Iron Age Braumeisters of the Teutonic Forests

by: HorstDornbusch on 05-30-2006
Between roughly 500 B.C. and the birth of Christ, the Romans began to venture—first carefully, then massively—outside their elongated homeland, which looks on the map like a boot. To do so by land, they had to cross that immense barrier, the Alps, beyond which lay unconquered lands of dense forests, which the Romans called Germania. There the Romans found a separate—and to them, barbaric—culture of people, whose social life seemed to be centered on beer. It took the wine-drinkers from the Apennine Peninsula centuries to conquer these ale-drinking, illiterate savages, only to be conquered, centuries later, by them.

Germanic tribes of the Teutonic ForestsThe Teutonic forest dwellers that the Romans encountered in central and northern Europe belonged mostly to one broad cultural grouping, the Germanic tribes, but there were also still remnants of another grouping, the Celtic tribes. The Germans and the Celts had started to make beer from wheat and barley as early as the latter part of the Bronze Age, probably some time before 1000 B.C. The so-called Bronze Age of Europe began with the introduction of copper and bronze metallurgy around 1800 B.C. and is marked by the substitution of stone tools with metal tools. This led to improvements in agricultural implements and cooking gear—both essential for raising grain and making beer from it. The Bronze Age lasted until around 750 B.C., the approximate date of the introduction of iron.

The End of Peace in the State of Nature
Initially, it seems that the Bronze Age Celts were the more advanced of the two civilizations in central Europe. This was in large part, because they were the first to master bronze-working techniques. They lived in territories in what are now southwestern Germany and eastern France, on either side of the upper Rhine. The Germanic peoples lived farther to the north and east, but started a massive (at least by the standards of that time) migration into the climatically more hospitable Celtic regions around the tenth century B.C. This put the Celts under pressure. As competition for control over patches of inhabitable space in the forests slowly increased, the Celts started to disperse. They gradually vacated their ancestral core territories and moved to the edges of the European Continent. Many of them would ultimately end up on the British Isles, where they started the British ale.

We know very little about the way of life of the early central Celtic and Germanic Europeans, because history, as we understand it, only begins at the point in time when man was able to write it down. Because the ancient Europeans, unlike their ancient contemporaries in the Middle East, in Greece and in Rome, were illiterate, their entry into true history had to wait for the arrival of literate invaders. The Germans and Celts entered history, when the Romans started to write about them, often with disdain. They created the first documentary records of these sylvan primitives. Thus, what we can glean about Celtic and Germanic life—and beer-making—prior to the Roman contact comes only from scant archeological finds, a few cave drawings, and tribal sagas and myths—written down only at the beginning of the second millennium A.D.

Though far behind in penmanship, compared to their Mediterranean contemporaries, the European pagans were clearly at the top of the class in "brewmanship." They thought of the sky as a giant brew kettle, where Thor, the god of thunder, was the brewmaster. When he noisily cleaned and polished his kettle, there were lightening bolts, and when he boiled his wort, there were clouds. There is no doubt that, at least by about 800 B.C., the European forests dwellers had learned to make on earth what they believed Thor made in the sky. As we know from their artifacts, they had become regular ale brewers by that time. One such proof is the burial site of a well-to-do tribesman of that time, which archaeologists uncovered in 1935, near the Franconian village of Kasendorf, seven miles from Kulmbach, in northern Bavaria. The grave is from the so-called Hallstatt culture, a subgroup of the Celtic family of peoples. Not only did it contain the remains of the deceased gentleman, but buried with him were also the provisions that his clan had so generously contributed for his trip into the realm of the spirits. Among these was an amphora-shaped crock of black wheat beer, which, when unearthed almost 3,000 years later still contained traces of bread—the standard raw material for the mashes of ancient times. The crock, which is now in the Beer Museum in Kulmbach, ranks as the oldest evidence of beer-making in Europe.

We are not aware of any contact between the Teutonic forest dwellers of central Europe and the Mesopotamian or Egyptian delta dwellers of the Middle East, yet all of them made their beers the same way. Both started their beers with baked bread loaves. They then crumbled these into crocks of water. These they left outside for spontaneous fermentation by airborne yeasts. From this we conclude that beer making did not spread from one central area to all others, but that it started at several places independently, sometimes within overlapping timeframes.

The finished beer that resulted from the Celtic and Germanic bread brews was invariably a murky and sour, often black ale, which was probably full of floating husks and crumbs. It is hard to imagine nowadays that such were the humble beginnings of what we now revere as a magnificent European beer culture.

