Germany has arguably the oldest continuous brewing culture in the world. The origins of German brewing are shrouded in mystery, mostly because the ancient inhabitants of what is now the territory of Germany were illiterate tribesmen who left no written records. We do know from archaeological finds that brewing must have been practiced at least by the late Bronze Age, which lasted in Central Europe roughly from 2000 to 700 bc. Compared with the Stone Age that preceded it, agricultural implements and cooking gear—both essential for raising grain and making beer from it—improved during this period. The most conclusive evidence we have for brewing at this time is an earthenware amphora from around 800 bc. It was found in 1935 in a burial mound of the so-called Celtic Hallstatt culture near the small northern Bavarian village of Kasendorf, some 7 miles west of Kulmbach.
The first written evidence of Germanic beer making is actually Roman. As the Romans ventured across the Alps, around the beginning of the current epoch, to subdue the barbarians to the north, they sent not only legionnaires to do the fighting but also sophisticated scribes to record the events for posterity. Caesar himself made the first move into Gaul, which is now mostly France, during his Gallic Wars (58 to 51 bc), which he then described in his famous Commentarii. But perhaps the most concise descriptions of Germanic customs including brewing come from Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56–117 ad). In his De origine et situ germanii (About the Origin and Location of the Germans) he wrote that the Germans were not much interested in hard work—not exactly the image that Germans have today—yet were capable of suffering cold and hunger well. However, he said, they could not in the least endure heat and thirst. And against that nagging thirst, the Germans had a remedy: “Potui humor ex hordeo aut frumento, in quandam similitudinem vini corruptus.” (They drank a liquor of barley or other grain that was fermented into a corrupt resemblance to wine.) This, of course, was beer. The Romans generally disdained the German “corrupt” grain-wine, the smell of which the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (331–363 ad) once likened to that of a billy goat. However, because it was simply not possible, even for Romans, to freight enough wine from Italy across the Alps to keep the troops in Germany happy, the Romans eventually not only made German beer-brewing their own, but also improved upon it. The evidence for this is a complete Roman brewery that was unearthed near Regensburg, Bavaria, in 1978. It contained all the facilities required for malting, mashing, and wort boiling. This site is now considered the oldest evidence of “modern” brewing, in which the old loaves of bread are replaced by mashed grains as the prime raw material for wort sugars. Because the start of mashed brewing in Central Europe has until recently been attributed to early medieval monks, this Roman archaeological find places the discovery of mashing at least half a millennium earlier than had previously been thought. It seems that wine-drinking Romans were the inventors of the modern beer mash, a funny twist in the history of alcoholic beverages.
As the Roman Empire began to crumble and its legionnaires went marching home in the 5th century, the next army to descend upon the Germans was not military but religious in nature, thanks in large part to the influence of a British man named Patricius, later better known as Saint Patrick. He was born around 385 ad not far from present-day Glasgow in Scotland. He was 31 years old when he claimed to have been instructed by a divine voice to go to Ireland and make it Christian. This he did so well that, by the middle of the 6th century, Ireland was thoroughly Christianized and awash in surplus monks. So these friars laced up their sandals and headed for the heathen forests of Central Europe, eager to save Continental souls from eternal damnation. There they set up a string of small Benedictine monasteries as hubs from which they spread the gospel.
Monastery breweries were spectacularly successful; as they got richer and more powerful, largely on the profits from beer, the landed feudal lords, the mercantile city burghers, and even the more secular bishops and the mightiest dukes became jealous. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, other players of the feudal order soon wanted a piece of the beer action and started their own breweries. This is when breweries started to be identified by their ownership, and if you travel through Germany today, you can still get a sense of the origins of many local breweries. You may encounter a Fürstliches Brauhaus (ducal brewhouse), a Klosterbrauerei (monastery brewery), a Bürgerbräu (burgher brewery), a Bischofsbrauerei (bishop’s brewery), a Stadtbrauerei (city brewery), a Gildebrauerei (guild brewery), or a Hofbräuhaus (court brewhouse). Starting with the 2nd millennium, therefore, institutional brewing in Germany, now in several competing hands, took off, and it did so in different directions and with great regional variations.
Many of the new, secular players in the brewing economy lacked the experience of their religious competitors, and in many areas beer quality took a turn for the worse. It seemed that the new brewers were gradually unlearning or ignoring the very knowledge that the monks had so studiously accumulated over many centuries. As beer quality declined, many unscrupulous brewers from the ranks of the old aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie started to lower their standards to raise their profits. All sorts of strange, often harmful beer ingredients started to find their ways into the mashes and kettles.
