Beer is as synonymous with German culture as watches are to Switzerland. The centrality of beer to German culture is owing to centuries of tradition, long before the unification of Germany in 1871. Although beer consumption in Germany has declined over the last several decades, beer continues to be a defining feature of modern German economic, social, and even political life.
Background and Pre-Modern German Beer
According to the German Beer Institute, beer has been brewed in Germany for about three thousand years. Until the 8th century CE, most beer was brewed at home for personal consumption. Because it is a domestic food product, and gender roles assigned women to domestic chores, brewers were almost exclusively women during the days of the Teutonic tribes. As Christianity penetrated Germany, brewing shifted toward semi-professional and eventually professional status. Christian monasteries and nunneries brewed the first commercial beers in Germany, using the proceeds from their sales to cover their operating expenses (German Beer Institute). The tradition of monastic brewing still remains throughout Germany and much of Europe. As the Germanic tribes evolved into fiefdoms and kingdoms during the Middle Ages, secular brewing guilds emerged.
However, the division between northern and southern regions of Germany was starting to become increasingly apparent during the Middle Ages as well. Those divisions continue to characterize the diversity of German beer culture. As the German Beer Institute points out, “feudal lords took over most institutional brewing in southern Germany, while burgher-merchants did the same in northern Germany.” Bavaria, in Southern Germany, reached its peak of economic and political power in during the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. It was during this time that brewing guilds wielded significant enough political clout to influence trade laws. Secular commercial beer producers often competed vehemently with the monastic beer producers wishing to dominate the industry (German Beer Institute).
The most important trade law — in any industry — to emerge from Germany was the 1516 Reinheitsgebot, which means “purity law.” Initially a regional law pertaining only to Bavaria, the law became adopted throughout modern Germany hundreds of years later. Widely believed to be the “world’s oldest consumer legislation,” the Reinheitsgebot was designed in part to protect the bread industry. Brewing had become such big business and so thoroughly entrenched in German society that the bread bakers needed greater access to grains like wheat and rye. The Reinheitsgebot stipulates that beer must contain only malted barley, liberating the stores of rye and wheat for bakers. Of course, the law would later be amended to account not only for the increase in global grain production but also for the fact that wheat and rye beers were being produced at a fairly large scale throughout Bavaria and much of Germany. In addition to barley malt, hops and water were also ingredients permitted in German beer production. It was not until scientists discovered the microscopic organisms responsible for fermentation, yeast, that the Reinheitsgebot was amended once again. The Reinheitsgebot influenced German beer production, quality, taste, style, culture, and finances for centuries.
After the Protestant Reformation, which began in Germany, the regional differences in Germany became pronounced. Regional differences are apparent in the beer itself, with different styles of beer being brewed in different regions. Those differences remain extant in the 21st century, with some styles of beer only available in their native regions of Germany. Differences in beer drinking culture and context are also apparent throughout Germany. The country now known as Germany was little more than a collection of smaller kingdoms, states, and city-states until 1871. The newness of the nation-state of Germany makes it so that modern German brewing and drinking culture is colorful and diverse. Although the number of beer breweries has declined exponentially over the last century, modern Germany still “boasts approximately twelve hundred breweries making over five thousand different beers in about twelve major styles,” (Borak).
Bavaria epitomizes the importance of beer in modern German culture. Prior to unification, Crown Prince Ludwig married Theresa von Sachsen-Hildburghausen of Bavaria. The celebration was commemorated on October 12, 1810 in Munich with a major festival held on fairgrounds now called Theresienwiese, which means “Theresa’s fairgrounds.” Still called Theresienweise by locals, the festival is one of the world’s largest and most famous: the Oktoberfest. According to Fazel, Helay, Torras, and Saha, “The event was so successful that it was decided the celebration should occur every year.” A hallmark of the Oktoberfest is the invitation of all Munich breweries — as well as being open to all who care to join in the festivities. The festival includes carnival rides and is appropriate for families and young children, but beer is central to the event too. Okotoberfest symbolizes the importance of beer in modern German culture.
