Just a little over a year ago, the internet was abuzz with news that the Smithsonian was in the market for a beer historian. That the venerable Smithsonian Institution would be looking to collect, document, and display the history of brewing in the United States is a striking move. It is also a move entirely in keeping with the booming popularity of craft beer in the United States –– itself a phenomenon with aspirations to reconnect beer drinkers with local traditions.
Alas, I’ve been bored senseless by one too many museums of breweriana. You probably know the kind: beer signs, beer coasters, beer bottles. Not that these can’t be interesting objects in their own right, but all too often displays of breweriana lack the kind of layered contextualization that both historicizes and revitalizes the object in question. As a historian, I find it encouraging to see an institution of national stature taking a scholarly approach to documenting the rich history and tradition surrounding brewing in the United States. At some point over the next few years I plan to make it out to D.C. to see how their efforts at collecting, exhibiting, and programming have worked out.
For now, though, here’s a look at two museum exhibitions from my recent time in Europe: a temporary exhibition dedicated to the history of the German Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) in Munich, and a hop museum in the Hallertau region of Bavaria. Even if the Reinheitsgebot exhibition has since closed, I talk about it here because it demonstrates the potential of well-crafted exhibitions to enrich our experience of what’s in the glass. At any rate, I’m certain it won’t be the last of its kind. And there’s always the extremely informative catalogue if you’re able to read German.
How Beer Made Munich
On the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of that famous German beer law that some people love and others loathe, the Münchener Stadtmuseum (Munich City Museum) staged an exhibition called “Munich––Powered by Beer.” The English title doesn’t quite capture the essence of the pun in the German title, Bier. Macht. München, which translates roughly into both “How Beer Made Munich” and “Beer. Power. Munich.” Either way, the title of the exhibition alludes to how beer has shaped everything from medieval brewing rights to Munich’s urban development. The exhibition also underscores the extent to which the beer industry was and is closely entwined with the political and economic powers that run the city.
In scarcely any other major city is the culture of beer so much a part of its history and identity. The exhibition traces the history of brewing in Bavaria from the days before the enactment of the Purity Laws in 1516 through the industrialization of production in the nineteenth century to domestic export networks in the twentieth century.
Industrialization and scientific advances in brewing technology play a major role in the exhibition. One segment recounts the interconnection between the lager-style beers prevalent in the region and Munich’s role in the development of refrigeration. Beer in popular culture plays a large role in the exhibition as well, with galleries dedicated to consumption (beer halls, beer gardens, taverns), advertising, and the history of Oktoberfest. The curators also tip their hat to other annual beer festivals that revolve around particular styles of beer, religious holidays, or changes of season.
“Munich—Powered by Beer” is celebratory, to be sure, but manages to maintain a critical distance. Its treatment of the role of beer halls in the rise of Nazism is but one example, along with its (albeit brief) acknowledgment of the overlooked contribution of Jews to German beer history. As a whole, the exhibition draws on a well-calibrated mix of written documents, artworks (engravings and paintings/portraits), photographs, postcards, technical objects used in the brewing process (hydrometers, refrigeration units), advertising placards, a wide variety of objects (such as tankards, steins, barrels, taps, figurines), and installations of original tavern rooms and bars.
A Hop Museum in the Hallertau
The German Hop Museum (Deutsches Hopfenmuseum) is right in the middle of the Hallertau hop-producing region and well worth a side trip from Munich. Open since 2005, the architecture of the building pays tribute to the local hop yards, while the exhibition itself is a welcome departure from the breweriana of most beer/brewing-themed museums. The exhibition was designed with a focus on interactivity, whether in the form of touch screens with maps and layers of information, hands-on displays, or even a station in the shape of a hop cone that generates hop aromas.
With the aid of objects such as tractors, mechanical pluckers, trellises, and a life-sized replica of a hop kiln, the exhibition details the social and economic history of the hop industry. It also delves into topics as diverse as the role of monasteries in medieval hop cultivation and the use of pesticides more recently. The first part of the narrative emphasizes hop production as a labour-intensive seasonal occupation that drew upon migrant labour and involved the entire village. The latter portion addresses the radical changes and dislocations wrought by the postwar mechanization of the industry. All the while, the exhibition deftly resists the urge to romanticize the back-breaking work of hop picking while also relating compelling tales of camaraderie during the cycle of planting and harvesting. Singing, dancing, and festivities were all hallmarks of the hop harvest.
All of the objects, documents, films, and installations come together in what amounts to a fascinating and sometimes surprising cultural history of hop production in Bavaria. Objects on display include scientific writings on hops ranging from early botanical studies such as those by Hildegard von Bingen to recent works on hop processing. A series of films focus on scenes from everyday life in the hop villages as well as on the dangers faced by those who constructed the hop trellises. Throughout the exhibition, photo albums and oral histories bring the hop harvest to life. The very last section of the exhibition focuses on the market for hops during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and pauses to shine a light on the often overlooked history of Jews in the hop trade.
Unsurprisingly, hops rule the roost in the museum’s gift shop as well. If you’re in need of a pick-me-up after taking in the exhibition, you can buy delectable chocolate containing hops. You’ll also find hop soaps, hop teas, hop jellies, and hop pillows alongside books on hops and postcards with botanical renderings of the hop cone.
I must confess that I’m always a bit baffled when I hear people complain about how beer and politics don’t mix. What both of these thoughtful exhibitions demonstrate is that beer is intimately bound up with economic and political power. And not only that. The agricultural crops that go into our glass have given rise to rich cultural histories of labour and sociality. Where there’s a history of this, that, or the other, you can be sure that beer’s not far away. So when you’re contemplating your next beer pilgrimage, set aside some time to support museums like these in both North America and Europe.
Cheers to beer in museums!
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All images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.