Long Ago in Bavaria
Although some historians trace the origins of beer back to the Sumerians, the year 800
AD is often given as the point in which brewing became an organized industry. It was in
this year that the first brewery on record was established at Fohring, near Munich,
Germany. Other breweries quickly followed and an industry was born.
The early brewing industry was strictly a religious affair. It was a near monopoly of the
Bavarian monks and they put their beer to effective use. All Bavarian monasteries
issued daily rations of beer to the monks and lay workers as part of their wages. Free
beer was also given to the faithful on holy days, which, the monks duly noted, greatly
improved attendance (and the collection plates). Regular holy days called for exactly
one liter but special events meant special rations. For example, on Palm Sunday and
Easter the thirsty parishioners received two free liters each. Children were entitled to a
liter as a reward for their first communion and just married couples rated half a gallon.
Free beer was not available however on non-holy days. The business wise monks
graciously sold beer to the thirsty worshippers on those days. Piety and profit can be
By the 13th century brewing gradually left the willing hands of the monks and was taken
over by the princes and independent towns who saw it as a much needed source of tax
revenue. Beer and taxes soon became as inseparable as death and taxes. Money
flowed like yellow gold into the municipal vats in payment of duties and fines. But the
taxes had another effect – many private families took up their own brewing. With the
combined forces of these home brewers and the government owned breweries the
monks were soon out of brewing business for good.
Wherever the water was good (Munich’s Isar river was near perfect) breweries bubbled
up. Indeed, by the end of the Fifteenth Century there were thirty-eight breweries in
Munich alone. Beer had now become plentiful, good, and cheap throughout Western
Europe. But it was in Germany where beer now truly reigned.
Wilhelm IV, leader of all Germany, issued his famous proclamation in 1516 to protect
the reputation of Bavarian beer at home and abroad. He specified that it should be
brewed of barley, hops, yeast, and water and nothing else. For all the fame of these
Purity Laws, the fact is that Wilhelm was not the first to mandate this. As early as 1290
local courts had ruled that substitutes for barley were strictly forbidden. In 1566 Duke
Albert V prohibited the use of wheat in brewing on the grounds that it gave neither
nourishment nor strength. Wilhelm took these early prohibitions and made them into a
national, strictly enforced, law.
In German towns where there was no resident royalty the hosts and hostesses of the
local taverns became the leading families, held in high esteem as dignified dispensers
of the prized elixir. Those were the days of the great tavern drinkers, when men on
getting up in the morning drank three or four quarts before breakfast. These same men
would return in the evening for a session of drinking games. The most popular of which
was a drinking race against the hourglass. The winner was the fellow who could down
the most steins in the allotted time while neatly placing the empties around him in
heaps. First prize was, naturally, more beer.
Beer was even part of the Bavarian justice system as official beer bouts were often
ordered by the Burgermeister to settle disputes. These bouts were usually conducted
under his direct supervision. Proper procedure called for the Burgermeister, the sheriff,
and bailiffs, formally dressed in special pants of heavy yellow leather, to sample each
beer to insure the integrity of the contest. Clearly a difficult job, but somebody had to do
it. The rules of the bout itself were simple. The contesting parties sat down to drink beer
for three hours without rising from their seat. If, for any reason, they were to get up, they
were instantly disqualified. At the end of the three hours the steadiest contestant was
declared the winner.
Stories are still told in Munich beer halls today of an old time brewer who challenged a
knight to drink beer, quart for quart, to prove who was the better man. Each time the
men had consumed a gallon they would have to thread a needle with twine while
standing on one leg. The winner would be the last man able to accomplish this task.
After ten gallons of beer the knight at last began to wobble. At the twelfth, his leg gave
way and he slid under the table with the needle unthreaded. And with this began the
phrase “to drink someone under the table.”
Drinking guilds were formed all over medieval Bavaria. They adopted mottoes and
emblems; they drank only brews specially made to their taste and strength. Rival clubs
challenged one another to lengthy drinking contests. Their feats were often
memorialized, to great acclaim, on tavern walls by local painters. Great drinkers were
local heroes. Rumor had it that some guilds even used “professional” drinkers to
augment their team for big contests. These drinkers for hire were experts in their craft
and unlike some modern athletes, never used steroids to enhance their performance.
Hard practice was their key.
Many taverns created special rooms for their local drinking guild. The room was
typically walled with wooden staves, shaped so that the drinker seemed to be sitting
inside a keg, a special effect worthy of Disney World itself.
The names of these early taverns were rustic delights. The Cow That Jumped Over the
Moon, The Happy Heart, The Golden Hen, The Singing Pig, and The Big Fence were
just a few. Swinging signs with hand painted logos warmly welcomed the drinkers in.
The patrons, after a long day’s work, came to these taverns to drink with a purpose and
To the men in these early taverns beer was akin to a holy liquid and drinking it was an
act of worship. Promises were made and oaths were sworn with a hand of honor
placed on a full stein. Children were brought up on beer soup and allowed to sip out of
their father’s mug before they could walk. Theirs was a life of hard work and family,
intimately tied together with the universality of beer. If good beer was on tap then all
was right with the world.
(Historical data courtesy of Pete Tamburro)
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