During most of the Middle Ages, the center of political power in the German Empire, which then included Austria, was located in the south, where such cities as Nuremberg, Augsburg, Munich, Regensburg, and Vienna functioned as hubs of commerce and influence. The orientation of southern Germany was clearly directed toward Italy, with the all-important Holy See in Rome, the Renaissance culture in Florence, and a great deal of merchant wealth in Venice. Northern Germany, by contrast, was fairly remote from the center of imperial power, and the inhabitants’ orientation there was more toward trade, commerce, and the sea. The northern centers were wealthy cities like Cologne, Hamburg, Bremen, Brunswick, Hannover, and Lübeck. By the 13th century, the cosmopolitan merchants in these cities understood that the old feudal order with its licenses, levies, excise duties, and commerce- inhibiting customs tariffs could no longer adequately represent their interests. So they got together to form a protective trading association, soon to be known as the Hanseatic League. The League started out, in 1241, as a compact just between the cities of Hamburg and Lübeck, but soon it had more than 200 member cities. Jointly, these cities opened up the Baltic trade, and they soon had warehouses and permanent agencies in many ports in such places as Russia, Estonia, Sweden, England, Holland, and Flanders. They traded in furs, metals, cloth, salt, dried fish . . . and beer. By cutting out the feudal lords, the League, in effect, had created what might be considered the first European economic union, free of tariffs and national trade barriers. In fact, the League’s demand for beer as a trading commodity became so enormous that breweries evolved into the main employers in many port cities. In 1376, for instance, records indicate that Hamburg had 457 burgher-owned breweries; by 1526, it had 531, and half the wage-earning population was engaged in brewing. The principal beer made in Hamburg was called keutebier. It was an ale brewed from a mixture of barley and wheat.
This is not to say that all northern German beers were by any means flawless. Yet some of them became famous well beyond their local areas. The beers from the city of Einbeck in Lower Saxony, for instance, made it all the way to the court of the Bavarian dukes of Wittelsbach in Munich, where the beers were first mispronounced in the local vernacular as “ein bock bier” and then copied in the ducal brewhouse, which is how the bockbier got to Bavaria.
Whereas the profit motive of the northern merchants provided the impetus for many northern trading beers to be made with good drinkability and keeping quality, no such incentive existed in the south, where the feudal order remained more effective at suppressing the entrepreneurial spirit. There, what was needed to clean up the people’s drink was a draconian decree from above, which came in 1516, at least in Bavaria, when, on April 23, on the occasion of a meeting of the Assembly of Estates, at Ingolstadt, north of Munich, Duke Wilhelm IV commanded that henceforth, in his realm, beer was to be made from only three ingredients, water, barley, and hops. Today, this now almost 500-year-old decree is regarded as the origin of the modern German Beer Purity Law.
Although the profit motive in the north and the decrees in the south seemed to have rescued much of German beer in the 16th century, the 17th century was about to deal it a crucial blow. The outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618 ushered in more than a century of virtually uninterrupted warfare, which lasted to the end of the Great Northern War in 1721. All major European powers took part in the carnage, usually aligned along religious lines with Austria under the Habsburg monarchy as the head of the Catholic alliance and Sweden as the head of the Protestant alliance. Economic activity came to a virtual halt, and, within a century, Europe had lost about half its population either to war or to starvation. Commercial brewing, which depends on an ample and steady supply of grain, of course had all but stopped too. Even the once mighty Hanseatic League could not survive the conflict and formally dissolved in 1669.
