A Dresden Beer Tour, 1870 (Part I)

Dresden Beer Culture via an American Lens

The son of the famed writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, Julian Hawthorne, was himself a well-known writer. By most accounts not greatly accomplished, he was longer-lived (1846-1934) and certainly covered a broad range of writing: poetry, fiction, travelogue, biography, reformist tracts, journalism, and more.

There was an odd interlude as well where he spent a year in prison, a few years before WW I, for his role in a (Canadian) mining stock swindle.

The Hawthornes were old American stock, descended from Puritans in New England. (For any interested, most Puritans emigrated from Lincolnshire and the eastern section. They were mainly farmers with a sprinkling of professional men and of course clergy).

Resuming journalism after release from jail, Julian moved finally to California, and continued working there until his death at 88. His travails in life related partly to constant money needs. In some measure this arose from what at times was a complicated romantic life. And, like many writers, he found it difficult to raise a family on the inconsistent and often derisory income from writing.

Saxon Studies

In 1876 Julian’s Saxon Studies appeared, a lengthy account of his years in Dresden. In 1868 he travelled with his mother and siblings to the city to study engineering, Nathaniel had died four years earlier. It was not Julian’s first experience of Europe. Before the Civil War Nathaniel was appointed the American consul in Liverpool. This afforded the family the opportunity to tour England as well as France and Italy.

By the time of Saxon Studies Julian had moved to London where he lived for a number of years (Twickenham) and hobnobbed with the literati.

The book, published in England and the United States, received poor reviews, including from an anonymous Henry James. Saxon Studies was continually critical of Saxony and its customs, and by implication of Germany. This intensity of focus (although not invariable, see below) displeased the reviewers, both American and of course German.

As the phrase goes, it fell still-born from the press. Still, he earned some additional money from excerpts in literary reviews.

In an unlikely development, part of the beer chapter, discussed below, was printed in England in the Brewers Guardian. A trade journal, it was rather removed from the literary circles a Hawthorne frequented. One can only imagine how Julian’s nuanced phrases struck the careworn, practical brewers reading them – especially when he compared English ale unfavourably to German beer.

A modern scholar, James Retallack, has argued, persuasively in my view, that Saxon Studies was meant as satire. Julian actually asserted this in a piece written not long before his death on the poet Heinrich Heine.

See Retallack’s perceptive chapter on Julian in Localism, Landscape, and the Ambiguities of Place: German-Speaking Central Europe, 1860–1930, co-authored with David Blackbourn (2009, University of Toronto Press). Gary Scharnhorst’s Julian Hawthorne: Life of a Prodigal Son (2014, University of Illinois Press) is also excellent to understand Julian’s achievements and limitations.

I am not saying Julian felt a kinship with Dresdeners, but there are many indications in the book that he exaggerated to lampoon both standard travelogue and stock impressions of Germany.

A few lines on music in the beer chapter illustrate this. He is critical of a music performance in a beer garden, arguing the music is spoiled by the often bothersome people around him, and the need to see the exertions (puffy red cheeks) of the musicians. He states it is much better to hear music without seeing the orchestra, and completely alone.

But in 1876 that was surely impossible for orchestral music, so the satirical element seems obvious. Either this went over the head of the reviewers, or perhaps the effort was recognized but not felt successful. In any case, I found the book of good interest historically, especially the said beer chapter, called “Gambrinus”.

Gambrinus in Dresden

At some 50 pages, this chapter may be the longest treatment in English of German beer habits up to that time. There are a couple of others later in the century, one by an American diplomat in Berlin I wrote about earlier, but Hawthorne’s work is of special interest. After all, he was a professional writer and son of a famous one.

Certainly as journalism or general reportage, the chapter works well with detailed social and cultural commentary on the beer scene then.

The one disappointment, and I’ll mention it upfront, is a failure to describe the beer types encountered. That he enjoyed the beers at their best is clear, but except for mentioning strong Nuremberg and milder Bohemian beer, he concentrates on people and places. In a second part, I’ll discuss other beer types he likely encountered, based therefore on other sources.

A choice part of the chapter is his suggestion that ultimately Germany would benefit from producing one type of beer. He states this can be accomplished by ensuring the same climate, soil, and water everywhere, or by having beer brewed only in Berlin, so that any German wanting beer must go there. As beer is vital to German character (he says), they would all drink the same beer, and this would help make uniform the German character and nation.

This was clearly an arch commentary on German political unification, which took place during his residence. Perhaps also he was remarking on disappearing regional beer traditions. By 1871 Bavarian lager was being produced in Dresden, for example.

Julian makes clear that beer tastes best in its area of production, and seemed to rue the looming standardization, or perhaps wide distribution is a better term, of beer. He remarks on this viz. the U.S. as well.

Ironically, his predictions came largely true in that lager became, not just the standard beer type in Germany, but of pretty much all the world. His fabulist comment about equalizing growing conditions was prophetic in that malt and hops became standard commodities shipped everywhere, and water can be adjusted today by chemistry.

Needless to add, his interest in the importance of localism has been echoed by the small brewery renaissance of the last 40 years.

I’ll let you read the piece for yourself, but there are many interesting observations, e.g. on the servers, beer glasses, and the style of the beer gardens and pubs. The charming views described over the Elbe river and bridges to the old town, of its towers and rounded buildings, can still be seen judging by the online tourney I took last night.

(I’m aware of course of the 1945 fire bombings and extensive reconstruction, but it seems the original look has been recreated in many cases).

There were, in other words, positive opinions expressed, directly or between the lines, including of course on the beer.

Traces of Hawthorne’s Beer Dresden, 2020

Julian stated that pubs in the old city were filled with brown square tables and chairs and had chest-high, dark oak panelling on the walls. On my online tour I saw pub interiors that looked very similar.

Some of the beer gardens and at least one brewery mentioned by Julian still exist including Waldschlösschen. The original brewery of that name is now a hotel, I believe, but images in the website correlate to Hawthorne’s description, and beer is still brewed on the property.

The brewery dates from 1836, so had existed for a generation by the time Hawthorne arrived. Per the website, Waldschlösschen was founded by a Bavarian (the next state west). Hawthorne may well have savoured the top-fermented wheat beer and dark lager described on the site.







4 thoughts on “A Dresden Beer Tour, 1870 (Part I)”

  1. Back to Radeberger it survived two world wars, the Nazis and the Communists. In the 1980’s it was said to be the favorite of the Dresden KGB Chief Vladimir Putin.

  2. Another favorite of mine is Kostritzer brewed near Leipzig, in Saxony, since the 16th century. Great Schwarzbier.

  3. My favorite German bier is Radeberger. Brewed just outside Dresden in the small village of Radeberg. I can get it on tap when visiting NYC. It made me appreciate well made lager/pilsner.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: