The history of the German beer contests or beer duels among student societies, or Studentenverbindung, is complex and recondite. While offering no model to emulate today, they have interest for the student of beer’s past.
Despite the foreign subject matter, the U.S. press introduced the topic in colourful accounts in the last decade of the 1800s. I’ll review a couple of these presently.
The beer duel was connected to another tradition of German (and beyond) student societies, duelling by sword. The latter has evolved as “academic” fencing, from a fixed position with no winner declared.
The beer duel, or bieryunge, was a drinking contest spurred by a slight or insult. The offended party would demand a duel of the mugs, or it might be ordered by a club superior to settle a dispute between junior members.
If there was anything to be said for it, the drink gotten down was generally minimal – just one beer unless some point of procedure was not followed, in which case more might be required. This was not, therefore, the perilous form of duel where dozens of glasses disappeared in stomachs although some students engaged in that too, as detailed below.
In the bieryunge, two men drank down a mug as fast as they could. He who finished first sang out in triumph bieryunge! A referee declared the winner. The exclamation meant the loser was a “beer youth” – a tyro at the malt. Sometimes another word was mandated for the victory shout, often a nonsensical term.
A participant who spilled too much would be ruled the loser for “bleeding”. Here we see an implied analogy to sword duelling. Indeed it seems beer duelling grew as an alternative to that more dangerous practice.
YouTube has a number of clips showing the bierjunge. Certainly they get across the speed and nonchalance of the sorties, see this example.
The bierjunge formed part of a complex ritual or code of beer drinking adopted by most student societies. Each group had a particular orientation: sporting, drinking as such, study-philosophical, religious, artistic, etc. Members of societies grouped as The Corps were aristocratic, the most elite among the societies. Even in this constellation the groups differed, reflecting an intricate social hierarchy.
Despite their great number the student societies were always a minority of the total student body. The majority could not afford the dues and other costs to participate. Incidentally the societies continue to this day but the competitive sword play, and we assume the beer glass duels and related codes, are of the past.
In 1898 Northeast U.S. newspapers including in Atlantic City, NJ reported one bierjunge in arch, amusing terms. The story conveyed well the fabulist and whimsical elements of the ritual. For example, the rules enacted a different measurement of time. Three beer minutes, say, was equal to four normal minutes. Members would be subjected to humorous or absurd edicts from the society president or a “beer tribunal”. From the story:
“Silentium, for a beer contest between the beer honourable fellows Schulze and Muller.”
The referee takes up the weapons brought in and by sipping carefully sees that the columns of beer are at the same level in each mug. He then announces:
“The weapons are good and equal. Silentium. The beer duel begins.” ….
Schulze pours his beer with evident satisfaction down his throat, but Muller prefers to spill the stuff with impartiality over his shirt front and waistcoat as well. Schulze shouts in triumph:
Whereupon the referee announces icily, ”Muller has shed blood and must be considered second in the race.”
Muller’s defeat irritates him. He appeals instantly to a beer court, which, after consuming a number of eggnogs, rejects his appeal, condemns him to pay for the drinks and orders him to deliver within three beer minutes a beer speech on the text, “The immortality of June bugs and their importance in the outcome of the Greco-Turkish war.”
Reports by English or American travellers in the period also describe the clubs and their customs. This news report, in 1892 in Philadelphia, gives that perspective. The story noted that the standard bieryunge was usually, but not always, benign, and students engaged in other competitive beer drinking, too.
The quantities consumed here rivalled or exceeded what two brewers accomplished in Union Hill, New Jersey (see my previous post) – it’s all hard to believe but apparently true. Unusually in such accounts, the brand of beer was mentioned, here Schiefferdecker. The founder was a Bavarian who had relocated to northern Germany, near Konigsberg, now called Kalingrad.
There he built one of the largest breweries in the north. It suggests to me the local market was inclining away from North German top-fermented beer, in favour of lager, a trend that finally dominated brewing world-wide. See this German account of the brewery, and this one in English.
It seems the beer clubs mostly sang songs. Perhaps at this remove one gets a distorted view of them, as university life couldn’t have been one long carouse. After all Germany was far from unsophisticated in the arts and sciences.
The mug must have been left behind so students could graduate and pursue their chosen calling. The last account hints at this when it refers to senior students who had departed their club to write examinations.
Some reading will think of fraternity life in North America. I’m not that knowledgeable on frats so can’t suggest a comparison; I suspect there were more differences than similarities.
Note re image: The image above is from a painting by Georg Mühlberg and is believed in the public domain. It was sourced from this Wikipedia entry on the Bierjunge. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.