“Germans absolutely cannot live without sausage and beer.”
–Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1958)
The Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, only three months after I viewed it for the final time from the vantage point of the barrier’s spotless East Berlin side, where it was immaculately maintained.
Conversely, viewed from West Berlin the Wall looked like a winding artist’s canvas intended for adaptive reuse. It was painted, carved, Super-Glued and draped with multiple layers of graffiti.
West Berliners paused occasionally to mock the Wall before returning to their vibrant, pulsating exceptionalism. East Berliners joked about confinement, too, in a black, wry way, and not loudly.
The humorless high priests presiding over mankind’s various belief systems, most of them bogus, never seem to appreciate satire. The German Democratic Republic’s elderly politburo was no exception.
It’s been so long since there were two German states side by side that today, in 2022, you’d have to be somewhere around 40 years old to have any active memory of the period of the country’s division, when a maze of walls and fences separated the two halves.
Let’s quickly review, before having a look at beer in the GDR.
At the end of World War II in 1945, Germany was divided into two zones of occupation by the victorious Allied powers. The Americans, British and French controlled areas to the west and south, and the Soviets to the east. Berlin was in the Soviet zone, but also was divvied up by the victors into western and eastern sectors.
By 1949 the victorious alliance had dissolved, and the powers occupying Germany officially went their separate ways, grouping into capitalist vs. communist camps. The result was two separate nations, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, capitalist West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR, communist East Germany).
Germany thus became the European epicenter of the ideological conflict known to history as the Cold War, although it wasn’t until 1961 that the East German leadership began erecting the Berlin Wall, a decision destined to be refined and “improved” for a quarter-century, ostensibly as a means of keeping ideological foes on the other side from coming in, but in reality preventing the GDR’s citizens from voting with their feet in a westerly direction.
In 1989, the shifting tides of history brought a new dynamic in which the Soviet leadership could no longer afford subsidizing the East Bloc, including the GDR. East Germany’s stodgy vanguard failed to read the room, and the Wall crumbled. In 1990 Germany was reunified, imperfectly and expensively, in a process that may require another two generations from today to be truly complete.
As a backdrop to all of this, it’s important to remember that immediately following WWII’s end, much of the newly divided Germany was utterly devastated. Traumas were layered and ubiquitous. For a number of years there was food rationing, housing shortages, widespread societal depression and a sizeable measure of poverty.
Few other Europeans with their own to-do checklists of post-war problems were much interested in the economic rehabilitation of Germany, after all the country responsible for a continent-wide conflagration. No one was exactly sure what would come next.
However the superpower groupings, each in consideration of its own ideological policy dictates, determined that their respective half-Germanys best suited their purposes by being functional modern states. Capitalism and communism having established their proxies on German territory (and yes, the GDR’s autonomy was more limited than the FRG’s), two differing modes of reconstruction finally began in earnest.
And this brings us to the topic of beer in East Germany.
The greatest concentration of pre-WWII German breweries was in Bavaria, subsequently to become part of West Germany, and as always the traditional hotbed of what foreigners think of as “German” modes of brewing.
In West Germany by the early 1950s agricultural production was stabilized and transportation links rebuilt, and in broad terms breweries were able to resume normal operations. Familiar beers reappeared, and once again the men could repair to the pub on Sunday to drink, smoke, tell whoppers and wait for the wife and kids to be finished with church so the entire family could eat together.
Meanwhile the areas incorporated into the GDR made up just 25% of German territory, and produced only 18% of the country’s beer. Breweries there were faced not only with rebuilding, often from scratch, but also the uncertainties of impending nationalization. In the GDR over the coming decades a mere sliver of private ownership would be permitted, totaling perhaps 3% of economic output by the 1980s. In the main, communism meant the “people’s” collective ownership of the means of production.
Most of the existing East German breweries were taken over by the state; by the 1970s, remaining private owners had been presented with offers they couldn’t easily refuse (“hand over the keys, and you can continue to be a brewery manager” being most common). Some breweries were merged into larger entities, others kept as they were, and still others closed outright. They were organized into regional groupings called kombinats, supposedly to facilitate planning, and which were given a small degree of autonomy to make local and regional decisions.
A fascinating and uncommon exception to the nationalizing of East German breweries remains in business today: Brauerei Richard Schmitt in the village of Singen, south of Erfurt. As with the more renowned Brasserie A Vapeur in Belgium, the Schmitt brewery still operates by late 19th-century steam power.
