In Praise of Liquid Bread
childhood memories from a family brewery in Germany
I joined the proletariat class at the ripe age of 12. For a few hours a day, I would surrender my physical and mental self to a higher authority. My employer and master, who ruled over my every fiber and nerve, was relentless – from controlling the angle of my stance, the movement of my arms, the tilt of my head, to steering my pupils, even guiding my thoughts. I was his slave. When finally I was allowed to step away from him I was physically and mentally drained.
“He” was the bottle labeling machine in my grandparents’ brewery in Michelstadt, Germany. A picturesque, busy small town nestled in the hills of the Odenwald forest, Michelstadt is located about 40 miles south of Frankfurt, between the rivers Rhine, Main, and Neckar. It is very old, founded in 741 by an uncle of Charlemagne!
But the place is best known for its fairytale city hall, built in 1484 in half-timbered Gothic style. The first time I ever got sight of it was on one of the brewery’s beer bottles.
The Michelstädter Bier brewery belonged to my stepgrandfather. Founded in 1721, it is actually young compared to the other landmarks in town, like the medieval city walls. Still, although now defunct, the brewery would have celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2021. In its heyday, it supplied a large region with the German standard varieties of its “liquid bread” – Export, Märzen, Bock, Pils. It went without saying that, following the German purity law, first passed in Bavaria in 1516, only four ingredients were used: water, hops, malt (from barley), and yeast. Many towns in a radius of some 30 miles featured taverns and inns owned by the brewery and leased out to their managers. I remember the old slogan: Dir und mir, Michelstädter Bier! (Michelstädter Bier for you and me).
In its heyday, the brewery supplied a large region with the German standard varieties of its “liquid bread” – Export, Märzen, Bock, Pils. It went without saying that, following the German purity law, first passed in Bavaria in 1516, only four ingredients were used: water, hops, malt (from barley), and yeast.
When, as a small boy, I first set foot in Michelstadt, the brewery was still in full swing, but over the following years I couldn’t help overhearing talk about the threat of takeover by a big brewery in Frankfurt. (The number of breweries in Germany had fallen from about 20,000 after 1945 to about 1,200 in 2000, due to consolidations, but with the subsequent rise of craft breweries grew again to about 1,500 in 2022.) The “hostile takeover” was eventually fended off, as my grandfather and his son increasingly specialized in niche varieties, such as sweet malt beer or extra strong bock. But without any grandchildren willing or able to carry on the torch, the business was eventually sold.
The brewery operated in different parts of town. There was the old historic sandstone compound downtown, a stone’s throw from the city hall. It basically formed a square surrounding a cobblestone courtyard. The main building fronted the street, with the business office and a restaurant called Zum deutschen Haus on the ground floor, and my grandparents’ living quarters, as well as a ballroom, upstairs.
Behind on the right side followed the brewhouse with its brick smokestack, facing a large coal bunker on the left and the carport sheltering the two delivery trucks as well as a tractor. In the back, the filling room and a giant barn completed the complex. I will never forget the characteristic smells that lingered within the court’s enclosure, coming from three sources: the brewhouse, the beer cooling pan, and the coal bunker. Following the beer-cooking process in the giant copper kettle, the dregs consisting of spent hops and malt were deposited right in front on the pavement where they were picked up by farmers to be fed to their hogs. It is difficult to describe this smell, spicy bitter, with a strong note of grain. It is still one of my preferred fragrances. Then there was the “beery”-tasting, slightly pungent steam emanating from the freshly brewed, still hot, unfermented beer sitting in a cooling pan a quarter the size of a tennis court that straddled the courtyard in an overhead covered bridge. These smells were sometimes, depending on the wind, imperceptibly tinged by the dust from the coal bunker.
The barn’s ground floor, which originally held the horse stable, was filled with hundreds of old wooden beer crates and kegs. A vertical ladder led up – way up – to what used to be the hayloft. It now served as a depository for old furniture and discarded brewing implements. In the attic were stored the brewery’s carnival insignia and decorations covered with a thick layer of dust – among them a giant cardboard beer bottle featuring the Michelstädter Bier label, a 20-foot-long sign with the brewery’s logo, paper garlands, and crowns to be worn by the girls that would hail from the big float pulled across town in February. When I was not busy labeling bottles, I loved to play in the barn with my younger cousin, pushing or racing each other around on dollies, climbing into the attic, or playing hide-and-seek behind the stacked beer crates.
