Beer in Bohemia and Bavaria:
Brewing local identity in a global economy

The City of Plzen, Czech Republic

by Mark Borak

Introduction

            The modern beverages known today the world over by the name “Beer” are actually the descendants of thousands of years of brewing traditions that evolved over time according to local traditions, technological innovation, and economic changes.  Generations of European brewing knowledge eventually yielded a beer first brewed in the Bavarian and Bohemian regions of Germany and the Czech Republic.  Although beer, loosely defined as an alcoholic drink made through fermentation of natural sugars[1], still exists in many forms, the most popular modern incarnation is directly traceable to these German breweries of the 19th century.  These brewers experimented with using malted hops and wheat in their fermentation process, and aging their beer in large casks stored in mountain caves.  These caves provided consistently cold temperatures, and thus allowed the beer to gain a rich, full-bodied texture and taste.  These were the first ever lagers, which differed from previous beers that were very dark and cloudy due to top-fermenting.  In 1842, Burgess Brewery in Bohemia recruited a Bavarian brewer named Josef Groll to produce a new type of lager beer.  It combined the Bavarian practices of bottom-fermenting and cold fermentation with the Bohemian brewery’s pale malts and noble hops to produce the first modern Pilsener lager, named after the town of Plzen in which it was brewed.  The new, golden-colored beer became a European sensation and quickly spread to other parts of the world, where it gained supremacy over other beers and was often imitated by foreign breweries[2].  At this point, Bavarians and Bohemians began to face the challenge of protecting a cultural icon whose worldwide popularity has proven both a blessing and a curse for their beloved beer.

National boundaries separated Pilsener into two distinct but similar beer styles that can be claimed by the two cultures as their own.  It is not clear whether the Pilsener style is definitively Czech (Bohemian) or German (Bavarian), but there are two notable observations to be made.  First, beer drinking is a central part of both cultures, with the two areas having among the highest consumption rates in the world[3].  Second, there are local differences in what is seen as the indigenous beer that is rooted in the culture of the locality, at the same time there are “German” and “Czech” beers associated with their respective nationalities and seen as icons of national culture.  It is these latter beers that bridge the gap between culturally specific brews and nationally branded brews that are marketed and exported throughout Europe and the world.  National brands, therefore, are more of a product of changes in political and economic relations with the rest of Europe and the world.  National branding can be an effective method of preserving cultural identity in a competitive global economy in which food becomes more standardized across borders.  The marriage of the Bohemian and Bavarian styles not only produced a cross-cultural dilemma for Germans and Czechs, but it brought on the challenges presented by international imitations of the new beer.  The nationwide adoption of the Reinheitsgebot may have defined what “German” beer could be, but in the process of doing so it also made many other types of German brews extinct.

Reinheitsgebot: Background

The Reinheitsgebot was introduced in Bavaria in 1516 to prevent price competition with bakers for wheat and rye and to reverse declining quality[4].  It is the oldest food quality law in Germany, and perhaps in the entire world.  It restricted the ingredients for beer to just barley, hops, and water and was later amended to include yeast.  The restriction of grains to barley was meant to ensure the availability of sufficient amounts of affordable bread, as the more valuable wheat and rye were reserved for use by bakers. Today many Bavarian beers are again brewed using wheat and are thus no longer compliant with the Reinheitsgebot.
The Reinheitsgebot formed the basis of legislation that spread slowly throughout Bavaria and Germany. Bavaria insisted on its application throughout Germany as a precondition of German unification in 1871, to prevent competition from beers brewed elsewhere with a wider range of ingredients. The move encountered strong resistance from brewers outside Bavaria. By resticting the allowable ingredients, it led to the extinction of many brewing traditions and local beer specialties, such as North German spiced beer and cherry beer, and led to the domination of the German beer market by pilsener style beers[5]. Only a few regional beer varieties, such as Düsseldorfer Altbier, survived its implementation.
In May 1987, the European Court of Justice struck down the Reinheitsgebot as an obstacle to free trade, allowing ingredients beyond the original   beer brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot receive special treatment as a protected, "traditional" food.
Most German breweries continued to comply with the antiquated law, and others incorrectly claimed compliance with the Reinheitsgebot for the purpose of marketing (for example, for wheat beers, which were prohibited by the Reinheitsgebot).

Local Origins

Modern day Germany boasts approximately twelve hundred breweries making over five thousand different beers in about twelve major styles.  One can find local brews in nearly every city and town, ranging widely in taste, complexity, and body depending upon the methods and ingredients used.  However, when most people around the world think of German beer, they automatically refer to the blonde lagers that currently dominate the world beer market and hold over two thirds of the German market.  These beers may be considered typically German today, but until the sixteenth century, all German beer was ale.  It was partially the Reinheitsgebot and partially a prohibition against brewing in summertime that differentiated southern Germany’s beer culture from the north, paving the way for the eventual rise of the pilsener lager[6].  It also began to move beermaking away from locally isolated breweries and into more regional groupings.
It is important to recognize that modern day Germany once was split into many feudal kingdoms and thus had little national character before Bismarck founded the second German Empire in 1871.  Before national food quality laws were standardized and beers took on national labels, there was as much variation within “German” brews as there was between German and Czech brews.  Because the first pilsener lager came about in 1842, and essentially combined the latest brewing practices of Bavaria with the hops and water of a Bohemian brewery, the Czech beers are often lumped into the German category.  The two regions were inextricably tied to the modern version of pilsener, and both had different brewing practices than North Germany.  This proves an interesting example of how local and national definitions of beer complicate the idea of purely national identity in defining the history of a people.  The differences in the brewing of beer between Bohemia and Bavaria are much smaller and more compatible than those between North and South Germany[7].     