The Germanic tribes, as they gradually displaced the Celts, spread out over the entire territory of central Europe. But with very little communication among them, they were naturally much less homogeneous than the collective term "German"—affixed to them by the Romans—implies. Archeologists divide the central Europeans of the time into a bewildering array of "cultures," each with its own distinctive types of tools, vessels, weapons, ornaments, and burial rites. The Danes, Norwegians and Swedes of Scandinavia evolved their distinct "Norse" culture, while the inhabitants of Caesar's Gallia (roughly modern France and southern Belgium) developed their "Gallic" ways. Only the tribes in the very center—prominent among them the Alemans, Swabians, Bavarians, and Saxons—created a culture that we now associate with the term "German." On the fertile soils of glacial deposits in the temperate regions of central Europe, these Germans bred cattle, sheep, and swine, and sowed grain for their bread and brew.

Roman Scribes Bear Witness to the Brew with the Stench of Goat
In the wake of Roman legions marching across the Alps to conquer the illiterate, ale-swigging Germans, there followed literate, wine-drinking imperial officials, who reveled in exposing the deplorable predilection of the barbarian Germanii for their inferior beverage, which the Romans sometimes called "barley wine." This is fortunate for us, because these accounts contain the first documentary references we have of Germanic beer-making. From these records, we learn that, at the time of the first Roman contact, the Germans were already producing beer in large quantities. One well-traveled Greco-Roman geographer and historian, known simply by the name of Strabo—he grew up in Amasya in northeastern Anatolia, present-day Turkey, and lived roughly between 63 B.C. and 21 A.D.—left us a report about in incredible metallurgical feat. Among the Cimbri, one of the Germanic tribes, the peripatetic Strabo had observed a bronze brew kettle that was capable of holding, in modern measure, about 130 gallons of beer!

We also learn from the Romans that Germanic brews were sometimes flavored with such unspeakables as oak bark, aspen leaves, or even the content of an oxen's gall bladder. No wonder the Romans thought of Germanic fermented beverages as second-rate! The most complete—and definitely opinionated—description of tribal-Germanic drinking habits has come to us from the historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus. In his De origine et situ germanorum (About the origin and location of the Germans), which he completed in 98 A.D., Tacitus asserted, with some contempt, that the Germanic folk were proficient imbibers, who sought out even the slightest excuse for having a drinking party. No other people, he wrote, were inclined to enjoy so much the art of banqueting and entertaining as the Germans, and it was customary for them to invite strangers into their homes to share a meal and a brew. "The Germanii," he said, "serve an extract of barley and rye as a beverage that is somehow adulterated (presumably he means: fermented) to resemble wine."

The Germans used hollow aurochs horns as their favorite drinking vessels. The aurochs is the wild ancestor to all domestic cattle in Europe and North America. This critter became extinct some 350 years ago, when the last specimens were seen roaming the forests of Poland. Since then, however, German zoologists have been able to recreate the creature through backcrossing, thus preserving a biological monument on the hoof of what can only be described as a forerunner of a modern beer stein factory.

Perhaps, the cartoon cliché of raucous tribesmen, frolicking on their bear skins in front of a camp fire and passing, from one eager mouth to the next, their richly ornamented aurochs horns filled with intoxicating liquids, is indeed justified. Tacitus described the country of the Germans as rough and crude, the air as unpleasant, but the people as pure and unspoiled. He was impressed by the vigor and energy of the Germans and he observed that the men were capable of withstanding cold and hunger and were always ready to attempt feats of daring. But there was one deprivation the Germans apparently could not bear: Thirst! No wonder that both honey beer (mead) and grain beer always flowed in copious quantities at important tribal gatherings, where the Germans would discuss such weighty matters as war and peace or the betrothal of a chieftain's daughter.

According to their Roman masters and contrary to the modern stereotype of the typical German, the Teutonic tribes in Tacitus' time surely knew how to have fun, and they were none too eager to do heavy work. Clearly, this is what Tacitus tried to make clear when he sneered, "...they cultivate the grains of the field with much greater patience and perseverance than one would expect from them, in light of their customary laziness." Because of their predilection for the brew, Tacitus even suggested that it might have been easier for the Romans to conquer the Germanii by shipments of Cerevisia (beer) than by force of arms. "If we wanted to make use of their addiction to drink," he wrote, "by giving them as much of it as they want, we could defeat them as easily by means of this vice as with our weapons."

