For years, any time my father saw someone crack open a Miller High Life, he felt obliged to tell one of his preferred stories about the stupid tour guide at the brewery who, to this day, irritates him greatly. Here’s how my father tells it:
“This kid was showing us around the Miller brewery and pointed up at six-pointed star on the building. He asked us if we knew what the star represented and I answered, ‘The Star of David.’ The stupid tour guide told me that I was wrong; that it represented the six ingredients. The founder of Miller left Germany. He was probably a Jew in hiding. That kid: what an idiot.” (My father probably meant anti-Semite.)
On my recent trip to Germany, while I was visiting one of the oldest monastery breweries in the world, a lady showed me that same six-pointed star and asked me if I knew its significance. “That’s the Jewish star,” I said, and shook my head when this idiot tried to tell me it was a Zoigl.
“Does Zoigl mean Star of David in German?”
She told me that Zoigl was a synonym for brewer’s star. Each point, she said, represented one of the six elements: hops, malt, earth, fire, air, water. She counted each element off on one hand and then her second thumb on the other hand as if she were a Planeteer summoning up a debauched Captain Planet. I looked down at my five fingers. Do you know what the middle one stands for?
Jewish Beer in Munich
A few days later, I wound up in Munich’s Jewish Museum, where the top two floors hosted the temporary exhibit, Beer is the Wine of the Land. It was a way to honor Jewish contributions to the history of beer in Bavaria, as well as the Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity laws that celebrated its 500th year last year.
As I walked the floors, I learned how Jews were major players in the trade of one of Bavaria’s and beer’s most important resource: hops. In fact, in 1890, Jews made up seventy percent of the hops trade. I then read about Munich resident, Josef Schulein, who was most integral in fostering the city’s beer scene. Schulein started Unionbrauerie–Union Brewery for those who needed that extra support–and he purchased many of the city’s failing breweries to return them to profit. He also raised sons who helped shape beer culture, science, and history in Munich and beyond: Julius discovered that you could recycle brewer’s yeast, Fritz’s dissertation for his doctorate focused on supply contracts in the beer industry and his writings are part of these industry contracts today, and Hermann ran Unionbrauerie and was both proprietor and majority shareholder of the still-famous Lowenbrau.
I walked the exhibit and examined all the ways that my beloved people had contributed to my beloved drink. From old German beer adverts to Stars of David on beer steins, Jews seemed as much a part of beer culture in Bavaria as those monks on every sixth bottle’s label.
But then I read the placard next to the steins with the stars. It explained that both the Star of David and the brewer’s Star, also known as the Zoigl star, began to be used at about the same time during the 14th century, in Prague and Southern Bavaria, respectively. (After visiting the exhibit, a number of articles noted that the star might have had even earlier roots in alchemy.) While the Star of David reached worldwide fame, the Zoigl Star remained popular only in Bavaria. And when the Nazis turned the Star of David into a symbol of oppression, many German brewers in Bavaria wizened up and removed the Zoigl from their brewpubs or snipped off a few points from the symbol so that only three or four elements were represented. (Today, the Zoigl tradition of brewing only takes place in five towns in Germany, not to be confused with the uber-Jewish area on Long Island, the Five Towns.)
The more I thought about it, I had been drinking a beer for years that celebrated the Zoigl without even knowing it, and it was being brewed in one of the most Jewish boroughs in the world. Just south of Hasidic enclaves and in the neighborhood where Mel Brooks went to elementary school–I’m familiar with this only because my Bubbie had always bragged that Mel had fancied her–Sixpoint Brewery operates in Red Hook. Get it, six points? (I actually think the sound my brain makes when experiencing an epiphany is Zoigl.)
Perhaps the brewers of Sixpoint were inspired by another one-time Brooklyn-based brewing family, the Leibmanns. The Jewish family from Germany had operated the sixth largest brewery in the United States at the middle of the 20th century, producing such memories as Rheingold beer and Miss Rheingold. (I later read Sixpoint’s origin story. It wasn’t the Leibmanns; it was a merger between the Zoigl and the nautical sign.)
After being shocked by the facts at the museum, I went downstairs to the first floor. Clearly, there had to be a mistake. That stupid kid and that stupid lady and this stupid Jewish museum couldn’t be right. Things made more sense if they were ignorant, or even slightly anti-Semitic.
To think things through, I ordered a beer at the museum’s lobby bar. Available was a special production, brewed for the museum while the exhibit ran. The unfiltered, steam beer was the first ever collaboration between Israeli and German brewers.
The only thing that seemed plausible was that the symbol had first been displayed in a few Jewish-owned breweries and then, unlike mezuzahs, the Star of David just caught on among the inebriated gentiles.
I studied the label that the Herzl Beer Workshop in Jerusalem and the CREW Republic out of Munich had slapped on their brew. This Zoigl story didn’t sit right with me. How could there be two stories about the same star? In Germany of all places? There were no good answers; just a big black X on the beer label. The bartender told me that in Germany the X meant that the beer would only be produced for a limited time. But of course I knew the X to mean something else: I was wrong. But at least these Jews (and Germans) knew how to make a good beer.