Bavaria, the southernmost of the 16 states of the Federal Republic of Germany, is the undisputed cradle of the world’s lager beer culture. There, in the northern foothills of the Alps, where summers are hot and winters are cold, many of the world’s major beer styles have emerged, some by happenstance, some by design. These include helles, dunkel, märzen, Oktoberfest, kellerbier, rauchbier, schwarzbier, and bockbier in all its variations (doppelbock, maibock, weizenbock, and eisbock among them). In addition, Bavaria has spawned an ale, hefeweizen (also known as weissbier or weizenbier), the world’s most popular wheat beer, as well as its dark relation, the dunkelweizen, and its filtered version, the kristallweizen. Other, less common Bavarian styles include zoiglbier, zwickelbier, landbier, dampfbier, erntebier, dinkelbier, and roggenbier. Even the flagship brew of the Czech Republic, the pilsner, has Bavarian roots: It was a Bavarian brewmaster, Josef Groll, who was hired by the Měšťanský Pivovar (Burgher Brewery) in 1842 to reform beer making in the Bohemian city of Plzeň (Pilsen).
Bavaria is also the world’s most important source of hops, supplying about one-third of the global hop demand, especially in so-called noble aroma varieties. In addition, its fields produce some of the world’s best brewing barley and wheat, and specialty malts made by Bavarian maltsters are sought after by breweries on all continents. Bavarian beers, invariably made from home-grown raw materials, tend to be rich and malty, with a delicate up-front bitterness and an aromatic, malt-accented finish.
There are few places in the world where beer is as firmly interwoven with the daily culture of its inhabitants as in Bavaria. Bavarians call their way of life Gemütlichkeit—an inimitably Bavarian form of conviviality—and beer is an integral part of that Gemütlichkeit, a basic food, the people’s daily “liquid bread.” In the summer, Bavarians favor their pale beer, the straw-blond, easy-drinking helles and the refreshing, effervescent hefeweizen with its slight clove, banana, and bubblegum aromas. In the fall, they switch to the amber and stronger Oktoberfest beer. Around Christmas, the bock beers come into their own. In the depth of winter, around Lent, it is time for the strong and nourishing doppelbock, while, in the spring, when the days get longer again, the beer of choice becomes the amber-to-blond, medium-strong maibock (May bock).
No matter which season, when Bavarians sit down for a beer, they like to take their time. In the summer, beer gardens under the shady canopy of chestnut and linden trees offer oases of respite from the struggles and stresses of the daily grind, even in the big bustling cities. There are some 80 beer gardens in Munich alone. In the winter, cozy beer halls, some centuries old, offer warmth and comfort. The beer in these places is usually served in liter or half-liter mugs (roughly pint- or quart-size glasses with sturdy handles). And Bavarians know how to celebrate with beer: Springtime is official Starkbierzeit (strong beer season), fêted with doppelbocks indoors, while fall is always Oktoberfest time, the last big outdoor bash of the year. The 2-week-long Munich Oktoberfest has become the biggest party in the world, attracting some six to seven million visitors each year.
Bavaria’s beer-making goes back to the late Bronze Age, if not further. An earthenware amphora, discovered in 1935 in a Celtic chieftain’s burial mound in Kasendorf near the northern Bavarian city of Kulmbach, has been dated to about 800 bce. It is considered the oldest evidence of beer-making in continental Europe. Its dried-up content has been identified as the residues of a black wheat ale flavored with oak leaves. The brewers who made this beer belonged to the so-called Hallstatt culture, a Celtic people, who then occupied an area roughly between the present-day border of France and Germany, and the Danube basin near Vienna, Austria. Yet, by the beginning of the modern era, at the time of the Roman conquest of Central Europe, invading Germanic tribes from the east had driven the Celts to the western edge of the Continent and across the present-day English Channel to the British Isles. The first Celtic settlements began to appear in Britain around the second half of the 5th century bce. Of course, the Celts took their beer-making skills with them, which may make them the ancestors not only of the German but also of the British and Irish beer cultures.