The early modern era in German beer culture was also characterized by significant shifts in the craft of brewing itself. Most importantly was the discovery of bottom-fermenting yeasts that were conducive to longer periods of fermentation at colder temperatures. Suitable to the climate of Bavaria, the longer fermentation process necessitated lagering — German for cellaring. Initially developed in neighboring Bohemia, lagering caught on quickly in Bavaria. The first lagers were brewed in Bohemia, and the first pilsner-style lager was named for the Bohemian town of Pilsen in 1842 (Borak). Pilsner-style beer has become popular in some, but not all, parts of Germany.
The Modern Era in German Beer: 20th Century
Regardless of the stylistic differences between the different regions of Germany, what remains is a nationwide respect for the role beer has historically played as a food, as an economic commodity, and as a symbol of German cultural identity. Otto von Bismarck unified Germany in 1871, bringing together disparate Germanic peoples with different dialects and traditions. The unification of Germany is one of the three most important variables influencing the dramatic changes that took place in German beer culture in the modern era. A second variable is modern chemistry, and the third is industrialization.
Industrialization changed the way beer was made and distributed, and also changed the role beer played in the modern German economy. Beer went from being either within the province of the monastic non-profit tradition or within the province of specialized artisan brewers. With industrialization, it was possible to produce beer on a scale never before possible. Transformations in brewing science and technology likewise made mass production of beer possible because the otherwise sensitive beverage could enjoy improved storage conditions and more rapid transportation to areas outside the town where the beer was brewed. Although most German beer is still consumed in its local province, industrialization did allow for the distribution of beer beyond local, regional, and eventually, national borders. Beer had come to occupy such a central position in German culture, and had attained symbolic value, that “the first freight ever transported by a German railway were two casks of beer brewed by the Lederer Brewery of Nurnberg,” (German Beer Institute).
Modern science and especially biochemistry changed the nature of beer brewing globally. German scientists were at the forefront of much of the research being done on brewing chemistry. In 1837, the most significant breakthrough in early modern brewing chemistry arrived when Theodor Schwann discovered the yeast cell. Noticing under his microscope that yeast consumed sugars voraciously, often devouring all sugars in its wake, Schwann named yeast saccharomyces, Latin for “sugar fungus,” (German Beer Institute). Schwann also discovered how yeast behaved, and that it preferred anaerobic conditions for it to multiply and cause the fermentation of sugars into alcohol. Building on Schwann’s discovery, French chemist Louis Pasteur recognized how to further control and manipulate yeast during the fermentation process. Prior to these scientific discoveries, German brewers had been operating blindly. Most knew that beer did not do well in warm weather conditions, which is in fact why Bavaria eventually outlawed summer brewing (German Beer Institute). Pasteur’s development of the pasteurization process also led some industrial brewers outside of Germany to pasteurize their products for a longer shelf life, a practice frowned upon by most artisanal brewers.
Beer has become one of the common grounds between Germans from different regions, who retain distinct traditions, dialects, and identities. Because of the link between beer and German unification, eeer has become an emotional issue for Germans. As the Radeberger Gruppe puts it, “it is the drink of the man in the street, Germany’s national drinkâ€¦no other product is discussed with much passion and emotion. German beer represents conviviality,” (1). Beer has social, as well as economic and political significance in modern German culture. The political significance of beer became apparent to the world in 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup of Football (Soccer). When the announcement was made that Anheuser-Busch received the exclusive rights to serving their beer at World Cup tournaments, fans revolted. Protesters likened the American beer to “dishwater,” and designed a website mocking the Anheuser-Busch logo by making its iconic American eagle throw up (Lawton). So vehement were the protests that Anheuser-Busch was forced to relent and allow German beer giant Bitburger to serve their beers at World Cup stadiums in Germany — albeit in unmarked cups (Lawton). The protest over beer at the World Cup has great symbolic importance for Germany. Beer is so inextricably tied up with German cultural identity that it seemed untenable to have an American brewery representing the nation to the world.
The 2006 World Cup fiasco was not the first time beer rose to the level of politics in modern Germany. After the end of World War One, the Allies demanded Germany pay its war reparations, sending the nation into economic despair and widespread panic. Many Germans blamed Berlin for being too conciliatory toward the Allies, protesting the repayment of war debts. In 1923, the Nazi party organized what was essentially a coup, first storming a Munich beer hall during a meeting of prominent German business leaders. Hitler shouted to the patrons of the beer hall, “The National Revolution has begun!” (“The History Place”). Munich and the rest of Bavaria would become Hitler’s base of operations during Nazi rule, ensuring that beer halls remained frequent points of meeting and beer a part of social gatherings. Hitler and the Nazis based their political propaganda on the imaginary ideal of German ethnic unity. Beer became a potent symbol of German identity during the nation’s darkest hour.
