This post is about brewing history, specifically German brewing history and how my ancestry touches the edge of this history. I’ve been writing a post about the 500th anniversary of Reinheitsgebot 1516, and I hope that will be up in a month or so but this post isn’t about that. This is just a rant of mine about a small fact I found out about a year ago. This isn’t really a post about pedantry but I want to keep the rants in a separate thread for now.
I was at a tasting recently with the Mad Fermentationist and he brought his new toy, a breathalyzer. We had fun seeing what the device thought our BAC was. I blew a 0.04, Mike blew about the same. The ranges around the table were between 0.04 and 0.10. So we were all in that range of just enough to a little over the limit. One person swished some Sam Adams Utopias in their mouth and immediately blew into the device (trying to get a high reading by misusing the device intentionally) and blew a 0.5. We all had a good laugh.
When I thought of the title to this article, that’s incident popped into my mind but this post isn’t about beer (alcohol) literally being in the blood. This post is about genealogy and coincidences. About 20 years ago, sucks that I can start a sentence like that now…I guess I’m old, I decided to look into my family’s genealogy. I’m a curious person by nature and had never wondered about my background before. There were new tools online that made this pretty easy and I was in college avoiding real life, seemed like a good time to pick up a hobby like that. Looking back, it is little more than a passing curiosity of mine. I was a dilettante. I made a free account on a popular online family tree website and filled in my tree, starting with myself and going backward. It wasn’t long before I got an email from someone on the website that said, “I think you are my cousin.” Turns out, the woman on the other side of that email thought it was my mother making the tree. I put them in contact with one another and my mother and her cousin took over the family tree entirely.
Passing off the genealogy project to my mother and her cousin was the right move. They really went after it and had the time to do it properly. My mother filled in her family tree going back hundreds of years, traveling to Europe to look for primary records. They would find some obscure tombstone in a cemetery in Philadelphia and send them off on a new tangent. Like most American families, the offshoots lead back to foreign lands and there is a mishmash of ethnicity through marriages that gave rise to my existence. Pushing further back in time, there are more and more people in the tree, siblings and cousins of direct ancestors. The amount of data can be daunting and due to false paternity, the further back you go the less accurate the data will be. I like to focus when I get to on the direct line, and for my mother’s family that leads back to Bavaria.
There is a direct ancestor of mine that I find of particular interest. Tsvi Rein is my great great great great grandfather and was a Jew living in Bavaria in the early 1800s. He was born around 1790, had at least 9 kids (mostly boys according to census). He was obviously wealthy (he financed the renovation of the local synagogue) and his business was hops. As far as we can tell, he was a hop dealer…I suppose he was the 1820s version of Lupulin exchange or Yakima Valley Hops.
Perhaps not surprising, there are very few surviving records of Jews in Bavaria from 200 years ago but there are some surviving records and some well documented beer history that can paint a picture of what he was probably doing and the world he lived in. First, he was in Bavaria…home of Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian beer purity law that required that beer be made with only 3 (or four) ingredients…water, barley and hops. That regulation went into effect in 1516, so almost 300 years before Tsvi would have been in business. We also know that his specific region at the time was well known for high quality hops. To put his life in a slightly bigger context, in the year 1800 the Rhineland (his namesake) was under the control of the Napoleonic government and the brother-in-law to Napoleon, Joaquim Murat, was in charge of the region Tsvi lived in. Tsvi would have been a young adolescent in this period of time. The Napoleonic government banned the trade and professional organizations and dissolved the long standing brewers guilds in Düsseldorf, Cologne and most anywhere else in Germany. While this abolition allowed anyone to enter into these previously closed trades, the production of beer in this region remained under the complete control of nobility of Bavaria. They received revenue from the taxing of beer production and were responsible to make sure producers were following the Reiheitsgebot and other beer regulations. At the time, there were two popular styles of beers in the region, barely-based lagers that were brown and heavy and the lighter wheat based beers “weissbier” or “white beers”. Despite some disagreements with the interpretation of the Reiheitsgebot regulations, wheat beers were allowed to be brewed and sold under a monopoly for several hundred years by the dukes of the house Wittelsbachers, a group of Bavarian dukes. In 1803, these dukes drafted a wheat beer quality ordinance, in which they specified that the brew should “be bubbly and foamy, contain the bitterness of the hops, leave a cooling and refreshing sensation on the palate, and impart its prickly flavor to its bouquet as well.” This decree, in many ways, made the wheat beer (white beer, weissbier) the official beverage of the southern region of Germany. While lovers of these beers styles may rejoice that this obscure style of beer was saved by noble decree…they obviously did it for the money.
Of course Napoleon was defeated in 1815 (Tsvi is approximately 25 at this point) and Bavaria became part of the Prussian empire. The brewers guilds were gone for good and small businesses were free to buy and sell goods to whomever they wanted. Brewing remained in control of the noble houses for another 70 years. While the total number of breweries decreased (production was consolidated by large groups….sounds familiar), the overall beer production, and specifically the lighter, hoppier white beers, drastically increased in the region in the coming decades. The demand for the required ingredients for beer would have been high in this period, I’m sure many growers and brokers made small fortunes in this wave of commerce.
So fast forward 200 years, the more things change the more they stay the same. Governments rise and fall, wars were fought and won or lost, a dozen generations of humans passed and I’m trying to make and sell beer, buy and grow hops, like this man I know close to nothing about except that he’s in the genetic chain of my ancestry. We aren’t a fundamentally different people today compared to 200 years ago…or 2000 years ago for that matter. We just have more technology. I am not a Luddite, far from it, but I do feel the draw of old world, digging in the soil, working with my hands. Looking at a sack of barley, a sack of wheat, and a sack of hop flowers, despite all that’s new this has been a constant of the human condition for more than 50 generations.
“History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” ― Thomas Carlyle