The laws of (beer) purity

A new exhibition at the Jewish museum in Munich commemorates 500 years of authentic alcohol distillation and the tribe’s involvement in it

Conrad Seidl (the ‘beer pope’) in his Tyrolean lederhosenat the Jerusalem Beer Festival (photo credit: MIKE HORTON)
Conrad Seidl (the ‘beer pope’) in his Tyrolean lederhosenat the Jerusalem Beer Festival
(photo credit: MIKE HORTON)
The year 2016 marks the anniversary of a big event in German history. Throughout the country, there will be celebrations, lectures, seminars and museum exhibits.
A military victory? Scientific discovery? Democratic milestone? No, nothing so trivial. It’s the 500th anniversary of the world’s oldest and still valid beer purity law – the famous Reinheitsgebot.
At the time of its enactment, unscrupulous brewers were cheapening their beer with unhealthy additives such as roots, mushrooms and animal products.
The Reinheitsgebot decreed that all beer brewed in Bavaria, and later all of Germany, must contain only water, barley and hops. Truly, quite progressive for its day.
Although the actual translation of Reinheitsgebot is “purity decree,” when the two dukes of Bavaria enacted it in 1516, they were also thinking of collecting taxes on beer, which the edict regulates.
In addition, by ruling that beer must be made with barley and no other grains, they were ensuring that prices for bread made from wheat and rye would stay low.
Throughout the Sturm und Drang of the next 500 years of European history, the Reinheitsgebot in some form or another remained on the law books in Germany. Today, German brewers proudly cling to the tradition.
Although “impure” beers, i.e., those brewed with other ingredients, may be imported into Germany, a beverage brewed within Germany can be labeled “beer” only if it is made with water, grain, hops and yeast.
One of the events marking the 500th anniversary will be an exhibition in the Jewish Museum Munich titled “Beer is the Wine of this Land: Jewish Brewery Tales,” with the opening planned for mid- April 2016. To help prepare for this exhibition, its director, Bernhard Purin, recently visited Israel, accompanied by his friend from Vienna, Conrad Seidl, a famous beer writer and blogger who is known as the bierpapst (“beer pope”) in Austria.
I caught up with the two visitors near the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem, and as we shared a beer (what else?), Purin explained: “The title of the exhibit refers to a story in the Talmud (Pessahim 109a) where a certain Anemar was visiting a town and was given beer to perform the havdala ceremony at the end of the Sabbath. He insisted on using wine, as was the popular custom.
“The same thing happened when he visited again the following year. So he then exclaimed: ‘If so, beer is the wine of this land!’ “In Germany, beer is indeed the wine, the popular drink, of our land, and it has been the same for the Jewish community.”
A major section of the exhibition will deal with the symbol of Bavarian brewers and the Star of David: They are exactly the same! Most historians today believe that the two symbols developed almost simultaneously.
For the Jews, this was from the 15th or 16th century in Prague. Before that, the most common Jewish symbol was the menorah.
At about the same time, the brewers guilds in Bavaria adopted the same six-pointed star, or hexagram, as their symbol. It soon also spread to the “tappers,” those who served beer to the public.
Purin explains: “We believe that this symbol was originally an amulet which provided protection from demons, weapons and fire. The Jews adopted it for obvious reasons, while the brewers also faced dangers involving fires and explosions.
The exhibit will have many old paintings, prints and beer steins showing these ‘Jewish stars’ on medieval brewing scenes, breweries and taverns.”
Another section of the exhibit will deal with Jewish involvement in the Bavarian hop trade. Hops, a small, cone-shaped flower, are an essential ingredient in brewing. According to the Reinheitsgebot, it is one of the three ingredients that must be used.
“Since the second half of the 18th century, Jews made up a majority of hop traders in Bavaria,” explains Purin. “In 1813, when Jews were forced to choose family names, quite a few took names which incorporated ‘hops’ – such as Hopfenmeier.”
It was only during the Nazi era that Jews were forced out of the hop trade.
One of them, Simon Steiner, maintained control of his company from New York.
The company name itself was changed from Simon Steiner to Hopsteiner in the 1960s. It is today one of the world’s leading hop trading companies.
