German beer: 500 years of pure pleasure
April 22, 2016
At first glance, Germany’s Reinheitsgebot seems straightforward enough. Known in English as the Beer Purity Law, it limits the ingredients in German beers to water, barley and hops.
In fact, the only thing simple about it is the effect it has had on the character of German brews, which are generally light in color and — to the palate of someone accustomed to American craft beers — rather bland.
The 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot is the occasion of a new exhibit at Mannheim’s Technoseum, “Beer: The Brewers’ Art and 500 Years of the German Beer Purity Law.” Running through July 24, it traces the history of beer making in Germany from 1516 to the present. It’s comprehensive and pulls no punches, covering everything from the ingredients needed to make good beer to the consequences of overindulgence.
The exhibit wastes no time in laying bare the law’s mythology, with texts at the entrance that explain the Reinheitsgebot’s history and evolution. The Beer Purity Law, it turns out, was inspired as much by economic necessity as the desire to ensure the production of high-quality beer. Promulgated in Bavaria, the German state synonymous with beer, it aimed both to prevent undesirable additives and to ensure a sufficient supply of wheat for bread making.
Different versions of the law were subsequently adopted in other regions of Germany, and in 1906 the Reinheitsgebot took effect in the entire country. The current incarnation, known as the Preliminary Beer Law, contains almost as many loopholes as the American tax code. And yet it remains a powerful tool for promoting German beer at home and abroad.
Unfortunately, the texts and captions in “Beer” are in German, but you don’t need to know the language to enjoy the exhibit. There’s plenty to look at and experience. Even without a word of German, you should be able to make sense of many of the displays.
A massive panel running the length of the exhibit space outlines each stage in the brewing process, with pictures that make many of the explanations superfluous. At the start of the process, you can sample barley; midway through you get a chance to compare the aromas of different hops.
Much of the antique equipment on display also speaks for itself. There are devices used to make, fill, wash and dry bottles; lantern-shaped glass receptacles for mixing beer; and a filtering gadget that looks like a rack for hanging file folders. Some equipment from the middle of the last century attests to the fact that brewing remained a craft in Germany well after it had become a highly automated industry in the United States.
With the consolidation of local breweries after World War II and the emergence of global giants, marketing became increasingly sophisticated. By the beginning of the 21st century, it turned from bold to brazen. A magazine ad for Nova Schin beer depicts a pregnant woman patting her belly while holding a glass of alcohol-free brew. The image provoked widespread outrage, but it’s easy to mistake the baby bump for a beer belly — a condition that in Germany is hardly restricted to men.
This advertisement is included in a section on alcohol abuse, a lengthy interlude that will give pause to the most enthusiastic drinker. If the pictures of traffic accidents and physical ailments don’t disturb you, some figures probably will: Half of all emergency room patients in Germany arrive under the influence of alcohol, and every fourth death among European men ages 15-29 can be attributed to excessive alcohol consumption.
The exhibit ends on a more upbeat note, highlighting the celebratory aspects of beer drinking and offering a short history of Mannheim’s pub scene. In a country where beer is so closely connected to the national psyche, drinking rituals cut across class and political boundaries, as we see in photos showing current Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, and her socialist predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, hoisting their glasses with great relish.
Munich, of course, is where Germans’ passion for beer reaches a climax every year. Though the world’s biggest beer festival is increasingly associated with excess (nearly 700 people suffered from alcohol poisoning during the 2014 event, we’re told), Oktoberfest is also an opportunity for city dwellers and country folk to don traditional outfits.
Visitors to the Technoseum can join in the spirit by stepping behind a cutout of lederhosen- and dirndl-clad revelers. And if make-believe isn’t good enough, anyone 16 or older can sample the real thing at a bar set up at the exhibit’s exit. Then again, given the grim picture of alcohol abuse you’ve just encountered, you might opt for a nonalcoholic beverage instead.
DIRECTIONS Address: Technoseum, Museumsstr. 1, 68165 Mannheim. From Kaiserslautern, take the A6 to the A61; then the A650 into Mannheim. Once in Mannheim, follow the B37 to Friedenplatz. There is parking at Friedenplatz. TIMES The exhibit runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through July 24. COSTS Entry costs 8 euros ($9) for adults; 5 euros for children. Tours in English are available for 160 euros for a maximum of 30 people. A free English-language tour will be offered May 22 during International Museum Day. Admission to the museum and exhibit is also free that day. FOOD A cafe inside the museum serves drinks and snacks; the Museumschiff, a short drive from the Technoseum, is home to Muellers Restaurant & Cafe-Lounge (www.muellers-mannheim.de) INFORMATION Phone: (+ 49) (0) 621-4298-9, email en.technoseum.de, website firstname.lastname@example.org. To book a tour, call (+49) (0) 621-4298-839 or send an email to email@example.com.