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Explosives in Beer

During the war, substances used to fill grenades were stirred into beer. And: Germanic tribes made the drink taste better with honey!

Beer filling in a brewery in Mauritius
Picture by T. Micke

"It's like liquid bread!" bellowed a hard-drinking farm girl in the midst of her friends, who then with a grin on her face lifted the third stein, which already required a little effort, to her lips and raised a roaring cheer with her drinking buddies. Beer as nourishment – a wisdom of farmers, which weak-willed monks gratefully adopted in the early Middle Ages so as not to "starve" during the long fasting period.

It is also downright suspicious, how early monks occupied themselves with the art of brewing beer. The Benedictines in the Bavarian monastery of St Stephen had already obtained a commercial brewing and bar license in the year 1143.

It was demonstrably close to the clerical brothers' hearts to create a particularly nourishing and also tasty drink for their paltry meal times. Angry tongues surmise that the traditional Easter celebratory beer was in reality really a pre-celebration beer, since according to the brothers: "that which is liquid does not violate a fast."

It would take far too long to describe the entire, very complicated process of beer brewing of the time, so I will give just a short explanation from the encyclopaedia: "Beer is a fermented alcoholic beverage obtained from starch-based material."

This definition appears so surprisingly general because people from around the world have brewed their beer using the same techniques but according to the opportunities of the country, adding very different ingredients.

Instead of wheat or barley, other ingredients are used such as dates, poppy seeds, millet, maize (in South America), rice (in Southeast Asia), tapioca (in South America and Africa) or the fruits of the carob tree (in Syria).

Hops has not always been available as a flavouring for beer and instead, for example, bark, junipers, honey (by Germanic tribes) and even mushrooms have been added to improve the taste of the beverage.

For the local beer expert at his regular table, that may sound curious, perhaps even shocking. But back then, like today, beer brews emanated from the preferences of the drinkers. Carob beer, with or without mushrooms and honey, must have tasted good then!

A round of beers - cheers!
Picture by T. Micke

From its beginnings in Egypt and Mesopotamia beer-making has evolved into a true science over thousands of years. By making the tiniest changes, beer brewers can alter the flavour of the beer, something that cannot be done to any other beverage in the world. Klaus Niederdräing, a licensed master brewer from a private brewery in Obertrum, Salzburg: "It is enough just to use copper conductors instead of steel conductors. To preserve the quality of the beer, everything has to go perfectly. Any mistake or impurity will change the taste!"

Adapting the "juice" to customers' wishes is also a difficult philosophy:

Even when two very different types of beer are dead ringers in their chemical composition, an experienced palate will notice a marked nuance in one of the two drinks – a hint of fruit, a particular after-taste associated with smoked ham or something similar – and defines their favourite beer by this. This is no easy task for the master brewer in the battle for the favour of beer drinkers.

Sometimes the search for the one true flavour of beer is an all but hopeless undertaking. If, for example, the water used is not right, any other effort or most sophisticated brewing technique proves useless. Not everyone has the luck of the Czech Budweiser brewers, who can be pleased with the exceptional quality of their brewing water. The brewers in Salzburg, for example, must first "de-carbonate" their water before they can use it in the brewing process.

Other "beerologists" have gone in the other direction, like, amongst others, the famous, almost black, Irish stout beer that is for that very reason an inimitable speciality, because the water used is "bad" and contains a particularly high amount of sulphur.

Under the general term "beer", a lot has entered the human body over thousands of years. Not everything was enjoyable though. The oft-quoted purity regulation "hops, water, malt and nothing else" (from the year 1516) was also often indirectly, even sometimes brutally broken.

Whilst the glycol scandal in past years was a nightmare for wine makers in Austria and Italy, the beer industry in Germany adulterated powerful toxin into local beer during World War Two.

In the lean war years, German brewers lacked hops, which had to be grown at great cost or expensively imported. To keep the slightly bitter taste and the classic golden yellow colour of the beer that was typical of hops, food chemists emptied picric acid (Trinitrophenol) into the coppers.

The "positive" qualities of these beer additives (yellow, bitter) were outweighed by the disadvantages, which admittedly were little adhered to by breweries: picric acid is even highly poisonous – consumption leads to vomiting – and is moreover highly explosive. The substance was used as a deadly explosive to fill grenades in the First World War. Nothing exact is unfortunately known about the health consequences of this thoughtless beer adulteration at the beginning of the forties.

< Read part 3 of this series: Beer against scorpions and worms

© A report by Tobias Micke (10-08-92) – Contact