On the other side of the Rhine, in Gallia, what is now France, the old Celtic influences were still stronger, but, to the Romans things appeared not much better there than in Germania. About the Gallic tribes, the Greek seafarer Pytheas of Massalia (today's Marseilles) observed as early as 325 B.C. that "beer is the most common beverage." Likewise, the statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.) remarked in his De agricultura (On agriculture) that beer was the national beverage of the Gauls. Plinius the Elder, too, who died in Pompeii during the Vesuvius eruption of 79 A.D, confirmed that "the Gauls generally drink barley wine, as they always have. They understand how to brew different varieties, with which they get inebriated."

In Roman high society, however, German beer was held in such contempt that even Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus (331-363 A.D.) felt himself called upon to rhyme a silly ditty about the superior virtues of wine compared to beer. Julianus, known as "The Apostate," was the nephew of Emperor Constantine the Great, who, in 312 A.D., had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In his poem, Julianus likened the bouquet of wine to that of nectar and the bouquet of the Germanic "drink from grain" to the smell of a billy goat. Loosely translated, his poem reads: "This drink is not from Dionysus! What makes beer reek of goat, while wine has the scent of nectar. The Celts' invented it from ears of barley, because they have neither grapes nor a nose. Beer is not a child of the ethereal gods, but just plain grain." Julianus had come to know the beers of the tribes across the Alps during his many battles there against them in his youth.

Unimpressed by the highbrow Roman attitude, however, the tribal marauders of the forests continued to down their indigenous beverages just as they continued to menace the poor legionnaires sent from the Mediterranean shores to keep an eye on them. These backwoods barbarians proved to be intrepid warriors. They were as fond of draining the life blood out of their sophisticated, wine-drinking oppressors as they were of draining their aurochs horns of murky quaff. For the emissaries of mighty Rome, life was never safe at such military camps and administrative centers as colonia agrippinensis (today's Cologne), castra novaesia (today's Neuß, across the Rhine from Düsseldorf), castra bonna (today's Bonn), castra vetera (today's Xanten, on the Rhine, near the Dutch border), noviomagus (today's Nijmegen in The Netherlands), castra regina (today's Regensburg on the banks of the Danube), or treves (today's Trier on the Moselle River, near Luxembourg).

If You Can't Lick Them, Join Them
The Romans had brought the grape to central Europe so that they could indulge in the drinking habits to which they were accustomed at home. With this act, they started the barbarian Germanii and Galli and on a wine-making adventure, to which the Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes still bear testimony, some 2,000 years later. But it is obvious that the Romans, in turn, eventually developed a taste of their own for the "inferior" beverage of their Germanic underlings. How else are we to interpret the tombstone of a Roman merchant, who died in treves (Trier) on the Moselle River, in 260 A.D.? The epitaph on his stone identifies him as a cervesarius, a beer merchant. He had his liquid wares privately brewed by German ladies in the neighborhood and sold the merchandise at a fine mark-up to his civilized Roman customers.

The Romans even learned to brew themselves, as is evident from a complete Roman brewery discovered in 1970s near the Bavarian city of Regensburg, on the banks of the Danube. This brewery dates from the end of the 2nd century A.D. and was part of a fortification called castra regina (hence the modern name of the city: Regensburg). Castra regina was built in 179 AD by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Because of its strategic location along the northeastern flank of his empire, it became the largest Roman camp in what is now southern Germany, housing some 6,000—obviously thirsty—legionnaires as well as scores of administrators and support personnel. It is apparent from the construction of the kiln and mash tun of the Regensburg brewery that German beer-making had, by that time, progressed from the primitive bread beer found in the grave near Kulmbach to the mashing of malted grains as we practice it today.

Evidence of another Roman brewery in Germany, a fermenter with residues of black beer, was found in 1911 during the excavation of a Roman camp near Alzey, in the state of Rhineland-Palatine, now a prominent wine-growing region. Apparently, the fermenter and its contents were hastily abandoned by the Romans sometime in the year 353 AD, during a surprise attack by the Alemans. The Romans' ultimate embrace of the barbaric beverage is also reflected in their language. They came to regard beer as a gift from Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, whose name, quite fittingly, has become the source of the English word "cereal." Because the Romans eventually looked at beer as a strength-giving potion from the goddess, their word for beer became cerevisia (vis means strength). This word is still with us today in the form of the modern Spanish term for beer, cerveza.

The End of Rome—at the Hands of Ale-Swigging Barbarians
Eventually, not just libatorily, but militarily as well, Roman finesse turned out to be no match for Germanic resolve. The first serious blow to Roman dominance in central Europe occurred as early as 9 A.D. in the Teuteburg Forest, near the present-day city of Bielefeld in the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia. There, a band of Cheruscan warriors, lead by their chief Arminius, massacred Emperor Augustus' entire occupation force in Germany. Under the leadership of General Publius Quintilius Varus, Augustus' three legions of about 6,000 men each, marched into an ambush, where the Cheruscans completely vanquished them. The rout was so disastrous that Varus committed suicide rather than return to Rome and face Augustus' wrath. The Romans' loss to the Cheruscans was the turning point for Roman power north of the Alps. It ushered in a slow, centuries-long retreat of mighty Rome before the growing strength of the Germanic hordes.

