Is the Brewing Star of Jewish Origin?

Periodically, the question comes up on the origins of the six-pointed brewers’ star. It is familiar for centuries in beer iconography and design, 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 it, with roots at least to the early common era.

The star is sometimes rendered as five-pointed, for example in Texas Lone Star’s beer label, but classically was six-pointed, sometimes with two interlocking triangles as above.

Initially, the star predominated in Bavaria and the Czech lands. With the spread of bottom-fermentation (lager) it was commonly found in, or associated with, breweries as far afield as St. Louis and Strasbourg.

The most common explanation assigns the star to a system of alchemy. The premier modern consumer beer writer, Michael Jackson (1942-2007) supported this 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. This approach focuses on primal elements such as earth, fire, and water, with the star linking them as a symbol of the brewer’s art. Malt is from barley, grown in soil, the drained mash is boiled (water, fire), and so on.

It seems to many, and did to me for a long time, counter-intuitive that Jews could have anything to do with the brewing star, and hence that alchemy must explain its brewing use. For one thing, Jews historically have played a small role in world brewing, whether in German lands or elsewhere.

They had some role in hop factoring in Germany, and in the retailing of beer and other alcohol there and in other countries. They also made a marked contribution to brewing science as I’ve discussed. Illustrative figures include Anton Schwarz, Max Henius, the Wallerstein brothers, and Joseph Owades (all U.S.-based).

To be sure, some 1800s breweries were owned in whole or in part by Jews. Examples include Ottakringer in Vienna (the Kuffner family) and Rheingold in Brooklyn (the Liebmanns). It seems Lowenbrau in Munich had partial Jewish ownership before the Nazi era.

But in most countries the Jewish role in beer-making was minimal. So how could the brewing star connect to them?

Another reason for the lack of apparent connection, and I’ll be frank here, is the history of the Jews in the German lands is often dolorous to an extreme. Why would brewing, a German cultural heritage par excellence, take as a symbol one belonging to the Jews,  persecuted off and on for centuries by ethnic Germans?

Nonetheless, a German scholar-brewer, Dr. Matthias Trum of Heller Trum Brewery in Bamberg, has argued in a 2002 doctoral thesis that Jews may well have originated the brewer’s star. Heller Trum is known internationally for its fine range of smoked beer (as the type is called) under the Schlenkerla label.

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

The argument goes this way: Early Jewish communities in Bavaria and Prague used the symbol as a sign of protection for their community. Hence, the star was more a secular than a religious/Old Testament symbol. A modern instance of community defence symbolism is the star on the State of Israel’s flag.

Trum shows that the star symbol appeared on early flags of Jewish militias in Prague, and on Jewish premises as a sign, to ward off bad omens. Fire was an especial danger for wooden structures, and was a well-known brewing risk for centuries.

What was a common symbol in Jewish establishments may, he suggests, have spread to the German community at large and survived in brewery design, with people forgetting finally the origins.

Hence, he rejects alchemy as a plausible source for the star.

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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