Generations after Germany has pulled itself together from the debacle of Nazism, beer remains part of German culture, tradition, and national pride. Although Germany does not consume the most beer per capita — a title that belongs squarely to the Czechs — Germans do consume large quantities of beer. Beer consumption has also been declining considerably. In the 1970s Germans “consumed 150 liters per capita annually, but current consumption is 106 liters per capita, a 30% decline,” (Fazel, Helay, Torras, and Saha). Drinking is normalized, commonplace, and rarely stigmatized in Germany. The legal drinking age for beer in Germany is 16, much younger than it is in the United States. Moreover, beer can be consumed in public and bought almost anywhere. “It’s not uncommon to see people drinking in parks, on the streets and even on public transport,” (“The Highs and Lows of Germany’s Drinking Culture”). Beer is also cheap in Germany, because beer is considered more of a food product than an alcoholic beverage. While Germans “accept price increases on all other goods, beer is sacred,” and the price rarely changes in a significant way (Raderberger Gruppe). Relative to the cost of living, the cost of beer in Germany is cheaper than anywhere else in Europe (“The Highs and Lows of Germany’s Drinking Culture”). Beer is considered as much a right as a privilege.
However, beer culture is changing in Germany. “More than 41 large- and 182 medium-sized breweries have closed since 2000â€¦”Berlin, which sustained some 700 breweries in the early 19th century, now counts only about a dozen firms,” (Fazel, Helay, Torras, and Saha). There are several reasons for the decline in beer’s popularity in Germany. One is ironically related to the stranglehold the Reinheitsgebot itself had on German brewing innovation and creativity. While the law might have ensured quality control for much of German brewing history, the Reinheitsgebot prevented brewers from experimenting outside of the boundaries of their restrictive recipes. It wasn’t until May of 1987 that the European Court of Justice “struck down the Reinheitsgebot as an obstacle to free trade,” while allowing ingredients beyond the original beer brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot receive special treatment as a protected, ‘traditional food,” (Borak). By the time the law was struck down, the Reinheitsgebot had become so much a source of pride and tradition that German brewers did not expand beyond their comfort zones. While Belgium, England, and later, the United States became global producers of exciting new beer styles, Germany remained stuck in the past. This has caused younger generations to eschew beer as being perceived of as a drink for old people. As Fazel et al. put it, “the trend of microbreweries and craft beer is catching on, putting the larger producers in jeopardy.” Viewed from another angle, the emerging craft beer movement in Germany offers the beer loving nation its greatest opportunity to remain a world leader.
Another challenge to modern German beer culture is branding and reputation. Beer had long been branded as the beverage of the people in Germany. As the people’s drink, beer had a pedestrian connotation that is a source of pride for some, but a source of scorn for others. Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, had disparaged the national beverage of beer by saying, “Beer is man-made, but wine comes from God,” (cited in “A little history of what Germans drink and why”). Not surprisingly, many of the regions of Germany that remained Catholic developed more robust brewing cultures than those that became Protestant. Bavaria, for example, was a Catholic stronghold, as is Franconia until this day. Cologne, which is known for its traditional and unique ale-lager hybrid Kolsch, is a Catholic city as well. In addition to it being considered a pedestrian beverage when compared with wine, the image of beer has become more associated with lowbrow vs. high culture. This is especially true of views of the Oktoberfest. “Oktoberfest is now being viewed by some as not very classy,” and many Germans have “promoted wine as a more sophisticated optionâ€¦”beer is perceived to be low end, compared to wine,” (Fazel, Helay, Torras, and Saha).