At around 600 (American) barrels a year of production, perhaps Schmitt was too small for the East German authorities to bother with. In mid-1970s, when a final nationalization push began, the GDR authorities surprisingly declared Schmitt a “museum” brewery with protected landmark status, and the family continued as the owners.
Overall beer and brewing in the GDR proceeded according to central planning, the top-down command economy’s determination of how much beer was needed, the resources a brewery would receive to brew it, appropriate employment levels, research and development, and which printer would supply the labels for the bottles.
Very little of this ever worked out exactly as intended, and if you’ve ever watched an episode of the television series M*A*S*H and recall company clerk Radar O’Reilly’s perpetual wheeling and dealing, it’s easy to imagine the person at the brewery whose skills were necessary to trade, barter or bribe for the ingredients omitted from the plan.
Interestingly, at the beginning the East German leadership actually debated the very existence of beer and brewing in a social context, pondering whether the ideology of “scientific” communism allowed for intoxicants, which might erode the consciousness of workers.
After all, Prohibitionism as a 19-century intellectual construct often was presented as being for the greater good of workers, who ideally should be free of any addiction in order to become happier workers (meaning better capable of efficient utilization by the owners of capital).
Some communists, who’d no doubt say they were seeking to free workers from all exploitation, similarly advocated a dry state of existence for corresponding reasons. In the late 1940s, the East German bigwigs considered that Josef Stalin, still saintly at the time, had himself countenanced a Prohibitionist experiment in the USSR during the mid-1930s.
Accordingly, Soviet workers began concocting moonshine from any available ingredient, as well as killing themselves by drinking industrial alcohol and engine fluids. Worse yet from Stalin’s standpoint, it became apparent that without the taxes collected on the sale of alcoholic beverages, the budget approached collapse.
Prohibition in the USSR went nowhere and was abandoned, a lesson Gorbachev was compelled to relearn 50 years later. The problem persists to the present day. As recently as 2016, more than 70 Russians died after drinking bath oils presumably containing alcohol.
But the GDR’s leading element quickly concluded that beer was sufficiently important in a German cultural context to satisfy public demand with beer and sausages, viewing beer as a beverage of moderation and, we must assume, both safety valve and an irreplaceable source of revenue.
Available evidence supports the notion that having concluded that East Germans needed beer, the leading elements did their best to supply it. By the time the Wall fell, the GDR’s annual per-capita consumption of beer had risen to West German and Czechoslovak levels.
The economic plan specifically identified those styles of beer suitable for brewing, a topic explored by the English beer writer Ron Pattinson, who married an East German woman during GDR times.
East Germany’s love of bureaucracy wasn’t exaggerated. So it should come as no surprise that there was a document officially describing each style that could be brewed. TGL 7764, the relevant document, lists 22 types of beer, although a few are actually duplicates.
Pattinson, perhaps the reigning international expert on East German brewing, continues.
While most German lager styles are represented, there’s a far narrower range of top-fermenting styles than in the West. And apart from Lichtenhainer, which doesn’t even make the official list, Berliner Weisse is the only wheat beer brewed. Not surprising, really, as it was only produced by one small brewery in tiny quantities.
Some of the styles were extremely rare. I never saw Dunkels on sale and I’ve only ever come across a handful of labels for it. Märzen was even rarer: I’ve seen just a single label for it that looked like it was from the early 1950s.
Pattinson believes that while East German brewers were expected to brew between the official lines, they could get away with brewing outside them, as with Gose, which died out in the mid-1960s. According to Pattinson, one style in particular could be said to have originated in East Germany.
Pilsator was a style unique to the DDR. A superior quality Pils: 80 percent malt, higher gravity and better quality ingredients. Intended to be more like Pilsner Urquell than most interpretations. I was lucky enough to try a few. Sternquell in Plauen made a cracking one.
Of course, the “ator” suffix is easy to confuse with the Bavarian tradition of use to identify Doppelbock. Pilsator wasn’t strong dark lager. Pattinson’s reference to Pilsner Urquell parallels strikes me as accurate based on my hazy recollection of having a few bottles of Coschützer Pilsator while in Dresden in 1989.
Certain of the East German breweries with a wider reputation for quality (Radeberger, Wernesgrüner, Köstritzer along with a few others) became export oriented. Once trade was established between the two Germanys, the GDR brands earned sought after hard currency when shipped over to the capitalist side of the fence, seeing as East German money was all but worthless outside the Warsaw Pact nations.
However, to be exported to West Germany meant these brands had to be brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law, which to oversimplify, prohibited the use of adjuncts like corn, rice and sugar.
