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Prost! A whistle-stop history tour of beer in Germany

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

Germany is synonymous with beer: from the enormous Oktoberfest festival to a refreshing Stein in a local Kniepe, beer plays a central role in German culture.

Beer. Photo: carolineandrade via Pixabay

It is estimated that the average German drinks around 100 litres of beer a year and can choose from over 5,000 different brands. Here is a brief history of the iconic Volksgetränk (the people’s drink).

Liquid bread

Evidence of beer has been found in Germany dating from as far back as 800 BCE and was likely introduced in Germany by the Romans. Surprisingly, many of the earliest breweries were monasteries. Drinking beer enabled the monks to consume calories without breaking their fast, earning it the nickname “flüßiges Brot” (liquid bread).

According to the German Brewer's Federation, because the monks often brewed beer near bakeries, some yeast may have dropped into their standard mix of barley, hops and water, enabling the fermentation process to work. Thanks to their knowledge and experience, such brewery-monasteries developed a reputation for producing high-quality beer.

The drink of choice

Throughout medieval Europe, water not safe to drink and often contaminated, so drinking beer became a preferable option and beer brewing became a lucrative business. As the popularity of beer grew, beer brewing became less the specialism of monks and an industry in itself, with many independent breweries establishing themselves.

The 1516 Reinheitsgebot

Issued in April 1516 by the Bavarian dukes, the beer purity law or Reinheitsgebot was the most comprehensive consumer protection law of its time for ensuring the quality of beer.

Aimed at preventing unscrupulous brewers from adding inferior ingredients such as wood shavings, roots, and even soot to the brew, it stipulated that all beer had to be made from water, malt and hops only, though yeast and later sugar were added.

As the reputation of Bavaria’s beers spread and Bavaria’s influence in unified Germany grew, other provinces soon adopted the purity law. In 1906, it became mandatory across Germany and many brewers still abide by it today.

My people must drink beer”

As international trade increased, monarchs took more measures to protect Germany’s domestic beer industry, especially as a craze surrounding a new drink, coffee, swept across Europe.

Coffee threatened the German beer industry to such an extent that in 1777 Frederick the Great of Prussia banned it, claiming "it is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects… My people must drink beer."

Following the discovery of yeast’s role in the fermentation process in the late 19th century, different varieties of beer developed including pilsner, Kölsch, and Export beers.

In the Cold War, beer became a cultural battlefield, lionised in the German Democratic Republic as “the worker’s drink”.

Now in the 21st century, beer is produced by a range of national, regional and local breweries, with drinkers showing a growing taste for craft beers and Alkoholfreibier (alcohol-free beer).

So next time you enjoy a refreshing Stein, take a moment to think about the history behind it.



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