German demographics are also changing, leading to shifting trends in the role beer plays in modern German society. There are a growing number of immigrants in Germany, many of whom are Turkish and not accustomed to drinking beer prolifically. Germans are also having fewer children, leading to a decline in numbers of the core beer-drinking population between the ages of 18 and 34 (Fazel, Helay, Torras, and Saha). Young people in Germany today view beer as an old fashioned, traditional beverage and have shifted their consumer preferences. Trending now are what are known as “alco-pops,” which are pre-mixed cocktails made with low grade spirits and flavoring (Fazel, Helay, Torras, and Saha). Although these drinks are trending now, they have to compete with millennia of brewing traditions in Germany, a nation whose national image is inseparable from beer. In spite of demographic changes in the consumers of beer, the beverage will remain integral to German national and cultural identity.
With the help of foreign beer aficionados, the traditional beer brewing traditions of Germany are likely to survive the shifting demographics and image of beer in Germany. The American craft beer movement, which has shifted somewhat to northern Europe and Scandinavia, has bolstered interest in the craft beers of Franconia and other regions of Germany. Modern brewing and the introduction of foreign beer styles such as IPAs and stouts remains in its infancy in Germany. Some German breweries are venturing out of the Reinheitsgebot mold, but the transofmration is happening slowly. However, foreign visitors to Germany and “beer tourists” travel to traditional towns and villages making beer that cannot be purchased outside of those regions and must be had on draft from local taprooms. Whereas critics of modern German beer culture cite the lack of innovation and unwillingness to expand production as being harbingers of the demise of local brewing traditions, others remain optimistic that the craft brewing trend that is expanding globally will eventually take root in one of the world’s most entrenched beer countries: Germany (Fazel, Helay, Torras, and Saha).
Beer is ubiquitous in German daily life, but especially in German beer-brewing regions. Not all of Germany is a beer-brewing regions, and the country also boasts many regions known more for their wines. In Bavaria, Franconia, and other beer-brewing regions of Germany, beer is considered a food product. Germans in traditional towns often drink beer at breakfast, a tradition that might be “frowned upon” outside of those communities, but not considered overly strange (Fazel, Helay, Torras, and Saha). More commonly, beer is enjoyed during the afternoons or evenings. In Franconia and Bavaria, beer is typically served in its place of origin and often at the brewery itself. The same is true for other traditional brewing cultures in Germany, such as in Dusseldorf and Cologne. In nearly all German beer regions, the beverage is considered to be a point of communion with friends, family, and strangers. Germans usually opt for “vacant seats at an already occupied table to the solitude of single dining,” something that generally contradicts the otherwise reserved, serious, and staid stereotyped demeanor (German Beer Institute). In Bavaria especially, drinking songs might accompany a night of drinking with friends and singing and music is integral to the Oktoberfest and other beer festivals in Germany. Oktoberfest is one of hundreds of traditional beer festivals throughout the country. Most festivals are seasonal, coinciding with different stages of the seasonal brewing cycle during which certain styles of beer are brewed and released at specific times of the year. The celebration of beer commemorates not only the beverage itself, but also millennia of tradition, culture, and identity.
“A little history of what Germans drink and why.” DW. Retrieved online: http://www.dw.de/a-little-history-of-what-germans-drink-and-why/a-16880477
Borak, Mark. “Beer in Bohemia and Bavaria.” Retrieved online: https://courses.cit.cornell.edu/his452/Alcohol/Beer%20Page/Beerpage1.html
Fazel, Helay, Flaquer, Xavier Torras, and Venkatesh Saha. “Is the End of the German Beer Industry Near?” Wharton: Management. Jan 02, 2013. Retrieved online: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/is-the-end-of-the-german-beer-industry-near/
German Beer Institute. “Three Millennia of German Brewing.” 2006. Retrieved online: http://www.germanbeerinstitute.com/history.html
“The Highs and Lows of Germany’s Drinking Culture.” DW. Retrieved online: http://www.dw.de/the-highs-and-lows-of-germanys-drinking-culture/a-2226609
“The History Place.” Retrieved online: http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/riseofhitler/putsch.htm
Lawton, Christopher. “Ditching the ‘Dishwater’: Eastern German Beer Scores with World Cup Sponsorship.” Spiegel Online. Retrieved online: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/ditching-the-dishwater-eastern-german-beer-scores-with-world-cup-sponsorship-a-657877.html
Radeberger Gruppe. “German Beer Culture.” Retrieved online: http://www.radeberger-gruppe.de/files/downloads/deutsche-bierkultur-eng.pdf
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