In turn, this prompts the question of whether East German breweries ever consistently adhered to the Reinheitsgebot, and the answer seems to be yes; sometimes; except when they couldn’t, or they wouldn’t. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, of brewers in Berlin just after the war petitioning the occupying Soviets to permit a relaxation on the beer purity law.
It is all but certain that high levels of adjunct use were tolerated in East Germany, apart from the upper echelon of breweries engaged in brewing for export. After all, as I’ve previously observed, fixating on the primarily Bavarian Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) ignores the use of adjuncts by breweries in other parts of Germany prior to the Reinheitsgebot’s more widespread implementation.
The Elbe-Saale hops growing region fell under the GDR’s dominion, and its hops farms were nationalized, but there were persistent hops shortages all the same. Neighboring Czechoslovakia and Poland both produce high quality hops, but it isn’t clear whether they traded hops within the Bloc, and if so, if the supply was dependable and affordable.
Among the practical ramifications of using less barley malt and more adjuncts might be a thinner and flavorless beer, perhaps cloudy and less stable. As for the hops, here’s an anecdote from my direct experience.
As background, it helps to know that the regional brewing kombinats brewed established name brands of beer in addition to filling quotas for the East German equivalent of generic beer (like Kroger’s Cost Cutter of old). These were brewed at different locations, but were called Deutsches Helles (German Pale Lager) and Deutsches Pils (German Pilsner). There may have been others.
They were available in squat .3 liter bottles instead of the .5 liter bottles, and were ridiculously inexpensive; as an aside, the set price for beer established by the state according to the plan did not change appreciably throughout the GDR’s 40-year history.
My friend and travel mate Jeff Price and I were quickly recognized by our work brigade comrades as beer connoisseurs (read: guzzlers). We tried whatever we found in pubs, kiosks and grocery stores, which were well provisioned by the prevailing standards of the Bloc, including the aforementioned generics as well as any brand we hadn’t previously analyzed (read: guzzled).
At one point Tilo, a big, bearded and garrulous student who, following unification, was exposed as the Stasi informer in our group, took us aside and tried to make a point about Deutsches Helles and Deutsches Pils.
Don’t drink them, Tilo cautioned. These beers don’t use hopfen.
I knew the word for hops. If so, then why does the Pils still taste bitter?
At this point Tilo’s grasp of English failed him. He said something about the insides of a cow, but couldn’t find the precise word. Seeing cow beer made no sense to us, we continued sampling (read: guzzling), often with Tilo, who lived in Berlin and had an apartment of his own where we partied one evening.
However, we heeded his warning even though it was garbled, and kept away from the generic beers. We could afford a few cents more for known brands, some of which were very good.
Fast forward two, or maybe three years.
Back home again in Indiana, the FOSSILS homebrewing club took a subscription for Zymurgy magazine, and at some point a small news item appeared about the condition of the East German brewing industry, now to be identified as “eastern” German.
The period after unification was a troubling time of social disconnection and economic dislocation as the two formerly separate nations merged their socioeconomic systems, with West Germany holding most of the cards.
A popular saying among experts at the time was “we all know how to make a capitalist country into a communist country, but this is the first time trying it the other way around.”
The Zymurgy news item mentioned that in the old GDR, brewers would use cattle bile for bittering when hops were scarce, just as Tilo had tried to tell us during our Berlin stay, but couldn’t find the word stomach. I don’t have this exact reference, but there was a story in the New York Times in 1991 that provides corroboration and probably served as the source for the Zymurgy story.
It seems a Mr. Funk of the Sternburg brewery near Dresden told the NYT reporter about the experience of former East German breweries forming partnerships with West German companies after unification. The western German brewers obviously had the capital to acquire the GDR’s breweries cheap and outright, modernizing the better ones and shuttering many others so as to better control regional markets.
“They convinced us that to be competitive, we had to brew under the German beer purity law,” Mr. Funk said. “And they created marketing and advertising concepts for our products. Before unity we used to put cattle bile in our beer to give it the bitter flavor of hops, which we couldn’t always get.” The brewery now spends $533,333 annually on advertising, compared with $6,666 under Communism.
Note that researcher John Gillespie, without whom I couldn’t have written this series, cites a similar example. In the 1950s a search for alternative bittering agents offered as an ideal substitute vermouth, or fortified wine flavored with botanicals. Not all the pertinent power brokers agreed with this assessment, and it isn’t known how often vermouth was used, if it ever was at all.
