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Oktoberfest Was Invented by Jews

German beer culture’s surprising origins

Yardena Schwartz
September 18, 2017
Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich
Beer coasters from breweries across Germany, 1960-2015Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich
Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich
Beer coasters from breweries across Germany, 1960-2015Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich

You know Oktoberfest. It’s the annual festival—starting Sept. 16 this year—in which 6 million people descend on the country synonymous with beer, dress up in lederhosen, and slur songs as they quaff from steins. And of course, it’s deeply Jewish in its heritage. OK, the last part is less widely known. But it’s true. The holiday associated with the look, feel, and taste of echt-German culture depended for centuries on the hard work of a group of German Jews, who were instrumental in building Germany’s beer empire before WWII.

But this history has been getting a wider audience lately.

“We were always coming across little glimpses of Jews and beer in our research,” said Bernhard Purin, director of Munich’s Jewish Museum. While the rest of the country celebrated the 500th anniversary of Germany’s beer-purity law in 2016, Purin said, “We thought it was a good occasion to showcase the Jewish history of beer in Germany.” Culling from national and private archives and collections, Purin curated a first of its kind, nine-month exhibition from April 2016 through January 2017. Beer Is the Wine of This Land: Jewish Brewery Tales told the Jewish history of German beer through artifacts and stories of the Jewish families who helped lead the beer industry until the Nazis came to power.

While Jews play little to no role in Germany’s beer industry today, that was far from the case prior to the Holocaust. For centuries, Jews had been forbidden to brew beer in Germany. That changed in 1868 with the introduction of freedom-of-trade and laws on the equal status of Jews. Once they were no longer excluded from the industry, they not only joined it but found ways to modernize it. “Jews in Germany were always very successful in times of modernization, and so they came into the brewing business when there was a need for modernization,” said Purin.

Löwenbräu poster, circa 1930. (Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich)
Löwenbräu poster, circa 1930. (Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich)

For example, Jakob von Hirsch was the first Jewish baron of Bavaria, a “protected Jew” who served as court banker for the royal family in Munich. In 1824, he purchased the Planegg estate just outside Munich, where he hoped to establish a brewery. The city of Munich and its brewers sought to thwart his plans for years, but when Planegg Castle Brewery finally began production in 1836, it became Germany’s first industrial brewery, revolutionizing the nation’s beer industry.
“Until then,” said Purin, “all the breweries were small and in the city, with no space to expand. He had the idea to create an industrial brewery outside the city, and after that, they all left the city to the countryside and built industrial breweries. Hirsch’s brewery became a real model. Today all of the major breweries are industrial.” The Planegg castle was ultimately seized by the Nazis, who used it for medical storage and as an air-raid bunker during WWII.

And consider Löwenbräu, which remains one of Germany’s largest and most successful breweries. When Germany expanded its railroad network in the mid-19th century, the company’s Jewish chairman, Moritz Guggenheimer, seized the opportunity, taking advantage of new international transport routes early on, and transforming Löwenbräu into Munich’s largest export brewery.

In 1895, Josef Schülein took over Munich’s bankrupt Unionsbrauerei. By 1903, the brewery had become a stock corporation, and a year later, the company acquired Münchner Kindl, another failing brewery in Munich. That takeover enabled Unionsbrauerei to expand its production capacity and increase beer sales.

WWI had a debilitating effect on all German breweries as exports decreased and local sales slumped. Barley was under a quota at that time, and so beer production was restricted to a minimum. Unionsbrauerei also suffered the impact of the war, but Schülein turned that crisis into an opportunity. In 1916, his company acquired Kaltenberg, a castle brewery west of Munich. He quickly modernized the brewery, introducing a new malting plant, renovating the cellars, and expanding the brewery. He also turned the castle estate itself into a profitable operation through successful land and livestock management.

Löwenbräu also found itself in a dire state after WWI, and so, in 1921 it merged with Unionsbrauerie, combining forces under the more famous Löwenbräu name. Hermann Schülein, Josef’s son, became the company’s president and majority shareholder. Under his stewardship, Löwenbräu acquired several other smaller breweries in Munich, eventually becoming Germany’s largest brewery.

When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, all the Jewish members of Löwenbräu’s board, including Josef Schülein, were forced to resign, as the company was “Aryanized,” seized from its Jewish owners and sold to non-Jewish German proprietors.
Josef retired to the Kaltenberg castle, where he died of natural causes in 1938. The property was then seized by the Nazis, and two months later, another son of Josef’s, Fritz with whom he had run the brewery, was deported to Dachau.