On the edge of town, near the old city wall, the brewery’s fermentation cellar was dug into a steep hill. A new branch brewery was situated right on top of the cellar, and in the town’s surrounding fields my grandfather’s family owned a pond for ice production. At my time, however, cooling ice was no longer obtained naturally but produced with an ice machine sitting in its own building. It consisted of a large, square steel basin filled with refrigerant. Vertically sunk into the refrigerant were some hundred elongated metal cases that held the water to be turned to ice. When completely frozen, the cases were lifted out with a special crane and transferred to a hot water holding tank where they were left for a few minutes only. This allowed the surfaces of the ice blocks to melt away from the walls of their cases so that they could slide out. If you stacked enough of them in a cool room on straw they stayed cold for quite some time, allowing them to be transported to their destination.
Considering the brewery’s age and its great reputation in the area, I gladly accepted my proletarian fate. I was proud to contribute to the brewery's smooth functioning by operating so important a machine. But I also realized once and for all that it is the machine that turns one into a robot, not the other way round.
The labeling machine consisted of a turntable the size of a small circular dining table, mounted hip-high on a stand. The wheel moved in four cycles, pivoting a quarter turn every two seconds. During the first cycle, I had to place a freshly filled beer bottle, grabbed from a passing conveyor belt, into a special cradle – like a clock’s hand pointing at nine – with the bottle’s neck aiming at the center. Two seconds later, the machine turned the bottle to the twelve o'clock position. While I laid the next bottle into the subsequent nine o'clock notch, two rollers held by horizontal springs and coated with glue descended over the twelve o’clock bottle, spreading the glue over part of its belly. As the bottle arrived at the three o’clock position, a container filled with a stack of labels lowered itself, magically releasing exactly one label, leaving its middle stuck to the glass, with both paper ends right and left still in the air like wings. Finally, with the bottle reaching the six o’clock position, two dry rubber rollers moved down and smoothed the label around the curvature of the bottle before I quickly took it out, careful not to touch and displace the fresh label on the still-wet glue, and placed it, label up, on another notched belt. At the same time, my left hand kept feeding the nine o’clock cradle with the next blank bottle. With each of my movements precisely choreographed, I became a part of the machine. In rare instances, two labels from the container would stick together, doubling up the paper layer on the bottle. This immediately triggered my alarm; my right hand shot forward, grasping the redundant label and tossing it aside, while the machine kept its inexorable rhythm. Of course, it took me a while to become a robot. In the first hours, I was forced to hit the red emergency switch repeatedly, to my great embarrassment, but practice made me just about perfect.
At the end of my shift, stepping away from the machine and out into the fresh air, my head was still spinning, my hands twitched, and my eyes kept moving inadvertently.
There is one more thing I learned from this work. At the end of my shift, stepping away from the machine and out into the fresh air, my head was still spinning, my hands twitched, and my eyes kept moving inadvertently. When many years later I watched Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times duckwalking out of the factory while continuing to tighten hex bolts in the air with empty hands, like a madman, I knew exactly what his character must have felt.
My “child labor” at my grandfather’s brewery not only made me feel important, it also gave me a sense of responsibility, as if I had a personal stake in the entire operation. I didn’t know exactly what tied me so to this enterprise – apart from the fact that it belonged to my grandparents – but in hindsight I must say that the whole place literally enveloped me with its activity, its people, its buildings, its equipment, and above all, its smells. Once the beer had cooled off in its giant overhead pan, a brewery worker would crank up the old, beaten-up red tractor, hitch it to a tank on rubber wheels, pull it under the bridge from where the beer was drained from the cooling pan into the tank. Then Albert, the worker, would motion toward me to take my usual perch on the tractor’s left fender, and out we rumbled through the arched passage – its corners since the Middle Ages protected by short sandstone bollards – into the street.
Pulling the heavy tank, the tractor huffed and puffed, bouncing and pitching on the age-old cobbled pavement as we slowly made our way across the town's market square and up the hill. As people heard and saw us coming and their heads turned, I felt like royalty accepting the adulation of my subjects bowed to the ground, hats in hand. No longer was I a lowly factory worker at the service of a machine; I was the mighty, supreme guardian of a sacred transport – no crown jewels, no gold bars, but the most divine liquid in the world, the nectar of gods.
