Periodically the question arises on the origin of the six-pointed “brewers’ star”. The symbol has been used for centuries in German and international beer iconography and commercial signage – a context that ostensibly has little to do with Jewry. Yet, many people know the star also symbolizes Judaism.
To be sure, the hexagram is not exclusive to Jews, but has long been associated with them, with roots going back at least to the early common era.
The brewing star is sometimes rendered as five-pointed, for example on Texas’ Lone Star beer label, but is classically six-pointed, sometimes with two interlocking triangles as seen above for a German tavern.
Initially, the brewers’ star predominated in Bavaria and the Czech lands. With the spread of bottom-fermentation (lager-brewing), breweries as far afield as Strasbourg in Alsace and St. Louis, Missouri featured the star in some fashion.
The most common explanation assigns the star to a system of alchemy. The premier consumer beer authority, the Briton 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.
The theory focuses on the primal elements of earth, fire, and water, and sees the star as linking them to symbolize the brewer’s art. Malt is from barley, barley is grown in soil, and the mash is heated and boiled in water made hot by fire.
It may seem counter-intuitive to many, and was to me for a long time, that Jews could have anything to do with the brewing star. For one thing, they have historically played a small role in the brewing business, whether in German Europe or elsewhere.
They had some role in hop factoring in Germany, and in the retailing of alcohol in many countries. They also made marked contributions to brewing science as I’ve discussed numerous times before. Eminent science figures include Anton Schwarz, Max Henius, the Wallerstein brothers, and Joseph Owades, all U.S.-based.
To be sure, some breweries were (and are) owned in whole or in part by Jews. Examples of past ownership are Ottakringer in Vienna (the Kuffner family), and Rheingold in Brooklyn, New York (the Liebmanns), both with 1800s roots. The famed Lowenbrau in Munich had, it appears, partial Jewish ownership before the Nazi era. Yet, in most countries the Jewish role in brewing was minimal. So how could the brewing star be related to them?
Another reason for an apparent lack of connection, and I’ll be frank here, is the history of German enmity to Jews. It goes back centuries and culminated in the Holocaust. Why would brewing, a German cultural heritage par excellence, take as a symbol something originating with an unpopular, and often persecuted minority?
A German scholar-brewer, Dr. Matthias Trum of Heller Trum Brewery has nonetheless argued the brewing star may have a Jewish origin. Heller Trum in Bamberg is known internationally for its distinctive range of smoked beers, marketed under the Schlenkerla label.
A summary of Dr. Trum’s 2002 doctoral thesis on this topic appears in this page, on the Schlenkerla website. Note especially his conclusions. The language is somewhat stilted but this results simply from an awkward translation.
His argument is that early Jewish communities in Bavaria and Prague displayed the star as a sign of physical protection. It was meant, in other words, to ward off bad omens. Flags of Jewish militias in Prague displayed the star, as did some Jewish homes and businesses.
This symbol, he argues, was more secular than religious in nature but still Jewish in character.
Perhaps the Star of David on the flag of the State of Israel is an example.
Surrounding Gentile communities, Trum suggests, may have adopted the symbol from Jewish communities, to similar end. Breweries were particularly liable to fire and other accidents, so displaying a sign to ward off bad omens is certainly plausible. For some reason usage long continued in the breweries, with people forgetting finally the true origins.
Dr. Trum therefore rejects alchemy as the likely explanation of the brewing star. He may be right, and in any case has made a thoughtful and original argument.
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