During the next few centuries, successive waves of ale-drinking northern barbarians forayed into the vast reaches of the empire that the cultured and wine-drinking Romans had amassed. The pagan heathen tribes in the vast Germanic forests, whom such educated Romans as Caesar and Tacitus had regarded with heartfelt scorn and derision, marched south on their little armed excursions, sacked Rome time and again, and terminally crushed the Roman Empire. The Germanic Visigoths, on the move with women, children, elders and horseman-warriors, crossed the lower Danube in 376 A.D. and destroyed a Roman army near Constantinople on the Bosporus (present-day Istanbul in Turkey). Later, under their leader Alaric I, they swept through Greece and Italy. By 410 A.D., they had reached the gates of the city of Rome itself and sacked it on Emperor Honorius' watch (he ruled between 395 and 432). It finally was curtains for the pax romana (peace Roman-style).

Attila and his Mongolian Huns came next. They laid siege to the city, in 453, but Rome got a miraculous reprieve, when Attila was—quite literally—making love, not war. Attila succumbed in flagranti, on a hot and steamy night, from an arterial hemorrhage, while atop his favorite slave girl. The Huns, now leaderless, inexplicably raised the siege, left Italy for good and dispersed. Two years later came the Germanic tribe, the Vandals. They arrived by ship, and Rome was once again unable to mount a defense. The city was completely ransacked during a two-week barbarian rampage. This is the origin of the term "to vandalize." The Roman Empire had become a dying, impotent colossus, until, in 476, the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, abdicated handed all power over to the Germanic general Odoacer.

Now entire tribes moved in from the outside to settle on its lands. The German Franks started to nibble on the giant's extremities in present-day Belgium, while the Burgundians crossed the Rhine from the east to occupy what we still call Burgundy today, in southeastern France. The Germanic Lombards, or langobardi ("long beards"), moved from their home in the lands beyond the Danube into northern Italy, where, in the 570s, they established a flourishing society around Pavia in what we still call Lombardy. In Gaul, Clovis (around 466-511), leader of the Salish Franks, finished off Syagrius, the last Roman general there. Known in history by his Gallicized name Louis I, the first king of France, Clovis then subdued all the tribes between the Pyrenees and Bavaria, and made Paris the capital of his new realm. The empire founded by Clovis was to expand under his successors, during the next 300 years, until it encompassed all of Continental Europe from Hamburg to Rome.

By the sixth century A.D., the Roman influence in central Europe had all but vanished and a new way of life was beginning to flourishing in little farming villages in the erstwhile tribal Teutonic forests up and down the lands of the Franks, Alemans, Saxons, Swabians, Thuringians, and Bavarians—a life, which, when not interrupted by raiding Vikings from the north and Saracens from the south, would be generally peaceful. While the man of the house was out tending his fields of barley and wheat or chasing the stag in the woods, the lady of the house was busy at the domestic hearth making the bread, the stew, and the brew. In central and northern European families of that period, home brewing was as ubiquitous as home cooking and baking, and the brew kettle was as important a part of a maiden's dowry as were her cooking pots and pans. It was customary for a Brewster-hausfrau to invite her neighbors to a round of afternoon beer. The ladies took the beverage with pieces of bread dunked into it—perhaps a forerunner of the modern coffee klatsch?

The history books usually consider the rise and fall of Rome merely in terms of politics, territories, military campaigns, and personalities. They never consider the fate and influence of beer in the movement of society and events. The Germanic primitives, so underrated by Rome, also represented the power of beer, while the Roman rulers of the then-universe also represented the power of wine. Because the beer drinkers prevailed in central and northern Europe and the wine drinkers did not, beer was to take on a significance in the daily lives of the people that otherwise it might not have had. As the brew arose to become mighty in the post-Roman world—a world soon to be Germanic, Christian, and feudal—it also became the object of political and military affairs that helped to shape the destiny of that continent and, thus, of the world that we have inherited today as we start the third millennium. Strangely, beer's first big move to social and political prominence came during a period of roughly five centuries that are generally considered to be among the most stagnant in human affairs, the Dark Ages, when it became the preeminent domain of cloistered brew monks and nuns ... but that is another tale.
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