Beer history Germany

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, beer geek and pub crawler

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the fathers of English romanticism, had opinions on beer and pubs, it turns out.

I ought to have known this. Growing up in Somerset, where Coleridge lived for a few important years of his life, you get a decent dose of him, not least because every other building has a plaque saying he stayed or preached there.

Then I ended up studying him formally from the ages of 16 to 21, and wrote my undergraduate dissertation on… Er, actually, I can’t quite remember. I know I had to slog through the Biographia Literaria and every scrap of poetry, even the unfinished bits, to make what I’m sure was a very compelling argument about something or other.

The problem is, I was very much done with bloody Coleridge after all that and my interest in him and his work didn’t overlap with my fascination with beer.

That is until a couple of weeks ago when my little brother very kindly sent me a book in the post – a copy of Coleridge Among the Lakes & Mountains, a selection of the poet’s letters and journal entries, published in 1991.

As often seems to happen these days, I opened it at random and at once saw a reference to beer:

Saturday, May 11th, 10 o’clock, we left Göttingen, seven in party… We ascended a hill N.E. of Göttingen, and passed through areas surrounded by woods, the areas now closing in upon us, now opening and retiring from us, until we came to Hessen Dreisch… They were brewing at the inn – I enquired and found that they put three bushels of malt and five large handfuls of hops to the hogshead. The beer as you may suppose, but indifferent stuff.

My immediate thought was, wait, was Coleridge some sort of proto beer geek? Am I going to find beer on every other page of this book?

Well, we’ll get to that, but, first, let’s unpick the quotation above and see if we can find the place he drank at.

Coleridge wasn’t, it turns out, very good at German place names. There is nowhere called ‘Dreisch’ north east of Göttingen, although there is a Dreiech near Frankfurt. In the same entry, he mentions ‘Rudolphshausen’ and ‘Womar’s Hausen’, neither of which seem to exist either, even on older maps.

Kathleen Coburn identifies the latter as Wollbrandshausen, though, which does make sense, especially when you plot a route from Göttingen to Wollbrandshausen on Google Maps and it happens to take you through Radolfshausen.

Tracking back through the route Coleridge describes, through ‘coombes very much like those about Stowey and Holford… [with] great rocky fragments which jut out from the hills’ via ‘a lofty fir grove’, we reckon Röringen might be the place where Coleridge stopped for his mediocre lunchtime pint. But that’s a bit of a guess. And there’s no obvious old inn there.

So, further suggestions are welcome, especially from Göttingen locals, German speakers who might be able to make sense of Coleridge’s mangling of the local place names, or experts in German history.

While Coleridge was exploring, his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth were hanging out in Goslar, which they hated. Coleridge passed through and wasn’t impressed either and, though this book doesn’t include his thoughts on Gose, it turns out he did translate a bit of German doggerel on the subject:

This Goslar Ale is stout and staunch;
But sure ‘tis brewed by Witches!
Scarce do you feel it warm in paunch,
‘Odsblood, ‘tis in your Breeches!

Just in case you’re not a trained literary analyst like wot I am, it’s suggesting that Gose makes you shit yourself.

As for the recipe, I’ve got no idea why Coleridge thinks it ought to be obvious that beer would be ‘indifferent’. Bushels of malt, handfuls of hops – is he saying it’s not hoppy enough? Too sweet?

Coleridge on British beer and pubs

The next big question: does Coleridge have lots to say about beer elsewhere? Well, no, not really. He was much more into laudanum and laughing gas, which he got from his mate Humphrey Davy.

But there are some nuggets.

In Llangynog, Wales, in July 1794, he had lunch at the village inn, enjoying ‘hashed mutton, cucumber, bread and cheese and beer, and had two pots of ale – the sum total of the expense being sixteen pence for both of us!’ Note the distinction between beer and ale, there.

