Is the Brewing Star Jewish in Origin?

Periodically the question comes up on the origins of the six-pointed brewers’ star, familiar for centuries in iconography and design as a symbol of the brewer’s art, while at the same time evoking for many the Jewish Star of David.

The hexagram is not exclusive to Jewry but has long been associated with them, with roots at least to the early common era.

The brewing star is sometimes rendered as a five-pointed star, for example in the Texas Lone Star beer’s labels, but classically was a six-star type, sometimes with interlocking triangles as shown above.

Initially the star seemed to predominate in breweries in Bavaria and the Czech lands but with the spread of bottom fermentation it was commonly found as far afield as St. Louis and Strasbourg.

The most common explanation is that the star is a symbol of alchemy. I have read this many times, and the premier consumer beer writer, Michael Jackson (1942-2007) supported the theory in his The World Guide to Beer (1977).

For a recent exposition of this view see this page from the Museum of Beer and Brewing in Milwaukee.

It seems to many, and did to me for a long time, counter-intuitive that the Jewish people had anything to do with the brewing star and alchemy must have explained its function in brewing as, for one thing, Jews historically played a relatively small role in brewing whether in Germany or elsewhere.

They had more of a role in hop factoring in Germany, and in the retailing of beer and other alcohol there and in many countries, as well as having made a marked contribution to brewing science as I discussed earlier via such figures such as Anton Schwarz, Max Henius, and the Wallerstein brothers in the U.S.

Of course, some breweries were owned in whole or partly by Jewish entrepreneurs, well-known examples include Ottakringer in Vienna (Kuffner family) and Rheingold in Brooklyn (the Liebmanns). It seems Lowenbrau in Munich as well had partial Jewish ownership before the Nazi era.

But in most countries the Jewish role in brewing beer was minimal: so how could the brewing star relate to them?

Another reason for a lack of likely connection and I’ll be frank here: the history of the Jews in the German lands is often sorrowful to an extreme, so why would brewing, a German national custom, take as a symbol one belonging to the Jewish people?

Nonetheless a German scholar-brewer, Dr. Matthias Trum of Heller Trum Brewery in Bamberg, wrote a doctoral thesis in 2002 that argues Jews may well be at the origins of the brewer’s star. Heller Trum is well-known internationally for its fine range of “smoked” beers under the Schlenkerla name.

You can read a summary of his argument here from the Schlenkerla website, note especially the Conclusion. The language is somewhat stilted and ungrammatical but this is simply due to an inelegant translation from German.

The argument puts forth that alchemy is not involved and that early Jewish communities in Bavaria and Prague used the symbol as a sign of protection for their community, and thus the star was more a secular than a religious/Old Testament symbol of Judaism. A modern instance of use of the star in the sense of community defence is its appearance on the flag of the State of Israel.

True further holds that the symbol was displayed on early flags of the Jewish militias in Prague and on Jewish premises as a sign to ward off bad omens, fire being an especial risk for wooden structures and of course a well-known brewing risk for centuries. What was a common symbol in Jewish establishments may, he suggests, have spread to the community at large and survived in brewery design, with people forgetting finally the origins.

Dr. Trum may well be right, and in any case has made a thoughtful and interesting argument, one that needs to be weighed with other possible explanations.

Note re image: The image above is an Alamy stock image, sourced here. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

 

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