The Lessons of Merseburger Beer

A beer in 18th-century Saxony was so sharp, from hops, bitter orange and gentian root (“bitterwort”), that it was described as “bitter as death in the gallows.” Yet it was wildly popular. How do we account for this?

Merseburg, a town near Leipzig, was the source of a very popular beer in the 18th and first half of the 19th century. In the manner of German styles, it was named after its place of origin: Merseburger. It was a very bitter beer, which in the ale-brewing region north of Bavaria gave it a big advantage over rivals that spoiled quickly, and was for decades considered a superior product. Ron Pattinson translated this account from 1773:

Merseburger, [is] a very famous, good-tasting and healthy brown beer, called Heidecker, which is widely exported…. Its bitterness strengthens the stomach, and aids digestion; its excitement of the intestines maintains the opening of the body; and since it also accelerates the flow of blood, it helps the passing of urine and perspiration very noticeably. 

My attention was drawn to it more recently by homebrewer Andreas Krennmair, who has a wonderful little book discussing lost styles called Historic German and Austrian Beers for the Home Brewer. He consulted old sources for information about the beers, and then renders them into homebrew recipes. Merseburger “is described as having a dark brown colour, good clarity, a bitter-aromatic flavor, and was allegedly very nutritious,” he writes. “In some literature Merseburger Bier is mentioned as a beer that is matured for an extended period of time, most likely several months.” All well and good. Where the plot thickens is with the recipe, which calls for nearly a pound of hops to render a 125-IBU beer. The extraordinary hop bitterness wasn’t enough, however; the recipe also calls for dried green bitter orange (peel?) and gentian root, which is also known as bitterwort—a pre-hop bittering agent. The beer was prepared in a way to produce the most aggressively bitter flavor the brewers could imagine. And it somehow became popular!

There are many accounts of how legendarily bitter the beer was. As “bitter as the death in a gallows,” one description went. As a student, the German poet Goethe drank and wrote about the beer, which he likened to the legal education he was pursuing in Stassburg in 1870.

I come to like law. The matter with law is the same as it is with the beer of Merseburg; first one feels a horror, but when one has drunk that beer one week, one can’t live without it.
— Goethe, in a private letter to Susanne Katharina von Klettenberg

I am of course fascinated by this beer and it’s now on my short-list of revivals I’d like to brew.* (Something around fifty IBUs, without, perhaps, the orange peel, might be a good entry point.) (Bière blanche de Paris remains high on that list as well.) But I raise the specter of Merseburger for entirely different reasons.

It could charitably be called an acquired taste. Bitterness is an unusual quality because it’s not just a taste but a sensation. Humans have learned to treat bitterness with caution: it often signals a toxin. Some other acquired tastes, like funky cheeses or salty fish, only require connoisseurs to adjust their expectations about what tastes “good.” With bitterness you have to acclimate to a punishing physical sensation. And yet it was for decades hugely popular.

It’s an interesting contrast to the current moment, when preferences are reversed toward exceedingly sweet beers. Taste is entirely variable. Humans can accommodate themselves—more than accommodate; come to love—flavors and sensations that seem objectively unpleasant or even dangerous. But flavor also follows fashion. Throughout the eons, beer styles have emerged that were extremely pungent and aggressive—but also sweet and mild. They seem to complement each other, and eventually, when one taste has been around long enough, its popularity fades. Lambic, Berliner weisse, London porter, Merseburger; all had their day. Then we moved on.

This is the way of things, and it’s an important reason we love beer. 

*The formulation is otherwise fairly standard, with a mash schedule that recalls ales of the Rhine and a 90-minute boil. Krennmair calls for Munich and Vienna malt, but these weren’t invented until the style was basically extinct. I have to ponder what would be more appropriate for an 18th-century brown beer. Curiously, he also instructs brewers to do a 24-hour warm infusion of the bitterwort and orange, but this seems wildly excessive to me. Probably how they did it, though.


Jeff Alworth