In 1801, he briefly became obsessed with the idea of making productive use of acorns:

I am convinced that this is practicable simply by malting them… last week as I was turning up some ground in my garden, I found a few acorns just beginning to sprout – and I ate them. They were, as I had anticipated, perfectly sweet and fine-flavoured… I have no doubt that they would make both bread and beer, of an excellent and nutritious quality.

In the same year, he went walking around Sca Fell in Cumbria, and on 4 August stopped at a lonely alehouse at ‘Bonewood’ (Boonwood) above Gosforth where he ‘drank a pint of beer’. And that’s it – that’s the review. You might expect better tasting notes from a poet, mightn’t you? I wonder if the pub was what is now The Red Admiral.

In August 1802, he stopped at The Blacksmith’s Arms, Broughton Mills, where he ‘Dined on oatcake and cheese, with a pint of ale and two glasses of rum and water sweetened with preserved gooseberries’, which sounds pretty good.

Finally, in August 1803, he went to Gretna Green:

A public house with a gaudy daub of Hope. ‘To crown returning Hope’ – no beer! – What then? Whisky, gin and rum – cries a pale squalid girl at the door, a true offspring of whisky-gin-and-rum drinking parents.

It’s been nice to get reacquainted with Coleridge and to be reminded of the pleasure of dipping into a randomly chosen book with beer in mind.


Christmas markets in Germany

Kitsch is a German word and the wonderful, warm, colourful Christmas markets of Germany demonstrate exactly what it means.

There were mock pine forests (trees nailed to the floor, Goslar); mock wooden houses (everywhere); mock stone ovens (plaster and fibreglass, Leipzig); and mock snow (fibreglass and glitter, Dortmund). The stalls sell traditional wooden toys, traditional sausages, traditional stollen, traditional cough sweets — you name it, if it’s ‘time honoured’ they’re selling it.

And yet, it doesn’t feel nasty, or tacky or cheap.

On our first night in Germany, we found ourselves in the Christmas market in Dortmund, surrounded by people slightly tipsy on gluehwein. Everyone was cold, but had hot booze to keep their hands warm. There was a genuine and general sense of well-being and togetherness, despite the fakery with which we were surrounded. And we didn’t give the absence of beer a second thought.

We’re no subscribers to the idea that we live in ‘binge Britain’, but the thought did cross our mind: could this ever work in the UK? Are we too cynical, too prone to drunken idiocy? It would be nice to think not…

beer reviews Germany

Gose in Goslar

Crystal clear gose hell in Goslar
Crystal clear gose hell in Goslar

We’d barely been in Goslar an hour before we had our first glasses of Gose in front of us. It’s one of those legendary regional styles that fascinates beer geeks — salt, coriander and sourness? About as far from the boring “premium pilsners” that are the norm in Germany as it is possible to get.

We tried the big brand first, Brauhaus Goslar Gose. Lars Marius had suggested the Goslar gose was dumbed down and, sure enough, its only distinguishing feature was a distinct saltiness. It wasn’t cloudy, either. Odd and pleasant enough, but not Earth-shattering.

That night, we tried our second gose, about which we can find very little information. It’s apparently micro-brewed and served, as far as we can tell, only at the Worthmuehle restaurant. It was much more interesting — a dead ringer for a Belgian wit, and very unlike anything we’d had in Germany before. There was a little more sourness, less salt and a lot more coriander than in Brauhaus Goslar Gose.

We liked it so much, we came back for more the next night.

Little did we realise how much more interesting things were going to get when we tried the two goses available in Leipzig. More on that in our next post. Incidentally, there were dark versions available of both the Goslar intepretations, but they were not particularly noteworthy.  They were similar to the pale versions but tasted a lot more like homebrew.

Restaurant Worthmuehle also does excellent food, making a real point about sourcing its meat locally and ethically. Which got us wondering… why do you never ever see a pig? Pigs must outnumber humans in order to deliver that much Schnitzel and Schweinhaxe…

Also, Goslar is a really interesting and pretty place, and definitely worth a visit even if you’re not intrigued by the Gose thing.