Friday, 3 July 2015

The Session #101 - The material culture of brewing

This month's Session is hosted by Jack at Deep Beer, who chose the topic “bottles, caps and other detritus”, a topic that seemed strangely apt for me, as Boak and Bailey kindly pointed out via Twitter, considering some of the stuff I had been tweeting about over June.

I'm not a collector by nature. At least I try not to be, despite a small weakness for beer glasses and bottle openers. When people hear you are a beer geek, they tend to dump their own junk on you, which is fair enough, and I can (and do) filter, and keep what I like, so the “collection” stays manageable.

However, last month, while visiting a garage sale, when I mentioned I was interested in beer glasses, the owner's daughter asked if I would be interested in a box of beer mats (coasters) from the 60s and 70s. Normally I would say no, but what a box! She said around 1,400 beer mats, and lying on top was a Double Diamond mat, so I said sure I'd take it! She offered to give it away for nothing, as her parents were trying to clean out before moving down to Lake Constance, but with her Dad looking on, I felt a bit bad about that, so offered a tenner for the lot plus a Distelhäuser Maß Krug. I promised to look after them well, and with that, we were off home.

The box was filled with bundles of mats wrapped in newspaper, mostly dating from 1964, which suggested we were dealing with slightly earlier mats than suggested. My wife, being the archaeologist with archiving experience, pretty much took over at this point, and has since sorted the collection into groupings by country then city/town. Of course, the majority are German, with a few hundred international examples, a large portion of which are from Alsace. But the total number was also higher than expected, with circa 2,200 mats, mostly from the late 1950s and early 60s.





But what to do with them? My son says this means I have to open a bar, though all agree at least a portion should be put on display somewhere, but for the moment, they will probably reside, neatly sorted, in old, stackable plastic mushroom boxes, waiting for their moment, however, the act of sorting and looking was already a fun excercise.

I said I was not a collector, but my wife is. I am a beer afficiando, my wife is not. But a collection like this overlaps both interests. I would stand, looking at these mats from breweries long gone, some of them quite local, wondering what  the beer was like. Meanwhile, my wife was constantly pulling up facts about the towns where the breweries were located, how many breweries they once had, when they shut down, when they became better known as another name, or when they got taken over. Real, living history, all laid out on our guest room floor.

There's lots of ways to filter and consider such collections. The obvious is of course the breweries themselves. Indulge me a moment, and we'll taker a look at a local example.

In the 19th century, my wife's home town of Mosbach had up to 13 breweries in operation. Now, it’s almost hard to believe, as there’s only one in operation now, and it’s a brewpub.

The biggest one was Brauerei Hübner, which began operation in 1878 when Heinrich Hübner bought out the former Brauerei Heller. In 1896 there were further consolidations, and they subsumed Brauerei Schifferdecker, to form the Mosbacher Actienbrauerei. With that latter takeover, the Deutscher Hof inn was added to their holdings. This building, which I believe was attached to the brewery complex proper, is the only part of the brewery that still exists, now as the restaurant/bar Ludwig, at the end of the pedestrian zone in Mosbach.



A set based on a road sign theme.
The fronts of the two series above.
One of the newspaper wrappings had a Hübner ad.
By the early 1900s, the Hübner family was clearly doing well. Between 1900 and 1902, they built a large sandstone villa overlooking the town, with large gardens behind it. In 1908, the massive malthouse was constructed. This remained in operation till the 1960s, when it was producing up to 4000 tonnes of malt annually.

20th Anniversary celebrations at Hübner. Heinrich Hübner is 2nd from left.
In 1928 they renamed back to Brauerei Hübner, and continued operation till 1983. After the closure of the brewery, the malthouse was abandoned, and since 1997, this protected structure has been used as a cultural and conference centre. The villa is still standing, although the gardens are now part of a shopping centre, and the brewery site has largely been replaced by a multi-story car park, apart from the Ludwig bar, as mentioned above.

Hübner is certainly not so long gone that it doesn’t survive in living memory. My wife has clear memories of them as a teen. But now, it’s just those memories, and the physical remnants. We've plenty of documentation to sieve through, so I hope to find out more about what they brewed, and how much of it.

Another way to filter the view on such a collection of beer mats was discovered when we unwrapped one particular bundle, where most of the mats were from the 1958 World Expo in Brussels. This little package was like a time capsule, capturing a distinct moment represented by several breweries and indeed other companies like Sebena Air, that were most likely all exhibiting at this world event. It was like a horizontal tasting of beer mats, as opposed to the vertical view given by a single brewery over time.

A bunch of mats from the 1958 World Expo in Brussels.
These mats – and the glasses and signs that still decorate bars around the world – all represent a material culture of breweries, many long gone. They have a permanency that the beer, the lifeblood of the breweries that they represent, could never have. Thinking about it this way, they are definitely worth keeping and documenting. If nothing else, it's just a wonderful way to learn the story of breweries, past and present, and it's down to individuals to help preserve the knowledge of their local breweries.

The next time you are sitting in a bar with the walls festooned with signs, labels and beer mats from old breweries, just consider the heritage that forged them, where they came from, and the giants upon whose shoulders our current beer culture stands.

Postcard beer mat from the 1958 World Expo

Another postcard beer mat.

*Addendum: the collection currently represents 501 breweries

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