Free beer in Munich?

Wilhelm IV and his brother Ludwig X. They loved a pint

Ingolstadt, Bavaria, 1516.  A decree, written by the brothers – and co-ruling dukes of Bavaria Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X – is about to make history.

Well beer history at any rate:

“We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

“We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

A Munich Pfennig with characteristic hooded monk. Probably about 1300 or slightly later. Dark History tours Archive

From Michaelmas (Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael – September 29th to Georgi (St Georges Day), the price for one Mass [Bavarian Liter 1,069] or one Kopf [bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass], is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and from Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller [Heller usually one-half Pfennig].

If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered.

A cellerer monk sips from a “Kopf”

Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass.Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.

Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or markets buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass of the Kopf, than mentioned above. Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley (also considering that the times of harvest differ, due to location), WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.” [1]

This then is the famous beer purity law or “Reinheitsgebot”, a law which not only fixed prices but also limited the ingredients one could brew beer with. It was not the first attempt at regulating the brewing trade – Nuremberg in 1293, Erfurt in 1351,  Weißensee in 1434, Munich in 1487– had all tried to do so; beer was an absolute essential in a period when water was often unsafe to drink, a source of nutrition and so also a good source of income for those in a position to regulate it. This decree of 1516 was different in that it covered the entire duchy of Bavaria.

On one hand this certainly protected the consumer from drinking a brew which had soot added to give it more body, or more worrisome, lead or Deadly Nightshade[2].On the other hand, it had the potential to stifle smaller brewers and push up prices. The power of the Dukes to intervene in the business of brewing would later lead to the monopolisation of the Weizen (Wheat beer) industry – but that is another story.

The free-beer festival

On the nearest Monday to the actual anniversary of the purity law being published – April 23rd – the Bavarian Brewing Association host a most beloved event: the Day of Bavarian Beer a.k.a. the “Freibierfest” or more simply “Freibier”.

“The day of Bavarian Beer”. I love Munich for things like this

The event this year was opened by Bavarian Beer Queen Lena Hochstraßer, the Hallertauer Hops Queen Theresa Zieglmeier, former Minister of State  Ulrike Scharf together with the president of the Bavarian brewing federation Georg Schneider. This is the same Georg Schneider of Schneider wheat beer fame – a very pleasant and laid back guy he is too.

The event opens with due ceremony, with beer being poured from what is, normally a decorative fountain outside the offices of the brewer´s association.

Once the formalities are over it is like feeding time at the zoo: 1000 litres of Helles lager, 1000 litres of Dunkels and 1000 litres of Wiezen are there for the taking. Initially getting served can take a while – you need to persevere and defend your spot as people will try and push in front of you. However, once the initial rush was over, I was getting served in only a few minutes. You can hire a glass for a Euro or two – but it is a .5 litre. These days I take my own litre mug. You rarely get a full litre but you certainly get more than half.

The actual brewers who make the beer are kept secret until the actual day. This year it was, Paulaner for the helles lager, Löwenbrau for the dark and Fanziskaner for the wheat beer. I am not the biggest fan of Paulaner, although this is probably more to do with a soapy glass and a stroppy waiter the first time I had it than anything to do with the beer. Anyway – being free it tasted delicious.

About 30 minutes in. The crowd, believe it or not is actually going down. The lady in the Dirndl and the guy in the blue waistcoat are serving.

In addition to beer, they have stands selling cheese and sausages. This year there were free pretzels as well…. it just gets better and better.

Being a tour guide means that I am self-employed. This has both plus and minus points. A big plus is that I can ensure that every year I keep this date clear… as do a lot of my colleagues in other tour firms. Of course someone has to work and we considered with sadness our friends who could not book the day off. Then we realised that that actually meant more beer for us: what is that German words I am looking for? Schadenfreude!

Local hooligans and ruffians: well known to both Interpol and the Munich historical tour scene: Keith, Marcin and Scott.

I love my Tracht. It can be hellish expensive – a good pair of Lederhosen can run in to hundreds of Euros – but if you know where to look you can get some bargains. If you take a tour with us we can certainly show you our preferred shops and get you fully equipped for that beer festival.

It kicked off at 11am and was probably done by about 1.30pm. It was a great event and were blessed with fantastic weather – glorious sunshine. I actually felt a bit hot in my lederhosen and loden jacket. 

To celebrate the fact that we had just drank a lot of beer for nothing, my tour guide colleagues decided to decamp to the Victualienmarkt beer garden to have a debrief over a glass of beer. It was one of those days.

A visit to the Victualienmarkt is a must on any trip to Munich – as evidenced by these merry drinkers!

Whither next? That will be the Frühlingsfest or Spring Festival: the smaller and less well known cousin of the Oktoberfest. Watch this space….

[1]  From the article “History of German Brewing” by Karl J. Eden, published in ‘zymurgy’ magazine, Vol. 16, No. 4 Special 1993.

[2] Deadly Nightshade –  Atropa belladonna – was, according to the wisdom of the time, used by witches in their flying ointments. Ingested it can give feelings of euphoria, an LSD-like trip… and can kill you. Good kit if handled with care then! Trouble is, brewing was a hit and miss affair, hardly scientific and quantities used in different batches could vary enormously, as could the fine details of the brewing process. The cracking down on ingredients associated with witchcraft then can be seen not just as a health and safety measure but also in terms of Christian conservatism. 

Witches brewing up something very special

Find out about other great beer festivals by clicking here