Up the hill wheezed the tractor with its precious cargo, following the medieval town wall, at long last reaching a heavy, ironclad arched oak door, set in the hill, which magically opened its two wings just as we arrived. Out stepped Schorsch, the cellar master, holding up an arm-thick pipe that disappeared behind him in the dark. Soon, the beer was flowing from our mobile tank through the pipe into the cellar. As one followed the pipe inside, down wet steps, hollowed out from centuries of heavy boots, a musty, yeasty smell took over until one reached the bottom, some 200 feet inside the mountain, lit by a few dim lightbulbs in their wire mesh cages. The transition from the summer heat outside to the cool cellar always made me shiver. There were the two huge, square stone vats filled with the amber fluid, one of them capped by brownish yellowish foam. This was the finished, fermented beer. The other vat held the new beer we had just delivered. Once the cellar master had added the yeast, with its characteristic flavor, the new fermentation process would begin.
No longer was I a lowly factory worker at the service of a machine; I was the mighty, supreme guardian of a sacred transport – no crown jewels, no gold bars, but the most divine liquid in the world, the nectar of gods.
Meanwhile the tractor driver had hosed down the tank inside and out before the newly fermented, filtered brew from the cellar would be pumped up. Back down we went across town to the old brewery, retracing our path. This time, however, I had an immensely important job to do, not just sit on the fender to be greeted by my people. This time, before we rolled back downhill, I took position on a small board right at the front end of the fully loaded tank, next to a crank with which I had to operate the wagon's brakes so that, being pushed downhill by its enormous weight, it wouldn't crush the tractor, causing our train to jackknife. Once back in the brewery’s courtyard, the fresh beer was pumped into a tank below the filling room on the far end, eventually to meet me again, this time inside freshly washed bottles to be labeled. You should know, by the way, that all beer bottles were re-used. After going through a bottle washing machine (which also rinsed away the old label), the white ceramic stopper, which was operated by a wire lever mechanism attached to the neck of the bottle, would be fitted with a new red rubber seal, readying the bottle for re-filling.
Sometimes Willi, one of the two beer drivers, invited me to join him on the delivery circuit in the region. For me, this was just as exciting as a trip to Disney World for American children. First, I watched the driver as he loaded the truck, a vintage Opel Blitz, with 20-bottle beer cases, aluminum barrels, and shiny ice blocks the size of half-length railroad ties. The smell of the driver’s cabin – a mixture of old leather, gasoline, and stale cigarette smoke – still lingers in my nose; it signaled the beginning of a voyage into the world. There were about 15 taverns and inns on the circuit, all in smaller towns or villages surrounding Michelstadt, strewn between hills, fields, and woods, and linked by narrow, sinuous country roads. These establishments were leased to families who operated them. Thus, the Michelstädter Bier logo was displayed everywhere, on the sign over the door, on the wall behind the bar, on the sunbrellas shading outside tables, on the coasters, the glasses, the napkins.
Having parked his truck in front of the inn’s cellar trap, Willi, after readjusting his cigarette, flipped down the truck’s right side board, heaved the ends of two heavy planks to the edge of the truck bed, their other ends resting on the ground right in front of the cellar opening, and down, on these makeshift rails, rolled one or two barrels, followed by the skidding ice blocks leaving a moist track like snails, while beer cases would be carried directly inside to the bar. In return, depleted barrels and cases with empty bottles (“empties”) would be swung, almost thrown, onto the truck bed. As we took off again, one could hear a relieved engine turn more sprightly, one could feel the suspension regain its bounce.
After one or two glasses of Michelstädter (no one in those days worried about driving safety nor serving alcohol to minors), Willi became more chatty, reminiscing about earlier years, when kegs and cases were still made of wood, or about icy winter deliveries on treacherous roads.
After five or six stops, it was time for a break. To keep the ice from melting, the route was designed with all the ice deliveries up front, so when we sat down to have our own beer accompanied by sausage with sauerkraut or potato salad, we didn’t have to worry about the ice anymore. After one or two glasses of Michelstädter (no one in those days worried about driving safety nor serving alcohol to minors), Willi became more chatty, reminiscing about earlier years, when kegs and cases were still made of wood, or about icy winter deliveries on treacherous roads, or truck breakdowns in remote areas, or delays by roadwork or accidents causing water from the melting ice dripping down the sides of the truck. As we pulled back into the courtyard, I clambered down from my co-driver’s seat and rejoined my grandparents, just in time for a supper of bread, cold meats, cheese, and sweet, low-alcohol malt beer.
My stepgrandparents are long gone now; the old brewery has been repurposed for apple brandy production, its other buildings above the cellar, bought up by an investor, awaiting a new purpose. Like everywhere, the past cannot be reawakened, except in our memory, a memory I savor. Another holdover from my brewery experience is my taste for good beer, to be enjoyed just as much as a glass of fine wine.
Johannes Strohschänk, a native of Germany, is a professor emeritus at UW-Eau Claire.