu brewery property in northeastern Bavaria there’s a small building with the sign “Spring House” on it. Inside, some 76 meters in the ground, is the well that Lammsbräu has always used to brew its organic beer and from which it has bottled its water for the past few years.
Of course, Mr. Ehrnsperger doesn’t think that drinking non-eco water will make you sick. “I myself also drink tap water,” he said.
The beer-and-water entrepreneur has never avoided the road less traveled. Switching his family’s brewery over to an organic operation was exotic at the time he did it. And when he stepped back from the daily business in 2008, he appointed a woman, Susanne Horn, to run the brewery until his son was ready to take over. That was an affront to many of his conservative Bavarian brewer colleagues, especially since Ms. Horn didn’t come from the beer industry. She initially had difficulty to get people to pay attention to her at brewer meetings.
These days, however, everyone is listening, especially since organic beer is no longer controversial. On the contrary, many larger brewers would like to jump on the bandwagon. But the business model is not easily transferable, since it requires getting into organic agriculture first.
Which is why Mr. Ehrnsperger receives three or four takeover offers each year. “Those go straight into the bin,” he said happily.
His son is now 25 years old and just finished his business degree. Now he’s training as a brewer and wants to take over where his father left off. When that day comes, perhaps organic water will be as normal as organic beer is today.