Jews’ involvement with the brewing industry started during the Renaissance. Prior to Germany’s passage of the beer purity law in 1516, brewers could use any ingredients they wanted. With the introduction of the purity law, which required brewers to use only hops, barley, yeast and water, the demand for hops soared. This development came at a critical time for German Jews.

The outrigger of a Bavarian brewery, circa 1900. (Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich)
The outrigger of a Bavarian brewery, circa 1900. (Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich)

“This was around the same time that Jews were expelled from the major German cities,” said Purin. “They ended up in villages in the countryside and had to look for new occupations. Those two things came together: There was high demand for a product and a group looking for new occupations. So the Jews who were expelled from the cities came into the hops business.”

While Jews were forbidden from brewing beer, they weren’t forbidden from the hops trade. So, from the 15th century until the Nazis rose to power, the German hops industry was largely in Jewish hands.

“This was nearly only a Jewish business,” said Purin. “Few hops dealers were not Jewish.” Jews were so instrumental to the hops industry, Purin added, that during September and October, trade would stagnate due to the high holidays.

But again, once Hitler took power, the hops businesses that were previously owned by Jews—about 70 percent of all hops businesses—were Aryanized.

While developing the museum exhibition, researchers also discovered that the art of the beer stein—the large ornamental beer goblets sold at nearly every souvenir shop in Germany—was the invention of young Jews in the late 19th century. Prior to that, beer steins were plain and undecorated.

“Young Jews who came from the country side looking for business in the city established the idea of decorating the beer steins with paintings and sold it to tourists,” said Purin. “This was not known before. There were five main companies doing this starting in the 1880s, and they all had family names which did not sound Jewish. So nobody realized they were Jewish. We figured out that they were all Jewish and had this idea to make decorated beer steins, which to this day, it’s the main souvenir for tourists coming to Munich.”

Some of the oldest and most ornate beer steins were on display at the exhibit, including some decorated with what would appear to the untrained eye to be a Magen David, the Star of David. While the origins of both icons are disputed among scholars, the similarity between the German beer brewer symbol and the Jewish Star of David is indisputable. Together, they represent a symbolic testament to the Jewish roots of German beer.

The six-pointed brewer’s star can be found on many German beer steins and breweries today and emerged around the same time as the Star of David. The hexagram has been used by brewers since the Middle Ages, while the Star of David is believed to have emerged in 14th century Prague’s Jewish community, on a banner supposedly awarded to it by Emperor Karl IV. During the Holocaust, the striking similarity between the Star of David and the brewer’s star presented a predicament. Some breweries and pubs that were adorned with the brewer’s star resolved this problem by removing one or some of the star’s triangles. After the war, they put them back together.

Beer mug with a brewer’s star from the Westerwald region of Germany, circa 1880. (Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich)
Beer mug with a brewer’s star from the Westerwald region of Germany, circa 1880. (Photo: Franz Kimmel/Jewish Museum Munich)

In 1945, two of the major hop-trading families, the Fromms and the Steiners, returned to Germany. In the 1960s, the Fromm company developed hop powder as a basis for hop pellets, revolutionizing the brewing process. According to Purin’s research, the two leading hops dealers in the world today are both in Bavaria, and both have Jewish origins. One is Hopsteiner, run by the Steiner family for six generations, and the other is the Barth-Haas Group. Purin was quick to note, however, that both families are no longer Jewish.

The Planegg castle was restituted to the Von Hirsch family in 1950, but since 1964 it has served as a storage facility for the Bavarian State Library. The Kaltenberg castle was returned to the Schülein family in 1948. Fritz, who had survived the war, ran the brewery, but it never managed to live up to its pre-war success. He sold it in 1954 to the House of Wittelsbach, a royal Bavarian family, and now Prince Luitpold of Bavaria serves as CEO of König Ludwig Schlossbrauerei Kaltenberg. Löwenbräu was also returned to the Schülein family after the war, but that too was sold.

Some of the primary Jewish families involved in Germany’s beer industry managed to escape the bloodshed, bringing their expertise to the American brewing business. In 1935, Hermann Schülein fled to New York with his family and became the director of Brooklyn’s famous Rheingold Brewery, established by another Jewish family that had left Germany in the late 1800s. At the peak of its popularity from the 1940s to ’60s, it was New York’s most popular beer, and the official beer of the New York Mets—showing that it’s not just German beer-drinking culture that wouldn’t be the same without the Jews.


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Yardena Schwartz is an award-winning freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer. Her reporting has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, The New York Review of Books, and The Economist, among other publications. She is writing a book about the 1929 Hebron massacre and its reverberations today, under contract with Union Square & Co., a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble.

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