Time in a Bottle

If you find yourself in a German beer hall, take a good look around: you'll see vestiges of tribal revelry described by Roman historians two thousand years ago.

So says Horst Dornbusch, a Düsseldorf-born brewer and beer writer. It's one of the many fascinating insights he offers in his book, Prost! The Story of German Beer. It's a story as big as Germany itself, and Dornbusch tells it with style.

According to the author, beer played a vital role in the lives of ancient peoples, including the ancestors of modern-day Germans. The beverage figured prominently in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known work of literature; and Norse legends promised an afterlife in Valhalla, where good beer flowed.

For most of recorded history, beer and religion have been inseparable. The ancient Sumerians paid their priests in beer. Egyptians credited the god Osiris with inventing it. Heroes of the Old Testament, King David being one of them, were brewers. Martin Luther fortified himself with beer when excommunication loomed.

Inevitably, politics have intruded on beer. Dornbusch, who has a master's degree in political science, tartly observes that "he who has his hand on the levers of power also has his thumb in the people's beer mug." He shows how little human nature has changed: Cleopatra imposed the first excise tax on beer--and justified it as a means of combating drunkenness.

Occasionally, politicians have legislated in favor of beer drinkers, the most famous example being the Beer Purity Law of 1516. More typically, though, they've used the law to protect special interests. Medieval cities banned the importation of beer; some even used force to block shipments from out of town. The rulers of Würzburg banned brewing altogether in a failed effort to protect local winemakers.

Brewing was once the province of monks, who built a burgeoning--and tax-free--industry during the Dark Ages. Feudal lords soon challenged the Church's authority; in the process, they established their own breweries, most notably the Hofbräuhaus in Munich. Finally, businessmen bulled their way in, clashing with religious and secular authorities on their way to the top.

Even as control over the brew kettles changed hands, beer making itself remained largely unchanged. Until recently, beer was brewed with top-fermenting, or ale, yeast. By modern standards, it wasn't very good; most of us probably would find it undrinkable. It took one more revolution--this one bloodless--to make possible the beer we enjoy today.

Scientists unlocked the process of fermentation, isolated yeasts for use in brewing, and discovered that heating beer kills bacteria. Refrigeration allowed brewers to control the fermentation process, indirect heating made pale malts possible, and improved filtration spelled an end to cloudy beer. Rail transportation, along with the breakup of local monopolies, enabled brewers to serve faraway customers.

In 1842, the beer world changed forever. Brewers in the town of Pilsen combined lager yeast, local hops and barley, and some of the world's softest water, coming up with a light-colored beer with a mellow taste and a dry, hoppy flavor. Within decades, the new Pilsner style displaced ale throughout most of the world. Even brewers who stuck with ale adopted lager-making techniques to turn out a better, more consistent beer.

Today, Pilsner and its offshoots account for most of the world's beer production, though Dornbusch points out that many brewers are making a pale imitation of this classic style. He's especially critical of American megabrewers that substitute rice and corn for barley; in his view, their beer doesn't deserve the name "Pilsner."

Although Prost! is a history book, it's anything but boring. Dornbusch has an enviable command of both beer lore and the English language. He bring his subject to life with delightful characters like Jan Primus (better known as Gambrinus), a legend both on the battlefield and in the tavern; and Hildegarde von Bingen, a medieval doctor who wrote about the preservative power of hops--and lived to a ripe old age herself.

If you love German beer, Prost! will leave you with a deeper appreciation of the proud culture that produced it. Like a well-made Bavarian doppelbock, this is a book to be savored.