Another Jewish hop trading company based in Munich and the Hallertau region was Fromm Mayer Bass. In the 1960s, it revolutionized the hop trade by freeze-drying the hops and pressing them into pellets. Today, these pellets are the most common form of transporting and using hops for brewing.
In a section devoted to the history of brewing in Munich, we are taken back to Baron Moritz von Hirsch, well known in Jewish and Zionist history as Maurice de Hirsch for his philanthropic efforts on behalf of Jewish education and settlement in Argentina, Canada and Palestine. Maurice’s father, Josef Baron von Hirsch, was a banker under the king of Bavaria and one of the first Jews named as baron.
In 1824, he purchased a castle near Munich and 10 years later he built in its gardens the first industrial brewery in Bavaria, the Schloss (Castle) Brauerei.
While it was being built, the other brewers in the region feared that it would take away their customers and began an anti-Semitic campaign to stop the construction. They told the king that if their profits fell, they would not be able to pay the tax for building the King Ludwig church in Munich.
Nevertheless, Josef von Hirsch was able to finish his brewery, and in short order its beer did indeed take over the local market. In 1928, the descendants of Hirsch sold the brewery to Pschorr, one of the major breweries of Munich.
Another Bavarian Jewish brewer was Joseph Schulein, who founded the Union Brewery in the 1890s. It was quite a popular beer in Germany, and in about 1900 Schulein started to export his beer to the US.
“It failed completely,” admits Purin, “probably because people associated the name with labor unions, which were having a very bad press at the time.”
Joseph’s son Hermann had a better idea. In 1921, Joseph purchased the Lowenbrau Brewery and merged it with Union. After his father failed with Union Beer, Hermann brought Lowenbrau to America, and it quickly became the best-selling German beer in the US.
“Hermann stayed on the board of directors of the brewery until 1935, when he immigrated to the States,” adds Purin.
“There he joined with Philip Liebmann, the descendant of another German Jewish brewing family that had been living in the US for several generations.
Together, they developed a dry lager beer with a European character and marketed it under the brand name of Rheingold.
“Now this is interesting,” Purin continues, “Rheingold Beer had actually been introduced in the US by Liebmann back in 1883 on the occasion of the US premier of Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. But only in the 1930s were Schulein and Liebmann able to transform it into a successful brand holding 35 percent of the US market by the 1950s.”
Rheingold Beer remained a market leader in the New York area for over 30 years. Hermann Schulein is credited with coming up with the popular jingle: “My beer is Rheingold the dry beer/Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer.”
“But,” reveals Purin, “the melody of the jingle was composed by the French-Jewish conductor and composer Emile Waldteufel – who had conducted the ‘Das Rheingold’ premiere in 1883!” Schulein also invented the Miss Rheingold contest, which for 25 years had Americans on the East Coast voting for the most beautiful candidate. The number of votes cast was second only to presidential elections.
The exhibition concludes with brewing in modern Israel, and for this, Purin and Seidl will present a unique and exciting event.
“We want to brew a special beer for the occasion, which will be sold in the museum restaurant for the duration of the exhibition,” explains Seidl.
“The beer will represent the best of German tradition with the incredible developments in Israeli craft brewing.
For this, we want to bring together a Bavarian craft brewery and an Israeli craft brewery to make this collaborative anniversary beer.”
Purin and Seidl have already chosen the German brewery, the Crew Republic in Munich, run by two young brewers, Mario Hanel and Timm Schnigula.
While they were in Israel, Purin and Seidl met with several Israeli craft brewers and within a few months will choose the winner.
“Then we will bring the Israeli brewers to Germany to work with the Crew Republic to make our celebration beer,” adds Purin. “We hope this gets maximum publicity in Germany and elsewhere.”
Getting back to the Reinheitsgebot, there may be a problem since any beer brewed in Germany cannot have any added flavorings. Israeli craft breweries, on the other hand, have made a name for themselves through the very innovative use of local fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices in their beers.
“No matter,” concludes Seidl. “I have no doubt that these excellent, skilled brewers will find a way to work together to make a delicious beer to mark the 500th anniversary and our exhibition. I can’t wait to taste it!” And that is from the pope himself. ■
The writer is the owner of Mediawise, an agency for advertising and direct marketing in Jerusalem. He writes a web log on Israeli craft beers at