Meanwhile, in Central Europe, the Germanic tribes continued to make beer, too, because, like all good conquerors, they usurped the achievements of the vanquished. A key piece of evidence of the continuity of beer-making in Bavaria is an archeological dig at the outskirts of Regensburg on the banks of the Danube. This site contains a complete brewery, replete with malting facilities, a deep well, and a fire pit for heating a mash-brew kettle. It dates from 179 CE, when Castra Regina (Regensburg) was a walled-in encampment for the Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Third Italian Legion of some 6,000 elite troupes and their Germanic servants, prostitutes, and artisans, including brewers. The fortification was built as a bulwark against the Marcomans, a confederation of marauding tribes that were threatening the northeastern flank of the Roman Empire. The Romans usually scoffed at the primitive brews of the Germans, but for the outpost at Regensburg, the local beer just had to do, because it was next to impossible to supply that many thirsty souls with wine from across the Alps. Oddly, therefore, the oldest evidence of a complete brewery in Bavaria is a Roman structure.
Brewing in Central Europe, until the late Roman period, was mostly women’s work. While the man of the household tilled the fields of barley, wheat, and oats, the lady of the house attended to both the stew and the brew around the domestic hearth. Her beers were usually flavored with herbs, known as “gruit,” such as bog myrtle, gale, juniper, mugwort, woodruff, and yarrow.
As brewing in the monasteries and convents of the High Middle Ages improved, beer became a source of wealth for the religious orders, which, not surprisingly, attracted the attention of the secular feudal lords in the countryside and the patrician merchants in the cities. Soon rival court and burgher breweries sprang up, yet beer quality in the hands of lesser-trained brewers declined. Especially in the summer, beer in Bavaria would often taste sour or worse—from microbial infections, as we now understand. But the first microbes were only observed in 1673, by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch inventor of the microscope; and the definite proof that microbes are responsible for both fermentation and putrefaction had to wait until Louis Pasteur’s groundbreaking 1876 work Études sur la biere, ses maladies, causes qui les provoquent, procédé pour la rendre inaltérable, avec une théorie nouvelle de la fermentation (Studies on Beer: The diseases of beer, their causes, and the means of preventing them, with a new theory of fermentation).
Given the feudal order of things at the time, therefore, there was only one remedy for bad beer in Bavaria: regulation. Thus was passed a decree, in the city of Augsburg, in 1156, insisting that a brewer’s bad beer “shall be destroyed or distributed among the poor at no charge.” In 1363 the 12 members of the Munich city council assumed the role of beer inspectors. In 1420 they decreed that all beer must be aged at least 8 days before it could be served, and in 1447 they ordered that brewers may use only barley, hops, and water for their beers. In 1487 Duke Albrecht IV of the House of Wittelsbach, the ruling dynasty in Bavaria since 1180, forced Munich brewers to take a public oath to adhere to the 1447 decree. Finally, on April 23, 1516, the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV issued the now-famous Reinheitsgebot (Beer Purity Law) for his entire realm.
This 1553 decree had enormous, mostly unintended, consequences for the entire world of beer. It not only cleaned up Bavarian beer, but it inadvertently also caused all Bavarian beers henceforth to be lagers, because all ale-making yeasts go dormant below roughly 7°C (45°F). Only lager-making yeasts are still capable of fermenting beer at cold winter temperatures. Also, because of Albrecht’s decree, brewers had to work overtime in late spring to make enough beer for the hot summer months, for which they made relatively strong beers, of perhaps 6% ABV, that would keep well. These brews of spring became soon known as March beers (Märzenbier in German)—forerunners of the modern Märzen beer style.
The original Bavarian winter lager was a beer we now know as dunkel, meaning “dark.”
