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Bionade: the triumph of a guiltless pleasure

The Bionade story is the David and Goliath story of the soft-drink industry. Cornelius and Fabian Lange travel to Ostheim vor der Rhön to meet the people who brought lemonade home.

Ostheim vor der Rhön in northern Bavaria is a pretty place but the Peter brewery doesn't do it any favours. The neon sign flashing on the roof is missing a "p" and the second "e", the plaster on the facade is coming away and the leaves on the yucca tree inside the brewery hang limp. It's a typical family brewery: the weak buckle first. For years vultures circled overhead, as the brewery teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and everyone prepared themselves for the worst. With the exeption of one man – the master brewer and inventor, Dieter Leipold. He was dreaming the dream of all inventors – to come up with a groundbreaking new product. And to get rich, very rich.

Whenever Leipold withdrew to push on with his research, he was fleeing the depressing reality of the brewery and the hops and malt which weren't bringing in any money. When the situation reached crisis point in the eighties, the family opened a disco on their factory premises. From nine at night till five in the morning Leipold was chained to the beer tap; "Fill yourself with Peter beer" went the motto, aimed at drawing in young people from the area around Schweinfurt, Fulda and Erfurt, who wanted to get drunk and have a dance. That kept their heads above water.

But what was Leipold looking for? "I brew beer so I know about biotechnology and understand microorganisms. I wanted to develop an alcohol-free soft drink." It took him 8 years to perfect the technique of brewing an organic barley drink. "But no gentlemen, you don't brew it! It ferments". Excuse me. Alcohol is produced by brewing. With microorganisms Leipold produces gluconic acid, which you can find in honey.

Bionade shot like a meteorite though Germany's soft drink industry. Peter Leipold owns the patent as well as the name, Bionade, and he invites me to lunch. His wife Sigrid serves up a dish of rabbit provençale with roast dumplings. Naturally it's all washed down with Peter pils. Sigrid Peter-Leipold is the grey eminence at Bionade. She stays behind the scenes but evidently knows the ropes and has something to say. "We offered the Bionade license to other breweries so that they could also develop a soft drink on the market that was somehow linked to their brewery skills. But they weren't the slightest bit interested. So we decided to make Bionade ourselves."

Leipold no longer gets involved in the day-to-day business. "I've fully provided for myself," he says. His step-son Peter Kowalsky has now taken over the reins. The 38-year-old's aqua blue eyes are serene as he rattles off his figures. "In 2004 we filled 7 million bottles of Bionade, in 2005, 22 million. In 2006 we'll easily reach 66 million – the summer isn't over yet." The walls may be peeling but at Bionade everyone's happy, particularly the hordes of new employees who were on social benefits until recently. "No one believed in them," says Kowalsky, "just like no one believed in our brewery".

Now they do shifts day and night, 22 thousand bottles an hour, four hundred thousand a day. Germany is thirsty, thirsty for Bionade. It's even surprised Kowalsky. "We've got technicians just building fermentation tanks. They've been here for a year. Incredible!" The concentrate for Bionade needs to ferment in the tanks for five days. The mixture of water and the organic barley malt produce the gluconic acid and carbon dioxide. That is then diluted with water (one part concentrate to five parts water) and organic sugar, juice concentrates and carbonic acid are added.

Although production is non-stop, it's still no way near enough. "We are always having to ask the outlets to be patient," says Kowalsky. He tries to squeeze as many extra bottles out of the current production as possible. "Soon we'll be setting up at the end of Füll street." And then he starts doing his sums aloud. "That's another one thousand bottles per hour. We're filling bottles 18 hours a day and 220 days a year, which makes," he trails off, his lips search for a number that his brain hasn't figured out yet. "Well, it definitely adds up to a hefty sum!"

Rewe, Edeka, Tegut, Metro, Ikea – all these shops have fallen for Bionade overnight and in such a big way that they're even doing away with the listing fees that are normally required when they introduce something new into their product line. "One wanted 1,5 million euros from us just for the honour of being on their shelves," says Kowalsky. "In the end we still got in for free." There's a loud boom in the yard as yet another lorry swallows twenty pallets of the wonder drink. The storage supplies only last up to 2 hours. One small glitch sends the whole distribution chain into disarray. "We've been careering along a knife-edge at 200 mph for the last 2 years." Kowalsky looks like the cat that got the cream, but you can sense his fear that he won't be able to keep pace with demand. He's not putting a penny more into the old dump of a factory. "In the autumn we'll have a new production facility on the other side of the road." At the moment it's just a car park.

What triggered the success of Bionade? The big bang was in 1998 in the Gloria bar in Hamburg. The bar's owner, Falco Wambold, had discovered Bionade at Internorga, a restaurant and catering trade fair. No one had heard of it before – he put it on his menu. And then Bionade conquered the republic.

What is it about this drink which originally only appealed to the fringes of society? There's no colouring, not too many bubbles and little sugar – only half the amount found in similar drinks. The palate gets a refreshing but restrained kick from the acids, mixed with the utmost care. With the second mouthful the drink unfolds its secret and breaks all the soft drink rules.

There are 4 different flavours – elderflower, herb, lychee and ginger-orange. The thirsty customer has a choice and not just between these four, but between good and bad; between the sticky soft-drink empire of Coke, Pepsi, etc. which has taken on such mammoth dimensions that it virtually squashes all other alternatives, or the little, innocent lemonade from the franconian Rhön district. It stands for guiltless pleasure. Lemonade is coming home: this is what home tastes like!

"We decided not to play games," says Kowalsky as he talks about their marketing concept which steers clear of flashy images. And that's why people don't just drink it, they empathise with it. You're not just quenching their thirst. You're making a statement by taking a swig from a Bionade bottle. With coke you're a consumer, putty in the hands of globalisation. With Bionade, you've got personality. And it's exactly this group that the drinks industry had failed to reach. It took them a while to notice the little meteorite from Rhön, silently growing until it hit the jackpot.

When the Cola company descends, not even their all-purpose weapon – lots of money – can keep Bionade in check. "So you don't want to be rich?" was the reply that came from the Coke bosses from Atlanta during a meeting with the brewers from Ostheim at the Adlon hotel in Berlin. Bionade had just fended off a very generous bid. That was in 2004 and the family already knew how much the company was worth. And for them it's not just about money. It's about honour, about Ostheim, about the Rhön district and Hartz IV (social benefits). "What would we have done with all the money? Bought an island?" asks Kowalsky. How much did they offer? "We can't tell you that, but Bionade is currently worth about 100 million euros," says Sigrid Peter-Leipold in the dining room before taking the plates back into the kitchen.

Meanwhile Peter Kowalsky has big plans up his sleeve. "At the moment we need 100 tonnes of organic elderflower concentrate per year. In the future I want to buy this from the farmers in the Rhön district. The first 50 acres of elderflower have already been sown." And this is where his dream really takes root. "Soon the farmers in Ostheim could be solely producing Bionade. The organic barley could soon be coming directly out of the Rhön district. From the Bionade valley!"


The article originally appeared in German in Stern magazine on August 3, 2006.

Translation: Abby Darcy. - let's talk european