A Short History of Brewing in Germany

couple holding German beer stein
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Beer has been brewed for several thousand years, but not as we know it. By 500 A.D., Germans were brewing a thin beer made from oats and sometimes honey. Brewing, like bread baking, was woman's work.

Several hundred years later, Christianity had gained a strong foothold in northern Europe. The monks began to brew beer, at first for themselves and later to sell. They even had "Klosterschenken," which gave out beer to everyone at no cost.

The monks became very good at brewing beer, much better than the homemade stuff. This was partly because they could spend more time on their art than housewives could and partly because monasteries were the educational and research centers in Europe.

By the 12th/13th centuries, hundreds of monasteries were brewing beer. They were even allowed to keep brewing during famines. But the rest of Germany did not stop making beer themselves. The earliest "Völkerrecht" (people's rights - laws) included how much beer was to be given to the nobility (as tax or payment), but not how much beer people could brew - they were allowed to produce as much as they wanted.

Because they were not always allowed to brew in their houses due to fire danger, the women would use the common bakery, in which they had specific days to brew and bake bread. Craft breweries were started in this way, using the same common area, which attracted the attention of the nobility which started taxing the breweries.

In some places, the cities taxed the breweries. This led to beer guilds and "Grutrecht".

Grut Rights

Before the German Beer Purity Law, there were decrees called "Grutrechte," or Gruit Rights, which conferred the privilege of making gruit beer or selling gruit to make beer. It gave the decree holder a monopoly in a geographical area.

These decrees were handed out by the cities, the church or nobility in the territory.

Grut (or gruit) is a mixture of herbs which was used to stabilize the beer and make it drinkable.

The first written citing of grut rights was in the 10th century A.D. Rights were given to upper-class families, churches or entire cities. Sometimes the cities would try to impose their monopoly beyond the city walls, which was called the "Meilenrecht," or mile rights. A mile measured between seven and eleven kilometers in the Middle Ages.

The "Meilenrecht" was the cause of many disagreements between cities and countrysides. They called these "Bierstreite" or "Bierkriege" - beer wars.

The use of hops was forbidden during the time of the grut rights, because it broke the monopoly of the grut. Hops did become an allowed ingredient due to its superior qualities including its ability keep the beer fresh as well as lower cost. The last holdouts towards hops were from Cologne and Dusseldorf (see beer styles, Kölsch and Altbier) northwards, since the grut rights had made some powerful people very wealthy.

Developing Beer Laws

In the 12th century, the first law which mentions beer quality was written. "Wenn ein Bierschenker schlechtes Bier macht oder ungerechtes Maß gibt, soll er gestraft werden." When a brewer [publican] makes bad beer or sells incorrect measures, he should be punished.

The city of Weimar wrote in 1348 that only malt and hops should be used to brew beer. In 1393, due to a famine, the city of Nuremberg forbade any grain but barley in their beer, since barley could not be made into bread. By 1516, the German Reinheitsgebot was signed in Bavaria. 

How Hops Came to Be Used in Beer

Hops cultivation was first mentioned in 736 in a document from Geisenfeld (Germany) and its use in beer was first mentioned in the 11th century, although archaeological finds show its use from the 9th and 10 centuries.

Before beer, hops was used medicinally to calm the nerves or as a laxative. It was also used as a dye. The young shoots in the spring and ripe seeds in the fall could be eaten. Hops contain bitter compounds, which can act as a bactericide. Hildegard von Bingen wrote about this in 1153, "seine Bitterkeit verhindert die Fäulnis," - its bitterness slows the putrification.

It took many centuries for hops to become part of the brewing trade because they had to be boiled for about 90 minutes to solubilize their compounds, a long time when firewood is used to cook. In the end, no one quite knows how hops became an important ingredient in beer. 

Hops could be grown in gardens and were lower cost than other grut ingredients, which helped disseminate their use in brewing. The first indication of growing hops commercially came in the 12th or 13th century in Northern Germany, for the Hansa breweries. They exported beer to Flanders and Holland.

See also: What Is Beer?