But not all traditional Bavarian beers are lagers. A curious exception is the weissbier (“white beer”) or hefeweizen (“yeast wheat”). This brew is a refreshing, effervescent pale ale—usually unfiltered and thus yeast-turbid—made from at least 50% wheat malt. The rest is barley malt. Weissbier became a popular brew in southeastern Bavaria in the 15th century, when the noble House of Degenberg of the village of Schwarzach obtained a feudal monopoly for brewing it. In the 16th century, weissbier found itself in technical violation of both the barley-only provisions of the Reinheitsgebot and the seasonal limitations of summer brewing prohibitions, which stirred up a decades-long conflict between the Degenbergs and the ruling House of Wittelsbach. In 1556 Duke Albrecht V declared wheat beer “a useless drink that neither nourishes nor provides strength and power, but only encourages drunkenness,” and explicitly outlawed wheat beer-making by ordinary brewers—except for the Degenbergs, who got slapped with a special beer sales tax. But in 1602 Baron Hans Sigmund of Degenberg, the last of the Degenberg clan, died without leaving an heir, and, by the feudal rules of the day, the wheat beer privilege reverted to the Wittelsbachs. This led to a sudden reversal of official Bavarian beer policy: Duke Maximilian I, Albrecht’s grandson, brought the Schwarzach brewmaster to Munich, built a new “white” brew house (near the present-day Hofbräuhaus in downtown Munich at Am Platzl Square), and eventually forced every innkeeper in his realm to purchase wheat beer from the many Wittelsbach-owned breweries. In 1872, during a dip in weissbier popularity, the Wittelsbachs sold the weissbier privilege to a private company, the Georg Schneider Brewery, which is still today a leading weissbier maker. In the late 20th century weissbier made a surprising comeback in public taste, and, at the beginning of the second millennium it overtook helles as the most popular beer style in Bavaria, garnering more than one-third of the market share there.
The glory of Bavarian beer’s past, however, is no guarantee of its future. In modern times, Bavarian beer finds itself strangely in trouble—perhaps the victim of its own success, because, when a thing becomes ubiquitously good, its exceptional quality is often no longer recognized, except by people looking in from the outside. As the globalized economy now offers Germans, including Bavarians, such “cool” new experiences as Shiraz from Australia and bourbon from Kentucky, and as these beverages are embraced mostly by the young, beer—the drink of generations past—begins to look more like an “old hat.” German beer statistics tell the story: Overall German beer consumption decreased from roughly 114 million hl in 1991—the first year of all-German statistics after the fall of the Berlin Wall—to less than 100 million hl per year in 2010. In Bavaria, the number of breweries dropped from 726 to fewer than 630 during the same period. Wine, by comparison, was able to increase its per-capita consumption by about 10% just during the first decade of the new millennium.
These negative trends left the German brew industry with excess capacity and, because roughly half of Germany’s approximately 1,300 breweries (as of 2010) are located in Bavaria, the state naturally suffered the brunt of the fallout. In addition, because the structure of the Bavarian brew industry, much like that of the North American craft brew industry, is fragmented into many small players, few of them have had the resources to ride out a long-term slump. Many breweries that did not close were taken over by larger players. In order to maintain capacity utilization, albeit at a razor-thin margin per unit, many of the very large breweries still operating, such as Oettinger, have been offering a 10-liter case of beer for a consumer price of about four Euros since the start of the millennium. This amounts to between US$4 and US$6 depending on the exchange rate, or about US$1.25 per US six-pack! There is one emerging sign, however, that offers hope for the future of Bavarian beer: Small brewpubs are making a comeback. These are modern, American-style establishments, but with traditional and indigenous beer style portfolios.
In the near term, therefore, Bavaria is likely to experience the same structural adjustments seen in many other mature beer cultures around the globe. While mid-size packaging breweries are struggling, the emerging bifurcation of the industry between big industrial beer-makers, who are getting bigger through mergers, acquisitions, and economies of scale, on the one hand, and small, artisanal beer-makers, who combine tradition and innovation to keep beer interesting, will probably continue. But it remains to be seen if Bavarian beer—artisanal and/or industrial—will be able to retain its hitherto unchallenged status as the people’s daily “liquid bread.” It is not likely that the answer will be known for a few more decades to come.
Deutscher Brauer-Bund e.V. (German Brewers Federation). http://www.brauer-bund.de/ (accessed August 10, 2010). Dornbusch, Horst. Bavarian helles. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2000.
Deutscher Brauer-Bund e.V. (German Brewers Federation). http://www.brauer-bund.de/ (accessed August 10, 2010).
Dornbusch, Horst. Bavarian helles. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2000.