Beer in the Global Economy

The unification of Germany after Bismarck and the industrialization that occurred during the 19th century brought significant changes to the beer industry and its cultural components.  The myriad of local breweries found themselves in competition with larger breweries that could churn out more beer and ship it further than before.  In addition, the advancements in chemistry and the invention of refrigeration, brewers were able to produce ales and lagers anywhere with predictable quality.  Once the railroads enabled the shipment of beer across national borders, the definition of a German beer was increasingly decided by how aggressively the product could be marketed and sold as German. 
The transformation from many small, local breweries to large, economically competitive ones continues today, as the number of breweries in Germany and the Czech Republic continues to dwindle.  Despite this trend, Germans and Czechs are still very conscious of the local differences in brewing, and the menagerie of flavors that have existed within these cultures largely remains[8].  It is the large companies such as Beck, Heineken, and Pilsener Urquell that contribute to the notion that all German beers are pilsener-style lagers or that there are only subtle variations within them. 
Part of this stems from the sheer popularity of the Pilsener style around the world, and part of it comes from the aggressive marketing of beer companies in order to make their product appear “authentic.”  A classic example of this is the Anheuser-Busch company of St. Louis, Missouri, whose “Budweiser” brand is the best selling type of beer in the world.  While the company was founded by a Bavarian immigrant seeking to replicate the Pilsener style, this modern beer is very far removed from the true German pilseners.  Because there is no adherence to the Reinheitsgebot among American brewers, these beers have many substitutes that produce a watery taste when compared with the original pilseners.  In addition, the “Budweiser” name comes from the city of Budejovice, Czech Republic, which has its own indigenous brand of beer, also called “Budweiser.”  While the Czech company has the legal rights to use this name in Europe, Anheuser-Busch has repeatedly attempted to assert its dominance over the smaller company through European courts, and has unsuccessfully tried to buy the brewery several times.  This is perhaps the best example of how economics has warped the cultural aspects of German beer, and how local culture continues to defend their historical identity.

Conclusion

The attempt to preserve the heritage of beer is both a struggle for cultural identity in an age of mass-market culture, and a desire to protect the prestige and profits of national businesses. The brewer's interest lies in marketing and selling a product that is perceived as pure and unique, regardless of whether or not it is authentic. In the case of the Bavarian brewers that adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, the traditions of Bavarian style lager are preserved, and the brewers can rightfully claim the cultural heritage ascribed to their product. Bavarians, in turn, receive the dual benefit of preserving a central part of their culture while their local traditions become institutionalized and spread across regional and national boundaries. The vast popularity of the pilsener style of lager can be empowering for those who see it as a unique part of their own culture, yet it also threatens to subvert this culture and misuse its traditions for the gain of others. The problem with Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser, according to Bohemians, is that it claims the label of pilsener and the name of Budejovice without remaining true to the traditions that made this beer the pride of the region. While Germany and the Czech Republic will undoubtedly maintain their strong beer culture for generations to come, their beloved beverage will continue to be pulled between its rich tradition and the ever-changing market of those who consume it.

[1] Hornsey, 2003; p.12
[2] Dornbusch, 1997; 38-39
[3] Dornbusch, 2000; 44
[4] Hornsey, 2003; 86
[5] Dornbusch, 1997; 36
[6] Dornbusch, 1997; 55
[7] Wilson, 2005; 103
[8] Gefou-Madianou, 1992; 168

 

Links:

Learn more about the brewing process

Statistics and information on the beer market in Germany

Information on Czech brewers

 

Works cited:

Wilson, Thomas M.  Drinking Cultures.  New York, 2005.  Berg

Dornbusch, Horst D.  Prost! The Story of German Beer.  Boulder, 1997. Brewers Publications

Lubkin, Gregory P. "Is Europe's Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty? The taxation of alcohol and the development of a European identity." New York, 1996. NYU School of Law. November 11, 2005
http://www.jeanmonnetprogram.org/papers/96/9607ind.html

Dornbusch, Horst D.  Bavarian Helles: history, brewing techniques, recipes.  Boulder, 2000.  Brewers Publications

Hornsey, Ian R.  A History of Beer and Brewing.  Cambridge, 2003.  Royal Society of Chemistry

Gefou-Madianou, Dimitra. Alcohol, Gender and Culture. New York, 1992. Routledge

 

 
   

Home