When my tour guide in Erfurt met me at the hotel, I thought about sending him away. He was dressed, he said, in the typical habiliments of the beer crier, the man once employed to wander the town and announce which breweries were serving beer that week. I used to know a guy in college who was a beer crier and I didn’t like his company much, but I guess his beer crying over his girlfriend was a different sort of thing. The beer crier of Erfurt was an important profession from the 15th to 17th century when, at the peak of things, there were 583 breweries in the city, but only thirty, at any one time, would be selling beer. (It’s important to note that Facebook was not yet invented, hence a man on the street alerting others to the location of the party.)
Brewery licenses rotated essentially to keep people from dying. Without refrigeration or proper bottling techniques, beer had a shelf life of only a few weeks. To prevent unsavory brewers from extending the shelf life of bad beer by cutting it with fresh beer, or adding foreign objects like poisonous mushrooms to their pilsners, which would mask the taste, the brewing calendar became regulated. (Preventing brewers from using dangerous ingredients is one of the very reasons for the Bavarian beer purity laws, which is celebrating 500 years.)
In any event, back to the beer crier. His outfit was going to limit his shelf life. He wore a tri-cornered hat, a gold and itchy scarf, a puffy shirt unpuffed by a tight vest, a red coat with gold trim, knee-high socks, and the medieval version of capris pants. He also doffed his cap to passersby with spurious grace and overreached with his walking stick every time he took a step, as if he were climbing a mountain and not ambling upon cobblestone streets. People pointed and snickered. But something paradoxical happens when one person is with costume and the other without. The one without is the fool. I knew this from prior experience. For instance, when I had dressed up as an elf for Santa Con long ago, and my friend Eric tagged along without costume, he looked like the bigger fool. To onlookers, the guy in costume probably has some bizarre purpose, whereas the other guy just looks like he has poor judgement in choosing companions.
We–the fool and the beer crier–walked through the picturesque town of Erfurt and over the only bridge in Europe with houses on both sides. In the shops, the craftsman worked, making chocolates and carving wood, grinding spices and displaying their left-handed products. One of the most historical shops on the bridge is dedicated to the former woad trade, its history strongly connected to beer. Woad was one of Erfurt’s cash crops long ago. At one time, woad was valued, ounce for ounce, as much as gold. The leaf after getting smashed down and processed into a fine powder would be used to dye clothes. But woad makers had to extract that blue dye and it was believed that the most efficient to do so was with urine. More specifically human urine. Even more specifically human male urine. Extracting human male urine is simply done: use beer. So beer was served around Erfurt and giant barrels were situated in pubs and marketplaces to yellow conjurer of blue.
When indigo started to be used–a much more efficient and powerful blue dye–woad died. And with it the ubiquity of beer in Erfurt. Today, the beer industry in Erfurt has reduced from 583 brewers to one. Only the Zum Goldenen Schwan, or the House of the Golden Swan, brews beer in the city limits. (Brau Gold still uses the Erfurt name, even though they’re produced elsewhere, and two Italian restaurants brew their own beer, but not within city limits. During my visit a new beer shop called Bier Rufer, which means Beer Crier, was set to open up. The owner said he will eventually brew five of his own beers in his shop, which, appropriately, is the very place that the beer crier of the 17th century, Henning Meier, had once lived.)
The beer crier and I continued past half-timbered houses that bulged at the middle from the heft of their upper floors. We knocked on the door of the 13th century church, the very one Martin Luther had pounded on in 1505 to begin his ordination as a monk. (He had been scared into faith and into that particular church by a lightning storm.) At the church, he would go on to expand his thinking on such topics as denouncing the Catholic Church (which would appear in his 95 Theses) and slandering Jews (which appeared in his later writings).
It’s always a tough transition to go from talking about anti-Semitism to beer, but that’s how the beer crier shifted the conversation. We found ourselves in Zum Goldenen Schwan’s beer garden. The beer crier, who either had the greatest sense of humor or worst–it’s a hard thing to translate–pulled out two stuffed animals.
“What are those?” I asked with concern, the way you’d probably ask if you went out to a bar with a guy dressed like a lunatic, who then pulled out stuffed animals.
“This is a potato dumpling and fuzzy bean,” he said, and then went on to tell me about Erfurt’s uninteresting culinary history. The guy knew his stuff about Erfurt: the city’s beer and food, Jews and infamous anti-Semitic inhabitants. I drank my beer and tried to convince him to at least put the fuzzy bean.