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About barley-based concoctions and hospitality: part I

As a university city full of students, Regensburg boasts an above-average density of pubs. Anyone who was once at college there or is currently relishing a full-on undergraduate lifestyle is very unlikely to contradict me on this point… But wait a minute! This beer thingy went full steam ahead here in Regensburg at a time when there was neither a university nor many of today’s pubs in sight…

The history of beer dates a long, long way further back. And today, I embark on a time travel into Regensburg’s beer- and tavern-wreathed past. But don’t worry: I don’t have to set off on the “beery” discovery trail all on my own – I am accompanied by about 20 like-minded guys, who like me want to find out more about what was going on in Regensburg’s pubs and taverns way back in the past. And we’ve also been able to gain the welcome services of an expert for this quest: Martin Reich, who works as a guide for the Stadtmaus, and who will be leading us on our today’s journey into bygone times.

The starting point for our guided tour is the historic “Wurstkuchl” on the banks of the Danube. Before we set off, Martin briefs us on some general background straight away: “Beer has a long history – 5,500 years ago, the Sumerians started beer-brewing, followed by the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Ancient Greeks. We don’t know a great deal about the Germanic tribes in that respect, simply because they were not all that literate, so written records are meagre. The Romans, too, brewed beer but then decided they preferred wine – beer they regarded as hopelessly rustic and barbaric.” These beginnings, however, were still miles away from the beer we’re familiar with nowadays. A piece of bread with water, left to soak for few days … And what you get is a cereal-fermented concoction that really has very little to do with the amber nectar as we know it today.

Nonetheless, people must have developed a fondness for beer somehow, because the exquisite barley-based brew was held in high esteem both in ancient times and in the Middle Ages.

In the Mediaeval period, it was above all the friars who progressed the development of beer. And why monks of all people, you may well ask. No doubt about it: Lent is to “blame” for this. During this time, the spiritual gentlemen’s food regime was very minimalistic indeed. But as far as drinking was concerned, they were not quite as abstemious. And since the beer’s consistency in those times was more like a porridge, what could be a more obvious option than to use it for getting the nutrients you needed? I mean, you do have to look after yourself and your body somehow, don’t you? 🙂

There were two main reasons why beer-brewing and beer-drinking gradually left the confines of the monastery walls and became accepted in the secular sphere as well: the improvement of economic conditions in the 11th century, and the emergence of travellers in the 20th century. This meant that in trading cities like Regensburg inns became a definitely profitable proposition. Two well-known inns had their homes in what is today the Thundorfer Strasse, one of the most important traffic arteries in Regensburg’s inner city: the “Braulokal zu Sonne” and the “Gasthaus zur Steinernen Bruck”. The latter was more or less open twenty-four hours a day, only from 2 to 4 a.m. was the tap closed. So it’s hardly surprising that the “Gasthaus zur Steinernen Bruck” recorded the city’s biggest beer sales.

In the Middle Ages, by the way, three different kinds of inn were known in Regensburg: the “Gassenwirt“ (backstreet host), who sold the surplus quantities of his own beer to his neighbours and to passers-by. Above him on the “Zapfwirt“ (social ladder) was the tap landlord, who was also permitted to buy beer; and at the top of the ladder finally was the “Gastwirt“ (innkeeper). The “Gasthaus zur blauen Lilie”, for example, was also allowed to dub itself an inn. You can still find its inn sign in one of Regensburg’s smallest alleyways. “An inn sign like this was a definitely elaborate affair, in striking design. After all, the landlord wanted his guests to remember this spot even after an intoxicatingly inebriated visit,” explains Martin Reich.

Still, despite the inn sign, the “Gasthaus zur blauen Lilie” can’t quite compete in terms of popularity when compared to our next stop at the “Rathausplatz”: here we are, standing in front of the “Regensburger Hofbräuhaus. There were “Hofbräuhäuser” all over Bavaria, which preferably brewed brown barley beer. But where does the name of “Hofbräuhaus” actually come from? Martin knows the answer to that one: “In “Hofbräuhäuser”, beer was brewed for the Bavarian ducal court. It was not only barley-based beer, though, that was brewed here, the exquisite wheat beer was also at the top of the list. True to the motto ‘wheat beer for the nobs, the rest for the yobs’. There, wheat beer was regarded as something genuinely special, since only the Duke himself had the right to brew wheat beer.” Mind you, the Duke didn’t actually tend the brew-kettle in person. But in the time between 1607 and 1792, he did in fact enjoy the privilege of being the only one permitted to brew wheat beer in Bavaria, which entitled him to set up dedicated breweries just for brewing wheat beer.


Various other places where the Duke used to hang out and the shady types he met there will be revealed to you in the next instalment …

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