It took almost a full century for Europe, and for brewing, to recover, only to be thrown back briefly into a continent-wide conflict, this time driven by the territorial ambitions of France. After the Napoleonic Wars, however, which lasted from 1799 to 1815, the Vienna Congress reorganized the European map and finally created almost 100 years of relative peace and prosperity. The 19th century turned into a time of incredible progress in science, technology, and industry, interrupted only by two short wars: the 7-week Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871. Steam-driven, mechanized production methods combined with metallurgical advances and scientific discoveries such as the microbiological causes of diseases—and of fermentation—led to an unprecedented leap forward in the wealth and health of humanity, in Germany just as elsewhere. In brewing, the development and widespread use of new techniques, tools, and equipment—including the thermometer, the manometer, the hydrometer, indirect-fired kiln for malting, copper brew kettles, refrigeration, pasteurization, beer filtration, and the isolation of pure yeast strains—spawned the development of many of today’s classic beers styles. And the new railroad networks made transportation of these new beers possible to markets that had been unreachable before. In Germany, therefore—but also on the British Isles and to some extent in Austria and Bohemia—the 19th century became the Belle Époque of new beer styles. Milestones in the development of new German and German-inspired beers include the Paulaner Brewery’s Salvator doppelbock of 1835; the altbier, which started to take on its modern specifications in Düsseldorf with the Schumacher Alt of 1838; the Dreher Brewery’s Vienna lager of 1841; the Spaten Brewery’s märzenbier of 1841; the Pilsner Burgher Brewery’s Bohemian pilsner of 1842, which was created there by Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll; the Spaten Brewery’s oktoberfestbier of 1871; the Kronen Brewery’s Dortmund Export of 1871; first northern German pilsner of 1872 brewed by the Aktienbrauerei Zum Bierkeller of Radeberg, which has since become the Radeberger Group; the Spaten Brewery’s Munich helles of 1894; and the evolution of the pale wiess (white) ale style in Cologne in the 1890s, the forerunner of the modern kölsch, which became codified in the 1920s.
With such a rich recent history to build upon, the 20th century became one of prosperity for German breweries, except, of course during the two world wars and their aftermaths. By the 1970s, German beer drinkers annually consumed about 150 l per capita of almost entirely domestically produced beer. This made Germany the world’s second largest beer producer, surpassed only by the huge market of the United States. There were about 2,500 breweries in Germany, many dating back to the late Middle Ages or the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Most were small producers serving mostly local markets. Traditionally, Germany has always had one of the world’s most decentralized brewing industries, and even today, the German market leader, the Radeberger Group with more than a dozen production sites and many more beer brands, holds only about 15% of the national market.
The fortunes of the German brew industry, however, have turned darker in recent years. During the past 3 decades, German per capita beer consumption has plummeted by roughly one-third, causing Germany, which currently produces slightly below 100 million hl (roughly 85 million US barrels) of beer per year, to drop from second to fifth place among the world’s top beer producers. This list is now headed by China with roughly 425 million hl (362 million US bbl), followed by the United States with roughly 230 million hl (195 million US bbl), as well as Russia and Brazil with almost 110 million hl (93 million US bbl) each. During the same period, the number of German breweries has declined by about one-half, either through mergers and acquisitions or because of outright closures. There are barely 1,300 breweries left in the now reunited Germany. There are many theories why Germans, especially younger Germans, appear to be turning away from the universal quaff of their forebears. Some blame the lack of innovation by German breweries who have been focusing increasingly just on pilsners. These tend to be made to a fairly high level of quality, but they are also very similar and difficult to distinguish by the ordinary consumer. The statistics support this argument: pilsner brands now account for more than half of the German beer market. Weissbiers, which are particularly popular in Bavaria, plus helles and pale Export lagers combined, account for almost one-fourth. Beer mix drinks, light beers, and non-alcoholic beers together make up about 10% of the market; and the remaining roughly 10% is divided among all other styles, including the venerable altbier, bock bier, dunkel, kellerbier, kölsch, märzenbier, rauchbier, and schwarzbier. The large market share of pilsners of similar taste and quality has led to fierce competition among breweries, not through differentiation of the actual beers, but mostly on the basis of price through razor-thin margins. That means that few breweries can afford to build up financial reserves that would allow them to survive even small setbacks. Another factor in the decline of German beer drinking is clearly the country’s virtually zero tolerance for drunk driving combined with very stiff penalties for those who get caught.
The only glimmer of hope on the German beer horizon, it seems, is a recent wave of brewpub openings. These new artisanal breweries cater to a small, but growing clientele of German beer connoisseurs who are interested in beer variety and stylistic innovation—a consumer segment that is not averse to experimenting with non-German beers, including traditional British and cutting-edge American styles. To many observers, the German beer culture is now at the crossroads, just as the North American beer culture was some 3 decades ago. It will either spawn its own craft brewing movement, capable of reviving the vast portfolio of German traditional beer styles and of embarking on innovations that make beer interesting again . . . or it will gradually move further and further in the direction of a pilsner monoculture as smaller producers become absorbed or are eliminated by international conglomerates armed with economies of scale and marketing prowess. It would be a rather sad fate for one of the world’s greatest brewing nations.