In 1989 during my month in the GDR, I drank more than a few beers with East Germans. There was a language barrier, to be sure, but nothing else particularly novel about the experience from a beer drinking standpoint. I didn’t introduce deep topics for conversations and tried to be sensitive, knowing (as with Tilo) that the walls had ears.
Everywhere one travels, people are people. In the case of the GDR, we Americans forever dwell on the stories of those who wanted to leave. And yet quite a lot more stayed, and at some level most of them sought to become a part of solutions and betterment. Not very many East Germans foresaw the solution of immediate reunification, which was completed not even a year after my visit.
It didn’t seem inevitable then, even if 20-20 hindsight advises us differently. As the Firesign Theater comedy troupe once observed, “I think we’re all bozos on this bus.”
Here’s the sampling list for those “of age” who attend my presentation on the 24th. Notes in italics are from the Beer Judge Certification Program.
PILSNER: Radeberger Pilsner and Wernesgrüner Pilsner
Drier and crisper than a Bohemian Pilsener with a bitterness that tends to linger more in the aftertaste due to higher attenuation and higher-sulfate water. Lighter in body and color, and with higher carbonation than a Bohemian Pilsener. Modern examples of German Pilsners tend to become paler in color, drier in finish, and more bitter as you move from South to North in Germany.
Radeberger and Wernesgrüner were star performers of the East German brewing industry, and both exist (and export) today in altered corporate form. Comparisons are always risky, but their essential character (Radeberger’s almost Czech fullness and Wernesgrüner’s grassy hops) seems to me to be consistent with my recollections.
SCHWARZBIER: Köstritzer Schwarzbier
A dark German lager that balances roasted yet smooth malt flavors with moderate hop bitterness. The lighter body, dryness, and lack of a harsh, burnt, or heavy aftertaste helps make this beer quite drinkable.
Another export-oriented East German brewer was Köstritzer, located in a spa town near the West German border, and quickly absorbed by Bitburger after German reunification. I’ll never forget buying bottles of Schwarzbier in Budapest in 1987 and thinking the dark lager was terribly strong, which in retrospect it clearly was not. It strikes me as a lager-brewed version of Porter, just crisper and cleaner around the edges.
GOSE: Anderson Valley Holy Gose
A tart, lightly-bittered historical central European wheat beer with a distinctive but restrained salt and coriander character. Very refreshing, with a dry finish, high carbonation, and bright flavors… Minor style associated with Leipzig but originating in the Middle Ages in the town of Goslar on the Gose River. Documented to have been in Leipzig by 1740. Leipzig was said to have 80 Gose houses in 1900. Production declined significantly after WWII, and ceased entirely in 1966.
Gose has been revived in Leipzig since the 1990s, and also embraced by American craft brewers as an authentic sour ale capable of serving as a platform for non-traditional fruit. Anderson Valley was among the first to revive Gose in America.
A very pale, refreshing, low-alcohol German wheat beer with a clean lactic sourness and a very high carbonation level. A light bread dough malt flavor supports the sourness, which shouldn’t seem artificial. A gentle fruitiness is found in the best examples.
35 years ago there were matched sets of breweries on both sides of the Wall, like Kindl and Schultheiss, as placed retroactively on the capitalist side by owners of the ones that had been seized on the communist side. They made Berliner Weisse, but by most accounts the decades to follow saw diminished public interest, until craft brewing recently emerged to revitalize the style. The fine example from Prof. Fritz Briem is brewed in Bavaria, ironically. While the addition of syrup was common in Berlin, I prefer sampling straight and unalloyed to experience the character.
A low-gravity, highly-carbonated, light-bodied ale combining an oak-smoked flavor with a clean hop bitterness. Highly sessionable.
Decades ago the late, great Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson mentioned this style, which at the time was approaching extinction in Poland, but the dual names (Grodziskie is Polish and Grätzer is German) remind us that there was no independent Polish state for long periods in modern times. The style is Polish and German. The beer itself is a collaboration between Louisville Ale Trail, Falls City, and Lexington’s Ethereal Brewing.
LICHTENHAINER: Freigeist Abraxas
A sour, smoked, lower-gravity historical German wheat beer. Complex yet refreshing character due to high attenuation and carbonation, along with low bitterness and moderate sourness.
I believe it’s safe to refer to Lichtenhainer as a German “country” beer, the area in question located in Thuringia. The Freiegeist (“free spirit”) version from the great Sebastian Sauer is contract-brewed at Urban Chestnut in St. Louis.